Detroit’s Urban Gardens: The People Take Over

Urban Roots: Urban Gardens in Detroit

Directed by Leila Connors and Matthew Schmid (2011)

Film Review

This incredibly inspiring film is about the mainly African American Detroit residents who have converted abandoned properties into productive urban farms. As the filmmakers demonstrate at the end of the video, grassroots urban farming has become a common strategy for rehabilitating decaying urban areas. To me, what is happening in Detroit and other distressed cities indicates the revolution has already begun. The system is failing, and ordinary people are already taking over.

Owing to the steady decline in US car manufacturing, Detroit’s population has dropped from 2 million in 1950 to less than 900,000 in 2019. The city has 44 square miles of abandoned property and 40,000 vacant lots. This could potentially provide 10,000 acres of farmland.

The filmmakers visit several of Detroit’s urban farms, where they interview the groups running them, as well as the army of volunteers who staff them. Although many volunteers are unemployed or retired, many have paying jobs and garden in their spare time. Many of the older volunteers with Southern roots already have extensive agricultural experience. All participants speak of a a new sense of self-reliance and control over their existence, stemming from their involvement in meaningful, non-repetitive work.

Given that most of metropolitan Detroit is a food desert,* urban farms are the only access to fresh produce for many residents. Urban farmers also sell produce at farmers markets and to local restaurants. Meanwhile the restoration of community activity in abandoned neighborhoods discourages drug dealing and other criminal activity.

Although a few farms have permits from the city to cultivate the abandoned property, most of the gardens are technically illegal. City officials (quoted in the film) refuse to zone city land for agricultural purposes because they’re still holding out for a Walmart or a major supermarket or golf course to spawn commercial redevelopment.

The urban gardeners deride this sentiment, pointing to failed city projects to rebuild Detroit through massive investment in casinos and a sports stadium.


*A food desert is defined as an area with limited (or no) access to affordable nutritious food.

Anyone with a public library card can view the full documentary free on Kanopy. Type “Kanopy” and the name of your library into your search engine to register.

 

 

 

Kate Raworth: A New Economic Model Based on Planetary Boundaries Instead of Continual Growth

Donut Economics

VPRO (2017)

Film Review

In this documentary, Dutch filmmakers interview British economist Kate Raworth about her proposal to create a new economics that focuses on planetary boundaries instead of continual economic growth. Raworth argues that the world already has all the technological know-how we need to transition from fossil fuels to 100% renewable energy. However our archaic economic models will continue to favor massive resource extraction and waste accumulation so long as government policies continue to favor growth over sustainability.

She believes that state intervention is needed to develop a new circular economy that will minimize resource extraction and waste production. Her ideal is to establish collaborative networks between manufacturers that enable them to recycle their products when they wear out or break down of dumping them in landfills and the ocean. The “donut” Raworth uses to illustrate her economic model calls for sufficient economic activity to lift people in the donut hole out of extreme poverty and oppression without overshooting planetary boundaries (by increasing carbon, particulate, and toxic pollution and exacerbating species extinction).

The filmmakers ask her to comment on two existing manufacturers that incorporate this circular approach to waste. The first is a Dutch company that “rents” jeans instead of “selling” them. When they wear out, the customer returns them to the factory to be recycled into new jeans. The second profiles a  Dutch company that reclaims gold, silver and scarce earth minerals from used cellphones and circuit boards.

 

 

Restoring Community

Planet Community

Foundation for Intentional Community (2018)

Film Review

Planet Community is a series of five ten-minute documentaries about creating “intentional communities” – situations where people choose to live cooperatively with non-relatives. Many sustainability activists (myself included) believe rebuilding our communities will be fundamental to the transition to a lower tech, non-fossil fuel economy. Pooling resources makes it much easier for people to lower their carbon footprint. Even more important, living in intentional community can go a long way towards alleviating the loneliness and social isolation that plagues modern society.

Part 1 looks at life in the Dancing Rabbit eco-village in northeastern Missouri. This episode explains the the concepts of Outer Sustainability (which includes developing a local microgrid to provide electricity, local food production and distribution networks, eco-housing and recycling and reclaiming resources); Interpersonal Sustainability (relearning skills people need to live cooperatively – such as communication, conflict resolution, and embracing diversity); and Inner Sustainability (confronting unearned privilege and social oppression).

Part 2 explores a number of student housing cooperatives for University of Michigan students in Ann Arbor. The coops were created by the Inter-Cooperative Council (ICC) for students unable to afford dorms or rental housing. The student cooperative houses, which are self-governing. The ICC, which owns the houses, also offers residents training in trauma survivor support, personal stress reduction, and coop management (eg how to pass a kitchen inspections.

 

Part 3 is about the Enright Ridge Ecovillage, established in 2009 around a Cincinnati forest reserve. At Enright Ridge, each family owns their own home and participates in a governing body that runs various community projects, including a pub, a low income housing project and a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture schemes connect food producers and consumers more closely by allowing consumers to “subscribe” to the harvest of a particular farm or group of farms).

 

Part 4 visits a cluster of three co-housing schemes involving 300-400 residents in Ann Arbor Michigan. Each scheme is run as a “condominium association” to satisfy Michigan state law. Residents, who make governance decisions via consensus, work cooperatively to share meals, organize community events, compost, recycle, and operate a “common house.”

Part 5 concerns the Black Oaks Center for Sustainable renewable Living. The latter is a non-profit organization in Kankakee Illinois started by an African American woman and her son to teach permaculture principles to local residents to help them become more resilient. Their program offers training in sustainable agriculture and lifestyle choices, as running markets in food insecure city neighborhoods.

 

The Healing Benefits of Forest Therapy

The Healing Forests of India

Directed by Nitin Das (2019)

Film Review

An exquisitely beautiful documentary about the field of forest therapy – a form of healing is most practiced in India and Japan (which has 50 healing forests).

There are numerous studies demonstrating the calming effect of forests on children. Research from both India and Finland show that holding classes there makes children calmer, helps them focus better and reduces misbehavior and violence. It’s especially effective for kids diagnosed with ADHD.

Research in adults reveals that the forest environment can reduce blood pressure, heart rate, cortisol* levels, inflammation, depression, stress and anxiety. At the same time, it also improves serotonin** levels and immunity. Forest therapy has proved helpful in treating diabetes, hyperthyroidism and addictions. In young people, it helps alleviate depression and anxiety stemming from excessive social media exposure.

It makes perfect sense that people would find forests more inducive to health than overcrowded hyper-polluted cities. As one researcher reminds us, human beings co-evolved over hundreds of thousands of years with forest plants and animals. This means our bodies are programmed to thrive in the presence of other living beings.

The recommended dose of forest therapy is five hours a month.


*Cortisol is a steroid stress hormone.

**Serotonin is a neurotransmitter found in the brain and elsewhere that is believed to mediate mood.

 

The French Infatuation with Nuclear Power

Atom, mon amour: French faith in nuclear power

DW (2019)

Film Review

This documentary concerns the apparent French infatuation with nuclear power. France presently has 58 nuclear power plants, the most in Europe. Globally, only the US has more nuclear plants. Filmmakers interview French residents living adjacent to a Normandy plant about the risks. They give replies, such as “We’re used to it” and “It’s part of our culture.” Most are unaware the plant is contaminating local local seafood by discharging radioactive wastewater into the ocean.

In addition to visiting an operation nuclear power plant, the filmmakers visit a new nuclear waste disposal site under construction 500 meters underground. The French government plan to store liquid nuclear waste in metal drums there for more that 100,000 years.*

They also visit the Saclay Nuclear Research Center, staffed by 6,000 international researchers. The French are eager to resume exports of their state-of-the art nuclear power plants once the furor over the Fukushima meltdown. The center also engages in research in renewable energy, which according to DW,  “isn’t a priority in France.”**

The segment I found the most interesting concerns the French antinuclear movements.  Local activists reveal that all nuclear power stations are owned and operated by the French government, which heavily subsidizes the price consumers pay for power (ie they sell it at a lower price than the cost of production).

The French activists meet regularly with German antinuclear activists. The latter found it was much easier to shut down Germany’s nuclear power network, as local and regional government have far more authority than in France.

The activists also complain about the massive amount of pro-nuclear propaganda the French government produces. In one example a newscast following the Chernobyl meltdown reveals fallout plumes miraculously changing course at the French border.

Despite ongoing surveillance, stalking and harassment by the police, the French antinuclear movement has forced the government to adopt stringent safety requirements that significantly delayed new plants from opening.

Moreover pressure from German activists and authorities is blamed for the impending closure of France’s oldest nuclear plant Fessenheim, located on the French-German border.


*I find this notion quite unrealistic, given that metal fatigue tends to cause metal containers to begin leaking in 30-100 years.

**Under its commitment to the EU renewable energy directive of 2009, France has a target of producing 23% of its total energy needs from renewable energy by 2020. This figure breaks down to renewable energy providing 33% of energy used in the heating and cooling sector, 27% of the electricity sector and 10.5% in the transport sector. In addition, France actively exports innovative renewable technologies worldwide:   French Renewable Energy

 

 

A Practical Guide to Saving the Planet

The Race is On: Secrets and Solutions of Climate Change

Global Documentary Films (2019)

Film Review

Unlike most climate change films, which emphasize doom and gloom, The Race is On assumes a surprisingly optimistic tone. Its point of departure is that we already have all the technology we need to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2040*: all that is needed is to widely implement this technology in a smart and efficient way.

This is also one of the first films to address the economics of climate change. British economist Kate Raworth advises climate activists to challenge the dogma of perpetual economic growth. Heavily promoted by mainstream economists and policy makers, the growth dogma is over 150 years old. Raworth maintains it’s totally obsolete. Decades of evidence establish that economic growth benefits vested interests at the expense of working people.

Raworh also urges climate activists to lobby government for policy changes that make it easier for working people to adopt the necessary lifestyle changes to achieve net zero emissions. They need to campaign for carbon taxes (on carbon polluters, not working people) and feed-in tariffs** and subsidies to help capitalize renewable energy infrastructure and public transportation projects.

Carbon Zero UK points to the rapid shift to renewable energy that’s already occurring in the UK – due to its low cost compared to fossil fuel energy. They also point out that only 20% of UK’s energy usage consists of electricity. This will need to shift to 80% to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2040.

Likewise the organization advocates for what they call “polycentric governance” to help drive the transformation that needs to occur. Polycentric governance is a partnership between top down and bottom up leadership. They point to many innovative programs (eg Transition Towns) helping communities reduce their fossil fuel energy usage all over the US and UK. We now need to lobby government at all levels for to recognize and expand these initiatives.


*IPCC scientists advise that we need to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2040 to limit global warming to 2° C – by 2030 to limit it to 1.5° C. The latter target is preferable because millions of vulnerable Third World residents will die with 2° of warming.

**A feed-in tariff is a payment above the market rate to a small scale producer of renewable energy by a large scale fossil fuel energy provider.

 

Losing Louisiana: Life in the Disappearing Mississippi Delta

Losing Louisiana: Life in the Disappearing Mississippi Delta

Al Jazeera (2019)

Film Review

This documentary concerns the steady disappearance of the Mississippi delta region in Louisiana. The erosion stems partly from climate change and rising sea levels, partly from channels petroleum corporations have dug through the wetlands and partly from decades of diverting new Mississippi sediment out to sea.

The gradual disappearance of the delta has means many coastal residents have lost their livelihood. Due to salt water contamination of their ground water, farmers are no longer able to grow sugarcane and rice or graze stock. Meanwhile shrimping industry has collapsed. Because shrimp require require freshwater marshes to reproduce, their populations have been have been decimated.

In this remake of their 2009 documentary, Al Jazeera filmmakers revisit an area of the Mississippi delta they first filmed ten years ago. They learn the rate of delta shrinkage has declined from 70 to 15 square miles per year. Subsidence is worst in poor communicates which have no real protection against hurricanes. This contrasts with well-to-do communities, which have built massive hurricane levees.

For some reason the 2019 segment makes no mention of the 2010 Deep Water Horizons disaster and the toxic effect on wildlife of the massive oil spill and the poisonous oil dispersant Corexit BP dumped into the Gulf of Mexico.

Here are 2013 and 2016 accounts summarizing the long term effects on Gulf marine life that will take decades to repair:

Corexit BP Oil Dispersant

New Oceana Report Highlights Long Term Impacts Deep Water Horizon Oil