I’ve been conflicted about the message I want to convey in this month’s column. How do I tackle the most important issues of our time. What is the tone or spirit I want to express that would make some kind of a contribution for readers. My mood ebbs and flows as I absorb the new data and forecasts I’ve been reading.
Here’s an example of new information that’s causing me unease. During the last 35 years, we’ve consumed more energy and resources than in the total of human history that came before. And the greenhouse gasses emitted from human activities during this same short duration have contributed to half of the carbon dioxide now loading the atmosphere. This knowledge blew my assumption that industrial society has actually been drawing down the amount of carbon emissions over recent years. I had previously been focused on increasing levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide. The latest reading is 415 ppm, the highest level in at least 800,000 years.
Do I use this alarming news to write a screed that scolds the establishment in this country for leading us over a cliff? Do I analyze the reasons and systemic economic causes for our current global crisis? Do I call out the capitalist class who profits from the destruction of nature and from the endless wars that prop up our economy? Do I hang my head in despair and resign myself like so many others to our shared fate of the imminent extinction of diverse life on this planet?
Regardless of my personal feelings, I have attempted over the years to relate some hope and inspiration for others, especially young people. For over 20 years, we have brought documentaries to the Naro warning about the major issues of global warming, the exploitation of nature, and corporate malfeasance. I know that anyone with enough interest and curiosity to be reading this column, is no doubt aware of the terrors that have been unleashed on the natural world. Each day we encounter a cascade of bad news on NPR, on our favorite websites, and when we open up the New York Times. So I need not propagate more hopelessness and despair for those of us overwhelmed by media and politics. What is needed is a powerful new narrative that will firm us in the science and unite us in our work to heal the planet going forward.
But don’t look to mass media to provide a narrative to empower us to mobilize. Their function is to keep us distracted and divided, and create unwarranted fear and hatred. Their unspoken message – just stay on your couch, keep watching and consuming. Corporate media is corrupted by private interest and corporate funding. They serve as the megaphones for American hegemony and economic imperialism, whether from the left or from the right. Any organized resistance by labor, social justice, and environmental groups has been worn down over the years by a capitalist media that does its best to ignore the underclass and progressive actions in this country.
And yet, against all odds, throughout the world there are growing citizen movements to confront destructive environmental policies by their governments. The U.S. has fallen behind, and we must now look to European initiatives such as Extinction Rebellion. This nascent organization’s strategy is one of non-violent, disruptive civil disobedience – a rebellion. The recent street actions in London by thousands of ER rebels have pushed the British Parliament into regulatory action and impacted media such as The Guardian newspaper to adopt aggressive tactics in their reporting on the climate crisis. Historical evidence shows that social movements require the participation of just 3.5% of a country’s population to succeed in regime change. A prime example of this was the grassroots resistance during the Vietnam War by a vocal minority that finally shifted government policy.
There’s been a plethora of books published in the last few months by respected authors who have taken on mankind’s existential crisis. ‘The Uninhabitable Earth’ by David Wallace-Wells states that that humans have known we must stop emitting carbon for years now and have done very little. ‘The End of Ice’ by Dahr Jamail, travels the world and bears witness to ecosystems undergoing rapid and severe destruction. ‘Losing Earth: A Recent History’ by Nathaniel Rich spells out the historical tragedy of climate change, as well as the crimes perpetrated by our state and corporate leaders. ‘Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?’ by Bill McKibben, the founder of 350.org, looks at the prospects of human survival.
The task that these authors collectively demand from us is to generate compassion for future generations. It is up to us to imagine those yet-to-be-born humans into being, so that we may be their voices and work for their rights. We’re being called to take radical action based on this new global narrative. Mankind has never before exhibited a capacity for such empathy on a collective level. There is no supportive evidence that we will be able to succeed.
Although the science has been clear over the last few decades, the corporate press continues to provide equal space to corporate voices that deny the severity of our environmental crisis. But even for most cynics, the recent UN report on biodiversity and ecosystems sounded a warning alarm. So the corporate press briefly responded by terrorizing us with headlines that read, “One million species of plants and animals are now at risk of extinction.” We were informed that the planet had entered into the sixth mass extinction of life on the planet. And for the first time, the instigator was mankind. The occasion is recognized by many ecologists as the beginning of a new geological era, the anthropocene.
This new era didn’t start yesterday. In the 70 years since I was born, the human population has more than doubled. At the same time, the latest Living Planet Index shows an average decline of 60% in population sizes of thousands of vertebrate species around the world between 1970 and 2014. That is 40% of all amphibians, 25% of all mammals, 34% of all conifers, 14% of all birds, 33% of reef-building corals, 31% of sharks and rays. The causes are multiple – loss of habitat, pollution, hunting and poaching. It’s happening on our watch – or more accurately, while we’re not watching.
Most media reports neglected to provide needed context about the severe losses of vertebrates that we have already suffered in such a short period. And they soon moved on to more trivial matters, abdicating any responsibility for reporting on the end of nature. Few media outlets had the interest to dive into the UN report to inform the public of the needed actions that must be taken. If they did, they would find that global leadership is ready and mobilized to confront the issues.
In commenting on the report, Audrey Azoulay, director-general of UNESCO, affirms, “We don’t want that people feel discouraged that there is nothing that can be done, that we’ve lost the battle, because we have not lost the battle, and if given a chance nature will reconquer its rights and will prevail, and so we really want everyone to feel that they can contribute, that they are part of the solution, and this is very much the main message that this report is bringing to the world.”
Too bad her comments were not considered noteworthy enough to be reported in the U.S. media. The report challenges us to become stewards of the kindred species living around us, even if it’s just in our own backyard. We can learn about our local natural systems and pay attention to any development that adversely impacts natural habitats. Many citizens have been mobilized to resist the construction of Dominion’s natural gas pipeline, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.
Global environmental leadership and scientific research have increasingly drawn from the teachings of Deep Ecology and the Gaia hypothesis. These are overlapping philosophies, each developed independently during the seventies by Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess and by atmospheric scientist James Lovelock. Each worldview recognizes the interdependency of all life and the intrinsic value of all species. They call on humans to abandon our dominionism over nature, and our exploitative plunder of natural resources, and to restructure industrial society by granting legal and moral rights to all of nature.
I was first exposed to Deep Ecology in the early eighties through the writings of Edward Abbey and his cult novel, ‘The Monkey Wrench Gang’. It became the prime inspiration for radical environmentalists who were organizing protests in the southwest against companies that defiled nature for profit. Clandestine actions of sabotage on property and equipment grew into the Earth First movement in an all-out effort to “Defend Mother Earth”.
The lineage of Deep Ecology authors include the works of Earth First co-founder Dave Foreman along with the poet-philosopher and author of ‘End Game’, Derrick Jensen. They both preach the wisdom of deep ecology in justifying radical action. More recently the movement has been chilled since the passage of the Animal and Ecological Terrorism Act (AETA), which effectively criminalized civil disobedience that may cause a financial loss for corporations, regardless of the company’s inhumane practices and illegalities.
We are currently living during the age of ignorance, designated as the Kali Yuga in Hindu tradition. But all is not yet lost. Scientific research of earth’s ecosystems have made it now possible for the restoration and remediation of nature. Some upcoming films are providing prescriptions for a sustainable future. We’ll be showing the enlightening new documentary ‘The Serengeti Rules’ on Wed, July 10th with post-film discussion. Filmmaker Nicolas Brown uses stunning cinematography to visualize the subject matter of Sean Carroll’s book of the same name.
I became aware of the importance of Carroll’s book and documentary project after reading an interview with the esteemed author and naturalist, E.O. Wilson, recently published in the New York Times Sunday Book Review. When asked about the books sitting on his nightstand, Wilson’s short list included Carroll’s ‘The Serengeti Rules: The Quest To Discover How Life Works’. Any book suggestion by Wilson is noteworthy. He is the founder of The Half-Earth Project, an ambitious proposal to safeguard biodiversity by conserving half of all the earth’s terrestrial and oceanic domains.
How does life work? How does nature produce the right numbers of zebras and lions on the African savanna, or myriad fish in the ocean? How do our bodies produce the right numbers of cells in our organs and bloodstream? The questions are posed by geneticist and molecular biologist Sean Carroll, who appears as the narrator in the documentary The Serengeti Rules. The film relates the stories of the pioneering scientists who sought answers to such questions, and the influence that their discoveries have had on both personal health and the health of the planet.
Through years of study into differing ecosystems, each of these scientists has determined how the natural world self-regulates. One of their revelations is that the survival of keystone species are critical for each habitat. They observed swift deterioration due to the loss of wolves in Yellowstone, sea otters in the Pacific Northwest, the wildebeest population in the Serengeti, and predacious starfish in Pacific tide pools. The reintroduction of the missing predators allowed each system to recover.
The scientists had determined the logical rules that govern the interdependence of animal and plant species in the wild. Academic science had in effect, validated the philosophy of deep ecology. The film makes a compelling case for using the knowledge of the Serengeti Rules to heal our ailing planet. Carroll asserts that much of the harm that industrial society has done is reversible. But if crucial action is not taken, it may soon be too late to save the keystone species and habitats in question.
Multiple solutions must be implemented on the micro and macro levels. Under the leadership of Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Green New Deal is a comprehensive response to the climate challenge. This bold resolution recognizes that government is the catalyst for a broader social and economic fabric that must work together to transition to renewable energy. By calling for carbon-free energy, clean air and clean water, and an economic system that addresses inequalities, the proposal is the most comprehensive response yet to our global crisis.
The UN International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that the world needs to keep the increase in global warming below 1.5°C. A new report states that we have 12 years to take dramatic worldwide action. The Green New Deal may be our last, best hope in this country. In the face of our new reality, we don’t have the luxury of pessimism, despair, and depression. To avoid the most horrible possible versions of the future, we must stay positive and take action. It’s the only moral response to our shared crisis.
Upcoming Film Events at Naro Cinema
CARAVAGGIO: The Soul and the Blood This beautiful new art doc follows the travels of the revolutionary and controversial Italian artist through Milan, Venice, Rome, Naples, Sicily and Malta. During the period between 1690 and 1710, he paints feverishly while trying to flee his many inner demons. Shows Tues, June 18 and presented with Chrysler Museum.
WOODSTOCK: Three Days That Defined a Generation Fifty years ago, in August 1969, a half a million people converged on Max Yasgur’s dairy farm in upstate New York to hear the greatest bands of the psychedelic era. This new doc by award-winning filmmaker Barak Goodmann, contains never-before-seen footage. The throngs of rain-soaked, starving, tripping young people manifested the “peace and love” that the festival promoted, and validated the counterculture’s promise to the world. Shows Wed, June 19.
HALSTON From his roots in Iowa to the world of New York high fashion, Halston lived an American dream. Prodigiously talented, he reigned over haute couture in the 1970s, becoming a household name. This new documentary from French filmmaker Frederick Tcheng continues in the legacy of his previous films – Valentino, Diana Vreeland, and Dior and I. Shows Tues, June 25.
ECHO IN THE CANYON Singer-songwriter Jakob Dylan uncovers the beginnings of the Laurel Canyon music scene of the 60s and 70s. This new doc contains performances by Brian Wilson, Ringo Starr, Michelle Phillips, Eric Clapton, Stephen Stills, David Crosby, Graham Nash, Roger McGuinn and Jackson Browne as well as contemporary musicians they influenced such as Tom Petty (in his very last film interview), Beck, Fiona Apple, Cat Power, Regina Spektor and Norah Jones. Shows Wed, June 26.
WALKING ON WATER Ten years after the passing of his wife and creative partner, Christo sets out to realize The Floating Piers in Italy’s Lake Iseo, a project they conceived together many years before. Amid mounting obstacles—the conceptual artist works to complete an extravagant dahlia-yellow walkway that sits atop of the water. Shows Tues, July 2 and presented with Chrysler Museum.
THE SPY BEHIND HOME PLATE Award-winning filmmaker Aviva Kempner (The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg) tells the real story of Moe Berg, major league baseball player-turned-spy. This little-known Jewish hero who played for five major league teams during baseball’s Golden Age had a secret life working for the OSS during WWII, and travelled to Europe to infiltrate Nazi Germany. Shows Wed, July 3.
TONI MORRISON: THE PIECES OF ME Inspired to write because no one took a “little black girl” seriously, Toni Morrison reflects on her lifelong deconstruction of the master narrative. The Nobel prize-winning author and Princeton University professor leads an assembly of her peers, critics and colleagues on an exploration of race, America, history and the human condition as seen through the prism of her own work – including critically acclaimed novels as ‘The Bluest Eye’, ‘Sula’, ‘Song of Solomon’, and her role as an editor of iconic African-American literature. Shows Tues, July 9.
THE SERENGETI RULES Beginning in the 1960s, young scientists driven by an insatiable curiosity about how nature works, headed out into the most remote and spectacular places on Earth—from the majestic Serengeti to the Amazon jungle, from the Arctic Ocean to Pacific tide pools. They discovered a single set of rules that govern all life. Now in the twilight of their eminent careers, these five unsung heroes of modern ecology share the stories of their adventures. Adapted from Sean Carroll’s groundbreaking book by filmmaker Nicholas Brown. Shows Wed, July 10.
Tench, I like your blog and think these are crucial questions. Please check your math with the statement “the latest Living Planet Index shows an average decline of 60% in population sizes of thousands of vertebrate species around the world between 1970 and 2014. That is 40% of all amphibians, 25% of all mammals, 34% of all conifers, 14% of all birds, 33% of reef-building corals, 31% of sharks and rays.” For an average decline to be 60% in thousands of species, it would be more convincing to include some examples of species which exceed %60 so that that average makes sense. None of your follow up examples exceed even 40%, which suggests that you have left out some key species which have become extinct or not mentioned some which are highly endangered. I know the white Rhino just became extinct in the last 5 years. I got to see one on a reservation, so that tells me 60% average is not questionable but lack of some in your list stunts your point. Keep writing! The cause is just! (on a side note, do you expect you will be screening “Maiden”? It looks pretty inspiring….)
Hope you will repeat Serengeti subsequent to the scheduled showing because I would love to see it but will be out of town that night July 10th.