Will the Green Revolution Save Us?

Breakpoint: A Counter History of Progress

Directed by Jean Robert Vialett (2019)

Film Review

This is a bleak but fascinating documentary about the downside of so-called “progress” associated with the two century-long fossil fuel age. Starting with the replacement of wood with coal in the early 18th century, the film examines each new technological innovation the ruling elite celebrates as “progress.” By the end of the film, it is alarmingly clear that the great majority of the global population has paid an enormous price for this progress, in terms of chronic exposure to toxic chemicals and radionucleotides, global warming, near total deforestation, collapse of our fish stocks, colonization, massive poverty, and destruction of formerly vibrant public spaces by the automobile.

In the filmmaker’s view, what is commonly called “progress” are actually wealth making schemes that have made a few hundred people fabulously wealthy by destroying the health and wellbeing of the rest of us.

There are a number of surprises in the film. Previously I had no idea that social critics were warning against deforestation at the beginning of the 19th century, nor that this was a principal driver of the shift to coal. Nor was that the first solar PV technology was developed during World War II to reduce domestic demand for oil (needed for the war effort). The first solar home, built in 1948, was 75% self-sufficient. The early 1950s saw the production of 100,000 solar water heaters in the US. Eighty-percent of Florida homes were solar equipped at the peak of the first solar boom.

The early solar industry would be strangled in its infancy by a conspiracy between railroads, coal companies, and property developers to ensure all new power plants were coal-fired and all post-war boom homes connected to the grid.

The 1973 oil shock and Club of Rome study Limits to Growth inspired Carter to push energy conservation policies, as well as installing solar panels on the White House a second time in 1979. The solar industry would be killed a second time by the wave of neoliberal globalization launched by Reagan and Thatcher.

I was also horrified to learn about Project Plowshare, which promoted the use of nuclear bombs for “peaceful purposes” during the fifties and sixties. For 20 years, the US government detonated 27 atomic bombs to build a ship canal in Alaska. This cost taxpayers $770 million ($4 billion in today’s dollars).

The Soviets deployed 150 atomic bombs for similar civilian purposes.

The filmmaker is extremely pessimistic about the Green Revolution “saving” us given the massive demand for rare earth minerals (such as lithium, cobalt, and nickel) required to make solar panels and storage batteries.

Anyone with public library card can view film free at Kanopy – just type Kanopy and the name of your library into the search engine.

 

 

A Classic Case of Greenwashing

Silence of the Pandas

Wilfred Huisman (2011)

Film Review

Greenwashing (def) – a form of spin in which green PR or green marketing is deceptively used to promote the perception that an organization’s products, aims or policies are environmentally friendly.

Silence of the Pandas is about the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) – the world’s largest conservation organization – and their open collaboration with Monsanto, palm oil manufacturers and other multinational corporations that are systematically destroying wildlife habit.

WWF solicits millions in donations every year based on the image it projects of protecting endangered animals, such as the panda and the tiger. In reality, the WWF, under the leadership of the British royal family and other members of the British aristocracy, forms lucrative “partnerships” with corporations seeking to greenwash their image.

Through these toxic partnerships, WWF is facilitating, rather than preventing, the destruction of rainforests and wildlife habitat. It also actively promotes the removal of indigenous populations (in India, Indonesia, South America and Papua New Guinea) from their rainforest habitat. As an example, WWF has collaborated with the Indian government to displace one million Adabzi from their tribal homelands to expand a WWF ecotourism venture. The habitat destruction stemming from this venture is rapidly depleting tiger populations rather than increasing them.

In Indonesia, WWF partners with the palm oil giant Wiemar to raze native rainforests and replace them with extensive palm oil plantations. In many cases the Indonesian government has illegally leased land to Wiemar. The land belongs to indigenous farmers whose ancestors planted the tropical forest gardens destroyed to make way for palm oil.

In Argentina WWF, in partnership with Monsanto, has brought the country to the verge of ecological collapse by destroying natural forest and pampas and replacing them with a GM soy desert the size of Germany.

As one of their vice presidents openly demonstrates in the film, WWF is a strong proponent of genetic engineering. In return for a sizable donation, in 2010 the group awarded Monsanto a seal of product sustainability for their GM soy seed.

I first became concerned about the activities off the WWF in the mid-nineties when I learned that they had allowed their parks to be used as training bases for the Hutu militants responsible for the Rwandan genocide. The film makes brief mention of the secret mercenary army WWF assembled from British special forces and South African (apartheid) security personnel. The alleged purpose of these mercenaries was to assassinate poachers who were endangering elephant and rhinoceros populations.

The pro-African website Nairaland tells a very different story.

Under the guise of protecting endangered species, such as the elephant, the rhinoceros and the tiger, WWF “park rangers” carry out assassinations and other attacks against so-called “poachers” who in many instances turn out to be local patriotic political leaders or farmers who refuse to abandon their land and their food production to the WWF’s land confiscation programs.

Mushrooms, Bees and Cancer

Paul Stamets – How Mushrooms Can Save Bees & Our Food Supply

Bioneers (2014)

Paul Stamets is a mycologist who studies the complex role played by the vast network of fungal mycelium that underlies all natural forests and grassland. As many organic gardeners are learning, deforestation and plowing, herbicides and pesticides associated with industrial agriculture are killing this mycelium. It’s in this way that important antibacterial (most antibiotics are derived from fungi) and antiviral properties are lost that are vital to both the plant and animal kingdom

Stamets first became interested in the role of fungi in bee health when he saw honeybees sucking the mycelium out of wood chips on his farm. Through subsequent research, he would learn that specific fungi contain compounds that suppress the virus carried by veroa mites – implicated in colony collapse syndrome. The same antiviral fungi are also play a role in protecting animals against zoonotic* viruses, such as bird flu and H1N1.

Stamets believes that wide scale deforestation has destroyed the fungi that bees have traditionally relied on and this is partly responsible for the 40% reduction in bee populations. He also blames deforestation for growing pandemics of zoonotic illnesses like bird flu, H1N1, MERS and possibly ebola.

In the second video, Stamets discusses his research into turkey tail mushrooms as an adjunct treatment in terminal breast cancer.

More about the successful $2.25 million National Institute of Health Study at the link below. Owing to their positive effect on the microbiome (intestinal bacteria), turkey tail mushrooms are also helpful in

  • Infections and inflammations of the upper respiratory tract
  • Infections of the urinary tract
  • Infections and irritations of the digestive tract
  • Pulmonary diseases
  • Chronic congestion
  • General lack of energy and malaise

*A zoonotic disease is one that can be passed between animals and people

Plows, Plagues and Petroleum

plows plagues and petroleum

Plows, Plagues and Petroleum: How Humans Took Control of Climate

By W F Ruddiman

Princeton University Press (2010)

Book Review

In Plows, Plagues and Petroleum, paleoclimatologist W F Ruddiman makes the argument that the human species began interfering with climate – by increasing CO2 emissions – long before they began burning fossil fuels during the industrial revolution. After studying millions of years of ice core records, Ruddiman concludes that agricultural activities that began roughly 10,000 years ago increased atmospheric CO2 sufficiently to reduce planetary cooling and reduce a long overdue ice age.

Ruddiman’s book carefully traces the domestication of local plants and animals that occurred simultaneously in Mesopotamia, China, Africa and the Americas between 8,500 and 4,000 BC. Plant and animal domestication was accompanied by large scale clearing of forest land for fields and pasture. This massive loss of trees was accompanied by a big increase in atmospheric CO2.

Ruddiman has always been curious about periodic drops in CO2 concentrations that began around 540 AD. Theorizing that these dips correlated with temporary declines in global population, he examined historical records for evidence of wars, famines and pandemics that might have wiped out large numbers of people. What he discovered was a close link between infectious epidemics and declines in CO2 concentrations, as forests reclaimed large swaths of agricultural land.

The first epidemic in the recorded history was an outbreak of bubonic plague in the Roman Empire in 540 AD. By 590 AD, it had wiped out 40% of Mediterranean Europe. European plague outbreaks continued to occur every ten to fifteen years until 749, when a long plague-free period was accompanied by a rebound in population growth, deforestation and atmospheric CO2. By 1089, virtually all of Europe was deforested.

An even more severe plague pandemic occurred in the mid-1300s, wiping out a third of Europe (25 million people). In some cities, mortality rates were as high as 70%. The resulting labor shortage gave serfs who survived immense bargaining power. As they moved from estate to estate seeking good working conditions, they began to be treated as tenant farmers rather than slaves.

There were new plague outbreaks, accompanied by reduced atmospheric CO2, in the mid-1500s and mid-1600s.

The large pre-industrial drop in CO2 emissions occurred with what Ruddiman refers to as the North American pandemic (1500-1750. This was caused by the arrival of Europeans – who Ruddiman describes as flea infested, lice ridden peoples who shunned bathing – with a host of illnesses (smallpox, influenza, hepatitis, diphtheria, measles, mumps, whopping cough, scarlet fever, cholera and plague) to which native populations had no immunity. This was in addition to untold numbers of natives slaughtered by Europeans.

Prior to the arrival of Europeans, the population of North America was estimated between 50-60 million. Ninety percent (50 million) would die over the next 250 years. This amounted to 10% of the global population. Nearly all their agricultural settlements were reclaimed by forest, resulting in the third and largest pre-industrial drop in atmospheric CO2.

Download a free PDF of this book at Plows, Plagues and Petroleum

Dirt: the Movie

Dirt: The Movie

Bill Benenson and Gene Rosow (2009)

Film Review

This documentary focuses on the rapid destruction of the planet’s topsoil, with its dire implications for food production and human survival. Through a combination of industrial farming, deforestation, urbanization and extractive mining, humankind has destroyed one-third of the world’s topsoil in a hundred years.

The film begins with a basic introduction to on the abundant microbial life that characterizes healthy topsoil. Plowing, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and heavy pesticide and herbicide use render soil infertile by destroying these microorganisms. Deforestation hastens the process by destroying deep root systems that protect against nutrient runoff. The productive farmland that isn’t wrecked by industrial farming and deforestation is paved over as cities expand or destroyed by fracking, mountaintop removal and strip mining. This voracious greed for new fossil fuels benefits a few hundred people and carries immense costs for the rest of us.

The film depicts quite eloquently the western slash and burn mentality that approaches food production like running a factory. Extracting a quick profit is all that matters. There is no planning whatsoever for food security, much less the needs of future generations. You clear cut a forest, plant acres of a single crop (an open invitation to pests) and pour on industrial fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. In three to four years you have depleted the soil, and you cut down another forest.

Dirt: the Movie also poignantly portrays the link between environmental destruction and human degradation. It’s always the poorest and most disempowered who have their land destroyed by multinational corporations. Rapid desertification in Africa and India is forcing thousands of subsistence farmers to migrate to city slums – and Haitian mothers to make dirt cookies to ward of their children’s hunger pains.

Meanwhile increasing desertification (from a combination of deforestation and industrial farming) in Africa and India and the thousands of farmers forced to migrate to city slums when their land becomes useless. The film also emphasizes the link between environmental destruction and human degradation. It’s always the poorest and most disempowered who have their land destroyed by multinational corporations. The most heart breaking scene depicts Haitian mothers making dirt cookies to ward off their children’s hunger pains.

Water mismanagement also plays a major role in desertification. Because they have paved over their rivers, Los Angeles spends billions of dollars from as far away as Wyoming – and millions more managing rainwater runoff. Liberating their rivers would solve both problems at a fraction of the cost.

Significantly the main voices featured in the film are those of women of color: the late Kenyan environmentalist Wangari Mathai, who won a Nobel Prize for founding the Green Belt tree-planting movement, Indian environmentalist and organic farming advocate Vandana Shiva and Greening the South Bronx founder Majora Carter (see Greening the South Bronx). In addition to championing urban agriculture and green roof projects in the South Bronx, Carter has helped establish a prison greenhouse and organic farm at Rikers Island prison and the Green Team. The latter is a project that allows ex-cons to use the skills they have learned in tree planting, urban agriculture plots and New York’s first green roof* business.

*A green roof is a living roof partly or completely covered with vegetation, to optimize energy conservation and minimize water runoff.

Blue Gold: World Water Wars

blue gold

Blue-Gold: World Water Wars (Sam Bozzo 2008)

Film Review

inspired by Canadian activists Maud Barlow and Tony Clarke’s book Blue Gold, this film opened my eyes to the reality that water scarcity is a far more serious and imminent problem than either fossil fuel scarcity or climate change. The film outlines three main areas in which public policy around water is urgently needed: run-off management, aquifer destruction and water privatization.

Water Run-Off

I previously believed that chemical and nutrient pollution was the greatest threat to our fresh water supply. However according to Blue Gold, run-off is actually the biggest problem – the loss of fresh water when rainwater winds up in the ocean instead of being trapped as groundwater. Fresh water only comprises  3% of global water (the rest is sea water), and much of it is so badly polluted it’s no longer useable.

The four main ways urbanization and development accelerate run-off include the construction of 50,000 dams worldwide, the paving over of soil with cement and asphalt, deforestation (destroying tree roots that normally trap water), and the destruction of wetlands (the destruction of mangroves and other plants that naturally purify water.

Aquifer Depletion

Aquifer depletion is largely due to industrial agriculture and the unregulated use of water in manufacturing, fracking and bottled water plants. Once the water from the aquifer is gone, it takes thousands of years to replace it. The film depicts several communities where citizens, across the political spectrum, have banded together to block Coca Cola and Nestle from taking their water. Some cases have involved long expensive court battles, with several corporations threatening individual activists with SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public participation) suits.

Water Privatization, Desalination and Water Wars

The last half of the film focuses on water privatization, water desalination, and water wars. In many developing countries, water privatization is already a life and death issue. In several African countries,  the private corporations that own the public water supply set the price so high that people end up drinking polluted water and die. The decision by Bolivia to sell its fresh water to Bechtel sparked a mass rebellion and ultimately the collapse of the Bolivian government.

In the US, an alarming number of city water have been privatized and sold to corporations.

The worldwide move to construct water desalination plants to reclaim water from sea water is closely linked to the issue of privatization. In addition to being extremely expensive, water desalination greatly increases climate emissions owing to the massive amount of fossil fuel it requires.

Water Wars

Blue Gold gives several examples of historic water wars (in the US) and predicts where the next water wars are most likely to take place. They point to strategic US military bases around the Great Lakes and in Paraguay (across the border from a Brazilian aquifer that is one of the largest in the world). They also offer a possible explanation why the Bush family have acquired massive amounts of property in Paraguay.

The film ends on a positive note with recommendations for citizen activists:

  1. Learn where your water comes from – the name of the watershed and (if privatized) the name of the multinational corporation that controls it. Local communities need to actively fight attempts by local government to allow water extraction or the takeover of local water supplies by multinational corporations.
  2. Kick the bottled water habit. This is a trick advertisers play on you. It is no healthier for you than tap water (and may be less healthy owing to phthalates and bisphenol A from the plastic that may be linked with breast cancer and low sperm counts). The nasty taste of tap water is easily masked with a little lemon juice.
  3. Lobby your local and state leaders to
  • Remove hydroelectric dams and replace with newer, more eco-friendly microturbine technology.
  • Adopt an active run-off management plan in which lost groundwater is measured and minimized through eco-friendly development planning. One example is the Blue Alternative (in which groundwater is replaced by digging small catchment pools in open spaces).
  • Pass local and state resolutions and constitutional amendments recognizing access to fresh water as a basic human right. Uruguay has adopted the right to water in their national Constitution.

Enjoy: