Peter Shelton

Myth of the Automatic Earth

Posted in Uncategorized by pshelton on May 31, 2012

I should have seen Under African Skies, the movie about Paul Simon’s controversial album Graceland, on Mountainfilm Saturday.

It was a dry wind

And it swept across the desert

And it curled into the circle of birth

And the dead sand

Falling on the children

The mothers and the fathers

And the automatic earth . . .

Telluride had its very own haboob, or dust storm, on Saturday, as the sky turned gray and wind gusts in the 60s and 70s swirled through the streets, dropping branches and cutting power temporarily to the theaters. Instead, I saw it on Sunday night in the park, under a scimitar moon and brilliant, cold, dust-free skies. The automatic earth reset.

But is the earth automatic still? Will it be able to reset – its climate, its water, its ice – now that we’ve passed seven billion? That was the big question at this year’s gathering of films and film people. A significant percentage of the movies, and the presentations, were about artists, artists becoming activists, particularly when confronted with oppressive governments (Ai WeiWei: Never Sorry), with pigheaded injustice (Bidder 70), and with willful denial in the face of photographic evidence (Chasing Ice). Paul Simon, too, in 1985, defied an international embargo, and accusations he ripped off the natives, to make music with black South Africans in the midst of apartheid.

These are the days of miracle and wonder

This is the long distance call

The way the camera follows us in slow-mo

The way we look to us all . . .

The way we look to Paul Ehrlich is morbidly funny. Ehrlich, the author of the 1968 mind-blower, The Population Bomb, told the symposium audience on Friday that there was in fact one “essential purpose to the automobile – as a place for American teens to have sex.”

Ehrlich was deadly serious, too. He insisted that “population and consumption cannot be separated . . . Starting a war over oil (to burn) is like starting a food war over cyanide (to eat),” he said.

“We will need many Uncle Tom’s Cabins to change the story” of our consumptive trajectory. We have had successes, he added, some hope hedging his bleak humor. “When the time was right, we have changed. We changed consumption patterns completely during World War II, for four years. We had the political will. Our biggest challenge now is to ripen the time. Like the civil rights movement. Like the fall of the Soviet Union.”

What if, a questioner in the audience asked, we found a completely clean energy source, like nuclear fusion? “It would be like giving an idiot child a machine gun,” Ehrlich responded. The consumption would reach berserker stage.

These are the days of lasers in the jungle

Lasers in the jungle somewhere

Staccato signals of constant information

A loose affiliation of millionaires

And billionaires and baby . . .

Journalist Richard Heinberg, author of The End of Growth, told the same symposium that we need to “contemplate a future without growth.” Though, “for politicians, including the Obama administration, there is no getting off the growth treadmill.”

Ehrlich interjected, “There are people in the administration who know the path is insane, and they tell him, and he believes them. But his political advisers tell him he can’t go there, or he won’t get re-elected.”

Poet/biologist Sandra Steingraber, of Cape Cod, was the subject of the film Living Downstream, which chronicled her ongoing struggle against bladder cancer and her investigation into the more than 100,000 toxic chemicals that have been introduced, with little understanding, from pole to pole. As a scientist she knows better than to blame her personal disease on environmental pollution, but her worry, her “living in ambiguity,” is a clear metaphor for the near panic she feels for the planet as a whole.

(My wife, Ellen, who had breast cancer in her 40s, remembers riding bikes with her friends in the cool fog behind the DDT truck on Long Island.)

Steingraber’s newest book is about fracking for natural gas. “We’ve got to stop blowing up the bedrock and setting the results on fire so we can turn on the lights,” she said from the stage at the Palm Theater, her face tight with anger.

Asked if there is a weak spot in the headlong rush to fracking in this country, she said, “Water. Four to 9 million gallons is required to frack each hole. And it’s poisoned. Half of it stays in the ground. Half comes back up, with other poisonous hydrocarbons like benzene. It cannot be cleaned. We’re taking water out of the water cycle forever. We have water to blow up the bedrock, but we don’t have water to grow food? I think most people won’t support that.”

The day I saw Steingraber speak happened to be Rachel Carson’s birthday. Rachel Carson, who was dying of breast cancer in 1963 as she testified before Congress about DDT and other pesticides in the food chain. Rachel Carson, who wrote: “Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.”

The Sierra Club once dubbed Steingraber “the new Rachel Carson.” But once Steingraber learned that the doyen of environmental groups had accepted $25 million from gas-driller Chesapeake Energy, she composed an open letter which began, “Dear, Sierra Club, I’m through with you. Call some other writer your new Rachel Carson . . . The hard truth: National Sierra Club served as the political cover for the gas industry and for the politicians who take their money and do their bidding.”

The way we look to a distant constellation

That’s dying in a corner of the sky

These are the days of miracle and wonder

And don’t cry baby, don’t cry

Don’t cry.