Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 10, 2020

Earth

Filed under: Ecology,Film — louisproyect @ 10:17 pm

A case can be made that Nikolaus Geyrhalter is the most important living documentary filmmaker. As well, a case can be made that his latest film “Earth” (Erde) that opened today at the Anthology Film Archives in New York is his most important. As the film begins with a panoramic shot of the San Fernando Valley in California, the following words scroll across the screen: “Every day 60 million tons of surface soil are moved by rivers, wind and other forces of nature. Humans move 156 million tons of rock and soil per day, making humankind the most decisive geological factor of our time.” With this as a preface, Geyrhalter then takes us on a world tour of major excavation sites with closeups on the machinery and the women and men who operate them. On his last stop that he makes in Fort McMurray, Canada, he will not be able to film machine dreadnoughts because the tar sands extraction bosses prevent filming. However, in a perfect denouement to a film made to arouse public opinion against unbridled capitalist development, he walks the outskirts of the drilling sites with two Dene Indians whose land has been despoiled by fracking.

My first exposure to Geyrhalter’s work was in 2006 when I saw “Our Daily Bread”, an ironically titled film that takes us into the assembly-lines of meat and poultry factories, as well as the greenhouses and fields of agribusiness, where Taylorism reigns supreme. A decade later, I reviewed “Homo Sapiens” that like “Our Daily Bread” lacked narration. As a general strategy, Geyrhalter is a strict believer in showing rather than telling. In the case of “Homo Sapiens”, we see the detritus of cities and towns that have lost their raison d’être, namely their role in the circulation of capital. You surmise that the abandoned hospitals, factories, schools, jails, laboratories, forts, etc. were abandoned because they became redundant just like the homo sapiens who lived and worked in the cities and towns where they were located.

Perhaps as a result of the environmental crisis, Geyrhalter’s latest abandons the austere cinéma vérité technique of the earlier films and has him interviewing workers participating in the massive assaults on earth in the name of progress. While by no means as intrusive as Michael Moore, he is clearly interested in drawing out whatever pangs of conscience they have about being accessories after the fact in what threatens to become the Sixth Extinction.

The interviewees are a varied lot. A heavy equipment operator in the San Fernando Valley, who is leveling mountains to make way for a new development of tract housing, shopping centers and other symbols of civilization, is not particularly perturbed. If the choice is between flattening a mountain and the preservation of nature, he shrugs his shoulders and tells Geyrhalter that it is necessary since people need a place to live. If you live in California, you are probably aware that suburban sprawl is bringing mountain lions, bears and other wildlife to the brink of extinction. The worker probably understands this with a fatalistic acceptance of this eventuality made easier by good pay.

In Italy, Geyrhalter visits a marble quarry where he meets a worker who has other motivations for working there besides money. He tells the filmmaker that because the work is so dangerous, he gets an adrenaline rush everyday he is there. It has the same effect on him as a drug. On the weekends, when he is away from work, the peace and quiet leave him feeling empty.

At Rio Tinto, an open-pit copper mine in Spain, he encounters workers who, despite making a livelihood in one of the most ecologically destructive forms of mining, reassure Geyrhalter that their advanced machinery is not harmful to the nature around them and remind him that copper is necessary for electricity. We can’t go back to living in caves, after all. They sound like the grinning Koch Industry workers featured in their employer’s TV commercials.

In the first sign that Geyrhalter is ready to confront such lies, he also interviews Luis Iglesias Garcia, an archaeologist whose interest in the mine is scholarly rather than commercial. Since Rio Tinto goes back to the Roman Empire that mined silver and copper from the ground beneath them, he is on the lookout for any relics that are dug up by accident. He does not see much of a future in copper mining or any other of the earth transformation projects the film casts its eye upon:

I don’t think that Earth is giving us anything easily. We extract everything in a way, you mentioned blasting before, that is rather violent. Extracting anything from the soil is a really violent process. It is quite aggressive. Everything related to resources is done with violence. Either we change our business model to a concept that is more in line with nature conservation and the rational consumption of resources, or this system will not exist much longer. Clearly, we can either change or vanish.

Humankind doesn’t learn, neither from history nor from anything else. I don’t know why.

The archaeologist is far more detached from the murderous assault on the planet than the two Dene Indians we meet in the final episode. They have been told by the authorities not to eat more than one or two fish a month since the river that runs through their reservation has been contaminated by the toxic byproducts of fracking. Jean L’Hommecourt tells him: “For me in my culture being a Dene means people of the land, so we are of the Earth and we need the Earth to survive, to exist as a human being. In our culture we believe that every element of Earth has a spirit.”

In the only visit where mining is not currently taking place, Geyrhalter goes to a salt mine in Wolfenbüttel, Germany that has been converted into a repository for nuclear power plant radioactive waste. When they first began storing drums of the toxic byproducts in the sixties, the engineers thought they were living up to governmental regulations. The salt mine must be resistant to hazardous accidents or human malfeasance for a million years. Less than fifty years had gone by when they learned that ground water seeping into the mine would risk eating away the drums and causing a Chernobyl type disaster. During his visit, he met with the man and woman in charge of relocating the drums who did not seem sure what guarantees there could be for safe storage for the next million years anywhere on earth. Maybe it’s up to Elon Musk to transport the drums in a rocket up to Mars after he has built a brand-new world for humans there.

In an interview with Geyrhalter in the press notes, he considers such a quandary:

Germany is still trying to find suitable storage facilities. We are really talking here about our treatment of the Earth’s surface on a massive scale. It’s not just that we take things out: we also bury things inside it. You have to bear in mind that in 100 years we have created nuclear waste that will remain radioactive for the same length of time as the total history of mankind on our planet. We can’t escape from the problem of nuclear waste – but we still don’t have any concept for getting rid of it. The problem horrifies us, and we wonder how such a situation could come about… while we constantly benefit from the advantages it gives us. Just becoming outraged about things is too easy. Each of my films contains criticism of civilisation, and at the same time I would like people to understand why things are the way they are… because the population of the world is about 7.5 billion people. We can try our best to live in a way that reduces our impact, that postpones the destructive process, but essentially the world works the way it works. And apparently, unfortunately, it only works this way – no other way.

I don’t blame Geyrhalter for his fatalism. Many mornings, I wake up feeling this way myself especially after watching a few minutes of CNN. The reason things “are the way they are” is capitalism, not overpopulation. Capitalism creates commodities that can generate profit, whatever their impact is on the planet. Ironically, population growth is accelerated by capitalist-imposed poverty. Peasant families tend to be large because the children become unpaid labor. In countries that are prosperous, population tends to be stable or even decline. In any case, the answer to our problems is the intelligent use of resources. Geyrhalter may not be the person to listen to when it comes to the broader questions of ecological living but his films are a wake-up call for what awaits us as our unintelligent ruling class plunges us into ruin.

5 Comments »

  1. Finally someone who has got the courage and the intelligence to point that that the King is naked: overpopulation. The Archeologist who wonders why people don’t learn from nature is jaws dropping: hasn’t he learned anything from Darwinism?
    The conclusions from Mr Proyect are disappointing too not only because he keeps pushing his narrative against capitalism by distorting facts like that capitalism has made any society where it operates worse in the short term for everyone and that it causes the population to rise – two facts that are factually wrong – but also because he seems unable to do some self criticism about why capitalism is linked to consumerism and why those two things are so ingrained in our instincts as human beings. Understanding our nature could help us to solve planetary issues in accordance to it instead of by appealing only to a part of it, namely altruism and our love for the natural world.

    Comment by Riccardo Pusceddu — January 11, 2020 @ 3:20 pm

  2. I worked for a time as an environmental monitor at a Rio Tinto hydroelectric project, in a remote corner of northern British Columbia, Canada. It was quite awful. Interviews with the First Nations peoples displaced by the project would be quite eye opening, but also typical of how Canada operates I think.

    Comment by Jesse — January 11, 2020 @ 6:31 pm

  3. Not Fort McMaster, but Fort McMurray!
    comment by Robbie – Jan 11, 19.29

    Comment by YK — January 12, 2020 @ 12:27 am

  4. Not to inject a Pollyanna note, but large-scale environmental problems, though smaller ones than we are experiencing at present, have in the comparatively recent past been dealt with somewhat successfully. E.g. the Dust Bowl and the ozone hole.

    The reason why the current crisis has not been dealt with at all is that capitalism is in massiver retreat from actual governance across the board and cannot muster even the glimmerings of the concerted action that would be required to create a solution. Something close to it might have been possible at an earlier time–that is, as far as substantial mitigation of causes, though not a solution.

    Capitalism is in massive retreat from social governance as a whole and cannot and will not regain the lost ground, let alone conquer the new ground necessary to prevent the worst outcome of the current global crisis. This crisis. IMO, cannot be reversed under capitalism. QED.

    Alas, the multi-state, unprecedented firestorm that hit Australia in the past three days tells us without a doubt that things are far worse than we had supposed.

    I notice this in my walks in the DC area. In the past three years, migratory birds and insects have simply disappeared from Turkey Run Park, where I have been walking and taking notes for the past five years or so. Three years ago, there were herons, cormorants, ospreys, five or six species of ducks, and many rare butterflies in this park. IN 2016-17, it was as if somebody had tripped a switch and cut off the current that was animating these creatures. It’s close to 70 degrees F in DC today. This is no normal midwinter spring. Quantity has become quality and the situation now is radically different from what it was very recently.

    The balmy weather here is deceptively pleasant for now. The fires in Australia are hell. But these phenomena are two sides of the same coin.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — January 12, 2020 @ 6:28 pm

  5. Sorry, typos plus forgot to close my emphasis tag. As if it mattered.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — January 12, 2020 @ 6:29 pm


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