Jun 27 2009

“Home” is Beautiful, Idealized

Home is a new film about the global environment, and it’s undeniably gorgeous. It’s a stupendously global piece in the tradition of Baraka and Koyaanisqatsi, but unlike these silent poems, Home features melodramatic narration throughout (by Glenn Close in English, Salma Hayak in Spanish.) It’s something between art, environmentalism, and propaganda, and everyone should see it.

I’m going to repeat that, lest this point get lost in my comments below: go watch this film. It’s as good a summary of the state of civilization as I have ever seen. In it are many of the lessons that took me years of travel to discover, and many more things I did not know. This film is necessary, but I’m also going to critique the way in which it delivers its message.

Director Yann Arthus-Bertrand is much better known as an aerial photographer than a film-maker, famous for the best-selling book Earth From Above. Home is essentially the continuation of that project, a 90 minute montage of slow aerial photography over hundreds of locations in dozens of countries. What makes the film exceptional is its choice of subjects. Active volcanoes and rippling sand dunes are obvious images, but Home also includes the macro-geography of human activity: industrial agriculture, oil refineries, container ships at sea, high-density cattle ranches, and not only the shining downtowns but the endless repetitive suburbs of a dozen mega-cities. Although every second is stunning, not every shot is pretty.

The subject is sustainability. Home is at its best when it documents the global cause and effect of environmental destruction. We see the still smoking fields of ex-Amazonian rainforest, slashed to produce soybeans for (and we cut to) European high-density cattle farms. We watch the reciprocating oil pumps of Los Angeles give way to the ecological disaster that is Canadian oil sands extraction. And we fly over the painfully disappearing Himalayan glaciers and then the homes of the billion people who will be without fresh water by 2035.

Home is particularly good at drawing the connection between oil and just about everything else. “A litre of oil generates as much energy as 100 pairs of hands in 24 hours. …  New York, the world’s first megalopolis, is a symbol of the exploitation of the energy the earth supplies to human genius, the unbridled power of oil.” And you should see what Home says about Dubai.

In one incredible shot from Nigeria, we see the hovels and scratchy fields of the subsistence farmers who toil literally in the shadows of an oil refinery. “The wealth is there,” Glenn Close tells us, “but the people don’t have access to it. Today, half the world’s wealth is in the hands of the richest 2% of the population.”  After a century of industrialization fueled by cheap oil, fully half of the world’s people are still subsistence farmers.

Except that low-tech, traditional ways of life are also idolized in Home as implicitly good. Here is where the film is confused and ideological. It is most certainly a badly needed critique of civilization, but that criticism is framed within a yearning for something that never existed: a “pure” state of humanity in balance with nature. There is a beautiful fly-over of a mud village on the banks of the Niger river, Mali. ”Across the planet,” says the narrator, “one person in four lives as humankind did 6000 years ago, their only energy that which nature provides, season after season.”  We follow to wooden pinasse boats and the grass huts of herders, and African women hulling rice with sticks. The music swells, cue sunset.

I’ve been to these African villages — curiously, to some of the exact towns pictured — and lived for a little while in something like the ancient way of life. Like the Amazonian tribes, these traditional villages are revered among a certain segment of Western idealists for their simplicity and sustainability. This is rubbish. Perhaps their ecological footprint was lower, but that’s not because pre-industrial people had a finer philosophy. Today the world’s villages are uniformly ringed with empty water bottles, coke cans, plastic bags — the much-revered inhabitants of primitive places turn out not to have any better sense of the value of nature than we do. Besides, you wouldn’t want to live there. The world’s traditional societies were mostly a mess, socially. They tended to be patriarchal and intolerant, illiterate and constantly skirmishing with their neighbors. Life expectancy was short, disease was (and still is) widespread without access to clean water and antibiotics, and depending on caste, race, and gender you might well expect to be a slave. Nor are the 1.5 billion people ostensibly still living pre-industrial lives particularly untouched by the modern world: there is television and radio and phone service even where there is no electricity (via generators and appliances that run off of car batteries). Emulation of village life is not the way forward for humanity.

This is why Home’s critique of cities is surprising. ”Faster and faster. In the last 60 years over 2 billion people have moved to the cities. … In the United States only 3 million farmers are left.” Cities are pictured as the modern, resource-guzzling, desperate alternative to the green fields of vanishing Nature. Long shot of Lagos, Nigeria, with taxis and rickshaws and humans like ants crowding the streets for block after block after block, endless.

Well, okay, except for this: cities use far fewer resources per capita. If everyone in the world is to be supplied with clean water, food, electricity, transit (even public transit), communications, sewage treatment services, medical care, etc. etc. then centralization is far more efficient, and therefore easier on the environment and closer to sustainable. This is completely aside from the fact that cities have historically always been centers of learning and the birthplace of social and political freedoms.

And then there’s the pseudo-spiritual language. Home tries very hard to reach something deep within us, to inspire us with big themes and the beauty of the natural world that we are destroying. The photography succeeds, but the narration descends into cliché: “All living matter is linked — water, air, soil, trees. The world’s living magic is right in front of our eyes. Our cells talk the same language. We are of the same family.” This is to a soundtrack of nondescript indigenous culture song, complete with throat-singing. All of which makes me say: Whatever, hippie. Forty years after the birth of modern counter-culture, is this really the best language we have to talk about why the Earth’s ecosystems are worth nurturing? Whoever are we going to hold up as an icon of sustainability when the last remaining tribesman loads 50 Cent onto his knock-off Chinese iPod? (And if you think I’m being facetious, it’s probably because you haven’t discussed MP3 players with well-informed rural Africans.)

Home is weaker still when it veers into global social justice. If the film shows great depth and understanding in global ecological issues, the awesome disparity between the world’s rich and poor is treated with a strange shallowness. At one point we are asked, ”how can there be justice and equity between people whose only tools are their hands, and those who harvest their crops with machines?” Is the implication here that humanity should abandon industrial agriculture? That we should donate combine harvesters to poor countries? The question gets into a whole mess of tricky economic, political, and developmental issues; it is the wrong question. We’re even fed the old platitudes of Marxist economics: “The biggest headache now was what to do with the surpluses engendered by modern agriculture.” Not exactly. It became profitable to produce these “surpluses” to feed cattle when meat became a status symbol for one industrializing country after another — a fact which Home also shows us, quite eloquently.

Having said all of this, I cannot disagree with the overall message of the film. What we are doing is unsustainable. It’s just that Home discusses the errors of our industrialization in terms of  a clash between an ugly urban present and a pristine agricultural past. Where it presents facts it succeeds brilliantly; but where it makes an ideological pitch it uses shallow and washed-up language. It adopts wholesale a certain recidivist strand of Western leftist ideology, an ideology which values rural over cities, hands over machines, traditional over progressive, and “natural” over all else.

And that’s the disappointment of Home. After all the incredible effort and dedication of the people involved, it still sounds like a Greenpeace press release and screens like an Oxfam infomercial (“Save the children! Save the planet!”). It could have been so much more; it could have tried for a new language of sustainability that avoided the tired old stereotypes of evil big-business versus mystic naturalist. The value system of Home leaves no place for the concerned (sub)urbanite who really likes their electric lights and their car and burning charcoal to grill burgers or tandoori in the back yard — in other words, most of us in our daily lives.

But Home also speaks the truth: ”We know that the end of cheap oil is imminent, but we refuse to believe it … We haven’t understood that we’re depleting what nature provides.” Yes. Our global web of resource consumption really does interlink air, water, oil, agriculture, industry, biology, and people, and Home is a clear and surprising exposition of this web. It is a web we are all intricately involved in, yet it is so large and pervasive that we usually cannot see it. Minus ideology, this is the big picture that Home shows us, and this is why it is an important film.

Press play, go see it.

Home will be available free online until July 14th.

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Oct 14 2008

World Peace, Really

The beauty pageant answer; the cliche along with rocket science and brain surgery. World Peace. Give Peace a chance. Marches and diplomats; the glib and holy grail. The fine ambitious scent of ambassador’s parties and the scandals of diplomacy. Presidents smile whitely as Arafat and Rabin shake hands.

It’s not like that on the ground. Jody sleeps under a mosquito net and has never been on television, as far as I know. It’s a maddeningly hot, humid night in the ever-sweltering lowlands of Gambella. Tomorrow morning Jody will get up and walk along mud streets to the little three-room PACT office. Gambella has a history of tribal conflict, and…

How to describe a place I don’t understand myself? She drew a little chart for me once, all of the ethnic groups and sub-groups here, all of the shifting and diffuse allegiances. Sometimes you can tell a Nuer from an Anuak by the facial scars — three thin lines across the brow for Nuers, traditionally — but often not. But it’s a small town, right? Everyone knows everyone else, or at least their families. Everyone’s on some side of some line. Or lines. To be neutral is to be without identity.

Jody’s job is “peace building.” She works for an international NGO called PACT. Check the old news on Gambella, what you can find of it — it would have been utterly buried before Google, I’m sure. In January 2004 there was a massacre, said to be Anuaks killing Nuers. The Anuaks in question were maybe retaliating against previous killings by government peacemaking troops. That in turn was retaliation against the killing of eight highlander (government) personnel in a land rover a few months prior. Maybe. I don’t know exactly what happened. Nobody knows exactly what happened. There aren’t any newspapers in Gambella, and not many people could read them if there were. So it’s all heresay, and it all depends who you ask. Two hundred people were killed. Maybe raped.

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Aug 08 2008

Medicine is the Killer App For Technology

I’ve met quite a few people who feel that civilization was a mistake. Technology in particular, they say, is bad in some way. If they’re an anarcho-primitivist theorist, they’ll tell you it’s alienating: it creates hierarchies, produces psychological illusions of scarcity, and turns us into little more than specialized insects. If they’re less geeky and more hippie, they’ll just expound on how happy they were living in that rural Indian village, how spiritual that life was, how much more natural a world without technology would be.

In the bright Nepali sunshine, sipping chai in a tourist cafe overlooking the lake, I found I could not agree, no matter how cute the dreadlocked girl sitting across from me. I see a lot of idealism and projection in her arguments. I also see an iPod in her bag. But neither could I come up with a concrete reason to insist that technology is fundamentally good, that the human race should invest as heavily in technology as it has. I admit that I really enjoy both the intellectual playground of technology and the fruits it brings, but that’s no way to form a moral imperative.

Until Ethiopia. I was working on a trachoma epidemiology study. This is an ancient, simple disease, and so fragile that the merest hint of civilization will destroy it — we’re not quite sure why yet. It could be antibiotics used for other things wipes it out, it could be that just washing your hands daily in clean water prevents its spread. But if left untreated long enough, this feeble disease will make you blind.

I had the cliché moment. I hiked out across the roadless wilderness to that idealized little village, that tiny traditional portion of the way we used to live. The simple folk gathered round us, gazing strangely at our white skin and synthetic fabrics. In turn we stared at their traditional cotton garments and coarse shiny jewelry, artifacts of a society that makes everything with its own hands. We stood a moment in that field, contemplating one another across vast distances of education and context. Then I looked into the scarred corneas of a blind young man and felt suddenly: this sucks. This man cannot see, for no reason at all. Extremely simple medicine could have prevented that.

It’s one of those moments when you realize that you’re not okay with the world as it is.

Medicine is good because health is good. I see no other way to draw this conclusion. And medicine is technological. Antibiotics are in no sense natural, x-rays and heart transplants less so. Medicine is the moral justification for continued technological development and dissemenation. It’s the killer app for technology, because it’s not just medical technology that must be known: modern medicine requires an entire technological infrastructure to design and manufacture its many, many inputs. Computers. Polymers. Superconducting magnets. Refrigerators to make the ice to keep cold our collected samples, and enzymes to do the PCR to detect the trachoma DNA, mathematics to do the statistical analysis to determine if our mass antibiotic distribution is actually denting the epidemic. It takes a world to raise a hospital.

That’s the moral reason for continued technological development. That blind man. Go tell his mother that we’d all be happier as hunter-gatherers.

Of course, that’s not why we actually will continue to develop our technology.

In the late afternoon sunlight I lounged against a tree, waiting for the last few villagers to show up so we could test them. They had fed us some (traditional, natural, idealized) beer, and I was sleepy and idle. I extracted my MP3 key from my kit and put the headphones in, leaned back to something relaxed. A kid came up to me, looking expectantly. He must have been about twelve.

“MP3 player?” he said.

“Yeah,” I replied.

“How many gigabytes?” he asked. Then: “I want one.”

I find it hard to disagree with him.

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Jun 19 2008

Acquired Tastes

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My African friends said the meal was good. Just good. Frankly, it was gourmet, and I challenge anyone else to do better in a place with no water, no electricity, no paved roads. I’d made lamb skewers with onions and tomatoes and mango. Good? It was utterly delicious. I’d been eating rice for a month.

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