Saturday, June 12, 2010

Thoughts On "Avatar" And The Environment

Finally saw "Avatar" last night. And while the film is kind of a mash up of so many other films ("The Matrix," "Pocahontas," "Aliens," and maybe even a few others) I have to say I really, really enjoyed it. We saw it on our TV, which is nice, functional model, but hardly one of those home-theater jobs you hear about. Having said that, the visuals, even on our relatively lo-fi unit, were extremely impressive, but I can only imagine how this movie must have looked in 3D, preferably on a really, really big screen, like an IMAX. The conclusion that must be drawn here is that this must have been the greatest movie to see stoned of all time.

It's funny, you see the movie, and end up really rooting against the earthlings, i.e., us. I have to say it's not the first time I've had to reach this same conclusion as I watched a movie, although the other few times it may not have been what the film makers intended. ("Avatar" is about how we go to a pristine planet and try to destroy its eco-system in order to mine out a rare, energy-producing rock.)

Remember that scene in "The Matrix" where Agent Smith has Neo captive and starts to rip on humanity, talking about how its a virus, and uses up all the natural resources of a planet? Even though Smith was the obvious bad guy in the movie I kind of found myself nodding along as he said that, all too aware of how much we've depleted the planet. I almost said raped the planet, but that term has been so overused it almost has no meaning anymore.

Anyway, if you haven't seen "Avatar" yet--i.e. you are one of the three other people on the planet like us--I can recommend. It totally holds your interest for almost three hours, and is visually like no other movie that's ever been made. Even on the small screen.


I do realize I've been writing about the oil spill on this blog quite a bit. But it's been so hard for me to simply move onto other subjects and forget about it.

I've been, in my own way, an environmentalist for about two decades. I remember reading a "Time" magazine when I was in high school that talked about global warming and how the planet is in peril. It made an impact on me. This was probably in the late 80s, or so. At the time there were already more than a few people who were interested in these topics, but it hadn't quite gone mainstream yet.

When I was 19 years old I spent a summer canvassing door to door for the New Jersey Public Interest Research Group, aka PIRG. I was raising awareness and donations to ensure that the New Jersey government does its part to buy more recycled goods, helping to create a larger and more sustainable market for recycled products. The idea was to create legislature that would force this into being, as there was lots of recycled supply but, at that point, very little demand. Recycled goods cost more, so by and large people didn't buy them. Instead the recycled cans, paper, you name it would end up, brace yourself, in landfills just the same. So people would spend all this time separating out trash, and feeling that they were doing something worthy and important, but the results were simply not there.

It was a great education. Many people saw my side of things, but of course there were then and remain now many people who simply wanted to continue to stick their heads in the sand and forget that we actually have an impact on our planet and that what we do matters, for good or, mostly, ill.

I solicited donations, anywhere from $25 to however much the people could or would give. I wasn't the best canvasser, but I held my own. On a good day the magic mark you wanted to cross was $100 in donations. If you failed to do that on a regular basis PIRG would let you go. The idea was that if you were a bad canvasser they had to remove you because you could actively ruin a potential source of donations for years to come.

I mean it's not necessarily all that easy to ask people for money. We had a script, which we were required to memorize. We were allowed to go off the script a little, but mostly we were asked to simply stick with the materials given to us, and to not BS or improvise. We were told, of course, to never lie or mis-represent PIRG, and if we didn't know the answer to a question we were told to not make something up.

The response from people was as varied as you could imagine. I remember that there was a bit of a cold, rainy snap in the middle of July and one home-owner, a guy, said something to me that implied this showed how silly it was for us to believe in global warming. At this point I did in fact go off the script and start to debate/argue with the guy, about how weather and climate are really not one and the same thing, and how most of the world's leading scientists who actually study the subject believe global warming is real, how many of the hottest years in recent memory were lumped into the past decade (it was true then, more true now) and the rest. But you can't get blood from a stone.

Mostly people kind of looked at me like, "can I go now?" Although there were more than a few people who were actually interested in the subject and wanted to talk, and in some cases, talk and talk. These people typically would donate. Basically if you could get someone to chat for five minutes or so it was virtually a lock that they would donate, because after a while they would feel guilty for taking up your time, and started to think of you as a shining example of a young person doing something good for the world (as compared to playing video games all day, etc.) and they wanted to encourage this.

Here was the thing: you had to get them to write a check on the spot. Many people would say that instead of donating now they would be happy to read some literature, think about it, and then send in money, but the fact is they almost never did. If you left someone with some papers and a postcard it was 99% guaranteed that they would forget about it. So you had to become adept at closing the deal.

It was an interesting summer in many ways. Working outside was always surprising. I got caught in heavy downpours more than a few times, and never actually seemed to have an umbrella when it mattered the most. I really enjoyed seeing what my fellow citizens thought about the environmental issues of the day, even if the majority didn't seem to think much of it. I saw, even then, some random misdirected rage toward the government -- one guy talked about going to Washington and hanging everyone, which seemed to make no sense to me then or now. When I hear this I can't help but always think the same thing: yeah, but WE voted these people in.

Since my co-workers were all people around my age there were also a ton of really good parties and lots of post-work socializing and hanging out. There was also a wild weekend retreat for all the PIRG chapters on the East Coast at a place called Paradox Lake that featured the raciest game of "I Never" (surely the easiest drinking game of all time)ever played, and lots of other assorted party activities that I won't get into here. It was a good time.

The people that canvassed with me came from a lot of different backgrounds, one guy I remember was formerly in the Army, another was an early queer rights activist. The group was mostly liberal, as you can imagine, but not entirely of the far left variety. Some were not politically affiliated with any party, some were actually in other ways conservative. I remember the person I looked up to the most, my direct boss, was actually pro-life. It was cool, there was room for everyone.

Mostly we were really psyched that Bill Clinton looked likely to win the presidential election, because the Reagan/Bush years were really black ones for the environment. Reagan, of course, made his first Secretary of the Interior a man named James Watt, who never saw a national park he didn't want to mine and then turn into a strip mall, and George Bush the elder had something called the "Council On Competitiveness" which was mostly dedicated to repealing environmental regs deemed burdensome to big business; that would be all of them, by the way.

Clinton didn't live up to everyone's expectations, but for the environment he was a step in the right direction versus his two predecessors. He made huge tracts of land into public monuments, meaning the land can't be developed, it must be left as it is. Much of this was in the West, over the vehement objections of the locals, who didn't want any of this. Mostly they seemed to care more then, and now, about the right to use their various off-roaders and SUVs wherever the hell they pleased, consequences be dammed. I didn't feel too bad about them losing some of their off-roading privileges, then or now.

Even today we, I mean my family, live a relatively low-impact lifestyle here at BBD Estates. We do have a car, it's true, but it's an older model that gets good gas mileage. For most day to day trips we still use public transportation. We eat relatively little red meat, though we are not vegetarians. We mostly avoid the consumerist trap of having to own the latest gadgets, most of which are environmentally poisonous. Our computer is five years old. When it started to run slow we replaced the central processor and had it rebooted, rather than get a new one. My cell phone is five years old. Most of my clothes are years old, my sneakers are years old, as are my shoes. Stella wears a lot of hand-me-downs, we are shameless, we will take them from anyone. Randi sets a weekly menu that is healthy, delicious and, again, relatively low impact in terms of animal proteins. Our TV is a hand-me-down from my brother, our DVD player is a decade old, you get the picture.

I was also very proud of our efforts, spearheaded by Randi, to use low-impact diapers for much of Stella's life, though we've kind of moved away from that in the past couple of months. (This was because we had to pack everything away during our bed bug scare, and couldn't find our various G-Diaper covers.)

Our big extravagance is air conditioning. The fact is, I don't love that we have to use this, but it's very hard to get around it in NYC in the summer. Stella's room has terrible air circulation and gets extremely hot. We bought her a portable AC unit that is about the size of R2-D2, and it works extremely well. Otherwise we have a pair of units that we can't use all at once, or our fuses blow.

I make no claims that we are the ultimate green family. But I do think our lifestyle is relatively low impact versus the average American family's. It just seems like so many people bought SUVs when gas was cheap because they could and it was the thing to do. Then, later, they talked themselves into believing they "needed" it. It's funny how quickly they once again didn't need it when gas became really expensive.

Many of us live in houses that are way too big for our needs, which are both expensive to heat in the winter and expensive to cool in the summer. So many homes today have high, high ceilings that make the room ever-harder to climate control. You get the picture.

One of the reasons I like living in a city is because I like taking public transportation for most major inter-city trips, and living in a higher-density area because it aligns with what I believe in environmentally. Higher-density living is kinder to the planet, because the living spaces are smaller, requiring fewer resources, and in NYC most heat is steam-driven, which is relatively kind to the environment.

I don't believe that we have to be in a place like this forever, however, and do realize that as children grow, and families grow, we might need more space. I just hope we take our ethics with us when that happens. I am not too worried about it, though.


dpflaster said...

I found myself rooting for the machines just a little bit in "Matrix" also. Truthfully, these days I long for the coming of strong AI more and more - Humanity 1.0 is proving itself to be incompetent, and it's time to upgrade. I do hope we find a way to merge with the machines rather than become obsolete.

David Serchuk said...

Hi Don,
Maybe it's not that hard to understand why we would root for the machines when our human protagonist is Keanu Reeves.

As far as merging with the machines goes, I think of that Onion headline from a few years ago: "Cool Cyber-Grannie Needs Machines To Live."

And I also hope we don't become obsolete, but rather learn to adapt, once more, to our environment, rather than competing with it. That is the main strength of humans, their ability to adapt to new situations.