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Bad things in the biosphere: Environmental crises as narrative [Re-casting The Terminal City (part 1)] * Reviews of H2Oil, Home, Island of Dreams, The Age of Stupid, and The Beekeepers

PDF copy available: ingram-11-2009-bad-things-in-the-biosphere1

There have been bad things threatening human communities since people have tried to get along. The line between natural menaces and human hubris is the stuff of culture and stories in particular. There are human threats, sins such as avarice, and then natural threats such as from hungry beasts.  Lately the pantheon of these bad things have recombined and globalized. Environmental crises have become culture. Sorting out where human responsibility, murky synergies, and what is left of nature increasingly involves simplifying complicated knowledge into stories that are transmitted by film and video.

Moving pictures are never just about the places they purport to describe or even document. Instead, moving pictures are narratives, sometimes spun as documentaries and at other times as mythologies, for the places where we live or would like to enjoy. Vancouver’s 2010 Olympics moment, now upon us, is comprised of a tight set of carefully pre-determined and well-manufactured, marketing presentations that will soon be rendered either stale or fraudulent. Sometime in the spring of 2010, as the hype of the Olympics turns into a hangover and then a headache, new ways to make sense of Vancouver, as The Terminal City [1] for the sprawl that is south-western British Columbia, will become necessary. Vancouver’s Mayor, Gregor Robertson, is busy marketing Vancouver as a ‘green city’ [2] like the leaders of half of the cities on the planet. The inference is part rhetorical but also real:  cities that are not ‘green’ will not survive and prosper so well over this century.

As the Canadian dollar garners strength and Hollywood North risks dissipating, Vancouver may soon have to import new mythologies again as we often have in much of modern times. A number of recent films can tell us about possibilities for re-casting the characters and locations for Vancouver The Major Motion Picture. These films can tell us about the new mythologies being spun in this part of the world especially after David Suzuki’s Legacy Lecture (and $1,500 rap party) [3] and as doubts are expressed about the supposed sustainability of the Vancouver(ism) Brand Name. [4]

Environmental problems, and crises of community survival, became part of the modern cultural fabric in the late twentieth century. But disasters, which might have been averted with more forethought and political will, have shaped many of the most central stories in many cultures. The Book of Daniel linked attention to dreams and angelic advice to surviving a series of disasters that befell Babylon. And there are many stories of transformation, even mutation, where indifferent nature becomes malevolent through human folly.  And there has been an apocalyptic, survivalist streak [5] in North American settler culture, often linked back to that book of the New Testament, as well as some indigenous narratives. But the scale of potential self-destruction changed after World War II and heightened the centrality of stories of worry, foresight and the heeding of what amounts to communion with divine forces.

The ambiguity of the contemporary environmental narrative, especially around the naming of the bearer of responsibility, was first inscribed in modernism through such work as Brecht’s Gallileo. It was after the horrors of World War II that the old stories linking threat, insight, and survival were reworked. The formation of the modern environmental narrative, the inherently vagueness of the responsibility, can be illustrated through the shifts in the three versions of Brecht’s Gallileo. The first Gallileo was written in German, completed in Denmark in 1938, and performed in Zurich in 1943. [6] In that original Gallileo, survival for humanity was rooted in empirical investigations (science) linked to class struggle and collective challenges to (papal) domination. But something happened to Bertolt Brecht in his short exile in California. In the American version of Gallileo, completed in the months after the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and performed in Los Angeles in 1947, [7] the central role of the individual, as with Daniel’s foresight, became central again. The nuclear age was so scary that somehow the prospects of collective solutions were almost too daunting with survival stripped down again to primarily an individual responsibility.[8] A third version of Gallileo, the so-called “German Version,” was completed just before Brecht’s death and performed months later in 1955 in Cologne[9] and codified the ambiguity of the survival story (for both Gallileo and humanity) as a mash-up of individual and collective responsibility. And thus the modern environmental narrative became famously contradictory and increasingly substantiated, as a surrogate for angelic interpretation, through film and video. Today both environmental crises and solutions are primarily framed and described, effectively spawned as stories, through film, video, television, and internet clips.

The origins of the narratives of The Terminal City are Musqueam, Squamish and StóLô stories jumbled with mythologies of British maritime imperialism and Canadian rail-based settlement more recently fused with an increasingly wide array of migration accounts from refugees to business ventures. Few stories, other than those of indigenous communities along with the scant mentions of the Spanish influenza pandemic and the collapse of the Second Narrows Bridge, perceive Vancouver as a place of possible disaster, of disregard of signs of natural constraints and human folly, let alone a space where survival might become precarious. Even most of the narratives of the personal disasters in Downtown Eastside work to distance the isthmus from the rest of the city. Disasters, most notably the collapse of the salmon fishery, have been quietly paved over in the ‘World-Class’ narrative. There has been little room for foreboding. Even the short, often made-for-television narratives of David Suzuki have avoided direct suggestions that places like The Terminal City are potentially part and parcel of new environmental crises. So what can some recent films about crises and solutions tell us about the new stories that could be or are already emerging in Vancouver as the Olympic PR begins to wear thin and is apt to fly off in the next, exceptionally violent storm? Five films from the 2009 Vancouver International Film Festival give us clues to how cultural production in Vancouver will respond to and provide stories to help us adapt to life where there are poorly understood threats to our often placid part of the biosphere.

Tsuta Tetsuichiro’s Island of Dreams, Yume no Shima,[10] is a homage to the black-and-white queasiness of post-war Japanese cinema combining elements of the noir genre with a whiff of horror. There is no giant, radioactive octopus this time. Rather the real monster is indifference as air pollution weakens and garbage accumulates. The underlying question in this tale of a immigrant garbage worker (another ‘the other’), working on one of Tokyo’s artificial islands called Island of Dream, and who by night bombs illegally polluting factories, is who, exactly, is the terrorist?  A police detective tries to find out. Consistent with the DIY edge is the loving revival of the black-and-white film technology, from the 1950s and early 1960s, where the director had to wash the film footage himself as part of minimizing his own ecological footprint. Island of Dreams reminds us that whatever ethical decisions we may want to make about big problems are grounded in the murkiness of whatever aspects of our origins with which we care to become preoccupied. In this case, the noir thriller, the malevolent city of Tokyo’s post-war reconstruction, is revisited as a toxic wasteland where the whodunit becomes a question of responsibility.

It would be easy to recast Island of Dreams in the Vancouver area with the dump site at even a more dubious location at Burns Bog and the bombing and sleuthing in the more toxic corners of the industrial corridor along the Fraser. But the naiveté of the Tokyo detective would be difficult to come by in the Lower Mainland. The hint of a suggestion that the landfill at Burns Bog, still used in 2009 by supposedly ‘green’ municipalities, was an act of terrorism could engender all sorts of reprisals. And, of course, in Vancouver, youth contemplating lives overshadowed by progressive environmental crises believing that an effective alternative to violence is standing on streets asking for donations says as more about our dreams and innocence, and complacency, than about any sort of West Coast sophistication. Our own noir island of paralysis and complacency may be closer than many of us think – but let’s forget about that until after the Olympics are over.

Yann Arthus-Bertrand’s Home[11] is an adaptation of his celebrated coffee-table book of a decade back. Home combines enchanting views of the Earth from helicopters to illustrate how extensively life support on the planet has been damaged in little more than a century. The consolation is the dreamy imagery that at first tells the story of life’s origins and the formation of the biosphere, through plants transforming the atmosphere through fixing carbon and producing oxygen. Halfway through Home, the focus shift to relentless destruction. The use of distance is used aptly in Home with the overviews at great distance giving way to uncomfortably close portrayals of ecological devastation. The final minutes of Home are a bit jumbled shifting, uncomfortably, from a voice-over, that becomes more urgent, to a great deal of text flashed quickly on the screen. Disconcerting, the finale of Home can be likened to oral texts being crammed into a rushed PowerPoint presentation.

Home could be used as a powerful beginning to an introductory course in environmental science. But there is no whodunit here. In Home, all human beings are guilty, well almost. At times preoccupied with still growing human numbers, Home does tell us that people do not impair the biosphere by our populations alone but rather by the unsustainable consumption patterns of a minority. But the specifics, and the route to get home as in a finding a new balance with the biosphere, are all up in the air. The most powerful moment in Home is flying above the shoreline of Rapa Nui (Easter Island) with narrator Glenn Close ruminating on why the people of the island were not able to recognize and reverse the ecological degradation that lead to their impoverishment and near extinction. Could this reckoning one day be repeated for The Terminal City’s Hornby or Galiano Islands after a prolonged drought? But the disasters portrayed in Home have not yet been obvious in Vancouver. Most of our excessive garbage, including much e-waste, is stuff into green spots such as Burns Bog where the extent of the long-term damage is effectively hidden.  The exhaustion of marine ecosystems is not obvious except in prices in fish markets. The rising sea levels have not surged into the streets but so far just seeped into the basements of the low-lying parts of Gastown. Forest fires have yet to scar large areas that are visible from the city. And the inevitable environmental refugees have yet to flood into the city. So Home The Terminal City version might still allow the city to live up to the 2010 marketing, from the distance of aerial views – for a while.

If the bottom-line of Home is to enchant adolescent sensibilities, UK filmmaker Franny Armstrong’s The Age of Stupid[12] blends angst and remorse in more intricate ways to mess with any remaining innocence. The pathos, the ’stupid’ in ‘the age of’, is not just about poor decisions about lands, seas and natural resources but also the clinging to denial in the face of overwhelming evidence (such as what is still witnessing in Australia). In The Age of Stupid the characters are compelling and the arguments powerful while being illustrated through quirky cartoons. Unfortunately, the emphasis, on preparation for the December 2009 climate change conference in Copenhagen, dates the film now that there are no plans for completing or signing a global treaty (which does confirm the film’s argument that we are, in deed, living in The Age of Stupid).

The Age of Stupid is a milestone in films on climate change and environmental crises more generally. A sort of Unconvenient Truth [13] on Red Bull, The Age of Stupid breaks with the Thoreauvian (as in the 1854, Walden; or, Life in the Woods) preoccupation with personal conscience in solving environmental problems and moves to a more interesting set of characters (than Al Gore) trying to survive, get and stay affluent, and, sometimes, to do right. In moving from individual to collective stories in The Age of Stupid, there are lots of interesting contradictions such as windfarm developer Piers Guy whose other car is biodiesel but who drives a newish BMW station wagon, a decidedly gas-guzzling artefact of peak oil, as he fights the forces of ’stupid’ blocking development of a windfarm in Deptford in rural England. The coverage of Guy’s struggles is at the core of the most important but most debatable logic of The Age of Stupid. Some of the (’stupid’ author’s useage) individuals fighting Guy’s projects go as far as to admit that it is necessary to take action to counter climate change as where anti-windfarm campaigner, Victoria Reeves, states, “Of course we’re worried about global warming. That’s got to be something that we’re all concerned about. I mean we’re all doing our bit to conserve and looking at renewable energy, absolutely.” Reeves argues that a windfarm on the site would be another kind of environmental disaster but makes no specific commitments to support development of other forms of renewable energy generation in the area. Perhaps she was cut-off by the filmmakers. More likely, she was thinking there is still time to find and support a carbon neutral alternative to windfarms for southern England. Guys, the windfarm advocate, reflects that, “It’s an emotional campaign, it’s about fear and mostly based on complete bollocks frankly, but never mind, facts are not a problem.” and later asks, “How the heck are we meant to persuade people in India and China to develop in a more sustainable way when we’re not even prepared to accept the odd windfarm in the landscape?” The Age of Stupid wisely understates that the following year saw extraordinary flooding in that same area (exacerbated, at lease somewhat, by stronger storms from higher temperatures).

The questionable level of sincerity of the commitment expressed by anti-windfarm campaigner, Reeves to ‘conserve’ is the core to the story of our current age of stupidity. Thus the beauty, the core narrative of The Age of Stupid is to show the monstrosity of the lapse in responsibility without turning the anti-windfarm campaigner, Reeves, into a monster. She is an every woman, rather than a bad thing for the biosphere, who still thinks that she has time to complete her sentence. The problem, and it is a minor flaw that can be easily fixed in the sequel, The Age of Stupid II: Death and Mayhem, is that Victoria Reeves could be putting her resource in other kinds of conservation, traded her luxury vehicle for a bicycle perhaps, and just might have been cut-off mid-sentence. So the deeper stupidity of the age is that neither Guy, the nice developer and capitalist, and Reeves the horsey, gentry speculating on land are sufficiently competent (at least from what we saw on screen) to have the primary ’say’ on which conservation and renewable energy projects go where and to become true heroes or villains. Instead, this battle of old and new money in rural Britain, in responding to the biggest crisis humankind has ever faced, becomes distracting and unsatisfying. Thankfully The Age of Stupid is compensated by characters such as an elderly mountain guide reflecting on retreating glaciers and increasing traffic in the Alps, a man who rescued 100 people after Hurricane Katrina and still believes in his gas-guzzling employer, Shell, and a young woman surviving horrific pollution and repression of activists in Nigeria’s oil region.

Perhaps the deepest flaw, in this important film, is that these symbolic individuals are portrayed within communities that are already under stress and disintegrating in the face of peak oil. The Age of Stupid does not show us how to build resilient communities that can quickly build carbon neutral alternatives but rather how distressed individuals are making difficult decisions, grounded in their personalized ethics, to the solving of problems that are so huge as to require far more collectivist responses. As for directions in environmental politics in The Terminal City, The Age of Stupid says a great deal. I can re-imagine the windfarm - rural Deptford - NIMBY debates in the horse zone of Vancouver’s Southlands in this the last decade before rise level will start to threaten some properties. And the self-righteousness of the windfarm advocates, though largely correct, can be used in our region by far more dubious enterprises such as those hoping to dam rivers for ’small’ hydro-electric projects that effectively privatize entire watersheds.

Of the major films on environmental crisis over the last few years, Shannon Walsh’s H2Oil [14] is one of the most powerful in the sense of providing a cogent story that both illuminates and motivates. Whereas The Age of Stupid weaves narratives of denial, coping and activism through a preoccupation with individuals and networks, H2Oil is a more cogent set of tales about communities struggling as two massive watersheds are drained and poisoned. The tar sands are devastating both the Peace- Athabasca watershed, which flows through two huge lakes to the Mackenzie and the Arctic Oceanm and the North Saskatchewan that flows into Lake Winnipeg and then on to Hudson Bay. Where The Age of Stupid ably describes global climate change as a crisis of a thousand forms of reliance and waste of fossil fuel, along with a myriad of denial and repression, H2Oil better links three major disasters: the devastation of the excavation and processing of the tar sands; the pollution poisoning communities downstream; and the subsequent warming which is melting glaciers that in turn reduces the amount of water available for human communities as well as the huge amounts of input necessary to process the bitumen into fuel. While there are many ‘Age of Stupid’ narratives, the story of the Tar Sands is perhaps the most wasteful, perilous (for two entire regions of Canada as well as for the planet), and ’stupid’ as in Pure Canadian Hubris. But H2Oil is too lean to have time for vague judgements. There is a meta-ethic afoot that makes for a powerful discomfort.

The strongest portrayals in H2Oil are of the aboriginal communities of Fort Chipewyan on Lake Athabasca who have been organizing around extraordinary rates of cancer increasingly linked to heavy metals, arsenic and naphthalenic acids seeping from the upriver processing of the tar sands by Suncor Corporation. But the troubles of a bottled water business in the eastern foothills of the Rockies, from oil exploration and declines in the water table, are not so compelling and an Iraqi brother and sister displaced in Amman are collateral damage to the extent that their inclusion in the film is almost gratuitous. H2Oil  is most powerful in its careful linking of the tar sands development with three global conundrums: the 2003 United States invasion of Iraq (that inflated oil prices); NAFTA’s Proportionality Clause that puts ever increasing pressure on Canadian energy reserves; and the survival of the Cree and Métis communities of northern Alberta. Especially powerful was the portrayal of the Athabasca Chipewyan and Mikisew Cree First Nations confronting Suncor about its pollution and subsequent intervening in the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in 2008 to highlight the growing threat of the tar sands projects.

H2Oil has implications for re-casting Vancouver after 2010. Much of H2Oil is the story of Edmonton as the regional centre that offsets the costs of its own affluence on to less powerful frontier communities up and down river. And like Edmonton, Victoria (and Vancouver) control sizable pockets of remaining fossil fuels in the Peace-Athabasca watershed – the further development of which would unleash disasters both in those isolated communities and through contributing to rise in global temperature.  Like Edmonton and the river systems of Alberta, the future of the greater Vancouver region is linked to how well communities acknowledge and solve the crisis of the Fraser – and the extent to which the damage can be reversed. Like the toxic seepage that is killing Fort Chipewyan, there are many towns and neighbourhoods in our region being poisoned – often with native communities who may well be forced to seek help at the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.

As new kinds of bad things in the biosphere seep into the lexicon of contemporary culture, Richard Knox Robinson’s The Beekeepers [15] is a 28 minute descent into the unknowns of Colony Collapse Disorder. Entire hives are dying, agricultural production is being increasingly impaired especially for certain fruit and nut crops, and the price of honey continues to climb.  And The Beekeepers is as much about unknowns and the limits to scientific certainties in fathoming environmental synergies as it is about the disappearance of honeybees. There are a myriad of theories and possible synergies at work in Colony Collapse Disorder but ‘understanding’ what has been killing a large portion of the world’s honeybees is a relative thing. The Beekeepers also illustrates how environmental catastrophes threaten human cultures with long lines of ancient knowledge such as apiculture.

The cinematography The Beekeepers employs a neo-psychedelic visual style that, while a bit maddening in being chaotic and disorienting, reflects the lack of scientific consensus on the roots of and solutions for the devastation of bee hives. Perhaps the most disturbing thing described surrealistically in The Beekeepers is ecological absence: sudden death and the unexplainable loss of something small, lovely and beneficial that has been taken for granted. In this way, The Beekeepers encrypts a new and brooding cultural relationship with science where acknowledging the full implications of the ecological losses becomes more important than logical understandings of the factors behind the disappearances that are quite possibly permanent. The loss, the death, is so overwhelming, and in some cases complete, that fully acknowledging the extent of the absence becomes more important than the explanation. In other words, the damage is already done.

These five films illuminate some of the archetypes and ’sites’ that will shape much of the culture, in deed the stories, of the twenty-first century both in Vancouver and throughout the world. There are few new monsters and demons – perhaps because there are enough already. There is an absence of heroes and more of the heroism is about surviving combined vaguely with making a few altruistic choices. The nice advocate of windfarms in The Age of Stupid, Piers Guy, is, at best, an enlightened capitalist. His political opponent, who may one day soon be demonized, comes off as just narcissistic – like a lot of people. So these new characters, less champions or fiends than wisely self-interested or fuck-ups will come to populate the pantheon of loss, of what could-have-should-have-but-didn’t-happen. And much of the new cast of The Terminal City will be shell-shocked, poorly informed migrants and refugees such as the Iraqi brother and sister trying to survive in Amman (and probably not able to afford to apply to live in Canada). The bad things in the biosphere can be linked, only in part, to ethical failures: the Suncor official expressing personal hurt at not being trusted about pollution levels when the cancer levels of ‘Fort Chip’ are already horrendous; the anti-windfarm campaigner who could have been organizing for diversification of renewable energy projects but most probably did not; the Tokyo police officer focused on apprehending a supposed terrorist while ignoring the clues leading to the illegal emissions (with perhaps his lapse a kind of terrorism). And the stage is no longer the world of individual actions in isolated spots such as Waldon Pond, that marked the comparatively ineffective responses to environmental crisis in the twentieth century, but ethical choices that are often uncomfortably collective.

Is Vancouver a good backdrop for a generic version of The Terminal City for what may well be a century of mayhem? Our mountains, too, are losing glacier and water. Local estuaries are increasingly paved and contaminated with little pause in sight. Frontier communities are threatened with survival and the overly quiet places are seeing more and more absences of things that we once took for granted. And there are the detectives struggling to identify the perpetrators lost in increasingly toxic nether worlds that bear resemblance to parts of and the suburbs swirling around Vancouver.

Gordon Brent Ingram is a Vancouver-based environmental planner and designer, well-educated in landscape ecology, who often writes and teaches about ecological knowledge and contemporary culture.

[1] The origin of the label, “The Terminal City,” for the cluster of towns that today constitutes the metropolitan region that includes Vancouver, goes back to the time of the city’s incorporation in 1886. A rather dubious poem using the “The Terminal City,” as a label for the Greater Vancouver region, was published in 1887. (Patricia E. Roy. 1976. The preservation of peace in Vancouver: The aftermath of the anti-Chinese riots of 1887. BC Studies 31: 44 - 59. See page 44.)

[2] Wendy Stueck. 2009. Mayor rolls out Vancouver’s new green strategy. Globe and Mail (October 1, 2009).


[4] Trevor Boddy. 2009. Vancouver, Vancouverize, Vancouverism: Building An Idea.

[5] For one review of the recent surge in the cultural preoccupation with Apocalypse, see Charles Foran. 2009. The slow apocalypse: The arts show how global warming makes us feel more helpless than nuclear weapons ever did. Globe and Mail (November 7, 2009).

[6] Ehrhard Bahr. 2007. Weimar on the Pacific: German Exile Culture in Los Angeles and the Crisis of Modernism. Berkeley, California: University of California Press. See page 106.

[7] Ehrhard Bahr. 2007. Weimar on the Pacific: German Exile Culture in Los Angeles and the Crisis of Modernism. Berkeley, California: University of California Press.  See pages 106 and 107.

[8] “Brecht’s Galileo of 1947 was one of the earliest and most thought-provoking literary protests against the nuclear age…Although Galileo raises many arguments in favor of class warfare against the autocratic society of the seventeenth century that smack of a Marxism before its time, this emphasis shifts toward the end of the play. The play’s final indictment and conclusion address the welfare of all mankind, not that of a particular class…Most remarkable is his [Brecht's] valorization of individual decision making…Because of its appeal to the ethics of the individual scientist, Brecht’s Galileo of 1947 must be characterized as belonging to the ‘modernism of social responsibility’…” (Ehrhard Bahr. 2007. Weimar on the Pacific: German Exile Culture in Los Angeles and the Crisis of Modernism. Berkeley, California: University of California Press.  See page 126.)

[9] Ehrhard Bahr. 2007. Weimar on the Pacific: German Exile Culture in Los Angeles and the Crisis of Modernism. Berkeley, California: University of California Press. See page 107.

[10] Island of Dreams, Yume no Shima
(Japan, 2009, 83 mins, DVCAM (NTSC))
In Japanese with English subtitles
Directed By: Tsuta Tetsuichiro
distribution: 2525films, Tokyo

[11] Home
The Way of Nature
(France, 2009, 120 mins, 35mm)
In English with partial English subtitles
Directed By: Yann-Arthus Bertrand
The movie was released simultaneously on June 5, 2009 in cinemas across the globe, on DVD, Blu-ray, television, and on YouTube.
web-based distribution:

[12] The Age of Stupid
(UK, 2009, 89 mins, DigiBeta)
In English
Directed By: Franny Armstrong

[13]Inconvenient Truth, 2006, in English, USA, directed by Davis Guggenheim, Produced by Lawrence Bender, Scott Z. Burns, and Laurie David, written by Al Gore (teleplay), starring Al Gore, budget: US$+1,000,000, gross revenue: US$49,047,567. ( 16 November, 2009 )

[14] H2Oil
(Canada, 2009, 81 mins, HDCAM)
In English
Directed By: Shannon Walsh
distribution: Loaded Pictures

[15] The Beekeepers
(USA, 2008, 28 mins, HDCAM)
In English
Directed By: Richard Knox Robinson
distribution: Ekphratic Productions

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