Ten Square Miles

An Environmental Activism Resource

Author: Emily Delucia

Cowspiracy: A Response

The 2014 documentary Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret, Kip Anderson, an avid environmentalist, embarks on a mission to uncover the secret to truly sustainable living, in the process discovering the one thing no environmental organizations want to talk about, agro-industry. Making up about 50% of all greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, cattle raising and the meat industry account for more carbon emissions than any other industry, but still most organizations refuse to address the issue, making it seem as though there is some sort of conspiracy in which everyone simply agreed to turn their heads to the growing issue of environmental sustainability when it relates to the agriculture industry. Because of the content of the documentary, the film’s original financial backer pulled out, leaving Anderson to crowfund the work. Despite its “controversial” nature, Anderson managed to surpass his fundraising expectations and deliver a poignant performative documentary condemning America’s unsustainable practices, specifically in relation to the agro-industry.

Early on in the film, Kip establishes himself as a strong environmentalist and a fan of Al Gore. His personal interest in the topic of environmental sustainability establishes his credibility and right to make the film. With Anderson as the center point of the film, it is easy for the audience to establish and emotional connection with a human entity. It is also an important persuasive element in the documentary and, in a sense, peer pressure. Because Kip Anderson is experiencing a transformation in thinking, the audience feels pressured to do so as well. As Anderson makes a resolution to become vegan, it persuades the audience to look into veganism as well.

The interviews with different organizations are one of the most affective elements of the work. Kip Anderson attempts to get interviews with as many major environmental organization as he can as well as pro-agriculture industry lobbyists. The interviews themselves as well as Kip’s inability to secure interviews with organizations such as Green Peace are interesting and surprising in that not a single organizations or spokesperson “felt comfortable” answering questions on the agro-industry, as if it was a secret, as if the human need for a cheeseburger is more important than the planet’s need to survive. Some people even went so far as to claim that a change in attitude towards consumerism in the agriculture industry was impossible for the American people despite the fact that the documentary is a testament of the opposite. While it’s impossible for a documentary to be completely objective, Kip does present as many viewpoints as he can while still persuading the audience against meat and of the importance of sustainability.

On a personal level, I was very moved by Cowspiracy. I had been considering vegetarianism for many years, but after watching the documentary finally decided to make the switch over with long term plans to become vegan. It’s difficult to watch that film and continue to consuming meat. It isn’t something I can do in good conscience any longer, not when it takes millions of gallons of water to produce one cheeseburger. The depletion of our natural resources is not worth that small amount of meat.

An impactful moment in the film was the slaughtering of the ducks in the man’s backyard as well as the scenes with the kids, saying that they can’t become too attached to the pigs. Not only was it difficult to watch a living creature get its head chopped off, but it was difficult to hear the children that couldn’t form an emotional connection with the very loving pigs that they raised. As a pet owner and someone that loves animals, it seems natural to form connections with animals and nearly impossible to avoid it. As someone who recently lost a pet, I couldn’t imagine watching animals die over and over again for the sake of a few bites of meat.

Eating meat is not sustainable, not with the amount of resources the cattle and livestock consume, not with the unsustainability of grass-fed cattle. There seems to be nothing at all sustainable about the industry, something to which even the farmers own. If it does anything, Cowspiracy makes it clear that humans must change their way of life. Humans must become sustainable. Humans must consider giving up meat and becoming vegan or risk losing our planet forever.

3 EcoFeminist books to get you started

The environmental movement is no stranger to feminism, from female scientists Rachel Carson playing an important role in getting the environmental movement off the ground to the housewives of Love Canal fighting for their health and their environment. Feminism and environmentalism are closely interwoven. Through the years there have been a number of influential eco-feminist books. Here’s just a few to get you started.

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  1. EcoFeminism by Maria Mies and Vandana Shiva

A book written by an economist and a physicist, EcoFeminism discusses the troubling relationship between the patriarchy and environmental degradation. This book takes a philosophical approach to the deterioration of nature by drawing on female perspectives from both North and South. Mies and Shiva argue for a new approach and commitment to the environment as well as acceptance of the limits of our Earth.

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  1. Feminism and the Mystery of Nature by Val Plumwood

In her book on feminist theory and the environment, Plumwood critiques western philosophy and the “logic of colonialism” in how it controls both nature and women. This insightful book details the relationship between ecology and the patriarchy and the way in which feminist theory is closely related to both.

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  1. EcoFeminist Philosophy: A Western Perspective on What It Is and Why It Matters by Karen J. Warren

This book examines the unjust domination of women and the environment by the patriarchal structures at play in the western world. Warren details the way in which feminist philosophy can contribute to a better understanding of environmental issues and the aspects of the movement that lend itself to changing western male ideals of power and control.

Gasland: A Response

Josh Fox takes an exciting new look at the hydraulic fracturing industry in his documentary “GasLand.” In this captivating film, Fox informs his audience of the dangers of hydro fracking through his own personal story and journey to uncover the truth. As he travels through the United States examining the mysterious natural gas industry, the viewer travels with him. The music, narration, and cinematography of “GasLand” give it a personal and homemade style which makes it an all- around persuasive documentary that exposes the dangers, and health and environmental hazards of hydraulic fracturing.

The film opens to a conference or a committee of officials in the hydro fracking industry discussing the benefits of hydro fracking, the “research” that has been done on the effects of fracking. This is what the public sees. This is what the public is shown and this immediately sets the tone for the rest of the documentary. From the initial image of Fox in front of the fracking wells with his banjo to this look into the hearing on the effects of fracking, it is clear this documentary will be a satirical dismantling of a huge, multi-faceted industry. Switch to Josh Fox, his personal story. In the house his parents built in Pennsylvania, Fox and his siblings grew up surrounded by nature and water. Fox establishes a relationship with his audience from the beginning by sharing the story of his childhood and demonstrating the personal connection he has to nature and to the fracking industry. By sharing the offer a fracking company made on his land, he gives himself credibility as someone with ties to the industry, as a person with something to lose. His personal story also establishes a reason for making the film. The narration over the beginning sets a mood, one a pessimism, even when discussing his family and childhood. The optimism of his relationship with his family and nature is tempered by the threat of hydraulic fracturing in the land he holds so dear.

Fox sets out on his adventure to uncover the truth of hydro fracking, getting in contact with people who have been negatively impacted. From contaminated drinking water to health decline, interviews with victims provide solid and appalling evidence to persuade the viewer. One of the most shocking and necessary elements of the film is the issue with the drinking water. Fox makes sure to give this issue adequate screen time and narrowing in on that one issue gives the documentary a focus and an element that lends itself to the cohesiveness of the film. Without it, the documentary would seem haphazard with disconnected parts. The editing of the film makes it easy to follow along and engaging. It keeps you waiting to find out what happens with the drinking water, what chemicals are found, what testimony do people have against hydro fracking? It adds a layer of suspense when discussing an otherwise fairly dull subject.  This emphasizes the industry’s dependency on a finite resource and the subsequent destruction of that resource, something that is detrimental to personal health and safety. Is the extraction of natural gas worth the destruction of the planet that provides it or the people that live on it? These are the questions that Fox poses, giving the audience adequate material to form their own opinion on the subject and making every attempt to provide alternate views in his documentary, although the fracking company’s decline interviews countless times.

The cinematography is a key element to the film. Fox doesn’t use flashy equipment, cameras, and mics. He doesn’t have a massive crew. He’s a man and a camera, sharing a story. The image quality is at times grainy a gritty which lends itself to the raw subject matter and destruction of the natural landscape. Whereas many documentaries force a level of separation between the content and the audience through the use of epic and well-constructed cinematography, “GasLand” keeps the viewers up close and personal as Fox’s personal journey and the documenting of that journey is not hard to attain. He constantly emphasizes the fact that he is an ordinary guy looking for answers. Fox even rejected the high quality profession voice narration in favor of his homemade narration done at four in the morning as the documentary wasn’t meant to be scripted and planned in detail. It was always meant to be a very organic look into the damaging effects of the fracking industry.

Overall, “GasLand” challenges the notions that fracking companies have pushed down our throats and says that we need to open our eyes to the destruction of our planet. The one negative aspect of the film is the utter hopelessness one feels after watching it. The intense and melancholy music in the background can become taxing and his monotone narration through the whole film leaves the viewer with very little hope of enacting change. Fox also makes very little attempt to provide ways individuals can change the industry as not every individual has land on the Marcellus Shale. However, that being said, it is a well-constructed documentary that keeps its target audience as wide as possible and effectively persuades viewers of the severity of the situation.

The Ugly Truth About Cosmetics

It’s difficult, through the layers of mascara and foundation, to see how harmful the cosmetics industry is to the environment. So many companies these days simply slap the word “natural” in front their product and ignore how wildly problematic the word is. Between trends and cost and packaging and chemicals, the cosmetics industry, while it looks pretty on the surface is anything but.

Pink, glittery, and gorgeous, cosmetics look innocent enough until you look at the label. Most cosmetics currently sold in stores are full of damaging chemicals, waiting to wreak havoc on the environment when they are washed down your drain. Those gorgeous lipsticks might just be full of P-phenylenediamine, a chemical toxic to aquatic ecosystems. Over periods of time, it can diminish the plankton population and even kills many aquatic species.  Dioxane, a chemical found in many cosmetics such as shampoos, conditioners, moisturizers, and soaps, is a carcinogenic chemical, costly to remove from products, although possible, and fatal to insects and fish populations. This list goes on and on with triclocan which changes the biochemistry of amphibians, and DBP which can change the biochemistry, genetics, and growth of fish when washed down the drain. When cosmetics go down the drain to tamper with the aquatic eco-system, what becomes of the rest of the world? All life on Earth is dependent on water and if that water and life in that water has experienced chemical alteration, so will the rest of the Earth.

Not only this, but cosmetics packaging in incredibly harmful to the environment. Because of the numerous chemicals in each products, the packaging must be made out of material durable about not to corrode when in contact with the products. This means that the plastic is more difficult and will simply sit in landfills as more and more plastic bottles and packages accumulate. Such packaging is costly not only to the environment, but also when compared to the cost of homemade and truly natural cosmetics products in reusable containers.

 

The latest trend in cosmetics is throwing “natural” in front of every name and product. Consumers want to feel as though they are being less harmful to the environment by buying a product made from natural ingredients. However, in order to cash in on this trend, many cosmetics companies are looking towards acquiring natural products through farming and mining. However, it is not cost-effective to harvest these ingredients sustainably. They farm through pesticides and toxins to increase yield, doing more damage than good, effectively eliminating anything natural about their product.

However, that’s not to say that someone must forego their favorite beauty regimen. There are cosmetics companies that stay true to the “natural” label. http://makeup.allwomenstalk.com/natural-makeup-products-that-arent-harmful-to-your-skin-or-the-environment provides a rundown of some top-notch makeup products that won’t harm people or the environment. Not only is buying from eco-friendly cosmetic companies an option, but making homemade products can be beneficial as well. Not only is it a safe way to ensure that the ingredients in the products are natural and safe, but it also reduces, even eliminating wasteful packaging. The ugly truth about cosmetic companies is that they damage the environment, but by being eco-friendly in personal beauty routines, people can reduce the risk to the environment and potentially make lasting change in the beauty industry.

 

The Reality of Fiction

This past weekend I watched Mad Max: Fury Road for I think about the ninth time. Of course, I was struck by the gorgeous cinematography and flawless editing, but more than that I was struck by the landscape. The desert stretched out for miles and although I was comfortably seated on couch and outside my window were hundreds of trees, I felt that all I could see was the desert. Setting aside the problematic fact that the film industry is, in many ways, harmful to the environment and that Mad Max is in no way a truly environmental production, blowing up several cars and trucks in the production process, the film and others like it, can act as guidelines for what could become of the Earth and its resources if we let it.

The film Mad Max essentially reads as a crystal ball for every environmental nightmare of our time. What would happen if the human race were to consume resources at the current rate? Deforestation, water shortage, a strange cult-like attachment to cars, human fighting human in an attempt to secure what precious few resources remain. Despite the film being science fiction, the reality of the situation may not be so far-fetched.

Human have never consumed resources at the current rate or experienced environmental degradation at the current rate. While the production team originally meant to film in Australia, they eventually relocated to Namibia. According to rumors and reports from locals, the production team conducted themselves with very little concern for the environment, ironic due to the subject matter of the film. Some reports say the production team brought in extra sand and glues branches onto already unhealthy trees. However, this aside, the location of the film provides an interesting contrast to American life.

Namibian citizens produce nearly 1/16th of the carbon emissions of Australians or Americans, due largely to the fact that only 34% of Namibians enjoy the amenity of electricity. While it is nearly unthinkable for Americans or citizens of first world countries to relinquish the luxuries to which they are accustomed, the comparison between Namibia and America is an important one. Sustainability is about balance. If we continue to consume, there will be no planet left to consume. While no one necessarily is suggesting Americans give up electricity and running water in favor of living off the land, it would do everyone well to look to other nations that do not experience modern amenities and maybe take note of the way in which they interact with the environment. It would not be so difficult for Americans to become more conscience of their consumption habits and to attempt to change, even a little. If we do not, it is not so difficult to tell where we may be in 10, 15, 50 years. The fiction of film may one day be our reality.

Tips to Make the Switch to Waste-Free

More and more we hear tales of people who make the switch to a zero waste lifestyle, completely eliminating harmful products, packaging, and plastics from their life. These people generate absolutely no trash. This is becoming a growing trend and one to be proud of. Not everyone will go 100% waste free, but if everyone adopted just a few waste eliminating practices, the environment might stand a chance. Here are a few tips to eliminate waste from your life and take a step toward becoming completely waste free.

  1. Ditch the disposables

You would be surprised how much plastic you throw out without even knowing it. Getting rid of disposables means bringing your own bags and containers to the supermarket, replacing paper towels with cloth towels, and packing your own lunch which doesn’t just benefit the environment, but benefits you as well.

2. Compost, Compost, Compost

It’s easy to throw out whatever food you don’t eat, just toss it in the garbage and it’s out of sight, out of mind, but not only is composting quick, it is amazing for the environment. If you’re able, try setting up a compost in your backyard and whatever food or leftovers you can’t eat can go back into the Earth. If you aren’t able to compost right from your own house, it may take more thought, but you can find composting sites not too far from you at http://www.findacomposter.com/

3. Buy secondhand

It’s no secret how harmful clothing manufacturing is to the environment. Clothing makes up  3% of all global emissions. Buying clothes secondhand not only saves cute clothes from the trash, but decreases demand for new products and for manufacturing plants.

4.  Make your own supplies

It’ll take some research and time, but making your own cleaning supplies and cosmetics not only eliminates the waste from packaging, but also cuts down on the harsh chemicals in many products. Finding natural alternatives such as vinegar and baking soda for cleaning and trying out beauty products like an all natural eggnog hair mask for the holidays can be a fun experiment beneficial for both you and the planet.

While it may at first seem impossible to completely eliminate waste from your life, with perseverance, change can happen. Start small, one change at a time and you’ll be there, living a zero waste lifestyle in no time.

The Environmental Art of Andy Goldsworthy

Art has always been an essential part of the environmental movement, some artists such as Sayaka Kajita using reclaimed material in sculptures and photographs. More often than not, it is the use of man-made trash or reclaimed products to convey some sort of message about the degradation of the environment. However, one important environmental artist, Andy Goldsworthy, knows that sometimes the best collaborator is not material created by man, but material provided by the Earth.

The British sculptor lives and works in Scotland, creating pieces solely out of material he finds in nature and photographing the artwork upon completion. What makes Goldsworthy’s pieces so impactful is that they last as long as nature does. While he may photograph them, the essence of the piece is in the materials, the leaves and stones, and in the way they change with the world around them. He was once quoted saying, “A stone is ingrained with geological and historical memories.”  It is that appreciation for the material that makes Goldsworthy’s art so lively, so ecstatically beautiful. The piece lives and then it dies. The art becomes of part of the stones memory and the stone becomes part of the art.

Although most of his installments are done in nature, many of them without an audience, Goldsworthy worked with stone for an installment at the National art gallery in 2004, titled roof. The installment featured domes made of stacked slate, dealing with his interest in the human passage through time. Goldsworthy had done several pieces like it, fashioning domes out of less durable materials like leaves and twigs.

What is so striking about Goldsworthy’s work is that he is able to create a piece using only the materials in the natural world. He can patiently piece together sculptors that will topple over in mere moments. Goldsworthy is a model of peaceful collaboration and creation with the Earth and a model to follow. Not only does he see the beauty in the Earth, but he enhances that beauty without destroying it. It is possible to use the planet without misusing the planet. One of the most important lessons from Goldsworthy’s art is that the Earth will be there long after we are. Humans can create and build and destroy, but it will all amount to nothing if we cannot coexist with the planet. He builds a sculpture with the Earth and allows the materials to return to the Earth in their own time. He doesn’t rush the artistic process and allows nature to take its course without interfering, something all humans must emulate if we are to survive as a species.

A Response to Waste Land

Waste Land is a documentary made in 2010 about Vik Muniz and his activism through art as well as the garbage pickers that construct the art. This documentary is highly performative because of Muniz’s personal stake in the work. Having grown up poor, Muniz’s purpose in the film is not only to create art and raise awareness for the dangerous nature of garbage picking and the squalor in which some people live, but also to give back to individual people and to try to change a few lives through art.

The film itself is very beautiful visually. The idea that art can be used as a mode of social change is not a new one, but certainly it was lovely to incorporate the art into the lives of the pickers. While the film may not be overtly environmental, the fact that the subject matter is based on the largest landfill in Brazil means that the subtext is consistently environmental which makes it even more impactful than if the focus has been environmental. Rather than looking at the effect to the Earth as most environmental documentaries do, it focuses on the effect to the humans of the Earth, the way it affects their socioeconomic status and health. It is often difficult to identify with traditional environmental documentaries specifically because of that lack of human connection. Establishing a human presence as the center of the film makes it easier to connect on the environmental issues it presents.

Muniz establishes early on that his focus of the art is to create change in the lives of individual garbage pickers. However, the purpose of the documentary is more unclear. The proceeds of the art itself go to the pickers, but what about the documentary? Is it for publicity? Is it to raise awareness? Vik Muniz’s overwhelming presence in the film makes it seem to be for publicity, something that comes across as self-centered, as though Muniz has some sort of savior complex.

The interviews and stories of the garbage pickers are the most effective part of the documentary, even more so than the art. Learning the stories of the pickers, their personal struggles, is not only a powerful motivating factor for social change, but also provides important environmental commentary. The people who work amongst the garbage, collecting recyclables, know better than anyone the damaging and wasteful effects consumerism has on our planet and hearing their testimony about their work is moving. It is difficult to say what exactly Muniz’s environmental message is. Though the pickers have an obvious love and appreciation for the environment, many hate their job. In the end the landfill closes, leaving the garbage to go somewhere else, and the art made simply becomes another part of the consumerist culture many of the picker’s warn against. The environmental message of the film, when examined closely, becomes rather hypocritical. How can someone make an art piece than condemns the consumerist culture that creates landfills and fills the Earth with trash only to turn around and sell that art piece, allowing yet more people to become an active part of the consumer culture?

Despite Muniz’s best intentions, there is a moral issue with the film. Garbage picking is a difficult and dangerous line of work, but for many, it is their only way to get by. Muniz takes people from that work for several weeks to create art from that garbage. Afterwards, most of those people don’t want to go back to garbage picking. My biggest dilemma with the film is the question of, is it moral, is it right, to remove people from their work, the way they support themselves, and show them a more beautiful, easier, cultural world  knowing that they will have to return to the garbage? Of course, the pickers have a course of whether or not they want to participate, but is it right of Muniz to ask in the first place when he can give them little else than a few weeks of freedom?

Another issue I took with the film was the performative nature of it. The focus of the film seemed to be more on Muniz and less on the people he was supposedly trying to help. The film read more as a misguided attempt at a personal charity mission to make himself feel better. In the end, the work of the garbage pickers is displayed in an upscale gallery surrounded by upper class people, many of whom have never experienced and can never understand the poverty these people experience. The first image one sees upon entrance into the gallery is, in fact, a picture of Muniz’s face, essentially taking complete credit for the weeks of work these pickers did. That being said, the large print of his photograph was sold and the money given to the subject of the photo which was a beautiful work of charity. It would have been more effective if the film was used less for personal publicity and more as an actual means of change.

Waste Land is an entertaining film and on the surface seems like an effective environmental piece, but when examined closer falls short in many areas. The formal elements such as personal interviews and stories, cinematography, editing are all well- constructed and thoughtful, but the message of the film is unclear and, at times, hypocritical. It seems to condemn a consumerist culture only to promote it in the end and Muniz seems to use the documentary more for publicity than for real social activism.

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