Did anyone happen to scroll past a news item this week about the latest PPM? If you only get news from the television networks you’ve likely not seen it yet even though this may be the most important development of the week, month, and year. What is a PPM you might be wondering? It’s an acronym that signifies a number that has huge implications for our life, and everyone else on the planet.
In the context of climate change Parts Per Million refers to the level of greenhouse gasses in our atmosphere at any given time. It’s a changing snapshot of how much atmospheric peril we humans have put ourselves in, largely unknowingly. At last reading on Hawaii’s Mauna Loa Observatory–the accepted benchmark for measuring the amount of carbon pollution, or heat-trapping gasses—we hit a record high of 421 ppm.
That number is only significant if one understands the context so here it is: when records of this indicator were first reported, in the late 1950s, there were about 315 ppm’s in the atmosphere. 350 parts per million is the level considered “safe” by climate scientists and we are now well behind that “not to exceed” marker (thus the name for 350.org, a climate activist group started by Bill McKibben).
So, what does this mean for humanity? Are we doomed? Condemned to endure ever harsher and more deadly extreme weather events? Well yes, but only IF we continue with business-as-usual practices when it comes to burning energy needed to fuel nearly 8-billion human lives.
While there are more efforts underway than ever to reduce our carbon emissions through waste reduction, inventing and utilizing new technology to reduce emissions, and a fevered race to come up with viable ways to suck carbon out of the atmosphere, the sobering reality is this: unless and until society, in the U.S. and around the world, makes this a higher priority – the highest priority – we will not meet the critical 2030 goal of reducing our carbon emissions by 50%. That failure will likely lock in two degrees of further warming which experts say would be catastrophic.
The really scary part comes from the feedback loop and cascading effects of a warming earth. Just like when people get a fever, the planet also has a tipping point that when surpassed, can threaten survival. While some of these outcomes are predictable; like melting glaciers allowing the sun to warm the water that was previously protected by sea ice, much is unknown. We are truly in uncharted territory.
Whether enough people know it or not, humanity is in a race to survive and any hopes for our offspring to thrive will be determined in the next few years and decades. If that doesn’t stop the presses news, I don’t know what is. And yet if I turn on CNN, MSNBC/NBC, CBS, ABC, I doubt they’ll be discussing the climate crisis.
The news networks have shown themselves to be laggards, not leaders when it comes to covering pressing environmental news. As followers (of each other) we’ve seen the “legacy channels” engage in long cycles of politics as the primary focus and beginning in 2020, the pandemic.
So, what will it take for the planet—our life support system– to get prime-time coverage? Maybe a record high level of ppms in our atmosphere. Or maybe not. But until and unless Mother Nature–our life support system—gets the focused and sustained attention of mainstream news media and the public, we can assume the changes urgently needed will not meet this epic challenge.
If there was a memo that went out saying we are giving up on the fight for a sustainable future – near and far-term – I missed it. And you likely did too so what are we waiting for? Let’s get started while there’s time.
Want More Climate Disasters and Global Pandemics? Vote Republican in November!
Among the many outrageous lines and lies that came out of the most unconventional Republican National Convention (R.N.C. for Really No Clue?) the most egregious is what was not said.
Over four nights of speeches, while several un-natural disasters were wreaking havoc in Louisiana, Texas, and California — not a word was mentioned about what is making these weather events more hellacious.
Aside from the obligatory “thoughts and prayers go out to hurricane victims” — with zero mention of the devastating California fires (Blue state bias?) — the only time the words “climate change” were uttered was when VP Mike Pence denounced climate regulations that Joe Biden would purportedly impose if elected.
The next night, in his acceptance speech, President Trump boasted about pulling out of “the very costly and unfair Paris Climate Accord,” a global agreement that scientific experts say didn’t go far enough in keeping warming below two degrees.That, as hundreds of thousands of Americans, were fleeing for their lives in triple-digit heat amidst a deadly pandemic with ecological origins, just weeks after Iowans were hit with an unprecedented “land hurricane,” or derecho.
In addition to U.S. refusal to participate in the Paris agreement under Trump — setting back critically needed progress and America’s role as a leader — even after the last several years of near-constant climate catastrophes on his watch, there’s been no change in the administration’s industry-friendly position. Instead, the Trump administration has knowingly made things worse with ongoing environmental rollbacks to loosen fuel economy standards, open up the Arctic Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling, weaken restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions, air, and water pollution, all with negative impacts to human health and safety, today, and in the future.
Hell Bent on Destruction
As the planet convulses, species struggle to survive, oceans warm, and rain forests burn, Republican leadership is hastening the dismantling of our fragile eco-sphere. From the start, Trump and company have been determined to destroy President Obama’s environmental legacy, appointing industry lobbyists to head agencies tasked with protecting public and planetary health, all the while giving a middle finger to science — and citizens. And they have the gall to continue their anti-environment agenda even in the wake of increasingly dire climate warnings. It’s a bad nightmare being made worse and now they’ve gone on record as not even pretending to care about the biggest crisis of our time, let alone its millions of victims!
For the hundreds of thousands of Americans impacted by just the most recent carbon-fueled disasters, it would surely have been surreal to watch the Republicans’ rosy view of life under Trump. His regressive administration is not only downplaying the scope of these mega catastrophes — in addition to ignoring what’s causing weather events on steroids — but also diminishing the staggering human toll of the COVID pandemic which has underlying ecological drivers.
Can you imagine the stress levels of being left with a damaged home without power, water, and A.C. in the midst of a heatwave AND worried about contracting coronavirus? Officials in the hard-hit Lake Charles area and more than a dozen Louisiana parishes say electricity will be out for a month or more — how can residents remove and repair damage without power? To add insult to injury a chemical plant caught fire in the storm, releasing toxins into the hot and muggy air.
So perhaps it’s just as well that thousands have been without television or in evacuation centers where they couldn’t watch the R.N.C. Otherwise, they surely would have felt invisible during the out of touch and tone-deaf convention. But while it may sound harsh, Republican sanctioned climate negligence goes far beyond tone deafness; instead, it reflects a deaf, dumb and blind approach, given the indisputable scientific and evidentiary facts.
One has to wonder how many of the latest climate refugees even realize that this man-made crisis is fueling more fire-nados, “horror-canes,” floods, and derechos. One hurricane victim wearing a MAGA hat was interviewed on TV, seemingly clueless about the link to climate change which his candidate is deliberately making worse.
The fact that there continues to be a shocking disconnect between carbon emissions and global warming in 2020 is largely a result of the fossil fuel industry continuing to fund denial. And too much of the corporate-owned news media has been complicit in doing too little too late by failing to connect the common denominator climate dots, as well as refusing game-changing content on eco-solutions.
As someone who left an on-air job with CBS News over a decade ago to cover the environmental beat full time, I’ve watched, aghast, as this double-headed monster (The Denial Industrial complex — or D.I.C. — combined with years of broadcast and cable news outlets providing scant coverage of our worsening ecological crises) has slowed progress. After kicking the carbon can down the road too long, we simply cannot afford any more delays.
Deja Vu All Over Again
Fifteen years ago, when Hurricane Katrina — followed by Rita — hit the Gulf Coast, I recall being on-air and declaring the arrival of climate change on U.S. shores.Although that reality has been plain to see for anyone looking, the continuing campaign to downplay and diminish this existential threat has been a smashing success. As in smashing structures, solutions, lives, livelihoods and even hope that we’ll be able to turn the tide in time.
As Laura was growing into a Category 4 hurricane last week — at a frighteningly rapid rate — I was getting deja vu. History is still repeating itself with lessons seemingly unlearned. With the federal government’s now routine declarations of emergency after the fact, we are not doing nearly enough as a nation on the prevention, mitigation, or adaptation fronts.
That’s tragic, inexcusable, and at this late stage, I’d add criminal. These are not random acts of God. Rather, these weather events on steroids are part of a pattern of man-made disasters, resulting from the continued and subsidized burning of fossil fuels. As long as we elect fossil fools to lead us, we will be sealing our fate. And every day counts. Want more of this? Vote Republican!
When President Trump stopped to survey the damage in Louisiana and Texas over the weekend, there was, of course, no mention of climate change. While more than 15 victims lost their lives and thousands of residents were left without homes, water, and electricity in 100+ degree heat, Trump spent his time joking with local officials and praising FEMA’s “tremendous response.”
The astonishing disconnect would be comical if it weren’t so tragic. Americans have been misinformed — actually disinformed intentionally — by the administration and long amplified by the under-educated, but highly overpaid, “deny-o-saurs” on Fox “News.” Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson and Rush Limbaugh are lying and literally getting away with murder and theft of our future, while laughing all the way to the bank! They’ve done it again by downplaying the seriousness of COVID from the same playbook.
There has also been little connection made in mainstream media about the underlying environmental causes of the coronavirus pandemic. One of the world’s top virologists, Dr. Peter Daszak of EcoHealth Alliance, has been quoted as saying “as long as we are making the planet sicker, people are going to get sicker.”
He and other experts have identified habitat destruction and climate change as contributing factors to the spread of virus’ — from wildlife to humans — as development increasingly encroaches into nature, including forests where virus-carrying animals like bats are getting squeezed out of treetops and into populated areas. Dr. Daszak says a vaccine won’t stop this nightmare because there are more than one-and-a-half million virus’ present in wildlife populations! Until we start taking better care of nature, he says, humans will continue to see ever more deadly viral pandemics, vaccines or not.
Time to Wake Up and Smell the Carbon
Our nation’s low rate of eco-literacy allows for misinformation and ignorance to prevail. It’s no coincidence that the U.S. is the only developed country not in the Paris Climate Accord AND has had the worst response to COVID. The dumbing down of America — aided and abetted by special interests — is no coincidence. It should now be painfully clear that the tremendous cost of continued attacks on science — perpetuated primarily by Republican conservatives and right wing media personalities— are making it nearly impossible to make progress.
The stark reality is that even without the well-funded deny-o-sphere, humanity faces an uphill battle and epic challenge. Add in forces deliberately thwarting action and reversing progress — as the current administration is doing — and you have failure. And failing to preserve a habitable planet does not bode well for ANYthing or ANYone in the future. Want more pandemics? Vote Republican!
While there is a growing faction of young Republicans concerned about the climate crisis, the party leadership has yet to embrace their views. Some fear the continued ostrich approach adopted by the party symbolized by an elephant, will prove to be the “giant elephant in the room” that makes Republican candidates appear to be out of touch with reality,.
If ever there was a time for all politicians, the news media, and greater public to “wake up and smell the carbon” it is right now so we can begin to work together to “get off our gasses.” Most immediately this warning must get out between now and the election.
As evidenced at the R.N.C., the Republican party is choosing to remain clueless, actively and selectively so. If that’s the type of leadership anyone thinks we can afford in this era of ecosystem collapse with so many clear signs of earth out of balance — from destructive weather to viral pandemics — they should be prepared for more of the same, increasingly making Earth an extremely dangerous place, not conducive to human life.
If nothing else, the COVID crisis should teach us three important lessons:
1) We live on a small interconnected planet where nature is in charge.
2) Humans can change their behavior if properly informed and motivated
3) Individual actions have a collective impact, positive or negative.
Perhaps most importantly, we have seen the terrible price paid by ignoring scientific warnings and not being prepared for oncoming crises. And also how quickly and dramatically our lives can go south, from normal to not recognizable, seemingly overnight.
The ultimate takeaway is a reminder of the universal truth that we “don’t know what we got till it’s gone.”
We have only two noisy and newsy months to go until the most consequential election of our time when we will get the opportunity to have a say in our future by voting. Before it’s too late to go back, let’s think long and hard about what four more years of head-in-the-sand politics will do to the planet, our only home. Some things are not reversible, including ecocide.
I urge you not to be distracted by all the Red rhetoric on display at the R.N.C. and Trump’s mean and manic tweets. More than ever before, there is a black and white difference between the two parties, a life and death difference for our kids, country, and planet.
There is only one policy color that matters right now, and that’s the color Green. Only Joe Biden’s Blue party, the Democrats, have a plan to tackle climate change, build back better with a green recovery — addressing both the ecological and economic crises — and create jobs that put us on a sustainable path.
Only one party understands that without racial justice and income equality, none of the fixes needed will work. We are all connected, it is all connected, and Joe Biden and Kamala Harris know how to connect all these dots to move our country, and world, forward.
Much is being discussed, written, and lamented about the head-spinning, heartbreaking, and far-reaching impacts the coronavirus is having on all of us.
Unfortunately, far less is being said about the underlying environmental factors behind the pandemic.
In the wake of the 50th anniversary of Earth Week and as we enter the fourth month of the pandemic’s arrival in the states, it is worth noting stark contrasts between the urgent response to COVID-19 and the slower-moving — but even deadlier — climate crisis.
Indeed, both are characterized by frightening fevers: the first, afflicting people; the second, our warming planet. Both also pose a global threat and can be lethal.
Perhaps most notably, taking early action is key to preventing disastrous spread. In both crises, individual behaviors have a collective impact, for worse and/or better.
From where we sit today, immobilized by the invisible but potent coronavirus, perhaps we should start referring to the domino effects of eco-collapse as the “climate virus.”
Like coronavirus, the climate virus worsens and widens in the absence of robust and sustained preventive and restorative action. Over time, both scourges weaken us as their potency to cause damage strengthens.
With the coronavirus now ravaging and paralyzing the entire world, perhaps people will finally grasp the enormous threat of climate change. If COVID-19 was a global wake-up call — now nature seems to shouting at us to wake up and also — smell the carbon!
This is the time to act with all the urgency of an earthly emergency, or at least start talking about it as the other — and related — lethal threat.
We must factor our environment into the equation as we emerge from this novel virus nightmare to begin the rebuilding process. Before you can say “too soon,” or “we can’t deal with both at the same time,” consider this: climate experts would say that it’s nearly too late to stop the worst impacts of planetary distress — in large part because we’ve been so good at kicking the carbon can down the road.
Unfortunately, not nearly enough has been accomplished on the ecological front, even after five decades of environmental activism, as marked by the first Earth Day in 1970. Sure, there’s been progress over the years, but the last thing we can afford is to be in reverse, a backward slide of epic proportions.
Today, people need to realize that the sky really IS falling.
In short, the earth’s atmosphere is breaking down from our greenhouse gas emissions, which, in turn, is fueling extreme weather events such as biblical-size floods, wildfires that become infernos, terrifying tornadoes, and hurricanes (which we can more appropriately dub “horror-canes”).
“We’ve never seen anything like this before,” is the now-standard response from dazed residents standing in a pile of rubble that used to be their homes — be it Paradise, California, the Bahamas, or most recently in Memphis and Chattanooga, Tennessee, to name just a few communities ravaged by weather on steroids.
We now find ourselves staring in the face of a frightening environmental future — and less to escape into the usual distractions of shopping, working, sports, entertainment and even news, which is a dark litany of COVID impacts. A perfect storm of insufficient leadership from too many of our political representatives; corporate America; Wall Street; mainstream news outlets (especially television networks), and until recently, a complacent and preoccupied public, has left us in the rubble, rubbing our bleary eyes.
While there is more than enough blame to go around, the most striking evidence of leadership failure is that in 2020 we have a president who is impervious to life and death scientific realities and is actively rolling back environmental, climate, and public health progress.
Add to that too many Republican politicians and right-wing news outlets — most notably Fox — that are still spewing hot air, perpetuating denial, and downplaying the urgency despite all evidence to the contrary.
Outrageously, Trump tweets out lies while the coronavirus kills and home burns. If we don’t intervene and make an eco u-turn soon, upcoming generations might not survive, let alone thrive.
If that sounds like exaggeration, consider that thousands of Americans have already been killed in extreme weather events: in part because sufficient precautions were not taken to factor in the new normal of weather on steroids. There are examples too numerous to mention. Air pollution alone kills millions across the world each year. Add more pandemics into the mix and that should provide the tsunami of motivation needed for mass action.
Disinformation around the seriousness of the coronavirus threat, perpetuated by conservative media personalities like Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, and Laura Ingraham parallels the continued dismissal and downplaying of the climate and other environmental threats. Not to mention their rude and routine maligning of scientists and mocking of environmental advocates.
After more than a dozen appearances on Hannity’s TV and radio shows, I can attest directly to the blatant and bloviating disregard for facts and the near-unanimous opinion from thousands of climate experts that we are in serious trouble. In fact, Hannity used the same “Climate Hysteria” sign behind him when I was on as he did for “Corona Hysteria.” You’d think making a reported 45-million dollars a year — to brainwash half of America — would provide enough for a new sign!
Is it any wonder that millions still profess to “not believe in” human-caused climate change and thus don’t take the threat seriously? That has an impact on elections which in turn has consequences for not only our climate, environment, and health, but also our economy as clean-up and rebuilding costs billions, even more than prevention in the not-so-long run.
The empty and absurd attempts to refute our planet’s plight thwarts action on so many fronts, resulting in too many Fox-loving fans voting for what I call “deny-o-saurs.” The science-challenged representatives then block or reverse environmental progress for the benefit of special interests — their own or the fossil fuel industry, often with a connection if you follow the money.
How does the Trump administration get away with continually rolling back hard-fought environmental regulations and loosening safeguards designed to protect lung health — like stricter fuel efficiency standards — in the midst of a deadly respiratory pandemic?
How is continually turning a blind eye to so many clear signs of a dying planet not reckless endangerment — just as scientists tell us the window to act is closing?
Where is the outrage, or lawsuits, addressing this form of media malpractice — all done for the short-term financial gains of the fossil fuel industry?
A lawsuit was recently filed against Fox by plaintiffs in Washington state for downplaying the danger of coronavirus. Why not take similar action against Fox — Trump’s megaphone — for recklessly downplaying the danger of our deadly climate crisis?
It may surprise many to learn there are ecological underpinnings to the novel coronavirus that is now holding the world hostage. The mainstream news media has barely mentioned that critical aspect of this crisis. How come?
Disease ecologists say worrisome trends like over-development and habitat loss will only drive more animal-to-human virus-caused pandemics, thus making this apocalypse-like moment not so novel, but in fact, frighteningly common and a sign of things to come.
A crisis is a terrible thing to waste. Let’s use this “great pause” wisely in order to begin making a much-needed and long-overdue “green pivot.” Let’s begin with who we choose to lead us and to whom we choose to listen.
Let us also heed Mother Nature’s warning (a “last call”?) while we are sobered by too many dizzying changes and devastating losses swirling all around us. They are a stark reminder of how quickly things can go south; that we are part of nature; and must act accordingly if we want to live “here,” our only home.
The planned 50th Earth Day celebrations got bumped with barely a mention by major news networks, aside from a story about the silver “green” lining from pollution and emissions going down, our unintended but welcome gift to an imperiled planet. Normally Earth Day brings more than usual coverage which isn’t saying much. Media Matters says in all of 2019 climate stories represented only .07% of network news coverage.
If cable news networks and public attention can swiftly pivot from all political to all pandemic coverage, we can and must start doing the same for our environment, our health, and our kids’ and grandchildren’s future.
To miss this lesson would be to miss our best chance to turn the eco-tide. That failure would be nothing short of eco-cide.
Don’t we at least owe it to the more than 60-thousand American lives that have been suddenly, and shockingly, stolen, so they did not die in vain?
It would seem that safeguarding human health, and protecting nature that makes all life possible, should be our refocused priorities in 2020. “The Great Unmooring,” as some are calling it, has hopefully opened our eyes; clarified, and corrected, our collective vision.
— Broadcast news veteran journalist Betsy Rosenberg has covered the environmental beat for more than two decades. She is a former award-winning CBS Radio reporter and anchor, who went on to host and produce the nation’s first daily green program, EcoTalk on Air America Radio. She is a writer, speaker, and TV commentator on climate change, and related ecosystem issues, as well as a contributing author to the book, Climate Abandoned: We’re on the Endangered Species List. www.betsyrosenberg.com
Sundance 2020’s Eye on Environment Films Views the Future Through a Rearview Mirror
Unlike Hollywood reporters on a deadline, I have the luxury of waiting a week or two before writing about films I’ve been fortunate to screen at Sundance. As an independent creator of media focused on environmental issues and climate content, I love attending what I call the “Altitude without Attitude” festival. The mood at Sundance is always light, with a party atmosphere, in sharp contrast to many of the docs, which tend to be about darker subjects.
The access to A-list actors, big-name producers, and media company executives is relatively barrier-free in the relaxed settings where they appear as speakers, panelists, or just hanging out in the VIP lounges that line Main St. in Park City during the fest. CNN’s venue was of particular interest to me as you’ll read below, and is depicted above.
Okay, but what about the films you ask? First, the bad news — there were not as many docs overtly about climate change as I’d hoped given the world is finally waking up to “smell the carbon,” and the theme of this year’s SFF was “Imagining the Future.” But the good news is the ones that were about our changing climate — even if not directly mentioned — -were excellent.
There were two films of note in the environmental category; one was based on events from nearly three decades ago, the other from a bit more than a year ago. Both revealed a cautionary tale about what’s to come.
The most impactful film in what I’d call the ecological category was Spaceship Earth. This was my favorite, a fascinating close-up examination of a quirky and talented group of Biospherians who enclosed themselves in an artificial environment ambitiously created to replicate the natural world.
Using archival footage dating back to 1991, when the Biosphere’s two-year experiment began, and earlier, director Matt Wolf uses film and photos to document the formation of this unlikely group of eco-explorers and its charismatic leader, John Allen. What began in 1967 as a commune-like experiment in the free-wielding Bay Area, lead 20 years later to the building of an air-tight geodesic dome based on some of Buckminster Fuller’s principles. That journey is at the heart of this fascinating documentary.
The mostly self-trained band of Biosphere participants were actually a brilliant lot of non-conformists who managed to build a seaworthy ship from scratch and create the giant nature-mimicking bubble — complete with mini ocean-like environments complete with coral reefs, and animal-filled rainforests — that sustained the eight men and women with food, water, and air for two years. Although there were challenges, and times the crew nearly gave up, the triumph of what was accomplished was fully realized in this film in a way that was impossible to glean from the often critical news accounts during the human experiment.
The twists and turns that unfolded are best left to seeing the film. But for me the overarching theme was how amazing this feat was some 30 years ago, and at the same time how visionary their view was of planet earth (Biosphere 1) under increasing strain from the weight of population growth and human activity.
While my vague recollection of news coverage at the time was that it was a small group of oddballs who struggled in their quest to be totally self -sufficient for two years, in reality, they were ahead of their time visionaries who had a few unforeseen challenges but that was to be expected in this first of its kind endeavor. Their victory was hard-earned as they did manage to remain in the enclosed microcosm of “real life” for the full two years.
But perhaps even more remarkable is the film’s ending which showed that this tribe of hippies-turned-scientists-turned- pioneers managed, against the odds, to remain together as a group well into their 70’s and 80’s. Most of them are still sharing land and life with each other this many decades later. That alone is a remarkable achievement! Usually, people turn out to be more human, and fallible, often succumbing to personality conflicts and differing views.
But not this crew. They were real deal pioneers in an experiment that has more meaning and lessons than ever in today’s compromised climate and ecosystems. Their inspiring ending is marred only — though jarringly — by a cameo appearance from Steve Bannon of all people. In a scene that’s all too stark a reminder of today’s political climate, Bannon threatens to be the spoiler and destroyer of all that has triumphed and prevailed, against long odds.
The other film with a backdrop of ecological disaster and human survival was a doc from Ron Howard called Rebuilding Paradise. As the name implies, it’s the story about the town of Paradise, in Northern California, which burned in a wind-whipped inferno ignited on Nov. 8, 2018. The film crew returns to the area nearly a year later to tell stories of the struggle to survive when so much has been destroyed or damaged in property — schools as well as homes — and tight-knit community.
Howard uses harrowing footage of survivors escaping flames from the Camp Fire, the worst in California history. Revisiting a disaster area to see what followed after news crews were long gone is a premise I’ve long envisioned. Especially in places where climate-fueled catastrophes have hit.
But any questions I would have asked were not depicted in the film if they were asked at all. They would be about the perceived role climate change played in worsening the fires. While some may feel it’s irrelevant, or even insensitive to ask victims of these “un-natural disasters” for their opinions, I strongly disagree. I believe that by failing to connect these dots, too much of the public remains in the dark about how our warming world is making weather events more extreme. In the case of the hellacious fires in California, and more recently, Australia, prolonged drought conditions and higher than usual winds fueled these blazes, making them spread faster and much harder to control.
While the stories that Howard’s crew followed were well told, personal, and plenty poignant, I see an opportunity missed in not asking survivors about their views — past and current — about the growing threat of climate change.
The news media’s failure to connect dots for too long during and after the hurricanes, floods and fires that have been first and worst of their kind, is a big part of the reason we still have climate denial in this country and in the White House, and may yet again.
By missing a chance to show the personal toll from our worsening climate crisis, it remains largely an issue in the political sphere. Though the film ends with one of the adult survivor’s death from a heart attack-–possibly triggered by post-fire stress — I don’t recall even one direct reference to climate change in the film. Perhaps that was intentional on the part of Howard and his crew but, in my view, it was a mistake.
A friend of mine who lost his family’s dream home in the 2017 Santa Rosa fire was diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer last year, and while he can’t prove it, he is convinced that trauma from the fire and its stressful aftermath; dealing with insurance companies, a thousand decisions to make about whether to rebuild or not, and eventually buying and moving to a new house, took a toll on his health.
I’ll close with a confession and explanation of the photo above.
For three years I have been pitching, or trying to pitch, television news network executives on content focused on our planetary pickle and solutions that could be game-changing. Despite the clear need for such programming — still missing from the mix on ALL news channels — the reluctance and resistance on the part of so-called news leaders, has been frustrating, perplexing, and revealing. What are they so afraid of?
In my continuing quest to find signs of intelligent life in network news management, I spend some of my time at Sundance hanging out in the CNN VIP lounge which, my press pass gets me into.
Though I missed seeing my primary target — CNN head Jeff Zucker by a half hour — I did manage to speak briefly to a few execs who astonishingly still seem lukewarm about the prospect of adding ANY climate commentators or environmental correspondents, despite having hundredsof political contributors!
So imagine my delight to see a climate action demonstrator parked outside CNN’s lounge as I walked up! Though no connection of mine, this man helped make my point that climate change IS the biggest story not getting adequately told.
Whether or not the CNN execs bothered to notice is not clear. I’ve found that TV news managers tend to be arrogant and even a bit ignorant about what they don’t know that they don’t know. Or maybe they do know that they’re guilty of the sin of omission in not fully reporting on the dangers of our rising emissions.
A Handful of Excellent Environmental Films but None with the Full Urgency of Now
This was my third time attending the Sundance Film Festival and the second year there were no marquee level movies about our embattled environment, but there were some good ones.
My first “dance” was in the wake of Donald Trump’s inauguration and included the Women’s March in a blizzard as frosty as the pall cast over a nation that was never expecting a climate doubter to win the White House.
Marching with hundreds of women, men, and children to protest the anticipated policies of an anti-environment president was a highlight but so too was the premiere of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Sequel in January 2017 along with Chasing Coral, the sequel to Jeff Orlowski’s Chasing Ice.
Last year’s biggest splash in the genre of green films was Gamechangers, which despite its popularity with festival goers, is yet to be released in theatres. That movie, from Louis Psihoyos (The Cove, Racing Extinction) as well as other directors, tracked the transformation of pro-athletes from a meat-centric to a vegan diet — accompanied in all profiled cases — by better competitive results.
This time my favorite film in the environmental category was The Biggest Little Farm from John Chester. The filmmaker and his wife Molly were the protagonists in this case and the star was the 200-acre moribund farm the couple purchased with no experience tilling the land. It’s location, an hour north of Los Angeles, would become part of fire-scarred Thousand Oaks but that proves to be the least of the couple’s challenges.
The 90-minute roller-coaster ride is beautifully shot and the story of these intrepid humans — and their menagerie of animals — risking everything to live in harmony with nature is dramatically portrayed. Facing every obstacle imaginable over the course of seven years, the relentless game of whack-a-mole against pests and predators alike, our heroines are guided by a sage farm-whisperer who urges the couple to aim for maximum diversity in crops while using traditional (not current agro-tech tools) methods. Nature is depicted as she is: both harsh and healing, but in the end Apricot Lane Farms becomes the idyllic dream fully realized. But not before the couple’s patience and persistence is tested, again and again. Their plight is humanity’s plight — can we still rely on Mother Nature to sustain us given all the damage humans have wrought, from extreme weather and wildfires to nutrient killing practices. Acquired wisdom eventually saves the farm, and the farmers, but not without significant loss along the way.
My second favorite film was The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. While this one takes place on the other side of the world, in Malawi, it’s also a true story — though actors were used in this doc. Compared to the relative lushness of California’s land, the home of 13-year-old William Kamkwamba, is barren and under a brutal dictatorship under which the boy’s family and fellow villagers are left to fend for themselves. Facing famine from a prolonged drought, in-fighting breaks out and families break apart. In the eleventh-hour, William uses his rudimentary self-taught scientific understanding to rig up a windmill using a bicycle, a wing and a prayer. The whimsical contraption manages to work, allowing what’s left of the villagers to harness enough wind to pump captured water for irrigation. The boy’s ingenuity earned him a scholarship at Dartmouth, as the ending credits reveal. One can only imagine the culture shock going from a place with so very little to the land of too much.
If both these films serve as a reminder of how dependent man is upon nature, other docs in the genre depicted the damage and hubris of man using nature for humanity’s benefit, while at the same time despoiling and destroying natural resources. Anthropocene takes viewers on a birds-eye tour of a half-dozen sites where resources like marble, sand, and potash are extracted leaving gaping holes in the earth where man has tread. As its name implies, man has shaped the geography and geology of the planet, literally altering the landscape in the name of progress. There is very little in the way of commentary as the pictures of degradation, presented in an artistic manner, speak for themselves.
If Anthropocene: The Human Epoch gives us an overhead view of the spoils, the German film, Walden, is a slow-motion journey tracking a single tree from its origin in an Austrian forest to its final destination in a Brazilian rainforest for purposes unknown. Using excruciatingly slow pans of panoramic shots, the film takes 106 minutes to convey its message about the futility and seeming mindlessness of trucking, shipping, and train-ing a single tree-turned-lumber halfway across the globe. The human energy and time combined with the toll of emissions spewed for such a small load speak to the perils and pointlessness of globalization and sometimes mindless transfer of goods for no real good reason. While I applaud the message and marvel at the method used to portray the lesson — 13 long slow pan shots of industrial transfer points — I feel the point could be made more effectively with the same film being condensed to one-quarter its length. The takeaway is important and hopefully thought-provoking, but as a viewer I value my own time and energy and need to conserve!
While the remaining films in what I call the “green category” were also noteworthy: Tigerland, Honeyland, and Sea of Shadow, also had common themes on the tolls of human greed and hubris, none of this year’s entries fully captured the urgency of the moment we’re in vis a vis climate change. Given the events of 2018: extreme and deadly weather events combined with dire government reports, I suspect — and hope — we’ll see more scenes from the apocalypse that is our dawning reality and most importantly what society can do to avoid collapse.
An empowering entry in the motivational category was WeRiseUp, a welcome film created to empower people to make a difference in the world using their unique individual gifts. It would be great if WeRiseUp were to partner with environmental or social justice groups to help empower and organize people to contribute to positive change. Many movies with a cause get people riled up but leave no place to go to do anything about correcting the problem or help to address the issue. People need tools, direction, and organization and lord knows this is urgently needed on the climate front.
One can only wonder when it will dawn on the greater public — those that don’t generally go to Sundance to watch eco-themed documentaries — that we are in trouble as a species, as are other living beings we’ve endangered with our actions. If we don’t change how we live with the natural world, our collective future is threatened and that’s not science fiction, it’s scientific fact. It’s time to chew on that, along with our popcorn.