Over the last few years there has been an explosion in documentary film making, quite a number of them on environmental issues. Of course for a fan of such things the difficulty is getting to see them. Fortunately, The UK Green Film festival is on right now in Glasgow's GFT, and other cities UK wide. Iâ€™ve tried to catch a few of these films and thought Iâ€™d give a run down on some of the ones Iâ€™ve seen, and my thoughts on the many issues they've raised.
Firstly, Iâ€™ve noted that the GFT is unusually busy this week. This is good as it shows there is clearly an appetite for these sorts of documentary films. But, as came up in a Q & A session with one of the directors of Planet Eat Or Shlomi, there is a bit of a dilemma here. The directors of these films want to promote the message in the movie as much as possible, and get as many people to watch it as they can. Probably the easiest way of doing that is to stream it online. But equally they also want to raise revenue. Not that any of them are in it for profit (breaking even would be nice!) but there is a danger with the streaming of documentaries on the internet, thro websites such as Top Documentaries , will kill the golden goose. Of course, if we all stopped watching these films online, then given that so few cinemas show these sorts of documentary films, much less of us would get to see them, other than hoping and waiting for them to be broadcast in a local art house cinema, or possibly on TV (and you can forget about theÂ major networks in the US ever broadcasting one of these films) . I donâ€™t know the answer to that one, DVD sales are one idea, thought not ideal (can end up costing the producers more to make and distribute the DVDâ€™s than they make backâ€¦and donâ€™t get me started on carbon footprints here!) but like I said, itâ€™s a dilemma.
Another point Or Shlomi made was the issue that in the UK, an independent film maker has great difficulty approaching scientists and getting interviews. They want to speak to the BBC or ITV, etc. In the US, itâ€™s the opposite, tell a scientists youâ€™re an independent film maker theyâ€™ll happily give you a couple of hours of theyâ€™re time, say youâ€™re from CNNâ€¦..and theyâ€™ll suddenly remember theyâ€™ve got a load of papers that need marking. Iâ€™m wondering if this has something to do with the state of journalism in the US, i.e the scientists know that anything they say to CNN (or Fox) will be heavily edited and watered down (or inflated into some scare story). Itâ€™s possible that the recent explosion in documentary film making might be linked to the abandonment by the news media, particularly in the US, of serious investigative journalism.
[caption id="attachment_2811" align="alignnone" width="550" caption="Harry Shearer, director of â€œThe Big Uneasyâ€, in New Orleans on the bank of the Mississippi River with the Pontchartrain Expressway in the background."][/caption]
In 2005 the New Orleans was hit by an unprecedented natural disaster, in the form of hurricane Katrina. It was a rare one off storm that nobody could have foreseenâ€¦.or at least thatâ€™s what Fox News would have you believe! As this film shows the true story is one of inadequate flood defences and many other issues that had been building for years. Contrary to popular opinion itâ€™s likely the walls of the levees were not overtopped, several may well have structurally failed, indicating that New Orleans flood defences were inadequately designed. The film documents the accounts of whistle blowers who claimed critical equipment failed in tests years earlier, and that scientist warned of the dangers to New Orleans but were ignored, see National Geographic in Oct 2004 (a year before Katrina, and this was a followup story to another one about the issue published years earlier). The decline and loss of the wetlands around the city in pursuit of shipping channels (to support the oil industry, notably the so called MR GO) as well as climate change, also played its role.
But in the aftermath there is the question of what next for the Big Easy? Some sceptics would say, well you build a city below sea level and it will flood come a storm (like dah!). However, itâ€™s not as simple as that. Indeed large parts of New Orleans, including the historic French quarter, are actually above sea level. The city is built where it is because it is one of Americaâ€™s most strategic ports â€“ the point of entry for much of its oil (from the Gulf of Mexico as well as Venezuela) and the exit point for much agricultural produce. That said, the film raised questions about the competency of the US Army Corps of Engineers and given the mess they made last time, whether the current flood defences will work next time (and there will be a next time!).
Indeed a good deal of the film was about showing the systematic failures of the US ACE, not just at New Orleans but countrywide. The ACE is one of Congresses principle delivery tools for Federal pork barrel funds, so on the one hand congress wants an ineffective, slightly dotty ACE that will provide more jobs and employment, but then of course they donâ€™t want to pay the high costs of build New Orleans flood defences up to say category 5 level. Not helped by the fact they are now having to spend money correcting past mistakes of the ACE, such as the aforementioned Mr GO shipping channel.
Indeed we have to ask, as the film does, whether building big concrete walls is the best way to protect a city from hurricanes. Other alternatives include reclaiming the wetlands around the city or a â€œDutchâ€ approach with lots of open canals and water basins in the city to take away and store the water, plus keeping the ground wet (so it will absorb more come a storm). I would note, that thereâ€™s probably health reasons to limit the last of these options, given that New Orleans is in the Tropic (mosquito breeding country), but even so concrete walls arenâ€™t necessarily the only solution to the problem.
And for the other great cities of the world, New Orleans is a warning of whatâ€™s to come. Today New Orleansâ€¦tomorrow...London? As sea levels rise, many of the world's great cities such as London, New York, Tokyo and Mumbai, will find themselves under increasing pressure from the sea and will be forced to spend increasing amounts trying to defend the city from flooding. Eventually, it may reach the point where we have to just give up, move the critical functions of said city further inland and abandon the place to its fate. Such could well be the price we pay for climate change. With New Orleans this will be painful, the whole city wonâ€™t need to be abandoned (like I said parts of it are on a hill), but weâ€™re talking bout having to relocate maybe 500,000+ people and the docks and other critical infrastructure. Thatâ€™s going to be a pretty big job, whose going to pay for it? And relocating the city of London to higher ground, or all the financial services companies on Manhattan Island, whose going to pay for that? These are the sort â€œprices of climate changeâ€ that those who oppose action, because its too costly, donâ€™t take into account.
This film explores that most crucial of human relationship, between us and our food. Our largely meat based diet is the source of considerable environmental damage, from the increased global warming that it produces (a combination of embodied energy in feeding animals plus the CO2 and methane they produce, a cow for example produces about 90 kgâ€™s of methane per year) and the vast â€œdead zonesâ€ in oceans caused by agricultural run off.
Of course one of the arguments against a Vegan diet is that itâ€™s less healthy. Probably, true up to a point, in that itâ€™s harder to eat a balanced diet if you completely give up meat. However, as the film spends a good deal of time pointing out there are health implications to a meat based diet, such as a greatly increased risk of heart disease and that one is more at risk of certain types of cancers (neither I nor the film are saying that meat causes cancer, not true, but it does increase the risk, nature creates the risk and diet can help pull the trigger). This is largely based upon a major study by Dr T. Campbell focusing on the link between diet and disease in rural China, which showed extremely low risks of heart disease (and certain cancer types) among populations who largely eat a plant based diet, compared with other populations in other parts of the country who were more at risk, due to a more animals products based diet.
Of course one of the other obstacles to going Vegan is cost. Its much more expensive to by Hummus in a Organic food shop, than meat based stuff at the supper market (casing point, last jar of Hummus I boughtâ€¦think it was 3 quid, last burger I bought at a super marketâ€¦think they were about 70-80p eachâ€¦and I went for the gourmet expensive ones!). Of course this price differential is only there because we massively subsidise the meat and dairy industry, both in the Europe (according to Wikipedia its about â‚¬57 Billion euro and 40% of the EU budget) and the US. Clearly not a sustainable practice. Removing these subsidies would level the playing field, make meat more expensive and thus Vegan alternatives much more competitive.
Of course for me, an expert in energy, the real worry here is the energy one. Food contains rather a lot of embodied energy. That is the energy used by agricultural machinery preparing the land, the energy used in making fertilizers, pesticides, etc. The energy invested harvesting and processing food and of course packaging and shipping it (i.e. food miles). Much of this energy comes from Fossil fuels. Opinions differ as to how these things pan out, Iâ€™ve heard some people suggest that for every calorie of food energy we eat approximately 10 calories of (largely hydrocarbon) energy are consumed in producing that food. Even putting aside this figure, one fact that is beyond dispute, is that a meat based diet consumes much more food than a plant based one. And given that I suspect weâ€™ll have a lot less energy available in future to invest in food production, plus weâ€™ll likely be forced to give over some of our land to energy production (biofuels, etc.) this creates a big dilemma, can we feed the planet in a post peak oil world?
Iâ€™ve seen estimates before suggesting that on an energy basis, a sustainable global population would be around 25 Billion with a plant based diet and 8 Billion with a mixed meat and plant diet, of course these figures only account for energy inputs into the system at the exclusion of everything else and we assume 100% conversion efficiency at various steps (when 20-33% is more likely, i.e a pop. of 5-7.5 Billion with plants and 2-2.66 Billion with meat). The energy efficiency of say a cow is probably only about 5-10% (that is we feed a cow food, food = energy from the sun/fossil fuels, kill cow & eat cow but will only receive 5-10% of the originally invested energy back) although again weâ€™re thinking purely in energy terms here.
On a food basis Planeat suggests we can get 3 times more food from the same land with plants than with animals. And as also pointed out in the film, about 40% of our grain supply gets fed to cattle. So, cutting down on meat production is something of a priority.
Of course, as I would counter, we canâ€™t eat grass, while cows can! Furthermore, organic farms tend to be much less efficient producers of food than industrial agriculture . And before we go all Vegan mad here, whatâ€™s good for the goose ainâ€™t good for the gander. Some parts of the planet are not really geared towards plant based agriculture. In much of the Middle East, the steppes of Asia, Pacific Island communities, or the Northern areas of North America and Europe (or indeed the highlands of Scotland), a meat or fish based diet is actually the most energy efficient and carbon neutral option. The amount of trouble and energy youâ€™d have to invest trying to grow crops in such a harsh climate, against raising animals or fishing, negates any benefits. But of course feeding much of our grain to cattle isnâ€™t a great idea, nor is it sustainable or ethical in an overpopulated world.
So in my opinion, while we need to take the message of this film on board (course youâ€™ll have to see it first ), we also need to put everything in context. For example, just to correct one point made in the Q&A afterwards, someone (a Vegan I presume) made some comment about the â€œethicsâ€ of using wool. The problem at the moment in the UK is getting farmers to shear their sheep, as its better for the sheep on an animal welfare point of view. Unfortunately, it now costs farmers more money to sheer a sheep than they get back from selling the wool, as they have to compete against artificial fibres (produced from oil) and some arenâ€™t bothering to do so any more. Wool is a good natural product, excellent insulation properties, good U-value, bio-degradable, a low carbon footprint (compared to artificial fibres) and most important of all its sustainable - weâ€™ve had sheep in the UK for thousands of year and likely still have them thousands of years after the last petrol powered car has rusted back to iron oxide. So wool hardly counts as unethical, quite the opposite!
Of course, Iâ€™m being a bit of a hypocrite here, given that I just walked past a fridge full of meat and dairy products (indeed the primary â€œplant derivedâ€ food in my fridge is probably beer!) although my dinner tonight was salad and lunch was spicy potatoes & tomatoes (check out the planeat website for some nice recipes!). Having seen this film, Iâ€™ll probably decrease my meat intake in future, but I donâ€™t think Iâ€™ll be turning Veganâ€¦sort of hard think to do in Glasgow! Casing point, on the train home after the film many people (drunksâ€¦sorry! I mean locals!) were tucking into their deep friedâ€¦..something or other (probably best not to know what it was originally!) or kebab and chips. I start preaching about Veganism there Iâ€™d have probably got Chibbed with a plastic fork fairly quickly! If Glaswegians went Vegan, weâ€™d start deep frying tofu and lettuce! This is the home of the deep fired mars bar! So weâ€™ve along way to go in terms of solving our food problems.
Narrowly beaten to the Oscar for best documentary this year (by Inside Job), Gasland is probably one of the most controversial films in years. If youâ€™ve not heard about (have you been living under a rock?) it traces the story of one young filmmaker who was asked by a drilling company for permission to drill in his land for â€œShale Gasâ€ using a technique called Hydraulic Fracturing, often referred to as simply Fracking . He embarks on a journey across the US uncovering a trail of people claiming Fracking nearby their homes has contaminated their water suppliesâ€¦.to the point that some of them can actually set fire to their tap water! Then there are strange mysterious vapours coming of the condensation tanks at Shale gas wells (given that they are only visible in IR camera, here a still, its probably some greenhouse gas likely methaneâ€¦plus a carcinogen or two!)
The film comes on the back of a Cornell university study (summary of the study here, news article here, key graphÂ here) suggesting that Shale gas drilling, once you account for these methane leaks, comes out with a carbon footprint worse than coal! And worse still, as most of this carbon is released downstream, i.e at the wellhead, we canâ€™t mitigate the problem with CCS. Indeed, reading through the Cornell study paper I note that it doesnâ€™t seem to adequately consider the issue of underground leaks (i.e the gas thatâ€™s winding up in peoples drinking water, at one point in the film you see gas apparently seeping up from the ground). If so, then this could mean that Shale gas has a much larger carbon footprint than even this Cornell study suggests. Given how the US and certain other countries now seem determined to get the bulk of their energy from Shale gas in the future, this could mean that if the US starts ditching oil and coal for Shale gas, far from its greenhouse gas emissions falling, they might actually increase dramatically, never mind the enormous damage to public health and drinking water that this film highlights.
Of course the gas industry has been very quick to react to both this film and the Cornell study. In the situations in the film where people light their drinking water, they point out that investigators (hired by the gas industry) concluded that the gas in the water is biogenic in origin (i.e from natural decay not natural gas). The make similar claims as to there being no direct link between Shale gas drilling and water source pollution. This may be true, but as Gasland shows, thereâ€™s a growing causal link between Shale gas drillers moving into an area and then people reporting water problemsâ€¦.I wonder if thereâ€™s a relationship between the two!
As a scientist, I should note that a causal relationship doesnâ€™t prove anything by itself. But itâ€™s certainly reason for further study and maybe easing off on Shale Gas projects until these studies are completed. I would also note that proving a definitive link between two things, say the deaths of thousands of people at Chernobyl due to radiation, or smoking and lung cancer is difficult. In both the two examples above our evidence is mostly causal (lots of people smoked, lots got cancer).
Of course the very fact the Gas industry swiftly deployed their PR attack dogs against Josh Fox, suggests he's hit on a raw nerve. You donâ€™t call out the big gun PR firms unless you have a good reason to be worried. The first I heard of this film was from one of these PR agencies attacking itâ€¦which given that I know how these guys operate (see PR watch or Toxic sludge is good for you! here), suggested to me that the film must be on to somethingâ€¦indeed it sort of suggests that the fossil fuel industry have probably known about these problems for years and are now really upset that someone's finally blown the whistle. Why for example, back in 2001, before the Shale gas drilling boom even started did the Bush adm. exempt Shale Gas drillers from the Clean Water Act? That sort of suggests that they knew something was dodgy from day one.
But I see a simple solution to this whole mess, we make a deal with the Shale gas industry that they can drill wherever they like - but the executives and shareholders, plus their families and children, have to exclusively drink the drinking water from wells harvested around shale gas facilities. How many shale gas wells do you think weâ€™d drill?
But Jokes aside, Gasland is a film that anyone who is even vaguely aware of this thing called â€œthe environmentâ€ needs to go seeâ€¦.somehow!
In 1996 natural gas was found off the North West coast of Mayo by Shell. So began Irelandâ€™s most controversial energy project to date . Since then various local opposition groups have sought to derail and prevent this Corrib gas project, under the umbrella group â€œShell 2 Seaâ€ . This film details the struggle of members of a small local community against the combined forces of a major energy corporation and the Irish State to push through Corrib regardless.
Having said that, I would note that at the time Shell originally proposed the gas field and pipeline route, their preferred pipeline route (which is the crux of all the controversy) struck me as the least worst option from an environmental point of view. Shell 2 Seaâ€™s proposal, while moving the pipe out of certain peopleâ€™s back yards, would be worse for the environment. So itâ€™s not really appropriate to consider this as an â€œenvironmentalistsâ€ against multinational situation, more NIMBYâ€™s against a multinational. Indeed it was sort ironic at times seeing some of them driving around in SUVâ€™s or using cars (or fishing boats!) to block construction never once thinking, well without fossil fuels how would I be able to live?
As someone supportive of renewables, Iâ€™d rather see more offshore wind, tidal and wave energy installed off the west coast instead of gas. But the fact is that 90% of Irelandâ€™s energy comes from fossil fuels (see the graph here), 37% of it from natural gas. Climbing that mountain is going to take decades. In the interim, we are going to need to use some source of fossil fuels and Iâ€™d rather see us use the Irish stuff than importing it from Russia (and if Corrib doesnâ€™t goes ahead this will be the end result). Of course mention the word â€œenvironmentâ€ in Russia and the FSB will spirit you away to the nearest Sushi bar,Â so like I said its about least worse options.
Yes, of all the energy companies picked to exploit Irelands natural resources, I can think of none worse than Shell â€“ who in their right mind pick themâ€¦oh! wait, it was Ray Burke, one of the dodgiest, brown envelope stuffing politicians of recent Irish political history. And I mean we used to call him Ray Burka for his habit of hiding stuff! Anyway, Shell for those who donâ€™t know (again, which rock have you been living under?) have a bit of a â€œreputationâ€ to say the least! The strong arm tactics of the police were brutal, and the way the Irish government just rolled over to corporate power, is controversial. But there is a need to be pragmatic about these things. So altogether both compelling and at the same time slightly humorous viewing.
Of course youâ€™ll notice I said, most controversial to date project. They reckon that thereâ€™s Shale gas up in Fermanagh, and given what happened over Corrib, and all that I said earlier about Shale gas above, I suspect sparks will soon be flying over this soon. If thereâ€™s one positive outcome from Corrib it will be that the Fermanagh proposal gets quietly dropped as the companies will be too afraid of local opposition.
Winds of Change
A short film that showed an alternative approach to the above. Rather than big business coming into a rural community and imposing an energy project (be it a wind farm, gasfield or nuclear plant) for the benefit of people hundreds of miles away and profit of faceless investors, the community of Fintry bought a share in a local renewable energy project. The profits of which are now being ploughed into local community energy projects (loft insulation, renewable heating systems, etc).
I would note that this is nothing new; theyâ€™ve been following this approach in Denmark and Germany for many years now. This may explain the relatively limited opposition to renewables in these countries compared to the rampant NIMBYism in the UK (and Ireland). So definitely a way forward, and a stark contrast to the business model of Shell above or the Shale gas drilling industry.
That said of course, thereâ€™s a limit to how far we can push this paradigm. The majority of us live in large cities which will require some large energy projects if we're going to solve our energy needs. While I would favour as much local involvement as possible, inevitably youâ€™re going to need major corporations involved, at some level, in both for the installation of renewable systems but also the financing of these projects.