Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 14, 2017

Chasing Coral

Filed under: Ecology,Film — louisproyect @ 6:00 pm

Richard Vevers was once a very successful advertising executive in London who made a career change by moving to Australia in order to start the XL Catlin Seaview Survey, which creates virtual ocean dives using special 360 degree still cameras to document life on the ocean floor around the world. Not long after he began this project, he began to notice that once-familiar marine life was disappearing at the same time that parts of the Great Barrier Reef were beginning to turn a sickly white. Was there a connection? As a rafter of scientists point out in the Netflix-produced documentary “Chasing Coral” that opened today at the IFC Center in New York, the world’s reefs are virtual nurseries for many fish lower down on the food chain that feed on the vegetation the reefs support. Naturally, the smaller fish get eaten by the larger fish as part of a biosphere that has been around for 10,000 years when the reefs started to materialize out of the tiny polyps that cohered not far from beaches all around the world. The polyps were related to their much larger relatives, the anemones and jellyfish, and were capable of building a limestone shell around itself after the fashion of clams and oysters.

In addition to opening at the IFC, “Chasing Coral” can also be seen on Netflix now. If Netflix has lost the capability of featuring leading edge narrative films, at least they can be given credit for producing important documentaries such as this, “The Ivory Game” (about poaching elephants), “The White Helmets” and Ava DuVernay’s “13th”.

Practically nothing can kill the polyps that exist on the borderline between animal and minerals except a small change in water temperature. So naturally you would expect that climate change is responsible for the death of half the world’s reefs today through “bleaching”, the death knell of millions of polyps that have formed massive colonies going back nearly 10,000 years. Not only will fish be impacted, so will the approximately billion people who depend on them as a source of protein.

“Chasing Coral” features Devers and a cadre of marine biologists setting up time lapse cameras to capture the transformation of reefs over a forty day period. The film is both ravishingly beautiful in its depiction of healthy underwater life and chilling as it illustrates their death. Watching miles of ghostly white reefs is scarier than any science fiction movie you are likely to see this summer.

Jeff Orlowski produced and directed “Chasing Coral”. He was the perfect choice for the job since he had also produced and directed “Chasing Ice” in 2012 that deals with melting glaciers using time-lapse cameras, something that was very much in the news this week as it was reported that a trillion ton ice shelf the size of Delaware had detached itself from Antarctica and began floating away into the ocean. Scientists believe that unless climate change is arrested, all of Antarctica will have floated away as soon as 200 years from now. For the people who rule the USA today and other industrialized countries, that hardly seems worrisome. Their concern is more on their quarterly earnings report.

But as Orlowski’s documentary points out, the life expectancy of coral reefs is thirty years. If a billion people lose a major source of protein, the results will be catastrophic. The urgency of this problem requires people to become informed about the issues, starting with seeing the film either at the IFC or on Netflix.

Five years ago, a book titled “Catastrophism: The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth” was published. Edited by Sasha Lilley, David McNally, Eddie Yuen and James Davis, it warned that films like “Chasing Ice” and “Chasing Coral” trafficked in “catastrophism”, a tendency that undermined revolutionary politics by creating a sense of fatalism. In review of the book focused on Yuen’s chapter on global warming titled ‘Catastrophism’ book on environmental movement: a prescription for abstention and defeat, Ian Angus of the Climate and Capitalism website took issue with the author’s attempt to stake out a position so far to the left of people like Al Gore that it risked producing a sectarian abstentionism from mass movements in which such politicians took part. Indeed, this is exactly the sort of problem the antiwar movement faced in the 60s when SDS members disavowed mass protests because a liberal Democrat was a featured speaker.

While not exactly reproducing Yuen’s arguments, I found a Jacobin article by Daniel Aldana Cohen, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, succumbing to the same “leftish” moods. Titled New York Mag’s Climate Disaster Porn Gets It Painfully Wrong, it is an attack on an article titled The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells.

Cohen complains that the word capitalism appears only four times in an 8,700 word article but quotes not a single word of the article itself. Unlike him, I think it is a good thing that an article like that appeared in a magazine devoted to sybaritic pleasures such as where to get the best hamburger in NY or how to find discounted Armani jackets.

Apparently Michael Mann has critiqued some of Wallace-Wells’s predictions that he finds overly pessimistic but that does not trouble Cohen as much as the failure of the article to address what he calls “eco-apartheid”. I am not exactly clear on what he means by that but it would seem to be referring to the possibility of the rich being able to build sea walls while the poor in places like Bangladesh drown or starve.

While Wallace-Wells does not offer any sort of political solutions in his article, least of all socialist revolution, it does at least recognize that the poor will suffer most:

It is not just the hajj, and it is not just Mecca; heat is already killing us. In the sugarcane region of El Salvador, as much as one-fifth of the population has chronic kidney disease, including over a quarter of the men, the presumed result of dehydration from working the fields they were able to comfortably harvest as recently as two decades ago. With dialysis, which is expensive, those with kidney failure can expect to live five years; without it, life expectancy is in the weeks.

Maybe a little bit of history will be useful. In the late 50s, an anti-nuclear movement began to take shape largely because young people like me were scared about the possibility of a Third World War, which was much more palpable than the ridiculous articles that appear so frequently on the World Socialist Website. A group called SANE emerged that attracted many students who would begin to develop a radical analysis of American society based on the ruling class’s willingness to act on the basis that it was better to be dead than red. For those who became Marxists, it was activism on anti-nuclear and civil rights issues that were the first steps breaking with hegemonic idea during the Cold War.

David Wallace-Wells’s article might be the first one read by a New Yorker that serves as a wake-up call on the environmental crisis. Yes, it is great that a Jacobin article mentions the word capitalism forty times rather than four but in the final analysis size matters.

 

 

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