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.



The Nuclear Waste Scandal

Nightmare Nuclear Waste

Film Review

In the face of growing international concern over the ongoing nuclear disaster at Fukushima,  an excellent 2009 French/German film (with English subtitles) about nuclear waste has been re-released and is making the rounds of cyberspace. This is truly a life and death issue, owing to the research evidence linking high environmental radiation levels (from the 1986 Chernobyl meltdown) to a big spike in European cancer levels. Important facts come out in this film that the nuclear industry and government are doing their best to conceal:

1. The whole issue of nuclear waste is characterized by secrecy, cover-up, lies and deception by the nuclear industry and pro-nuclear governments (including the extremely pro-nuclear Obama administration).

2. As the world waits with baited breath for the nuclear industry to come up with a permanent solution for deadly waste that will take 100,000 years to decontaminate, massive amounts have been dumped in the ocean, released to the air or stored in leaky containers that are contaminating groundwater and rivers. In La Hague France a nuclear energy company called Areva is releasing it into the air and into the English Channel through a drain pipe d water or open air storage pools. In La Hague France a nuclear energy company is releasing it into the English Channel through a drain pipe (as of 2009, when this film was made).

3. The US and Russian government are covering up the devastating health impacts of the world’s two most contaminated nuclear sites: the Hanford nuclear reservation in Eastern Washington and the Chelyabinsk region in the former Soviet Union. The latter experienced massive contamination when a nuclear waste dump at the Mayak nuclear facility exploded in 1957. The very first nuclear disaster in history was covered up by both the Soviets and, at the behest of America’s fledgling nuclear power industry, the CIA

4. There has never been full disclosure about the 100,000 tons of nuclear waste dumped into the ocean prior to 1993 (as the film was made in 2009, this number excludes the four tons daily dumped into the Pacific Ocean at Fukushima), when the practice was banned by international treaty. Nor has there been any effort to investigate where these radionucleotides ended up or whether they have contaminated the food chain.

4. The nuclear industry – and government – are willfully ignoring the “no threshold model” doctors use to evaluate cumulative radiation risk when they assure us that occasional releases from nuclear power plants are no more harmful than a “transatlantic jet flight” (due to higher radiation levels in the outer atmosphere) Under this model every exposure – no matter how small – increases your risk of developing cancer or having children with birth defects.

The Nuclear Nightmare at Hanford

As a former Washington resident, I took particular interest in the segment on Hanford, the desert site where the Manhattan Project secretly produced plutonium for the atom bomb dropped on Nagasaki. Hanford also produced the vast majority of plutonium for America’s cold war arsenal (1950-1980). Most of Hanford’s nuclear waste is stored in 170 temporary underground concrete tanks. These were meant to be temporary until a permanent storage solution could be found. Beginning in 2001 the tanks, which were only built to last twenty years, were found to be leaking radionuclotides into the groundwater adjacent to the Columbia River.

According to the US Department of Energy, which is responsible for the Hanford clean-up, there are no nuclear contaminants in the Columbia River. This is virtually impossible for independent scientists to verify, as anyone trespassing on the Hanford reservation is subject to arrest and prosecution. The filmmakers accompanied an activist who entered the reservation secretly to take soil and water samples. French scientists at CRIIRAD (Commission de Recherche et d’Information Indépendantes sur la Radioactivité) who tested them found high levels of tritium (exceeding the drinking water standard), Iodine 129, Technetium 99 and Europium 152. The film also talks about an independent study local activists did in 2002, in which the majority of Columbia River fish they sampled contained high levels of Strontium 90.

The People in Muslimovo Who Are Waiting to Die

The situation of Russian farmers living adjacent to the Techa River in Chelyabinsk is far more tragic. After more than fifty years the Techa, which locals rely on to water their crops and pastures, remains contaminated with high levels of Cesium 137, tritium, Strontium 90 and Plutonium 239 and 240 – as do vegetables and milk produced in nearby farms.

The residents are all fully aware of the bleak future they face, as they watch family, neighbors and even their children and grandchildren succumb to cancer. Each family has been offered 20,000 Euros (about $25,000) to abandon their land and homes and voluntarily relocate. This is a paltry sum that would support them a few months at most. The government also tells them not to eat locally grown food. However with incomes averaging 80 euros a month, eating food trucked in from other regions is an unaffordable luxury. As one local woman states, “We have no choice but to stay here until we die.”