While most of my readers understand that the environmental crisis threatens humanity’s survival, that understanding revolves generally around issues that effect us as a species. This is typified by the loss of foodstuffs and the increase of catastrophic flooding such as demonstrated by the typhoon that just wreaked havoc in the Philippines–very likely the result of the wanton production of greenhouse gases.
But there is more to the equation than that. The environmental crisis also threatens the extinction of many animals, whose loss also affects us in a material way. When predators like the eagle disappear, carcinogenic chemical pesticides become the rule. But the extinction of animals such as the polar bear, the raptor, the orangutan, and the tiger also lessen us culturally. What would our world be if it is left with the pigeon, the rat, and us? It is the same as burning Rembrandts.
“Musicwood”, a documentary that plays at the Quad in NY through Thursday (the film is also available on ITunes and DVD), poses the question of what our world would be like if the great guitars became extinct as well. It turns out that the sounding board of a Gibson or a Martin (the top of the line of which can cost close to $200,000) relies on the Sitka Spruce tree that can be found in the Tongass National Forest of Southeastern Alaska on land that is owned by a First Nations corporation called Sealaska. Although I referred positively to the Inuit and to the tribes resisting the tar sands extraction of Canada as examples of the ecological Indian, I now realize I was being somewhat reductionist. In reality, native peoples have frequently made deals with oil, mining and lumber companies to profit from unsustainable practices on tribal lands. Sealaska unfortunately is one of the most egregious examples, allowing clearcutting of trees ranging from 300 to 600 years old with the raw materials shipped off to Asia where they become furniture or construction material. In the grand scheme of things, it is not much different than burning Rembrandts.
The film makes it clear that the beneficiaries of this wasteful practice are the tribal elite who serve on the board of directors of Sealaska with a couple of non-native men who have spent their careers in the lower 48 states supervising clearcutting operations. They are the moral equivalent of those who are responsible for mountaintop removal in Appalachia.
The two First Nations people on the Sealaska board who are featured in the documentary are hostile to Greenpeace since it has made preserving Tongass a priority. Rosita Worl, a Tlingit who serves on the board of trustees for the National Museum of the American Indian, sets the tone by referring to Greenpeace as the outsiders who want to “save the whale” at the expense of native peoples. As someone who has stood up for the right of the Makah to hunt whales against the interference of the Sea Shepherds, I might have been sympathetic to her objections but there’s a huge difference between a whale or two being killed by a tiny band of Indians desperate to maintain their cultural heritage as opposed to an entire rainforest being turned into coffee tables for sale at Pier One.
The ordinary Indian, who is a shareholder in Sealaska, has no problem seeing through the elite’s pretensions. One native woman shrewdly observes that not a single penny of the corporation’s profits has filtered down into her pocketbook. She and her family, like most other ordinary folks, survive by catching salmon and hunting deer while the Rosita Worls of their world go to cocktail parties in Washington and receive handsome salaries for serving on the board of Sealaska.
The nominal heroes of the film are a Greenpeace lobbyist and a group of guitar industry presidents who understand the need to preserve Tongass through the auspices of Musicwood (http://www.musicwood.org/), an advocacy group that is supported by world-class musicians such as Steve Earle and Ya Lo Tengo who are seen in the film. Unfortunately the guitar companies can be as easily seduced by the dollar as the native elite. We learn that the FBI raided Gibson Guitars for using unlicensed rosewood and ebony from Madagascar.
The struggle to preserve Tongass is ongoing. Like the equally essential “People of a Feather” I reviewed for Counterpunch last Friday, the film’s website points you in the direction of valuable resources. I strongly recommend the purchase of the film for high school and college classes since it poses the question of how capitalism pits people against each other without bludgeoning you over the head in didactic fashion. It challenges the student to think about how justice can be served in a period of declining expectations—mostly a function of the need to preserve corporate profits.
Director Maxine Trump has done an excellent job of making her material appeal to anybody concerned about the planet’s future. In the press notes, she states:
Working with our editor, we simplified the politics as much as possible without doing disservice to anyoneʼs issues, and let the passion, the music, and the spiritual essence of the film take over. We had to make sure we werenʼt taking on anyoneʼs agenda; we let the facts speak for themselves, and got to the truth of the situation.
She has succeeded admirably. Very highly recommended.