The Crumbling of America

Crumbling America

Directed by Henry Schipper (2009)

Film Review

This is a compelling, though somewhat melodramatic, documentary about crumbling US infrastructure – especially its bridges, roads, levees, dams, water delivery systems, sewage systems, and power grid. The US presently spends less on infrastructure (2% of GDP) than the developing countries China (9%) and India (8%). The percentage of GDP Americans spend on infrastructure has declined from 12% in 1960.

Most bridges, superhighways and water and sewage pipes are designed to last 50 years, and many are approaching or have exceeded their expected lifespan. There are no programs to repair vital levees along the Mississippi River and in California. A 6.9 earthquake would totally destroy San Francisco’s earthwork levees, contaminating all southern California’s drinking water, as well as destroying acres of prime agricultural land.

Shoddy maintenance of urban water and sewage systems leads to hundreds of thousands of leaks per year, especially in eastern rust belt cities. While parts of the national electrical grid are subject to ever more frequent and lengthy power failures due to poor maintenance and obsolete switches, sensors, data systems and transformers and rotting utility poles.

Reaching the Wrong Conclusion

Despite the wealth of data they present, I strongly disagree with the filmmakers’ conclusion: that taxpayers need to front up with trillions of dollars to repair America’s crumbling infrastructure. I strongly believe this massive decay presents a unique opportunity to replace 100-year-old technologies with cheaper, more efficient, people-friendly 21st century technology.

For example, I totally disagree with their assertion that the electrical grid was “the greatest infrastructure achievement of the 20th century.”  Besides being one of the most inefficient infrastructure projects ever invented (according to the EPA the US power system loses approximately 67% of the power it creates), the grid was never intended to serve the public – it was intended to increase the sale of electricity and electrical products, as well as consolidating the control of production and distribution in the hands of Wall Street corporations (see Reclain the Commons: Take Back the Grid). The renewable energy revolution, which enables households and neighborhood to produce their own solar energy, also allows ordinary people to control its destruction.

Likewise our totally gridlocked super highways don’t need to be rebuilt – they need to be replaced with cheaper and more efficient and climate-friendly high speed and computer trains and buses.

While inefficient and unhealthy (adding chlorine to our water creates a variety of dangerous chlorinated organic compounds) water delivery and sewage systems need to be replaced with more modern technologies that allow us to recycle our water instead of pouring it down the drain.

Work Sucks: The Case for Quitting Your Job

The Great Everything and the Nothing

The Oumun Group (2016)

Film Review

The Great Everything and the Nothing is a semi-satirical documentary elucidating the philosophy of the Oomun Group. The latter is a loosely knit organization in the UK which advocates the formation of a new society devoid of the corrupting influence of government and money. The film is cleverly constructed by interspersing clips of group members doing random interviews on the street with those of Prince Charles, John Lennon, Ricky Gervais and other comic figures.

The video is divided into 5 parts:

Part 1 is the trailer.

Part 2 asks why human beings have created a system causing “shitloads” of unnecessary suffering. It proceeds to propose an alternative system based on self-governance.

Part 3 outlines the various crises (debt, climate, energy, food, etc) that presently confront humankind. The first half of Part 3 is excerpted from the film Money as Debt and explains how private banks create money out of thin air (ends at 13:00).

Part 4 focuses on the food and energy crises, exploring various technological innovations that could potentially resolve these crises in a society unfettered by government or money.  Specific innovations include aeroponic food production, distributed energy and the use of hemp and cannabis to replace timber, plastics, paper, leather and the poisons used in cancer chemotherapy.

Part 5 advances the premise that politicians who make war and torture people are mentally ill and should be required to undergo psychiatric treatment (in a secure facility where they can’t hurt anyone). The filmmakers believe all human beings are capable of “grotesque” actions of this nature. They also maintain that people are soft wired for engagement, belonging and attachment, needs which are easily manipulated to create phony empathy based on religion and nationalism. They assert this systematic manipulation has created a “veil” between us and reality that allows us to accept barbarism such as war, homelessness and malnutrition.

This final section also explains how the Ouman Group proposes for our current society to transition to one based on self government. Above all, they advocate for people to quit jobs that suck to actively explore other ways of meeting their basic needs (eg squatting and producing their own food and water).

The Renewable Energy Revolution

The Future of Energy: Lateral Power to the People

By Maximilian Dearman and Missy Lahren (2015)

Film Review

This film takes its title from Jeremy Rifkin’s 2011 book The Third Industrial Revolution: How Lateral Power is Transforming Energy, the Economy and the World. The students who crowdfunded this documentary are clearly influenced by Rifkin’s relative blindness to the realities of class society. That being said, the film presents much valuable information about key players in the renewable energy revolution.

The video sets out to prove Rifkin’s thesis that “revolution” inevitably occurs when there are major simultaneous breakthroughs in energy production and communication. According to Rifkin, the first industrial revolution occurred in 1820, with the simultaneous development of coal-based steam power and letter-press printing; the second in 1900 with the simultaneous development of the combustion engine and electronic communication (telephone, radio and TV). He asserts the third industrial revolution has already started, owing to the simultaneous rise of renewable energy and the Internet. He’s convinced that the combined efforts of the business community and the nonprofit sector have already put the US on track to achieve 100% renewable energy by 2050 – regardless of government inactivity on climate change.

The filmmakers are clear converts to Rifkin’s views on market-based solar energy conversion. They argue the above trajectory is inevitable now that solar energy has become cheaper than fossil fuels. They erroneously attribute the price drop for solar photo voltaic cells (PVCs) to an “economy of scale” effect (ie high demand for an item allows you to mass produce it and the price drops). They also argue the cost of renewable energy will continue to fall, while fossil fuel costs will increase as finite resources diminish.

A more realistic analysis would attribute the current low cost of PVCs to low production costs – in Chinese sweatshops using super cheap electricity from coal-fired power plants. These costs will increase exponentially as Chinese wages continue to improve and as China’s government reduces their reliance on dirty coal.

On the other hand, the film is chock full of useful information about US cities that have already switched to 100% renewable energy, as well as numerous groups and programs that have helped make this possible:

Grid Alternatives – a national nonprofit organization that installs free solar panels in low income communities, while simultaneously low income volunteers to become solar technicians.
Community Choice Aggregation – a system adopted into law in the states of Massachusetts, New York, Ohio, California, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Illinois which allows cities and counties to aggregate the buying power of individual customers within a defined jurisdiction in order to secure alternative energy supply contracts on a community-wide basis. Energy will always be cheaper, more efficient and more planet-friendly when it stays in the communities where it’s produced and is controlled by those communities.
• Green for All – a national organization founded to ensure that low income communities and communities of color have access to renewable energy technology and jobs.
B-Corporations – a framework and certification for corporations wishing to benefit their communities, as well as their shareholders.
Mosaic – a conduit for small renewable energy entrepreneurs to obtain financing when banks refuse to loan them money.
• Power Shift, Cool the Earth, Alliance for Climate Education – national groups working to get rood information about renewable energy alternatives into schools.
• Longevity – a 20 year solar lease program for families who can’t afford to pay $7,000 upfront for their solar energy panels.

 


A Film About Economic Relocalization

economics of happiness

The Economics of Happiness

Helena Norberg-Hodge (2012)

Film Review

The term “economic relocalization” describes a global movement of loosely knit grassroots networks working to strengthen local and regional economies and systems of food and energy production. Most of the last eight years of my life have been focused on grassroots relocalization activities.

What I like best about Economics of Happiness is learning I am part of a global movement. I hate the title, which suggests the film concerns some kind of airy-fairy New Age spirituality. It doesn’t.

The 2011 film, narrated by Helena Norberg Hodge, is based on her 1991 book Ancient Futures: Learning from Ladakh and her 1993 film by the same name. The book and both films draw their inspiration from the nearly forty years Norberg-Hodge spent living and working in Ladakh, a small Himalayan region in the India-controlled (and disputed) state of Jammu and Kashmir. Economics of Happiness includes local footage from the 1993 film, as well as substantial documentary footage relating to the world’s current economic crisis and impending ecological crisis (stemming from catastrophic climate change and mass extinctions).

The Psychological Devastation of Globalization

The film opens with the same narrative Norberg-Hodge recounts in her earlier Ancient Futures film. We are shown the “before” image of Ladakh, a rich thriving culture in which residents live in large spacious homes, enjoy generous leisure time and have no concept of unemployment. Then we have the “after” image where, thanks to globalization, cheap (government subsidized) food, fuel and consumer goods have flooded the region and destroyed residents’ traditional livelihoods. Previously pristine communities face rising levels of air and water pollution, while Ladakhi teenagers face continual bombardment with pro-consumption messages.

It’s heartbreaking to see the psychological effect of all this. Most young Ladakhi have come to regard themselves as backwards and poor, while the communities they live in face rising racial tensions, juvenile delinquency and epidemic levels of major depression.

The Destructive Nature of Urbanization

The film goes on to sketch the mechanics of globalization, stressing the deregulation that forces small self-contained regions like Ladakh to open their markets to foreign goods, which quickly supplant local products. Norberg-Hodge paints an even uglier picture of urbanization, an inevitable result of forcing millions of small formers off their land. She stresses that city living is vastly more resource intensive than rural lifestyles. All city residents rely on food, energy and water transported from some distant source. They burn up additional fossil fuels transferring their waste as far away as possible. She stresses that most city residents go along with the massive ecological and social devastation they produce because it occurs on the other side of the world. Thus they don’t see it.

Rebuilding Local Communities and Economies

The solutions Norberg-Hodge offers for all these problems are similar to those proposed by an increasing number of dissident (non Wall Street) economists. First and foremost we must acknowledge that humankind has exceeded the earth’s carrying capacity – that the corporate drive for continual economic growth must end. Secondly people of conscience need to opt out of the corporate economy to facilitate the creation of more efficient and environmentally accountable regional and local economies.

Norberg-Hodge also sees the process of rebuilding local communities as a remedy for what she describes as the “crisis of the human spirit.” She blames this pervasive spiritual crisis on the demise of community engagement that has accompanied globalization and urbanization.  Although the process is most striking in remote regions like Ladakh, where it occurred suddenly, nowhere in the developed or developing world has escaped it.

The film ends on an extremely optimistic note, with numerous examples of international and community organizations supporting people in reclaiming their lives from multinational corporations.

Economics of Happiness can be rented (and watched online) from the filmmakers for $5