Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Darwin's Nightmare (2004) and a Mixed Rhetorical Result

Highlighting its environmental bent from its opening forward, Darwin’s Nightmare (2004) establishes its setting and introduces its perspective by contrasting the struggles of impoverished natives with their prosperous Eastern European economic colonizers. The opening song, “Tanzania,” for example, is contrasted with Eastern European music accompanying a plane’s shadow over Lake Victoria, “the source of the Nile” and “the birthplace of civilization,” according to the film. A pan of the town reveals poverty and neglect. Dogs sleep on the sand while fishermen work on their boats. In the streets, one boy runs on crutches, and another cries when a bully punches him. Girls sing to the sound of a synthesizer while a child sleeps on the sidewalk.  “They take the fish to the factory,” Marcus, a police officer, explains, and European pilots fly the prepared perch back to their homeland. With these opening shots, the film’s focus has been established—an interrogation of the dire economic and environmental consequences of introducing perch into the Lake Victoria eco-system.

Darwin’s Nightmare demonstrates how our greed for a particular type of fish—perch—has irrevocably disrupted the biosphere of Lake Victoria. Because of the changes in the fishing industry caused by the overabundance of perch and Westerners’ taste for this fish as food, human nature has also been irrevocably disrupted according to the film, demonstrating how interconnected human and nonhuman nature remain.  The perch have destroyed the biotic community of the lake, with one species overwhelming all others, but the perch have also negatively affected the human community. Their destructive behaviors may ultimately destroy the fishing industry, but their introduction into the lake has already changed the industry and the market that sustains it. With huge perch available for export, countries bordering on the lake, especially Tanzania, can no longer rely on the lake for sustenance. Fishermen no longer catch fish for themselves and their families. They catch perch for a factory where they are prepared for shipment to Europe where, according to the film, two million white people eat Victoria fish each day.

Tanzanians are starving, then, because their lake has become a Darwinian nightmare marketplace for Eastern European businessmen and their pilots, who fly cargo planes into Tanzania for their load of perch. They provide nothing for the people living near the lake, but they do contribute even further to their impoverished state, since they bring arms to warring African countries leaving more than a million dead. In return, pilots from Ukraine bring perch back to Europe, while hungry and orphaned Tanzanian children sleep on the streets. Women live in brothels and bars, starve, or die from fumes exuded by smoking perch corpses. The human biotic community has disintegrated here.

The film personalizes each of these struggles: It foregrounds prostitute Eliza’s attempts to figure out her life, her glowing smile, and her powerful voice singing her country’s anthem, “Tanzania.” It also focuses on Raphael, a night guard fearing for his life, since the previous guard had been murdered, Jonathan, a painter who documents the life on the streets he left behind, the group of boys fighting to survive on the street, and the cargo pilots themselves, some even regretting their part in the arms sales that contribute to so many deaths.

Darwin’s Nightmare shows us what happens when the biotic communities of and between nonhuman and human nature are disturbed. Here the film asserts that a single species—either the Nile perch or the European colonizer—can destroy its environment and even itself. Instead of arguing for animal liberation, the film upholds the need for interdependent community. The consequences of its destruction are monumental and ultimately end in both lake and land turning into barren sinkholes.  But the film stands only as a warning against disrupting other biospheres. It is too late for Lake Victoria and, perhaps, for Tanzania, the film suggests.  Darwin’s Nightmare also demonstrates that arguments against over fishing based in organismic ecology may or may not encourage change.

Friday, July 24, 2015

James Bond and Environmental Conflicts: Earthquakes, Oil, and Water, Oh My!

Even though James Bond films are rarely topical, they do sometimes tackle environmental issues. In A View to a Kill (1985), for example, James Bond (Roger Moore) must stop a greedy industrialist from triggering a massive earthquake to destroy California’s Silicon Valley and corner the microchip market. In The Living Daylights (1987), Bond (Timothy Dalton) combats an organization trading clearly non-conflict free diamonds for weapons. And in The World is Not Enough (1999), Bond (Pierce Brosnan) must protect a beautiful oil heiress from a notorious terrorist.  Quantum of Solace, however, goes further. It not only examines a contemporary environmental issues, whether or not water is a resource to share or to sell but also individualizes that issue, connecting it explicitly to an actual event, the Bolivian Water Wars that began less than a decade before the release of the film.

Juxtaposing a secret organization fronted by what looks like an environmental group against Bond and the British Secret Service, Quantum constructs water as a commodity worth more than oil, the resource the organization, Quantum, claims to be seeking on its now environmentally protected lands in Central and South America. Most notably, however, the film addresses water rights issues in Bolivia, drawing overtly on the 2000 Bolivian Water Wars for its narrative. The film merely replaces the World Bank and Bechtel Corporation of the actual water war with a military coup and a secret organization fronted by Greene Planet whose mission is to acquire and commodify environmental resources, an act which amplifies the tenets of the appropriative doctrine. Although the film’s plot obviously parallels the Cochabamba Water Wars, however, only one review mentions this connection. Joshua Clover calls it “wholly plagiarized from the archives of reality” (8). As Clover declares, “None of them manage the word “Cochabamba.”                      

The typical action sequences move the plot forward, introducing the film’s eventual Bolivian context and its connection both to corrupt CEO Dominic Greene ((Mathieu Almaric) and to Bolivia’s ex-dictator, General Medrano (Joaquin Cosia). Greene’s “organization” can give Medrano back his government as long as Medrano ensures they will gain access to what looks like a worthless desert in Bolivia. Medrano declares, “You won’t find oil there. Everyone has tried,” but Greene explains, “but we own everything we find.”

Bond and fellow spy Camille ((Olga Kurylenko) escape by plane after another action sequence and parachute into Greene’s Bolivian eco-park where they discover the real reason for Greene’s establishing nature preserves: “They used dynamite,” Bond exclaims. “This used to be a riverbed. Greene isn’t after the oil. He wants the water…. It’s one dam. He’s creating drought. He’ll have built others.” With control of water, Greene and Quantum, the clandestine company he fronts can charge exorbitant prices for the resource. When Bond and Camille walk through a nearby village, they see firsthand the results of this manufactured drought—an empty water tank and a line of peasants coaxing drops from a dry faucet.

Although Bond is now seen as a rogue agent, he and Camille elude the Americans with M’s approval and finds Greene’s hideout where Greene and Medrano are finalizing their deal. Greene tells Medrano he must sign over the land. Greene’s phantom organization, Quantum, owns more than sixty percent of Bolivia’s water supply,” and Medrano’s “new government will use [Quantum] as [their] utilities provider.” When Medrano objects because the cost is double what they are now paying, Greene illustrates what consequences Medrano might endure if he refuses to sign: “You will wake up with your balls in your mouth and your willing replacement standing over you.”

The film’s action-filled plot resolves in conventional ways. Camille kills Medrano to avenge her family, and Bond saves her from a series of fantastic explosions and fires. Greene tries to escape, but Bond leaves him in the desert with nothing but a quart of motor oil to drink. His organization ends up killing him. The eco-plot, however, is resolved in ways that again highlight the film’s connection with the Bolivian Water Wars: “Well, the dam we saw will have to come down,” Bond declares. “And there’ll be others too.”  Ultimately, however, Quantum of Solace most effectively illustrates the repercussions of the appropriative doctrine and its solution: a water democracy like that established in Bolivia after the recent water wars there.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Erin Brockovich and Groundwater Rights

Groundwater rights are less easily defined than those associated with either the riparian or appropriative doctrines and vary greatly across states and countries. They are even more easily exploited. As economist Zachary Donohew explains,  “Differences in recharge rates, interaction with surface water and the size of groundwater basins makes groundwater rules difficult to apply across the board.”

Perhaps because groundwater rules are less explicitly defined, “Groundwater is more like an open-access resource, subject to wasteful extraction” (Donohew 91), as well as increased toxicity by corporations who exploit it. Groundwater takes center stage in both contemporary fictional and documentary films. In most fictional films, groundwater is exploited by large companies dumping toxic waste. Erin Brockovich (2000) heightens this approach, amplifying a real story of greed and fair use policies.

Based on a contemporary case against the Pacific Gas and Electric Company, Erin Brockovich (2000) dramatizes the fight to expose the energy company’s negligent leakage of toxic chromium 6 into groundwater and compensate area residents negatively affected by the poisoning of their drinking water. In 1996, as a result of the largest direct action lawsuit of its kind, spear-headed by Erin Brockovich and Ed Masry, the law firm for which Brockovich worked, the utility giant was forced to pay out the largest toxic tort injury settlement in US history: $333 million in damages to more than 600 Hinkley residents.

Erin Brockovich provides a sometimes exaggerated picture of Brockovich and her determination to unearth evidence to ensure the firm wins the case. But it also highlights some of the possible dangers associated with confusing groundwater principles. In Erin Brockovich groundwater rights become a public concern.

Monday, July 6, 2015

California's Drought on Film: The Case of Chinatown (1974)

The continuing drought in California highlights the importance of water rights, but these rights are grounded in environmental and cultural history going back to at least the 19th century. Popular films like Chinatown (1974) illuminate this history for a broad audience. Chinatown serves as the quintessential water rights film: Murder, infidelity, and incest all become integrally connected with water as a commodity in 1930s Los Angeles, a context established by an FDR picture in the opening shot of the J.J (Jake) Gittes (Jack Nicholson) private investigator’s office. Jake is introduced to an infidelity case but discovers the perpetrator is Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling), the chief engineer of Los Angeles’s Water and Power.

According to Water and Power, Los Angeles is on the edge of the desert. Without water, the valley would turn to dust, and the Alto Valley Dam will save it, but Mulwray opposes the dam because it is shoddy and ineffective and because he discovers his former partner Noah Cross (John Huston) is dumping gallons of water from the Los Angeles reservoir into the ocean to prove the need for the dam. Ultimately Mulwray is murdered by the very water he serves. “Los Angeles is dying of thirst,” says a sticker near Jake’s car, but, as one police officer explains, “Can you believe it? We're in the middle of a drought, and the water commissioner drowns. Only in L.A.”

While investigating Mulwray’s murder, Jake discovers that the water department is not irrigating as they claimed. A clandestine group is poisoning the farmers’ wells and shooting out their water tanks, so they will sell their property to “ghost” buyers who are either dead or elderly relatives of wealthy LA socialites. In fact, Noah Cross killed Hollis when he hindered his plan to incorporate the valley into the city of Los Angeles by buying up farmland to grow even richer on its resources, declaring, “Either you bring the water to L.A. or you bring L.A. to the water,” underpinning the continuing connection between water rights and environmental history in Chinatown and other films centering on water.

Water rights are steeped in environmental history in films with water at their center. Chinatown explicitly highlights the continuing influence of the 1877 Desert Land Act and the doctrine of prior appropriation. Water rights in America respond to at least three political, historical, and economic perspectives, all of which have throughout U. S. history addressed water distribution during times of both drought and abundance of water. The first of these, the riparian doctrine, connects water with the land adjacent to it, so that “Riparian land owners can access water for a ‘reasonable use,’ so long as downstream users are not adversely affected” (Donohew 90).

A second approach, the appropriative doctrine, provides grounding for legislation that opened up the West to pioneers. See, for example, the Desert Land Act (1877), the General Mining Act (1872), and the Homestead Act (1862) which rested on the doctrine of prior appropriation: “Water rights with older priority dates are more likely to receive their full allocation and hence are more valuable” (Donohew 89). A third perspective focuses on groundwater rights, which are more difficult to define and measure, so specifications differ from state to state. For example, “In some states, including parts of Texas, unlimited ground water pumping is allowed by a landowner so long as it is put to a beneficial use” (Donohew 91), but in others, state or local agencies regulate groundwater usage more closely.

Water rights also connect explicitly with human approaches to ecology that not only draw on riparian rights and the appropriative doctrine, but also helped to foster the EPA’s Clean Water Act of 1972. For example, Ellen Swallow Richards explains how human approaches to ecology encourage the right to water, explaining “In common law, water is held to be a gift of nature to man for use by all, and therefore not to be diverted from its natural channels for the pleasure or profit of any one to the exclusion of the rest” (Air, Water, and Food 57). But for Richards, it was not enough to ensure water was available. That water must also be clean, asserting, “A city or town is under strict obligation to furnish a safe supply of water as it is to provide safe roads” (59). For Richards, everyone should have access to water free of contaminants or “objectionable substances, mineral and organic” (61) because it is “a necessary condition of life” (67).

Perhaps because water is both abundant and necessary, it serves as a protagonist in films from the silent era to the present. Water rights take different roles in contemporary feature films. Floods take the center in silent films such as Victor Fleming’s When the Clouds Roll By (1919), New Deal features, such as Our Daily Bread (1934), and contemporary features such as Michael Polish’s Northfork (2003). Drought, on the other hand, serves as the protagonist in features from the John Ford epic Grapes of Wrath (1940) and contemporary documentaries, including Jim Burroughs’ Water Wars (2009).

All of these films, however, draw on environmental history and environmental law, paving the way for films that are at least partially based on America’s sometimes conflicting views of water rights, views almost always grounded in the nineteenth-century American drive for progress. This connection to environmental law reaches the mainstream in more subtle and powerful ways in Chinatown, an unlikely rhetorical film that not only demonstrates the dangers of commodifying water but also offers solutions that look back to earlier historical visions of water as a right.