Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 3, 2013

Three environmental films of note

Filed under: Ecology,farming,Film,food — louisproyect @ 3:57 pm

Two of the documentaries under review here are focused on rivers, while the third takes a close look at soil. Given the mounting environmental crisis, they achieve an urgency that would put them at the top of any serious filmgoer’s “must see” list. The fact that all three are fully realized works of art, independent of their topic, recommends them even more. Those looking for escapist fantasies should not feel the need to read any further. Of course, any of my regular readers are the film audience elite and would be well advised to continue reading.

Although I have seen a number of very good documentaries on organic farming, “Symphony of the Soil” is the first to ground them (excuse me for the bad pun) in soil chemistry. The first half of the film is a guided tour of various locales by some of the world’s leading soil chemists, ranging from fjords to rain forests, with an emphasis on how soil becomes fertile. Like most people, I suppose, the idea of listening to a scientist explain the differences between different kinds of soil might seem dry as dust (excuse me for another bad pun) but it is almost impossible not to be swept along by their passion. In some ways the film is a throwback to the classic Disney nature films of the 1950s like “The Living Desert”. If you loved those films as a kid, you will find “Symphony of the Soil” impossible to resist. If you have kids, this is the quintessential family film.

My interest in soil chemistry is heightened by my reading of John Bellamy Foster’s “Marx’s Ecology” that described in great detail the ecological crisis of the 19th century, namely the loss of soil fertility. The crisis was so deep that scavengers went through battlefield remains looking for bones that could be pulverized into fertilizer. The “guano wars” between Peru and Chile were fought over control over the fertilizer-rich islands in the Pacific.

“Symphony of the Soil” describes how this crisis was resolved in the 20th century though the discovery of chemical-based nitrogen fertilizers. This was the so-called Haber process, named after Fritz Haber who was involved with military research. His goal was to procure the chemical compounds that could be used for explosives, a reminder of how Timothy McVeigh was able to kill 168 people in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995. It was with a bomb based on 200 pounds of ammonium nitrate from a farm supply company.

In a way, chemical fertilizers became just as deadly even though they were touted as solving the hunger problem through the much-heralded Green Revolution. When chemical nitrates are introduced into the soil, they are absorbed into the water at a much greater rate than organic fertilizers and eventually leach into the rivers and lakes where they accelerate the growth of algae and rob marine life of much needed oxygen. The net result in one instance is the presence of a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico that is the size of New Jersey and expanding rapidly.

The final half of the film is a guided tour of organic farms across the world with farmers who are as passionate about their responsibilities to Mother Earth as the soil chemists that preceded them. I found the interview with Jaspal Singh Chattha, a Sikh farmer living in Punjab, particularly interesting. Chattha is the hope for farming in India, a nation whose reliance on chemical-based farming and its heavy capital outlays has led to a suicide epidemic.

“Symphony of the Soil” is aptly named. The photography is first-rate, including many time-lapse images of plants and flowers growing that come out of the Disney tradition. The film score is also top-notch.

Deborah Koons Garcia directed “Symphony of the Soil”. In 2004 she made “The Future of Food” that took aim at the genetic modification industry and about which I wrote:

The film gives one example after another of how elected politicians serve on the board of Monsanto and related companies. It also documents the incestuous relationship between their high-level employees and federal agencies meant to regulate them. It is not unusual for some top manager of Monsanto to take a job with the FDA, which is analogous to an Exxon executive going to work for the EPA. Politicians, both Democrat and Republican, have been co-opted as shills for biotechnology. In 1997, Mickey Kantor, Clinton’s Secretary of Commerce, joined the Monsanto board where William Ruckelshaus, Nixon’s EPA director, already sat. One wonders why the property-owning class bothers with the pretense of democracy at this point. It would be far more honest if the government was simply made up of CEO’s selected at random from Fortune 100 companies.

“Symphony of the Soil” opens at the Quad Cinema in NY on October 11th. If you can’t make it to the theater, I strongly urge you to buy the DVD from the film’s website (http://www.symphonyofthesoil.com/watch/buy-dvds/). This is a film that would be of great significance for both the high school and university classrooms. It unites art and science in a way that sets the standard for such documentaries henceforth.

When I got email from Icarus Films about their new acquisition, I said to myself that this was a must:

Unbeknownst to today’s city-dwellers, buried beneath nearly every major metropolis are a network or convergence of rivers. As urban living grew with the Industrial Revolution, these rivers became conduits for disease and pollution. The 19th-century solution was the merge them with sewer systems and hide them underground. These rivers still run through the cities of today, but they do so out of sight. LOST RIVERS examines hidden waterways around the world from the United States to the United Kingdom, from Korea to Italy. Viewers are introduced to environmentalists and urban explorers re-discovering their city’s network of medieval rivers. As climate change forces us to reconsider the relationship between built and natural environments, a fascinating secret of contemporary ecology is revealed.

If you are a native New Yorker, you are probably aware of a road called the Saw Mill River Parkway, a prime route into the city from the north. The river, a tributary of the Hudson, runs alongside the highway until its final leg into Mount Vernon, a suburb that has seen its better days.

In the 1920s the city fathers decided to literally bury the river under what is called a flume, a tunnel in effect, that effectively turned the river into part of the city’s sewer system. As was the case everywhere underground rivers went through such “scientific engineering”, there were unintended consequences. In heavy rainstorms, the sewer system became overloaded and the waters below came rushing out of drainpipes saturated with feces and other pollutants.

Mount Vernon decided to return the river to the surface as part of an effort to beautify the downtown and to allow native species to thrive once again. Despite some temporary dislocations for local small businesses, the project has been an overwhelming success.

While it may not come as a big surprise to see a suburb of New York move in such a direction, it is quite a revelation to see that Seoul has embarked down the same road. An underground river has been reclaimed there as well, leading to sense of well-being for urban society that now has a healthy and beautiful resource in its midst. In a very real sense, such projects are analogous to the decision made in the 19th century to create Central Park in New York.

It is understandable that environmentalism is framed in terms of functionality, as if its dictates serve as a kind of RX for a sick planet. But when you see an underground river rescued from obscurity and made the centerpiece of a downtown metropolis, you realize that being surrounded by beauty is as important as being surrounded by clean air and water. A week ago when I was running in Central Park, I saw a green heron in the reservoir and stood there mesmerized for a minute or two. The salvation of the planet has to be understood in spiritual as well as physical terms and “Lost Rivers” is a good place to start.

Go to the Icarus website (http://icarusfilms.com/) for information on how to view this groundbreaking film.

“A River Changes Course” is a poignant study of the struggle of Cambodian fishermen to make a living against a backdrop of ecological crisis and declining marine life in the waters near Phnom Penh, the capital city. It is directed by Kalyanee Mam, a young Cambodian woman who served as cinematographer on Charles Ferguson’s “Inside Job”.

Despite their relative closeness to the city, the people featured in Mam’s documentary appear to live under conditions that prevailed 100 years ago. Mostly Muslim, they survive as traders hooked into local markets that they rely on for cash to purchase essentials like clothing and food.

As is the case everywhere in the world, small, subsistence fishermen are being crowded out by much larger and much more technologically advanced commercial fishermen who care little about environmental sustainability.

Not only are the river’s riches being squandered, so are the rain forests that surround the river. As is happening throughout Asia, the forests are being cleared to make room for plantations producing export crops. In this particular instance, the main exploiters are Chinese who not only take over the land but also turn desperately poor Cambodians into virtual slaves on the plantations.

“A River Changes Course” opens tomorrow at the IFC Center in New York and on October 11, 2013 at the Laemmle Music Hall in Los Angeles. If circumstances prevent you from attending a screening, I urge you to visit the film’s website at http://ariverchangescourse.com and to read the press notes as well for useful background on the political economy of contemporary Cambodia.

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