Former Utne Reader senior editor Keith Goetzman on environmental issues from climate change to composting.
6/28/2011 11:51:34 AM
I watch a lot of environmental documentary films, and it’s usually quite clear whose “side” the filmmaker is on—the same one as me, of course. In one sense, this is perfectly understandable: Powerful people and institutions that trash the environment are more likely to use lobbyists, front groups, and PR wizards, not earnest documentaries, to spread their views. Big Coal, Big Oil, and Big Timber take their agenda straight to the halls of power, not to art houses and film fests.
The unfortunate result is that environmental documentary genre can be ripe for groupthink and complacency, and occasionally I find myself refreshed to see a doc that forces viewers to challenge their own preconceptions and opinions. If a Tree Falls, currently playing in theaters, is one such film. It follows the case of Daniel McGowan, a former Earth Liberation Front (ELF) member who is serving a seven-year sentence on federal terrorism charges for his role in two arsons, one at a logging firm and another at a facility that activists falsely believed was growing genetically engineered trees. No one was injured or killed in the arsons, yet the government pursued this “eco-terrorism” case as vigorously as it goes after Islamic militant cells that have openly stated their murderous intentions.
McGowan gets plenty of screen time, and he comes off as an amiable and articulate nonviolent activist caught up in the draconian anti-terrorism laws of post-9/11 America. But filmmaker Marshall Curry also talks to the owner of the burned-down logging company, the law enforcers who nabbed McGowan, and McGowan’s hard-bitten Irish cop father, who shares few of his son’s radical views. Curry also interviews green activists who became government informants against their peers in order to save their own skins. The end product is a well-rounded portrait that humanizes McGowan without excusing his more extreme actions or painting him as a flawless hero. The notable thing is that the film also humanizes his fellow activists, his parents, and his legal foes, acknowledging that conflicting opinions and emotions come with this complicated territory. Not everything is as clear-cut as the wilderness that McGowan is so committed to saving.
The British environmental magazine The Ecologist has an interview with Marshall Curry that explains a bit about how this remarkable and moving film came together. For starters, he basically happened across his subject: Curry’s wife works at the office where McGowan was arrested.
As Curry tells The Ecologist, “I actually didn’t know anything about the ELF beside very cursory things I’d seen on TV. My wife runs a domestic violence organization in Brooklyn and came home from work one day and told me that four federal agents had walked in to her office and arrested one of her employees. It was Daniel McGowan—I knew him a bit, he was the opposite of someone who’d be facing life in prison for domestic terrorism would look or act like. I was interested and decided to jump in.”
Curry’s fair-mindedness ultimately does a great service to his film, to judge from the reactions he’s gotten. He says, “When you work on something in an edit room with just a couple of other people, you never know how it is going to be received. It was really important to us that it reflect the complexities of the case. We’ve been happy to see that the prosecutor, the detective, and the police captain—they’ve all seen it and feel like it’s an important and accurate story. Similarly, Daniel’s family and the spokesman for the ELF say the same thing.”
Watch the trailer for If a Tree Falls here:
Source: The Ecologist
6/23/2011 3:17:33 PM
Bicyclists have a reputation as a bunch of liberals, but it’s worth remembering that not all bicyclists are blue to the core. In fact, as Utne Reader has previously pointed out, there are plenty of conservative-minded folks who get around at least part of the time on two wheels.
Bicycle Times recently published a commentary by one of these mysterious creatures, Tom Bowden, subtitled “How to Talk About Cycling to a Conservative.” (The piece originally appeared on the website Commute By Bike.) Unfortunately, Bowden undermines his own attempt to extend an olive branch by repeatedly engaging in the same sort of stereotype-driven preconceptions and ignorance he’s supposedly campaigning against.
Here are some of his suggestions that really rankled me as a bike-commuting environmentalist:
“If you must meet a conservative face to face, wear a suit! It won’t kill you. Think of it as camouflage—you may find them nodding their heads in agreement even before you open your mouth.” Comment: Really? We should don business-world power attire simply to be taken seriously? I understand that wearing a “Cars R Coffins” T-shirt might not exactly help break down barriers, but Bowden’s proposal is like suggesting that Benjamin Netanyahu don a keffiyeh before the next round of Middle East peace talks. Besides, I know plenty of liberal bikers who wear suits to their jobs and meet face to face with conservatives every day. We’re not all clad in biker-hipster wear from sunup to sundown.
“Here is what turns off conservatives: Global warming, climate change, or climate disruption. If it’s as bad as Al Gore says it is, it will take more than a few bike lanes to fix it. But more importantly, you don’t need to win that fight (or even engage in it) to make your point. Cycling has plenty of merit without dragging in tangential and controversial issues like global … whatever the heck they call it this week.” Comment: OK, dude, you just shredded much of your credibility as a reasonable person. Here, for your information, is what turns off—all right, pisses off—bicycling environmentalists: First, portray well-established climate science solely as the pet theory of a Democratic ex-vice president. Second, trivialize the very real reduced emissions that millions of bicyclists bring about every day by avoiding car trips. Finally, insinuate that the very concept of climate change is wack because it goes by a few different terms depending on the context. Nice work: We’re livid.
“Here is what turns off conservatives: Anti-car arguments in general. Face it: cars exist and most Americans love them. You’ll get nowhere with a conservative if your explicit agenda (or suspected hidden agenda) is an attack on American ‘car culture.’” Comment: Few bikers are so pure that they don’t have a car in their household, so most of them are a part of car culture too—but unlike Bowden they’re willing to confront this conflict head-on and work toward a culture that is not so auto dependent. Car culture is responsible in large part for our messed-up transportation system and has been directly implicated as a major cause of climate change—but, oh yeah, that’s just Al Gore’s pet theory.
“Conservatives don’t like other people to tell them what they should do.” Comment: Do I really need to point out the irony here?
As you can see, Bowden made more than a few missteps in his attempt to create a dialogue, at least with this biker—but in the spirit of ending on a positive note and giving his best arguments their due, here a few of his more unassailable suggestions, absent any smartass commentary:
Cycling is efficient. True conservatives love efficiency! It has been said that a cyclist is more efficient than a bird in flight.
Remind [conservatives] that cycling is cheaper than building more roads. The more cyclists, the more room for cars on existing roads. The more cyclists, the less concrete we need to pour.
Make it clear that you are not suggesting that everyone can or will ditch their cars and ride bikes, but just that people who choose to ride should be able to do so safely, as taxpaying citizens worthy of full protection of their individual rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of that special kind of happiness one gets from riding a bike.
Sources: Bicycle Times
(article not available online), Commute By Bike
Image by swanksalot, licensed under Creative Commons.
6/21/2011 2:07:34 PM
The reintroduction of wolves in the northern Rocky Mountains has gotten caught up in a culture war, James William Gibson reports in Earth Island Journal—and the controversy is not even necessarily all about the wolves. It’s about the big, bad government keeping a good man down. Writes Gibson:
For decades, the Rocky Mountain states have been the center of an extreme right-wing culture that celebrates the image of man as “warrior,” recognizes only local and state governance as legitimate, and advocates resistance—even armed resistance—against the federal government. To members of this culture, wolf reintroduction became a galvanizing symbol of perceived assaults on their personal freedom. Resistance was imperative. But whereas attacking the federal government could lead to prison, killing wolves was a political goal within reach—something the individual warrior could do. So advocating for the killing of wolves became a proxy battle, an organizing tool to reach out to all those angry about environmental regulations, gun laws, and public land policies. Since the early 2000s, and with increasing virulence since 2009, anti-wolf activists have promoted the image of wolves as demons—disease-ridden, dangerous, and foreign.
Gibson describes how Western anti-wolf forces have operated through misinformation, threats, and intimidation, including anonymous acts such as mailing pictures of dead wolf pups to pro-wolf advocates. Such tactics, he says, have virtually silenced local wolf advocates, allowing wolf haters to portray the issue as a locals-versus-outsiders battle.
Though Gibson’s story focuses on the West, some Midwestern states are grappling with many of the same wolf-management issues, apparently in a less politically and personally charged atmosphere. Just last week, public hearings in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, and Marquette, Michigan, attracted hundreds of people, nearly all of them in favor of removing federal endangered species protections for wolves—a move already made in five Northern Rockies states and now being considered in the Great Lakes region.
To judge from limited news accounts of these two wolf hearings, they were not especially contentious or charged: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Minnesota and Michigan departments of natural resources, and most of the attendees agreed that wolves have recovered to the point where they can be managed to avoid conflicts between wolves and humans. Absent the polarizing rhetoric and partisan posturing, it appears that perhaps reason can rule the day in some areas.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is accepting public comments on the Great Lakes region wolf proposal through July 5.
Source: Earth Island Journal, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
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6/15/2011 9:32:08 AM
I’m an environmentalist. There, I said it. Now why is it so hard for so many people to make this simple proclamation?
It’s not just clear-cutting, oil-drilling, emission-spewing right-wingers who reject the label. I’m constantly encountering well-meaning folks, even progressive and generally earth-friendly ones, who start sentences with “I’m no environmentalist, but …” or “I wouldn’t call myself an environmentalist, but ….”
Now why is this?
Being an environmentalist, to me, simply means you care about the environment: maybe a little, maybe a lot. It doesn’t mean you place it above all else. It doesn’t mean you can’t still identify yourself as a Christian, a businessperson, a farmer, a parent, a queer, a golfer, a juggler—whatever. It doesn’t mean you’re an environmental activist or extremist, and it doesn’t mean you’ve been initiated at a Starbucks window-smashing workshop and accepted into the Anarchist Order of Tree Spikers.
I’ve come to learn that saying, “I’m no environmentalist, but … ” is a lot like saying, “I’m no racist, but … .” When you hear it, you know that what follows will inevitably be support for an environmental stance.
The thing is, racism is inherently abhorrent to the rational mind. Environmentalism is not. The label has taken on a negative cast because the right wing has successfully demonized it, and by running away from it we allow the demonization to continue and even to deepen. We need more, not fewer, people willing to call themselves environmentalists. It’s hard for me to envision a habitable world, 100 years from now, in which the vast majority of people do not do so.
Ultimately, I take heart in the fact that when people say they’re not environmentalists, it often means they’re grappling with the issue of just what an environmentalist is—and they may suspect, deep in their hearts, that they are one. It often means that they’ve been complacent about environmental issues but have suddenly confronted one that demands their attention. It often means they’re trying to save face, because they’ve previously stereotyped environmentalists as unreasonable and now find themselves, much to their surprise, agreeing with them. Psych!
It doesn’t take much Googling to figure out what these non-environmentalists are all about. They’re about protecting the environment. Here are a few of my favorite statements from, well, whatever these people are:
I’m no environmentalist, but maybe we need to stop cutting down so many trees.
I’m no environmentalist, but … we don’t need any more development on the barrier islands along the coast of South Carolina or Georgia.
I’m no environmentalist whacko, but I do support those people who are down there in Albany protesting hydro-fracking.
I’m no environmentalist, but calling a place “Rolling Meadows” when it’s clearly a landfill seems slightly insulting to intelligent people.
I wouldn’t call myself an environmentalist, but I am concerned about what we’re doing to the environment and what kind of environment will be left for our kids.
I wouldn’t call myself an environmentalist. I am a swimmer who wants clean water, and a dad who wants his kids to grow up in a healthier world.
I wouldn’t call myself an environmentalist, but recently I’ve become aware of something that may be linked to the environment and it concerns me greatly: breast cancer.
While I wouldn’t call myself an “environmentalist” or “tree hugger,” I am concerned with how we are trashing our environment, wasting precious resources and the disbelief of global warming.
I’ve got just one thing to say to all these perceptive though not entirely self-aware folks: Welcome to environmentalism. You’re going to do just fine.
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