Vic and I attended the Newport Beach Film Festival this past weekend.
Naturally, Vic and I focused on environmental documentaries. We saw three films, "A Fierce Green Fire,""Last Call at the Oasis,"and"Bitter Seeds."
"A Fierce Green Fire" is based on the book of the same name. The film explored the history of environmentalism from John Muir's failed attempt to save the Hetch Hetchy valley north of Yosemite from being dammed, up to today's battle to slow global warming.
Early environmental efforts focused on saving habitat and wildlife. From formation of the Audubon Society to protect egrets from being killed for their plumes to the battle to save the Grand Canyon from being dammed , early battles were for the land and the creatures that lived there.
Starting in the 1960s, environmental battles were more often about pollution. When the Cayuhoga River caught fire in 1969, the nation was shocked. People hadn't realized the extent of the pollution problem.
During the 1960s and 1970s and into the 1980s, one battle after another was fought to reduce harmful chemicals in the environment. Since then, industries have been forced to clean up their act and quit using the air that we all breathe and the water that we all drink as dumping grounds for their waste. If you enjoy clean air, clean water, and safe food, thank an environmentalist. Those battles were hard fought, and hard won.
I was struck by the massive demonstrations in other countries against carbon dioxide emissions that were shown in the Green Fire film. People in other countries seem to be concerned about the contribution of greenhouse gases to global warming. The massive demonstrations that occur elsewhere contrast sharply with the apathy and denial that seem to pervade this country.
Global climate change is probably the biggest threat to the survival of humanity that we have faced in 12,000 years or longer. Global warming is already affecting weather patterns, and resulting in more severe storms, floods, and increased drought in other areas. Soon, climate change will affect the ability of farmers to grow food.
"Last Call at the Oasis" covered another currently hot topic, the global water crisis. Divided into two parts, the film dealt with both water supply and water pollution. Both are crucial issues.
Some say that future wars of this century will be fought over water. But this film also showed remarkable cooperation to resolve water conflicts. For example, Arabs and Israelis are at loggerheads over the limited water of the Jordan River. But the two sides have worked together to build improved sewage treatment for the region.
Here in Orange County, water agencies have taken steps to increase our local water supply by recycling sewage. The thought of drinking water that came from a sewage treatment plant is pretty disgusting, but the water has gone through multiple purification steps. After purification to drinking water standards, it is pumped upstream and emptied into the Santa Ana River. From there, it percolates deep into our ground water. We pump it back up, purify it again, and that is part of what is coming out of your tap right now.
Dumping of chemicals into rivers has pretty much stopped in this country, but there is a new pollution issue on the horizon. The medications that so many of us take manage to get out of our bodies, into sewage, and into lakes, rivers and oceans. They can affect fish, frogs, and other organisms. Sewage is treated to kill bacteria and viruses, but not to take out trace medications.
One result of this is an increase in sex hormones in our streams, rivers, and drinking water. That in turn is resulting in some pretty weird biological changes in frogs. Male frogs turn into females. Other pollutants are causing them to grow multiple legs. The frogs are trying to tell us that our streams and rivers are not healthy, even if they aren't catching on fire any more.
The last film that we saw was "Bitter Seeds," about the farming crisis in India that has been caused by genetically engineered cottonseeds. Farmers there no longer have access to the heirloom seeds that had been passed down for centuries.
Many of the farmers had been talked into using genetically engineered cottonseeds. These plants were engineered to make Bt toxin, which in turn killed boll weevil larvae. This was supposed to result in greatly increased yields with less pesticide.
While that might be true on an industrial scale, where the cotton can be watered and fertilized on the specific schedule required by these particular plants, it doesn't work so well under conditions where the farmers rely only on rainwater. As a result, the small scale farmers experienced lower yields than they had enjoyed when they used their own saved seed.
But the seeds that they had used in the past were gone and no longer available. There was no choice in seeds at their local store. The only ones for sale were the Bt cottonseed from Monsanto.
When the crops failed, the farmers took out bank loans. When crops failed the next year, they borrowed at outrageous rates from private moneylenders, who basically cheated them out of their land.
Faced with no future, the farmers are committing suicide at epidemic rates. The end of the film pointed out that while we had been watching the film, another three farmers had committed suicide.
One of the unique things about a film festival is that you often get to meet the directors, producers, scriptwriters or actors in discussion sessions immediately after their films. For "Bitter Seeds," film producer and director Micha Peled was available for a discussion. He had a number of personal stories about the culture in India and the people he met on farms and in small villages.
This award-winning film is part of a social trilogy that Peled has produced. It is already out on DVD and is available at www.teddybearfilms.com.
VIC LEIPZIG and LOU MURRAY are Huntington Beach residents and environmentalists. You can reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org.