Environmental Surf Film Journeys into the Great Bear Rainforest

Part enviro documentary, part surf film, Tipping Barrels was created by Canadian surf brand Sitka, in collaboration with Pacific Wild. Although the film has a clear message, it doesn’t feel too “activist.” My impression is that the team set out to produce a work of art first and an advocacy piece second. As a result, you can appreciate the beautiful shots of rainforest and wildlife without delving into politics–at the same time, you can’t help but realize how much beauty and life is at stake.

I think this is a smart way to produce a documentary, even from an activist perspective. Tipping Barrels doesn’t preach. It’s basically a story of two guys looking to catch some waves off the coast of British Columbia. The stunning landcape visuals draw you in, and the poignant interviews make an understated but undeniable point.

Background: Oil and Rainforests Don’t Mix

The Enbridge Northern Gateway, the pipeline mentioned in the film, would pump tar sands  over 2,000 miles from Alberta to British Columbia (map here)–think of it as Keystone XL’s northern cousin. Like TransCanada’s project, the Northern Gateway is intended to help Canadian tar sands companies reach growing markets in Asia. In doing so, it will cross hundreds of streams and rivers, ending at the port of Kitimat in the Great Bear Rainforest.

Enbridge’s Northern Gateway has the distinction of threatening one of the most pristine temperate ecosystems in the world. From Kitimat, tankers would carry the oil along British Columbia’s rugged coastline, home to a huge range of wildlife, from the economically essential salmon to the enigmatic spirit bear.

The industrial infrastructure needed to ship oil would be destructive enough by itself. And I don’t even need to describe what an oil spill on the B.C. coast would entail–just picture BP’s mess in a rainforest. Even something on the scale of the recent Montana oil spill would be disastrous.

The Northern Gateway faces stiff opposition, especially from First Nations communities, who have united against the pipeline. Largely due to the controversy, the final decision on Enbridge’s proposal has been delayed until 2013. But, like Keystone XL, the Northern Gateway has a lot of money and political power behind it, so it’s definitely not dead yet.

The Hobbit House Revisited, in Honor of the Upcoming Film

After watching the trailer for The Hobbit, don’t you find yourself longing to live (or at least vacation) in Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, maybe in the Shire, in a cozy house built under a hill?

What, you dont? Well, even if you’ve never dreamed of hanging out with elves and dragons, you have to appreciate this “Low Impact Woodland Home” (aka Hobbit house).

You’re not looking at a movie set. Simon Dale built this eco-friendly house into a hillside in Wales–all for less than $5,000. Just three zeros–that’s not a typo.

But don’t let its low cost fool you: the home is packed with green features, including locally sourced wood, a composting toilet, a turf roof, and solar panels for energy. Like an earthship, the Hobbit-house is designed with nature in mind. The owners explain:

The house was built with maximum regard for the environment and by reciprocation gives us a unique opportunity to live close to nature….Building from natural materials does away with producers’ profits and the cocktail of carcinogenic poisons that fill most modern buildings.

Hobbit house interiorThis sustainable approach might not be too far from Tolkien’s vision of the Hobbit’s Shire. While not exactly an environmentalist, the famous author was distrustful of industrialism (he despised automobiles in particular). Tolkien’s Hobbits live in a peaceful, agrarian community, in harmony with nature. Through them, industrialization is presented as a nightmare.

As I wrote in 2009,

The villains of Middle-Earth fell ancient trees and burn them to fuel forges, which are used to build machines and weapons of war.  Orcs ravage the forest indiscriminately, and Sauron, the supreme enemy, is infamous for laying waste to once-beautiful lands.  In TLotR, these actions are portrayed as purely evil, yet they are not so different from the exploitation of nature by today’s industries.

The Hobbit House, under construction

In short, Tolkien would probably approve of the Hobbit house’s philosophy. It’s enlightening to see that sustainable architecture doesn’t require expensive technology or a LEED plaque.

Mr. Dale insists that this style of home is relatively easy to build. He even provides Hobbit house plans and construction techniques on his site, in case you’d like to give it a try.

And why not? If you’ve ever wanted to create your own eco-friendly home, The Hobbit’s new pop culture status should give you a great excuse.

Photos: Simon Dale

Urban Roots: Rebuilding Detroit with Community Farming

Poster by Shepard Fairey

The Motor City may once have been a model of the American industrial dream, a booming example of progress in the age of big business. However, the auto industry exodus and massive population collapse that followed have left the much of the city literally in ruins.

As the people of Detroit moved out, so did many businesses. One result is that hundreds of thousands of Detroiters now live in a “food desert,” an area where healthy, quality food is extremely difficult to find. The population, often low-income, is forced to rely on fast food. In the wealthiest country on earth, equal access to nutritious food is a serious problem.

Produced by Leila Conners and Mathew Schmid and directed by Mark MacInnis, Urban Roots tells the story of Detroiters working to revive their city and change the food desert into an oasis. Their solution? Urban farming. Their goal? To “turn Motown into Growtown.”

The film is narrated by the farmers and community members themselves, who range from reformed convicts to bearded tree huggers, with a strong base of everyday urbanites in between. The American Dream has failed them, and many are disillusioned with industrialism. “I don’t think we need to Wal-Martize anything in this city ever again,” one organizer says.

Urban Roots is not about disillusionment, though. It’s about a varied group of people taking their situation into their own hands and developing Detroit’s vast plots of neglected land into a network of farms. The plan, according to one farmer, is to “create a model where people can make a living on an acre of land, either as a collective or as individuals.” Another grower explains, “We’re not waiting on anybody to give us a grant or to give us funds. This is something that we see a need for and we’re making it happen.”

Here lies the interesting paradox of community farming in Detroit. We see the progressive idea of workers reclaiming land, sharing the means of production, resisting big capitalism. There is even a subversive nature in the farms, as many operate under the radar, outside of development laws. On the other hand, we see disadvantaged people helping themselves, not asking for for government handouts or charity–a concept that has been labeled “conservative.”

In fact, free enterprise is at the heart of the urban farming model. For example, Earthworks Urban Farm grows and distributes 100,000 seedlings throughout the city. The aim is to encourage low-income or unemployed Detroiters to produce and sell their own food, working to become more self-sufficient.

In the end, the urban farming movement shown in Urban Roots is not a political statement but a proactive response to a problem. If successful, the concept of small-scale, decentralized farming could be applied to communities in similar situations. Kathryn Underwood, an urban planner interviewed in the film, says that “Detroit has an opportunity to redefine urbanism and to redefine what happens to a post-industrial city.”

One question remains: Does the urban farming system work? This is actually difficult to answer, partly because several different models are being used in Detroit. One farm, for instance, operates as a non-profit, allowing passersby to pick as many vegetables as they like, for free. Another hires neighborhood workers and sells its produce at markets and to restaurants. Along the way, it introduces city kids to the wonders of nature.

When it comes to farming in cities like Detroit, I think we need a new definition of “success.” Success in the corporate world, including the ag industry, means maximizing size and profits. But that model didn’t work for Detroit.

The new (or not so new) thinking demonstrated by the farmers in Urban Roots is not to feed a whole city in one stroke, but to grow food, jobs and lifestyles one community at at time. And at the core of the movement is something big business tends to ignore–the human element.

Urban Roots documents the practice of urban farming and does an good job of it. But what leaves you inspired as you eject the disc is the impression of how much true grassroots efforts can accomplish when rebuilding a collapsed community.

In films as well as businesses, it seems the human element makes the difference.

[Images courtesy of Urban Roots Film.]

Alexandra Cousteau’s Ocean of Doubt film shows human face of Gulf oil spill

Four months after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Alexandra Cousteau visited the Gulf states to talk with residents about how the disaster impacted their lives. Her short film Ocean of Doubt: Polluted Waters, Broken Communities seeks to highlight the human tragedy that has followed the environmental wreckage.

The coastal people Alexandra interviewed seem to share a concern–whom can they trust to tell them whether their communities are safe? How will they know if the waters they rely on are poisoned? These questions remain unanswered, even as the mainstream media moves on to other stories.

Oceans of Doubt doesn’t provide the answers, but it does lend a human face to our country’s worst “environmental” disaster. Both simple and poignant, the film is well worth a watch.