“We all live downstream from something.”
by Lauren Wissot
Premiering at this past Sundance Film Festival, Don Argott and Sheena M. Joyce’s “The Atomic States of America” is now coming to a digital – here’s to iTunes and Netflix! – format near you. Unsurprisingly, given that Argott is one of the forces behind “Last Days Here,” last year’s winner of the music doc category at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (and for more on that flick, see my interview for Global Comment with Argott and his longtime editor and co-director Demian Fenton), “Atomic States” is a refreshingly entertaining look at a very thorny social issue. Based on Kelly McMasters’s memoir about life in her Long Island, nuclear-reactor hometown, the film eloquently universalizes the many risks of “going green” – or as McMasters likes to say, “We all live downstream from something.” I spoke with the passionate co-directors prior to the film’s (Sundance Institute Artist Services Initiative-enabled) January15th release.
FEMA is to the privatization of disaster relief what charter schools are to the privatization of public education
If you live in the United States, you almost certainly know that a big hurricane-turned-post- tropical-cyclone called Sandy hit the East Coast earlier this week. Unprecedented in size and scope, the hybrid storm, popularly dubbed a “Frankenstorm,” caused damage from North Carolina and all the way up through parts of Eastern Canada. More than 8.2 million people in the US lost power. Electricity is slowly being restored, and at this writing, the death toll has reached 55.
It no longer seems alarmist to conclude that London burning was a precursor of what is to come elsewhere in the industrialized world, including the United States.
Just one year ago, London was burning. The result of ballooning social inequality and deep austerity measures, the London riots of 2011 were something of a shock to the West’s self-image. Stability and social order, if nothing else, could be counted on. One year of police repression and harsh crackdowns later, London looked a bit more like itself as the summer Olympics games came to an end yesterday. It took a veritable mini-police state, but by god, it was the image of prosperity we expect from our Western empires past and present.
Noyo Food Forest is working to show that there’s a place for everyone on urban farms, but everyone hasn’t gotten that message yet.
Walking onto the site of the Noyo Food Forest on the brink of spring, you’re struck by the amount of activity going on; beds exploding with vegetables, volunteers building up compost and weeding, starts bursting out of their flats in the greenhouse. Founded in 2006 by Katrina Aschenbrenner, Kim Morgan, and Susan Lightfoot, the Noyo Food Forest aims to ‘cultivate a healthy local food system by providing opportunities for education, social enterprise, and community involvement.’ The primary production farm is located along the eastern border of Fort Bragg, a small town on California’s north coast, right next to the high school.
What is the future of food production in a world of rapid climatic change and heightened weather extremes?
Global temperatures are rising, and they’re bringing global food prices along with them. The last year has seen massive flooding in Pakistan and Australia, alongside devastating drought in China and the Horn of Africa. Particularly in the Global South, localized food crises have accompanied these meteorological calamities. These “extreme” events are consistent with the reality of a warming planet. As the balance of Earth’s thermal energy increases, so does the range of meteorological possibilities. The news wires serve as a reminder that not all of these possibilities end well. What, then, is the future of agriculture and food security in a world of rapid climatic change and heightened meteorological extremes?
The first step to imagining the future of agriculture is to admit that the current industrial paradigm is part of the problem. The latter half of the twentieth century saw a massive consolidation of agricultural concerns, not just in terms of bank accounts, but also in farm fields. We are growing few crops on fewer farms than at any time in modern history. As fields have become larger, the ruthless, fossil-fueled efficiency of the Green Revolution has become standard. In many parts of the world, governments have encouraged growing crops in locations, densities, and varieties not supported by local water supplies, leading to declining water tables and soil salinization.
Under this industrial model, rapid shifts in climate coupled with increasingly frequent extreme weather will create plenty of opportunities for widely dispersing, environmentally tolerant pests to threaten our crops. Weeds are the future, and thanks to the marvels of modern genetic engineering, these weeds may be tougher than they’ve ever been. The status quo is unsustainable.
Maybe states can properly regulate fracking. As usual however, science follows our thirst for cheap energy rather than careful research and cautious treading.
The United States’ desperation for domestically produced energy continues to lead to destructive decisions that decimate ecosystems and human lives. Mountaintop removal coal mining tears apart the West Virginia mountains; a recent study has connected mountaintop removal with a rise in birth defects. Coal industry lawyers responded by blaming the defects on incest. Oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico has resumed after last year’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill off the coast of Louisiana. Former petroleum company employees staff underfunded and demoralized regulatory agencies. In the face of nonexistent national leadership on clean energy, Americans continue embracing poorly tested energy technologies with reckless abandon.
Fracking is a process by which millions of gallons of fluid are pumped down a well into rock. The resulting pressure fractures the rock, allowing wells to bring up difficult to reach natural gas. Supporters say that it provides cheap, domestically produced energy that we need for economic growth. They claim that burning natural gas is less deleterious to the climate than coal or oil.
But environmentalists have strongly criticized fracking. We simply do not know the long-term effects of fracking upon nature or the human body. We do know that it has contaminated ground water supplies both in the United States and around the world. Drilling operations inject hazardous substances into the wells that can expose humans to danger. Environmental Protection Agency documents have shown increases in radium and benzene in water supplies near fracking sites. In an interview with Global Comment this year, Gasland director Josh Fox lambasted how we allow companies to do whatever they want, noting “You can’t just go, ‘Oops. Well, let’s do it over and fill the ground back up with clean water.’ Once it’s contaminated it’s going to stay that way and it’s going to stay that way forever.”
Though he does refer to very recent pop culture and political examples, the problems that Žižek addresses are sadly likely to prove durable: environmental crisis, growing economic inequality, problems surrounding intellectual property, and advances in science that challenge our sense of what it means to be human.
Slavoj Žižek, Living in the End Times, updated paperback ed. (New York and London: Verso, 2011).
The philosopher and cultural critic Slavoj Žižek has put reviewers of his latest book, Living in the End Times, in an awkward position. In a profile in the Guardian shortly after the release of the original (significantly shorter) hardback edition, he expressed deep misgivings about the more popular political and cultural commentary that has done so much to make him an academic celebrity. In particular, he singled out Living in the End Times for critique, dismissing huge chunks of it as “bullshit.”
I did not find Living in the End Times to be “bullshit.” As a long-time reader of Žižek’s work, however, I think I have some idea of why he might think it was. A huge part of Žižek’s appeal, it seems to me, is not simply the jokes and pop culture references that he sprinkles throughout his work. Rather, it is the great enjoyment and satisfaction that he clearly derives from his theoretical work. For him, working through the complexities of Hegel is not a boring task that he artificially spices up with off-color stories or movie references. It’s fun, and the other fun stuff naturally grows out of it.
From this perspective, making a joke isn’t merely a way to relieve the tedium of philosophy, but an integral part of the theoretical task—in fact, one could even say that for Žižek, the most radical and insightful philosophy is always structured as a joke. The philosophers he favors traffic in paradoxes, unexpected connections, and stunning reversals, constantly remaking their thought and challenging their readers to do the same.
Jokes about the Rapture express a deeper anxiety about the decidedly apocalyptic times we live in, expressing some of the often unacknowledged uncertainty about the sustainability of our current system of living.
For those who have been living under a rock (or worse, been offline), the world is supposed to end today. More accurately, a group of fringe evangelical Christians in California led by Harold Camping have taken to the airwaves on their Family Radio Network to proclaim the imminent arrival of the Rapture on May 21st–the removal of faithful believers of Christ from the earth and the cataclysmic beginning of the destruction of the Earth.
As Christian beliefs go, the Rapture’s a pretty marginal doctrine restricted to evangelicals, accepted neither by the Catholic, Orthodox or mainline Protestant groups. Even for those evangelicals that do believe in the Rapture, the vast majority will think of Thessalonian 5:1-2 – “Now, brothers and sisters, about times and dates we do not need to write to you, for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.” Most Christians know better to set dates for the return of Christ, though many have tried before. The failure of Jesus to show up for one such date set by the Millerite movement in the United States in 1844 was called “the Great Disappointment” for good reason. As the great holy text Battlestar Galactica once put it, “all of this has happened before, and will happen again.”
So this is not a widely accepted or particularly credible form of religious belief, it’s pretty safe to say most people do not believe the world is ending at 6pm tonight. What is more astonishing is the degree with which this apocalyptic story has been taken up by atheists, dominating the news for the past few weeks. Mother Jones reports that Channing’s PR person has fielded 400 interview requests in the past few weeks; bucket lists and music playlists to soundtrack the apocalypse have been posted, and as I write now, the trending topics on Twitter include #rapture #iftheworldendsonSaturday #Harold Camping and a nostalgic apocalyptic throwback in the form of #Y2K. Most of it is mocking, with a sense of incredulity that someone could honestly believe in the end of the world. So why all the fuss?
While the West may go green, more mercury is discharging into the oceans and causing sustained pollution. By fueling the desire for cheaper greener electricity, we are literally poisoning ourselves.
Thomas Edison said two prescient things about the manufacturing of lightbulbs: “we now know a thousand ways not to build a light bulb” and “We will make electricity so cheap that only the rich will burn candles.” Edison’s dream is realised in modern compact fluorescent lamp bulbs or CFLs, which provide cheap light in homes, schools and workplaces. Indeed they are becoming so popular that the traditional incandescent light bulbs are disappearing from the shelves and the European Union, the United States, Canada, Cuba and Venezuela are adopting CFLs as standard.
By switching to energy saving bulbs, EU citizens will save almost 40 TW·h (almost the electricity consumption of 11 million European households), leading to a reduction of about 15 million metric tons of CO2 emissions per year.
CFLs are popular, not only because of the cheap light but they save 80% of the energy of incandescent bulbs and last fifteen times as long. They reduce carbon emissions which is vital for planetary survival. CFLs produce less heat which can allow significant savings in air conditioning in certain climates. They also provide a feel good factor because switching to CFLs allows people to make their homes greener and contribute to the green movement.
Lauren Wissot talks to “Gasland” director about fracking, artistry and activism, and PR attack dogs.
I tend to prefer reviewing documentary features to fiction, not because of any affinity for reality over fantasy, but because a bad doc just tends to be less painful to sit through than a mediocre fiction film. But when it comes to the nonfiction genre itself I have one very big pet peeve – activist docs done by lazy directors, who forget to explain why we should even care in the first place, thinking that simply putting forth rational arguments negates the need for pulling emotional heartstrings. After all, Al Gore’s stale lecturing in An Inconvenient Truth didn’t move moviegoers to take action. For those that did, it’s the polar bears, stupid.
The Oscar-nominated Gasland could serve as a crash course in rallying the troops. Not only has director Josh Fox put a face to his film by touring the country with Gasland – a road trip exposé itself sparked when Fox and his neighbors were offered $100,000 each from a natural gas mining company to drill on their Pennsylvania properties – but he’s crafted a doc bursting with sweet goofiness and serene cinematography that counterbalances all the scientific mumbo jumbo required to get this serious story told about the dangerous environmental effects of natural-gas production process “fracking“. In other words, he’s winning crucial hearts even if he loses a few minds. Unlike his archenemy Dick Cheney (himself living proof of the powerlessness of rational argument) Fox has made debating dirty procedures like fracking fun. I spoke with the director by phone before the Academy Awards were handed out.
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