Selected Filming Log Excerpts
From: Harold Crooks
Subject: Our December Shoot
Date: 30 December, 2008 23:49:31 EST
Attached is an account of our December shoot. Certain highlighted subjects seem to be pushing to the fore that might serve as anchors around which to tether material going forward. Issues such as: debt pollution and relief, the Clean Slate, the broken promise of technology, our “what” and “why” thinking systems, our story telling risk taking species, reflexive, deliberative and default brains, limits or no limits to growth etc.
Meilleurs voeux du Temps des Fêtes,
December 13, 2008
First morning begins shooting wind farms along the Sacramento River that feeds into the delta and San Francisco. A huge man parks his pick up and saunters up to the crew. Big Dave Berger has a tapered native American style pony tail, a fisherman’s hat, cheap cigar butt shoved into his mouth. A turbine mechanic at a nearby power plant he has a lot to say about energy. His Joe Six Pack [M. Tout Le Monde] aura excites the crew and, when asked if he will offer his views on camera, he thinks about it. “Well show me what you want to ask.” Dave is concerned about saying anything to offend his union hall down the road but agrees. He is positioned between the wind farm across the river and the camera. Like Vaclav Smil, the energy pessimist who has refused to participate in the film, he wants to leave no doubt any easy substitute exists for powering our future world. As far as Dave is concerned it’s all about steam power. Nothing yet can match steam’s unique intensity and green technologies like wind don’t generate steam. Tree huggers, he quips, are fine but you cannot plug your stereo into a tree.
Dave also wonders what will happen to the surrounding Central Valley farmland should all it be turned over to windmills. He fears moving from a bountiful continental breadbasket to having to import produce.
Dave is filmed sauntering down the road and the crew packs up and heads for Rio Vista where one of the biggest wind farms in the USA comes into view in the Montezuma Hllls. The crew scrambles up a fenced-in hill with the equipment and Daniel backs up to the farmhouse. A shingle identifies Ian Anderson’s home. Daniel is wary about the crew intruding on private property [this is the US of A] without the owner’s OK. The yard dogs are yapping. But reassured by an Obama sticker on the Volvo, Daniel knocks. Nobody home.
Anderson’s 100 giant windmill towers are 30 story high monsters, with blades 250 feet across, enough to power 500 homes. But what about 5,000 or 50,000 homes ? How much food growing space might that take up?
Enroute to our next interview, a message arrives from Mathieu’s personal CNN. Last time we had a news flash from his pal Mike the musician was in Pudong as we departed the Shanghai Stock Exchange. We were on our way to meet the Rothschild’s man in China, when a message flashed on Mathieu’s Blackberry: Obama is President. Today the message also involves the Presidency. Two size ten shoes have been fired at G.W. Bush in Baghdad’s Green Zone.
It is Sunday and Mark Levine PhD. greets us at his Berkeley home. He is the China Energy Group leader at the US Energy Department’s Lawrence Berkeley National Lab as well as lead author of two of three assessments of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The LBNL is a serious place. During the 40s, it contributed to three technologies that assured victory for the Allies: the atom bomb, radar and the proximity fuse. Levine’s boss is Steven Chu, the Nobel winner who is going to be Obama’s Energy Secretary.
We drop the name of Zhou Dadi whom we interviewed in Beijing. Mr. Zhou is the guy who told our state tv shadow Corex that his call had interrupted a speech by the President of China. Today Zhou advises the Politbureau of China on energy policy. But as it turns out Levine has known him ever since he was a young outspoken energy conservation expert in the 80s. Levine dines with the Zhous in Beijing and Zhou stays with Levine in the Berkeley Hills. But the Chinese energy expert is not as forthcoming as he used to be about inside gossip now that he is a top advisor to the Chinese leaders.
In the 80s Levine advised the Chinese on efficiency standards for refrigerators and other appliances. Now he testifies to the US Congress about what must be done by the US and China to avoid climate disaster. When it is pointed out to him what a long way he has come a long way from refrigerators he adamantly disagrees. Global warming, as he explains, is all about refrigerators.
As far as the big picture goes Levine insists that greenhouse gas emissions cannot be contained, much less reduced without true cooperation between USA and China. The global warming fate of world is primarily in their hands. But he also readily acknowledges that even with cooperation a solution is far from a sure thing. No technical fixes presently exist to meet the challenge. No significant green energy alternative to “dirty” fuels has been commercialized nor even developed. It is a big unknown if and when such breakthroughs can be expected. The best this senior scientist can offer is the hope new fuels can be biologically engineered along the lines now being pursued by microbiologist Craig Venter [whom we continue to pursue for the film] and by Steven Chu who is committed to finding ways to genetically engineer new life forms as the building blocks of new energy systems.
The somber spirit pervading Levine’s living room matches the grey skies and approaching dusk. Has Levine spelled out a progress trap ? Not only do no sure fire sources exist for meeting our “clean” energy needs but Levine is uncertain his fellow Americans are up to the task of scaling back their current energy use in an interim period of unknown duration as solutions are sought.
As for Northern Alberta oil he does not consider it among the solutions. He agrees that it is far too costly in terms of the amount of the valuable natural gas that goes into making a barrel of tar sand oil.
Later back at the Rodeway Inn, Mario talks about what a resource the Preminger film archive can be for illustrating the false promises of technology: i.e. the Frigidaire stoves that were to bake meals with computer punch cards, etc. The built in promise of leisure always skimmed away by the capitalist system like cream off the top of a bottle of milk.
The next day we meet Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger at their Breakthrough Institute in downtown Oakland. If our quest is to illuminate techno optimism as well as the more familiar ecologically-centered approach to the future we cannot be meeting more interesting characters than the co-authors of Breakthrough: From The Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility.
Nordhaus and Shellenberger have the aura of monastic scholars. They vibrate moral seriousness, are well read in philosophy, and are self-educated scholars and advocates of high technology and growth as the only road to human salvation.
As the camera is being set up, Shellenberger asks if we have seen Synecdoche. He has seen it twice and already ranks it as one of his all-time favourite films. He is certain that writer-director Charlie Kauffman is deeply versed in existentialism, and that the film is full of sly references to Harold Pinter and Samuel Beckett.
Turning his attention to the Eyeliner being mounted on the HD camera, he asks what is it ? And immediately recognizes that what is being explained is an effect similar to the one achieved by Errol Morris in Fog of War. Smart guy.
These former “tree huggers” explain why they broke ranks during the 80s with mainstream environmentalism and the costs to them in terms of ostracism. In their view, nature has no intrinsic worth independent of human nature. This viewpoint leads them to replace wilderness with social equity as the primary engine of their strategic thinking.
Seated in front of a flat screen monitor on which their projected image recedes to infinity, N&S explain why they reject what they dismissively label as the “nostalgia narratives” of Al Gore, Jared Diamond and also Ronald Wright. They consider their books as being rooted in some never existent Eden and influenced by Reverend Malthus’s dire predictions about populations always outgrowing the supply of food available to support them. They see a line running from Malthus through Nazi exterminationism down to the well meaning but misguided environmentalists of the present. And they certainly do not buy the image of Gaia author James Lovelock who portrays the human race as being far beyond the point of no return – like the defeated British army stranded on the beaches at Dunkirk.
“Lovelock’s the one stranded at Dunkirk,” says Nordhaus. Yet they too resort to World War 2 metaphors. In their case it is the US Government’s Manhattan Project that gave the world one of history’s biggest potential progress traps – the A Bomb. They are calling for a publically funded Manhattan Project to give the world the green technologies of the future.
These energetic guys deplore limits and proudly wear American can-doism like a Sheriff’s badge. [I wonder if I read somewhere that Shellenberger is a Mormon.]
As for all those claims made by the Jared Diamonds and Ronald Wrights to explain precisely why Easter Island or the Mayans collapsed, well, they are closer to Biblical narratives than scientific accounts. Furthermore they are certain that such societies could not have been as conscious as we are today about threats to their life support systems. [A view to be repeated on the last day of our December shoot by Michael Hudson, the historian of antiquity and policy advisor to U.S. Congressman and Presidential aspirant Dennis Kucinich.]
The bad boys go further. They condemn calls for conservation as ploys to prevent mobilizing new big scale green technologies to power civilization to a better and more just future. They do not see the unavailability of these technologies as a cause for fear or retreat and yes, they do not back away from their belief that we are like gods and that we better be good at it. Neither Brazil nor China nor anybody else will ever protect nature before the needs of the mass of society. And until environmentalists show as much concern with the violence against children in urban favelas as against the Amazon rainforest, the rainforest will continue to disappear. In this sense they see themselves bearing the same message as did Chico Mendes whose voice has been misappropriated by the mainstream environmental groups.
They strike the debt chord that will be struck by many other subjects of this film – from Ronald Wright himself, to economic historian Michael Hudson, Margaret Attwood and others. In their case they regard the dictator debt of past Brazilian regimes as the elephant in the room when protecting the rainforest is concerned. How can Brazilians be expected still to be paying off huge national debts incurred by past corrupt regimes to bond holders and also preserve the land of the Amazon from being used to grow export crops that earn dollars ?
They stand by without apology the argument from their book that ” … whether we like it or not humans have become the meaning of the earth.” The fate of the planet and everything in and on it is in our hands and our hands alone. They even have an energy plan [in which the tar sands cannot be abandoned given that 30% of Canada’s GNP is tied up in oil and gas production] for Canada that they intend to present at a conference at Montebello in late January, 2009.
N&S insist that fossil fuels – for all their dirt – should be seen as an affirmative action program for the human race. And despite the caution of the likes of Mark Levine and others they place high hopes for carbon recapture technology.
December 16th, 2008
We fly up the West coast across the snow-dusted Sierras.
About the only common ground between the Oakland bad boys and our next interview, Radio Anarchy host and author John Zerzan, may be found, if only metaphorically, in caves. The Stone Age dwelling places of hunter gatherer society [which Zerzan holds up as the best adapted phase in all of human history] is where N&S see us storing the carbon emissions from the fossil fuels that are going to power our 5,000 experiment in civilization to ever greater heights.
The anarcho-primitavist philosopher does not strike fear into our hearts. This grey bearded grand dad, who was lifted out of obscurity when he befriended the anti-technology Unabomber during his 1998 trial, is gentle and welcoming. He lives in a small house in Eugene, Oregon with his wife. A big Nirvana fan he has pictures of his all American looking grand children on the fridge. Posters of anti-civilization conferences from Turkey to India and Brazil featuring Zerzan line one corridor wall [he says it’s his wife who insists on this] and some late model lap tops are in evidence.
Zerzan was a 60s era union organizer in California but broke with Marxism when he decided factories made workers docile rather than turning them into the vanguard of revolution. He believes that we began the irreversible process of destroying our only habitat with the first 19th century factory and things have only become much worse since then. Unless the industrial system is dismantled we are doomed. But he locates the fall of humanity much earlier. He argues that it is a modern conceit to think we are fully human because of our capacity for “symbolic activity” [art, science etc.], all of which is made possible by language. Our ancestors living one million years ago possessed brains equal to our own [a view not accepted by the unicycling Birth of the Mind author and psychologist Gary Marcus whom we shall meet a few days later in NYC].
Zerzan is irked that Ronald Wright will not participate on his show. But this is nothing new. He claims that Noam Chomsky, also an anarchist, has also refused to engage him in debate. As far as he is concerned writers like Wright and Jared Diamond all cop out when it comes to offering any concrete solutions to avoiding collapse.
We move from Zerzan’s house to the campus of the University of Oregon where the crew sets up at KWVA, the college radio station. Zerzan’s show opens up with his assistant playing Mystical Shit by the band King Missile. Then Zerzan begins with some Direct Action news, ad libs at random from a pile of newspaper clippings: the $ 50 billion Henry Madoff Wall Street debacle; the rising alcohol, drug and related disorders of a nation of 70,000,000 insomniacs and so it goes. This is what passes for civilization and it is doomed and he wants none of it.
Though he is unaware our next stop is a primate research center at the University of Louisiana, Zerzan sings the praises of a novel by Daniel Quinn. The book is a reinterpretation of the book of Genesis and features a telepathic Socratic dialogue between a man and a gorilla named Ishmael. Quinn’s thesis is that the killing of Abel signifies agriculture’s triumph over herding culture. Agriculture is the chief culprit in the demise of humanity. It brought with it cities, priests, kings, courts, class, slavery etc — all of which is summed up for Zerzan the most recurring word in his vocabulary: domestication. The civilization Ronald Wright seeks to preserve domesticates everything under the sun, humans included, and marks the beginning of the end of our “instinctual freedom.”
Two planned callers-in, one an anarchist writer living south of Eugene arranged for by Nancy Marcotte and one from Alberta set up by Zerzan, fail to participate because the broadcast is not streaming properly. In their stead we place a question. Zerzan criticizes the Ronald Wrights for not offering the appropriate responses to the ecological threats of civilization. What is his appropriate response ? This question allows us to ask him on camera after the broadcast about his motives for reaching out to Theodore Kaczynski during his Sacramento trial for multiple murder.
Does he agree that killing people Unabomber style is the way to make the case for technology being the enemy of humanity?
Zerzan reiterates his stated position. Kaczynski had tried without success and repeatedly to have his critique of the horrors of technology published. Even after the New York Times acquiesced and ran the essay the media, according to Zerzan, insisted on classifying the Kaczynski treatise as a “manifesto”. But for Zerzan The Industrial Society and Its Future [whose opening line reads: the Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race] is too serious a piece of scholarship [many sober minds agree] to be reduced to a mere manifesto. When directly asked on camera if he regrets being associated with the killings, Zerzan hangs his head and falls silent. Not to end the encounter on such a sad note we ask if he looks forward to the future with any hope. He says he does. More and more people are turning up at conferences he attends and there is a whole new wave of anarchism building. Next stop will be Cajun country where the simple pleasures of music and booze is serious business and Freud’s “instinctual pleasures” do not seem to have been erased. Though whether this part of the world classifies as a high water mark of civilization is another matter. This is Bible belt Bush-Cheney-McCain country.
December 17, 2008
Actually getting from Eugene to Louisiana will prove a hassle. Bad winter weather is playing havoc with air traffic so we split up. Louis and Dany are sent ahead with the equipment to reach New Iberia on the shortest route available. The rest of us double back to San Francisco, then catch flights to Phoenix and Dallas from where we drive south. That night, actually at 2 AM, after what barely passes for edible food at a Baytown, Texas Dennys, which reminds you how poorly distributed are the benefits of civilization, we catch four hours sleep and arrive at the New Iberia Research Center before noon.
We are here to find out what happened to the human mind since we parted ways five million years ago from the common ancestor we share with chimpanzees. Primatologist Daniel Povinelli has reached conclusions we want to document. Beginning as a classic Darwinian who regarded differences between chimps and humans as “trivial”, he now holds a radically altered idea. Two hundred plus studies have led him to break ranks with those like Jane Godall for whom chimps and humans exist on a direct continuum.
Chimps, according to Povinelli, are not simply hairy children. The comparisons he has identified may help us present Ronald Wright’s thesis about eternal progress traps as a natural consequence of the haphazard way our mammalian mind evolved. But first we have to meet Dr. Povinelli’s chimps.
Apollo, the alpha male, lives in adjoining outdoor and indoor cages with his harem [Mindy, Kara, Candy, Jaydene and Megan] and assorted kids [Lance, Kegan and Brayden]. When not participating in experiments, our primate cousins do personal grooming, eat, fornicate, pitch their shit at human passers-by, and just hang out in their swings.
The experiments are conducted in a narrow room with a small trap door in the wall that allows the chimps to enter and be observed on two sides. Once inside the trap closes and the chimps are tested on their ability to understand the concept of tools, abstract notions like weight and volume, and the interior states of the minds of others. Povinelli’s accommodating crew quickly and efficiently runs through a series typical of these studies which we film from various angles.
The purpose of these studies [augmented with studies of young children doing similar tests] is to determine which aspects of reasoning about the mental world are part of the common heritage of chimps and humans and which are the specialties of humans.
Louis also devotes some time to recording the grunting, growling and shrieking sounds chimps make that should make interesting counterparts to the hypnotic sounds of the wind turbines in Rio Vista.
On the recommendation of Povinelli’s assistant John [a former punk musician who once played Montreal’s Les Foufonnes Electriques and Toronto’s Lee’s Palace] we have dinner at Clementine’s on East Main Street in New Iberia. New Iberia is where James Lee Burke sets his Sheriff Dave Robicheaux mystery novels.
As chance would have it, Dr. Povinelli is at the next table with his lady friend, her kids and mother. He tries out on the crew some few words of French, the remnants of a relationship with a woman from Quebec City.
The next morning Povinelli pulls up in his convertible as the crew is setting up in the room where he studies his chimps. The idea is to interview him seated against the plexi-glass wall behind which the chimps are free to come and go at will through the open trap door. The interview goes to the heart of what Povinelli has concluded. Like chimps, we homo sapiens evolved to ask the visible “what” of things. But unlike them, we also comprehend the unobservable world of abstract forces and most importantly we alone ask “why.” Seeking the invisible “why” of things is what has set us on our unique trajectory and, he adds, “if we do become extinct some day there should be one word carved on the gravestone of our species. That word is ‘why’.”
Povinelli connects this notion of our double-edged “why” system of thinking to the concerns of the film: our choices about technology and the ever greater risks arising from those choices.
Where John Zerzan sees language as the primal curse of humanity, the obstacle to pure instinctual existence, Povinelli links our questioning of the “why” of things [gods and ghosts and gravity] through language to our inborn need to tell stories. Even more unique to our species than tool making may be that we are the story-telling species. Almost from infancy, as Povinelli recounts on camera, we want to be told stories. Just last night after dinner, for example, the daughters of his lady friend had insisted that he repeat them the bedtime story he had read them.
From our innate story telling springs the means to keep alive emotions across time and thus make possible love, hate, even torture. Chimps don’t engage in revenge killing or torture because the satisfaction derived from torture requires knowing the internal state of someone’s mind, a concept completely unknown to other primates.
[Does this perspective suggest a way beyond the progress traps of the present? Must we begin telling ourselves a different kind of story? And if so, what type of story might this be? Is it in championing the reality that Nordhaus and Shellenberger have the audacity to speak: that we are basically like gods and may as well get good at it. Both Povinelli and, later in New York City, the evolutionary psychologist Gary Marcus and maybe Craig Venter and many others as well will agree that this is a reasonable way of framing our reality. The biosphere and everything in it now revolves for better or worse around human choices and intelligence.]
December 19, 2008
Stalked by bad weather we fly from Lafayette to Dallas and spend the night in Irvine, home of the Cowboys.
December 20, 2008
Dallas to Dulles Washington and Amtrak from Union to Penn Station, NYC.
December 22, 2008
Our plan to introduce the original civilization via the story of the hunt for the Mask of Warka stolen from the Iraq Museum during the US invasion of April 2003 found favour with Ronald Wright. He was first told about it in a Crescent Street bar after a talk he gave in the fall at Concordia. And more recently, in an email in which he explained why he wouldn’t accept John Zerzan’s invitation to an on air debate, he said how pleased he was that we were going to interview the Marine Colonel who led the investigation of the looting of the Iraq Museum.
Thieves of Baghdad author Col. Matthew Bogdanos has proved a challenge. He ranks with Vaclav Smil and Canadian geoengineer David Keith [his specialty is devising technical solutions to protect the planet should we pass some point of no return] as the most difficult encounters Nancy Marcotte has had to date in trying to engage participants.
Bogdanos finally agreed to be interviewed but set two ground rules: no politics and no questions about Puff Daddy and J-Lo. Besides being a reserve Colonel and counter-terrorism specialist, the welter weight Bogdanos [he is also a boxer] is an assistant Manhattan DA, and one of his better known cases involved the club shooting involving a gun that went off in a black woman’s face while the celebrity couple were inside the club. We assure Bogdanos we are more interested in his views about the Sumerians and what we have to learn from them. And, not to forget, how his crew of NYPD cops hunted down some of the most priceless treasures of antiquity, the Mask of Warka included.
For Bogdanos it is a no-brainer why a New York cop could be relied on to negotiate in a war zone the return of a treasure without any money changing hands. As soon as he had convinced the military to allow him to lead an investigation into the missing antiquities [first reported to number 170,000] he began reaching out to cops he knew. One call he made from the roof of the Iraq Museum [he was lying on his back to avoid sniper fire] was to a NYPD captain who happened to be at Busch Gardens Disneyland with his kids. He said he needed a week. Both the Sacred Vase of Warka and the Mask of Warka [she is the oldest known naturalistic representation of a human face] were retrieved by New Yorkers and Bogdanos is compelling on how they were assisted by Iraqi religious figures. He is riveting in explaining how these treasures originated long before the world was divided into Sunni and Shiite and Islam and Christianity. They were proudly recognized as the birthright of humanity as a whole.
We interview Bogdanos in the Near Eastern Antiquities room of the Brooklyn Museum. He recounts how he came to learn about the theft of ancient treasures from an embedded British journalist [he thinks all journalists should experience being embedded] and how he sought the assignment to go to Baghdad. We get the basics of his investigation and then pull back for the bigger picture as he sees it.
Bogdanos marshals a lot of learning to present what he knows is not your conventional well meaning liberal point of view about the essential ingredients of civilization. He defies anyone to disagree that history and warmaking are regrettably synonymous. As for the Sumerians their original contributions to the art of war should not be dismissed. And he offers up on camera examples of great figures from the Greek dramatist Aeschylus [who held in higher esteem the fear he had struck in the Persians at Marathon than in his timeless tragedies] to Winston Churchill [who engaged in hand to hand combat as a young officer.]
Having introduced the Sumerians through Bogdanos, we shall leave it to our own devices to explain what the Americans were doing in Iraq in April 2003 to begin with.
Though the Colonel’s admiration of the Sumerians helps us to set up a far more essential point of view for today about the Sumerians. This perspective will be provided us the next day by historian Michael Hudson. Hudson sees in the Sumerian concept of debt relief a key to achieving sustainable and ethical economies. This key is today as lost to our Ponzified world as all the missing antiquities of Mesopotamia.
Back in Manhattan we meet Gary Marcus at NYU. He adds more to the story of the development of our brain. In fact we have at least two brains, one ancestral short term brain for reflexive snap decisions [shaped by 100 million years of evolution] and the other deliberative brain. Curiously he estimates the age of this newer reasoning brain to be only 50,000 years, a figure that coincides with Ronald Wright’s claim that:
“To use a computer analogy, we are running a 21st century software on hardware last upgraded 50,000 years ago or more.”
We pursue with Marcus his concept the brain is a contraption [he uses the word “kluge”] designed by evolution to solve immediate challenges. He uses the analogy of the life-threatening Apollo 13 emergency in which whatever was at hand [including a sock] had to be improvised on the spot and fast to contain a carbon monoxide leak. The problem for humanity going forward is that the default brain is the older reflexive one that emerged aeons before things like numbers, money, debt, you name it, appeared in the history of humanity. Little wonder then that credit cards are like crack cocaine for so many of us.
Marcus foresees that we shall chose to enhance our brains going forward. Though he has no illusions about the risks. Brains may not reboot so easily once tinkered with and then there are all the moral and ethical dilemmas arising from genetic engineering. The same ones foretold by such futurists as novelist H. G. Wells who feared genetic enhancement would make inevitable lead the splitting of the human race into a master race [the Morlocks] and servant race [the Eloi]. Back to Ronald Wright’s social pyramid.
Fears aside, for Marcus, any ideal brain designed to help us cope with the threats to our existence must accomplish two major things: improve our memory and make the deliberative rather than the reflexive centers the new default position for our thinking and acting.
December 23, 2008
The last day of the December shoot begins with the No Impact Man. Colin Beavan is a history writer whose experiment in living off the grid in New York City and creating as little carbon as possible has not only spawned his new book and a feature documentary to be screened at Sundance but inspired the writers of Law and Order to base a recent episode around an unflattering portrait of a Beavan-like character. The episode aired just a few nights before we interview Beavan. Instead of his No Impact Man blog they called their fictional blog Zero Energy Footprint and they link the murder of his wife to his having cajoled her to go green. How New York mass media to assassinate as gentle a soul as the actual No Impact Man.
The son of a UN official and maternal grandson of a Cold Warrior CIA officer [he helped set up the sinister Operation Gladio in Europe to counter the left and after retiring devoted himself to land conservation!] Beavan recounts his experience. It grew out of a refusal to remain a passive individual in the face of the alarming news about rising greenhouse gas levels and an array of other planetary threats, including the one to the oceans. His experiment was an attempt to determine what impact one family can have — and he expands on this theme for us.
The final interview of this production cycle takes place in Forrest Hills, Queens. Michael Hudson is a former Chase Manhattan Banker, who once helped set up a sovereign debt fund, advised foreign governments including Canada, and today teaches university economics, writes for such radical venues as Counterpunch and chief advisor to Dennis Kucinich, the US Congressman from Ohio, during his pursuit of the Democratic Party nomination for President.
It is a sign of the times that this self-identified Marxist living in an outer borough of New York City and hobbled by sciatica is sought out by the media. As we were leaving his building, the Latino doorman asked what station we were from. Hudson said: “Canada.” But we are getting ahead of ourselves.
Hudson explains his theory about our Anglo-American economic system being misguidedly where not corruptly based on debt rather than asset creation and how real economic growth can never keep up with compound debt that only profits [until now] Wall Street and the wealth owning class, whose top one per cent control 75% of the country’s wealth. From here he pulls out to a broad historical perspective, one that matches that of Ronald Wright’s 5,000 year experiment in civilized life.
As head of a group that examines long term economic trends Hudson has written books about antiquity. All of which allows him to explain how ancient societies understood the proper role of debt in the functioning of a social system. He talks about the Sumerian concept of the Clean Slate and the related Hebrew concept of the Jubilee. At the core of both is the notion of debt cancellation or forgiveness as a natural part of a just society.
For Hudson one of history’s ”most self-destructive examples of financial short-termism” involved the violent takeover of the Roman Senate by upper class creditors. They murdered the debtor-oriented reformers led by the Gracchi brothers in 133 BC. With the death of the Gracchis [Roman heirs to the Sumerian concept of the Clean Slate] came the decline of the Roman Empire that fell into debt bondage and ultimately into a Dark Age.
For Hudson we are living a moment similar to Roman times and the military burden of the U.S. Empire [beginning irreversibly with Vietnam up to the present day] is what has lead the country to its present state of virtual bankruptcy.
No argument here but where he does take exception to our own thinking is when it is suggested to him that our troubles may originate in our brain. Like a good Marxist, he does not want to hear about divided souls and human irrationality. He insists our minds naturally think in terms of systems …..
In sum, Hudson describes the US economic system on which the world depends as being a virtual Ponzi or pyramid sales scheme in which the unparalleled growth in debt has created what he calls “debt pollution” that “is the financial equivalent of global warming.” He explains how this process strips away the value of all assets, including that of the natural world. A modern day version of ecological harm even though Hudson insists that in the case of the Sumerians they cannot be accused of committing ecological suicide. What happened to them resulted from a silting up of their farm land. It was something of which they were not conscious. Which leaves the question: what about us ? Are we conscious of what we need to be conscious about ?
Certain subjects have been highlighted in the text that seem to be coming to the fore and that might serve as anchors around which to organize material, such as: steam power, dictator debt, debt pollution, debt relief, the magic of compound interest, Clean Slate, the promise of technology, our “what” and “why” thinking systems, the story telling and risk taking species, our reflexive, deliberative and default brains, limits or no limits.
From: Harold Crooks
Subject: Happy Holidays [The US Tour]
Date: 24 December, 2008 17:06:51 EST
Medrie has forbidden me to be online today after conclusion of this USA road trip of long days, Dennys and such culinary fast food emporia of American civilization, and sporadic airport delays. [Of course there was also Chez Panisse in Berkley where Mathieu declared the house Zinfandel the best wine he had ever enjoyed.] Will report at greater length on all this from my mother’s place in Vancouver for where I depart 26 Dec, weather permitting. Suffice it to say [Medrie is out shopping so I can sneak you a note]] that this past 10 days has been full of great espirt de corps among the crew, and outstanding encounters including the Breakthrough bad boys of environmentalism in Oakland, the Radio Anarchist in Eugene, an impassioned primatologist at the chimp research center in New Iberia, LA, heart of Acadian Cajun country, who told us that the epitaph on humanity’s grave stone should we become extinct will be one word: Why [to be explained], unicyclist and brain scientist Gary Marcus on our divided , warrior scholar Marine Colonel who performed as hoped for with his paen to the Sumerians, No Impact Man grandson of CIA agent, and Michael Hudson, an ex Chicago film producer, Wall Street banker, consultant to various government including Canada, author of Superimperialism and more recently chief economic advisor to Dennis Kucinich, the most gauchiste elected official in America and now chair of the most powerful Congressional Committee [though we hear little of this in media.] This Hudson fellow is certifiably brilliant and interviewing him was like riding a race horse. As a scholar of antiquity Hudson offered his own paen to Sumerians. He spoke to us of the forgotten economic contribution of Sumer to world civilization: the notion of the Clean Slate, which later re-appears in Jewish culture as the Jubilee. The time when all debts are forgiven.
His analysis of the central flaw of our economic way of life [Anglo-American finance capitalism] has to do with compound interest and debt [and the fact that finance-driven rather than industry-driven economies can never keep up with the "magic" of compunding debt and how what he calls "debt pollution" leads inevitably to the stripping of all assets including the assets of nature, soil depletion etc,]. Tout l’equippe was impressed.
Along with Margaret Attwood in early January, Hudson should help us greatly in giving Ronald Wright’s pyramid scheme a contemporary face, by illuminating with contemporary examples [rainforest destruction, collapsing US economy in which 75% of wealth goes to top 1% etc] the top of the pyramid’s saddling society at large with impossible debt loads and killing the environment. Sound familiar. See ASHOP.
On this note I wish you a happy holiday.
A suivre Harold
From: Harold Crooks
Subject: Age-of-Stupid [Credo]
Date: 2 December, 2008 16:46:30 EST
I saw and greatly admired it. One of the joys and nightmares of doc making is that they cannot be made alone and perforce one ends up with a team, each of whose views must be reconciled and often ending up with great docs, in a process that does not ever prefectly harmonize all POVs. Docs seem to have such a flexibility. For myself as I move forward I am seeing the central philosophical issue of the film coming down to:  social equity as the key to eco protection [whether the rainforest or Boreal forests or whatever] and  whether or not the limits imposed by our primate origins on the design of our minds equips us to prevail over the converging emergencies.
From: mark achbar
Sent: Dec 2, 2008 2:55 PM
Subject: Fwd: [Age-of-Stupid] News good, bad and ugly
Did you guys see The Age Of Stupid?
From: Harold Crooks
Subject: Final China Log
Date: 13 November, 2008 5:39:45 EST
Below is the diary of final segment of our China shoot begun in Beijing Airport Starbucks and completed here on Beijing time as I await my biological clock rebooting to Eastern Daylight Savings ! Harold Here follows a summary of the last part of the shoot in China. It was begun in a Starbucks in Terminal 3 of Beijing’s new airport, a design so grand that there can be no question China is banking on being a major new global crossroads – and suggests that the old line about “East being East and West being West and never the ‘twain shall meet” is more than just history. We may be embarking on a future of accelerating cultural hybridization that allows us to recognize ourselves as a common species with a common fate. And this may be the best source for our hope for self-preservation.
Our last stop on the self drivers’ tour of China’s scenic wonders is in the ancient hillside town of Furong. Among its chief attractions is one of those waterfalls so beloved by Chinese artists through the ages. Like Phoenix City, the 1,000 year old Venice-like city, where we had put questions about cars and progress to club members, including “The General” a retired Liberation Army truck driver turned bureaucrat in the Beijing office of a coal mining region] and the “Opera Singer” [an accountant mom who entertained the drivers with a medley of Chinese opera via walkie-talkie as we all sped across the countryside], Furong does not appear even in Lonely Planet. With 1.3 billion people and 3,000 years as an intact civilization, China has a tradition of inwardness in all things, tourism included. There is not one Caucasian in sight.
As we shall investigate in Shanghai and Beijing, however, the paradox of China’s “economic miracle” is that the country is no longer even close to self-sufficient. Its new status as the world’s workshop relies on securing the resources of the planet – from the Amazon and Africa to the oil sands of Alberta.
Lunch in Furong is served on a restaurant terrace open to a lake and the waterfall. The house specialty is giant snails. Though by now, our crew is wearying of unidentifiable fare, served in such overabundance that car club leader Chen Ming is moved to apologize to us “because I know Westerners do not like wasting food.” There are few takers today as an endless array of steaming bowls are carried out of the kitchen and placed on the revolving tray in the center of the table. And this is as true for Corex as well. Our CCTV shadow Corex is growing ever more silent and ill.
There are some takers for the other regional specialty, a tapioca wine. On a poster high up the restaurant wall, a tiny old man, it is President Deng Xiaoping whose radical policy change put China and our self-drivers on the capitalist road, sits in an over-stuffed armchair, with a bottle of the local brew in reach. Corex suggests that it is a stretch to claim the photograph is an actual endorsement by the Communist leader.
Though the restaurant does seem to be endorsing the Party. Pictures of its leaders, including Chou En Lai, adorn the walls.
After lunch we are all off to the big city of ZhangJiaJie and a rather grand hotel dirtier than many others crew members have experienced in the most obscure backwater Asian cities. But ZhangJiaJie is no backwater. The city dates back 200 years before Christ and hosts a World Heritage Park that is the basis of the local tourist industry. To its credit the city does have good food and two of the meals here [one a mushroom hot pot] are ranked by the crew as being up there with the Lebanese lunch in Brasilia.
Here we bid Chen Ming and his gang adieu after releases are signed by all. This includes a sullen Hewlett-Packard China executive on his honeymoon. He has made no secret of his annoyance at our presence [even asking one crew member encountered in an elevator “when are you leaving?”]. We assume that he signs in hope of seeing the last of us. Alas plans are made for us to greet the car club on its return to Beijing.
As we prepare to embark for Shanghai from ZhangJiaJie airport, Corex is doubled over in pain. We fear it might be his appendix and banish thoughts of it rupturing in flight. Our fixer Li Li has convinced us to stay in a higher end hotel in Shanghai than had been planned. Her argument is that by being on the Pudong side of things we shall be in the financial district and closer to our primary interview subject. She also has managed to wangle a reduced rate. Her “Uncle” [the boyfriend of her aunt] operates the karaoke bar in the Zhongyou International hotel. As well as, she adds, very matter of factly, he also runs the prostitution in the hotel.
No sooner than we check in and Li Li takes off with Corex to a hospital, “Uncle” materializes from behind a large potted palm tree in the lobby. It is after midnight and he arranges for bowls of dumplings to be served us in his K bar. But we can see in his side-wards gaze [his eyes never manage direct contact] that he already is figuring out that whatever his expectations we are going to prove big disappointments business-wise.
The Western financial press and newsweeklies have been full of stories for weeks now about the housing and credit meltdown accelerating the shift in the center of gravity of global finance from West to East and we hope to find visuals to illustrate this when we visit the Shanghai Stock Exchange [SSE]. The shift interests us because it only stands to reason that the more powerful China the more dependent the West is on how China chooses to navigate through the shoals of planetary ecological emergencies. As well stock exchange behavior, according to Ronald Wright, is itself a contemporary manifestation of the short term thinking that has been a part of human behavior since our ancestors overhunted the prey on which they depended.
We enter the SSE on Election Day USA. In a further illustration of the changing balance of world power, the Chinese press is much more absorbed with the news story of a historic “cross Straits” mission from China to Taiwan than by Obama and McCain. Even since the Communists drove the nationalists to Taiwan that island has been under the umbrella of Pax Americana and off limits to China. But now the mainland and island are cementing ties without a peep out of Washington. The Chinese goal of reunification seems closer than ever. A theme to be picked up when we meet the Rothschild’s man in Shanghai.
If the cliché “As China Goes So Goes The Planet” has any truth to it, take it for granted that the days of a human presence on the floors of the world’s major stock exchanges are numbered. The huge SSE trading floor, it is 3,600 square meters, the largest on the Asia Pacific Rim, is almost empty. There are over 1,600 working stations here. But except for a handful of inert traders slumped at their trading stations the action has moved off floor and has been doing so since 2000. Trading takes place 24/7 online and with investors now allowed to buy and sell directly from their offices, homes and Blackberries, brokers are an endangered species. However, like exchanges world wide, the SSE index is down today. Rising share prices [indicated on the big boards in red, for the Chinese lucky colour] are too few in number to keep the falling green digits from pulling the SSE south.
Exiting the SSE, and with time to kill before our next location the crew captures images of the skyscrapers soaring above the Pudong financial district. The scale – as all things Chinese – is awesome. The Japanese-financed Global Financial Tower [whose knife shape offended some Chinese for whom the scars of Japanese atrocities are fresh] reaches 101 stories and is soon to be eclipsed. Later, on Tomorrow Square we record a Tibetan beggar child pissing in front of a Ferrari and Lamborghini dealership. On the opposite corner a neon scroll tracks the price of gold. Communist China is in the orbit of Mammon.
As we cross the plaza [after being shooed away from the Global Financial Tower by a passing cop car] for our interview with a financier we are calling our “Master of the Universe” [a phrase Tom Wolfe coined in his Wall Street novel Bonfire of the Vanities], US election news comes via Mathieu’s Blackberry. A musician friend of his travelling north from Florida sends word from South Carolina: Obama Is President. He also reports gun stores are being emptied of their products. None of us is sure if this is some kind of joke.
Our Master of the Universe, Wen Tian, has an office looking down on the stock exchange. He represents the French branch of the Rothschilds. As the camera is being set up, he confides that they are about to become the first foreigners licensed to manage financial assets in China. Ever since the Napoleonic Wars the Rothschilds have been making the right bets on the course of history and now they are here in the person of Mr. Wen.
As Wen explains in the interview, he too correctly predicted China’s rise. In 1994, he was working as a journalist when Deng Xiaoping [the same gentleman whose “endorsement” of tapioca wine we came across in FuDong] made the momentous decision to open up China and its currency to the global market system. Wen tells us that he knew that Shanghai was now destined to become a major financial center. So he opted to go into high finance. He recalls that when he changed professions, Pudong, atop which he now sits, was mostly rice paddies. The docks contained coal depots. And as improbable as it may be, he insists that the peasants were only too happy to be uprooted because they too recognized this was a reasonable price to pay for the great things to come.
Mr. Wen has authored books on Chinese culture and civilization. In one book, as he shows our camera, he compares Chinese and Western concepts of Time. This is a bonus for us because it connects to a theme at the core of Ronald Wright’s book. As a species we are wired for short term thinking. And this mental incapacity to plan for the longer term, especially when married with the elite’s vested interest in the status quo, undermines the resilience of civilizations.
Furthermore, for the last 150 or so years, our Western concept of Progress has been symbolized by the Arrow of Time. We start the interview with Time. Wen opens his book to the page where we see diagrams of the cyclical Chinese concept and the Arrow of the West. He admits [so we understand via Li Li’s translated summaries] that China is now being pulled towards a linear concept of Time but that in the fullness of time the East and West will adopt some of each other’s notions. As a practical matter he finds the Western concept of planning meetings long in advance to be crude. In Chinese culture you come in friendship whenever you wish or you do not come at all.
As for the matter of the center of financial power, he prefers to see the future as a triangle, with the sides made up of the US, Europe and China. Though he wants there to be no doubt that the merger of the Shanghai and Taiwanese financial interests is going to make the Chinese side of the triangle a powerful one. As for the current world financial crisis, he does not use the word Ponzi or pyramid scheme. But he does attribute the spreading fall out to the immorality [his word] of Wall Street. All of which leads Mr. Wen to another central motif in A Short History of Progress [ASHOP]. Ronald Wright’s book evolved out of an op-ed article he wrote on financial pyramid schemes in the Globe and Mail. And Mr. Wen turns to another page in his book to show the diagram of a pyramid. He says that the melt down arises from not basing the financial pyramid on the solid base of savings but on the wrongly inverted pyramid of debt.
We are travelling with a copy of Thomas Friedman’s latest book from which we fashion a question. In Hot, Flat and Crowded, the NY Times columnist quotes a China expert who says if you want to understand China go see the Hollywood blockbuster Speed. Like the bus wired to blow up if it slows below 50 MPH, China will blow up from the social turmoil that will erupt if it slows below its 8 per cent growth rate. Certainly the English language press carries reports of distress at the bottom of the social pyramid. There are, for example, besides the striking taxi drivers in Chongqing, where we began our China odyssey, and reports of hard times in the boom towns like world shoe factory in Dongguan, arrests for “disturbing the social order” in Guizlon province where 30,000 protestors torched government offices and vehicles and attacked policemen during their demos. But Wen does not agree. He insists that China can slow down.
The top of the pyramid encounter leaves one wondering if a rising China might end up pulling the West into the orbit of its more cyclical concept of time. And that we might eventually be drawn away – through such a cultural evolution – from the short term thinking that is a byproduct of Western commercial culture. Certainly a civilization that only just removed a tax on the peasantry that had been in place for 2,800 years has something to teach about the long view.
This evening to our great relief Corex is very much improved [he has been prescribed antibiotics] and the crew opts for ordering out from Pizza Hut. In order to eat together we take our delivery up to the 4th floor K bar where the ever-accomodating Uncle Li Li has one of his hostesses direct us to a booth. She inquires under her breath if we would like to have women join us and Daniel insists that we like our pizza “all dressed.” This is not proving a win-win for Uncle Li Li who shrinks from view.
On the storied Bund we film the Shanghai nightscape. The neon excess with the giant floating barges whose screens display ads makes the ASHOPIAN link between energy use and civilization.
On to Beijing and, as its business card reads, “The Beautifu Platina Hotel.” The Platina is really not all that beautiful [certainly not compared with the upscale hotels that we stayed in with the capitalist roaders of FM 103.9] but the Internet connection is fast and the hot water hot.
We travel through Beijing congestion out to the campus of the Chinese Ethnic University where some female students can be seen in hijabs. The purpose of being here is to meet “Jason”, a 22 year old student activist and Communist Party member studying environmental science. He hails from a coal mining region and his parents and grandparents work for the mining company. He is the first of his family to attend university. And though he is a bit mournful, he just broke up with his girl friend, he is not nervous about the paper he is about to deliver to his class. The paper concerns the progress of his environmental group that is involved with a network of like-minded groups in increasing the energy efficiency of their campuses. And Jason assures us that he is well prepared. But before we can film him give the paper, Corex and Li Li are told they must secure the OK of the dean. She gives it on the understanding that we leave the campus without any further filming.
As we wait to interview Jason off campus about his environmental activism, Corex complains. He says that the subject of this film, as presented to authorities at CCTV, was about “progress” not the environment. He is “fretting”, he says [he speaks with an oddly British accent and vocabulary], that we are planning to make the car club look bad. He is upset and so is Li Li, who insists she doesn’t want any part of taking advantage of Chen Ming and FM 103.9’s hospitality. The people at FM 103.9, they insist, are concerned.
On a narrow crowded pedway over a four lane boulevard, we throw questions to Jason as the English-speaking girl whose bicycle he borrowed looks on. One of the questions [about the impact of car clubs on the environment] cranks up Corex again. He protests our true intentions. As the traffic flows below our feet and pedestrians elbow past, we insist. Our intentions are good. We are taking our cue from the Prime Minister himself. Wen Jiabao has committed the country to achieving a low carbon path despite the global financial crunch. We shall salute this green tech effort as the ultimate form of progress. And a good omen for the planet. This rebuttal of his suspicions seems to calm our shadow.
What happens next will put Corex, as his English mentors might say, “over the moon.”
Through his CBC contacts, Mathieu has obtained a list of key Chinese energy officials and their phone numbers. One of the numbers is the cell phone of Zhou Dadi, head of the Energy Research Institute. But how key Zhou Dadi is will only become clear as Corex puruses the lead.
When Corex gets through to the gentleman he asks how Corex obtained his cell number. He can’t promise anything as he is chairing an international conference on global warming. But he asks that our questions be sent in Chinese. Then he’ll decide. Having upset Wen Tian with some questions that had not been pre-approved, we are careful to craft the new set to cast a wide enough web without appearing threatening. The questions are translated by Corex who emails them to his boss at CCTV and we wait for the boss to affix a stamp of approval and fax them on to Mr. Zhou. Then Corex calls again only to be told by a bemused Zhou Dadi that his call has interrupted a speech by Prime Minister Wen Jiabao.
In the code our crew has adopted, Zhou Dadi is “top of the pyramid.” Corex has never met such a high Chinese official in all his years of doing this shadow work and, as he tells it, they can hardly ever can be obtained for an interview at such short notice. So we have our fingers crossed because Zhou Dadi is in the inner most circle of the Chinese leadership. Besides his energy institute, he also is vice chairman of the National Energy Advisory Committee and serves on the National Development and Reform Commission.
When Zhou Dadi does give us a time and place, the Beijing International Hotel, we scramble to rent a room in the same hotel as his conference. Today’s leadership has come a long way since Chairman Mao’s Red Army lived in caves and mountain tops during their Long March. In our Beijing International room a pillow menu offers the following choice: feather, anti-snore, bolster, buckwheat or foam.
The eminent energy official appears at the appointed hour [escorted by Corex and Li Li, both of whom are in awe] and he is propped up on a pillow by the window so as to make direct Eyeliner contact with the camera. The questions are fed aloud in English to Corex so that no nuance is lost and he repeats them in Mandarin. Corex has been assigned the task because unlike Li Li he speaks pure Mandarin while she speaks with a regional accent. Zhou Dadi understands English but answers in Chinese.
We ask him ASHOPIAN questions about the relationship between energy and civilization, on China’s avowed pursuit of a low carbon path and for his views on the proper relationship between environmental protection, development and global equity. Because he has granted us only a brief interview, we dispense with the summary translation after each answer and await Li Li’s post production translation. Suffice it to say that when asked the question put to all interview subjects [how do you define progress?] he defines it as the narrowing of the gap between rich and poor. The next day finds us in a gentrified hutong. The neighborhood is Dongsishitiao. We are here in a renovated dwelling hosted by a Chinese woman who once attended Hot Docs. She tried her hand at documentaries and now runs an events space, which she laments is not much better a business than trying to make independent docs in China. She makes us all espressos while the camera is being set up to interview another Jason. This is Jason Li, who has a degree from the University of Indiana, and now represents a Portland, Oregon investor services company for mutual funds seeking and making investments in Chinese companies listed on the NASDAQ or other foreign exchanges. The contact to Jason is Chen Ming’s boss at Fm 103.9 – and after the outburst by Corex, we approach Jason defensively, barely going through the motions of an interview. The FM 103.9 boss is present and we do not want to jeopardize filming either with two female car talk DJs at the station, a call in by Chen Ming from the road and the arrival of the car club at journey’s end – nor the invitation to visit with Chen Ming at home. Another contact, a Chinese friend of Daniel’s, whom he met when she emigrated to Montreal as a young woman after serving as an interpreter on the Canada-China coproduction Bethune, today works for the Alberta delegation in Beijing. She has arranged for us to interview another top of the pyramid Chinese official. The meeting took place in the Capital Club on the 50th floor of the CITIC Group building. Photos of its illustrious visitors, including the first President Bush and Jean Chretien, line the paneled walls and the panoramic room boasts a commanding view of the city. As we set up Victor Gao arrives. He is a former senior executive with CNOOC, the state oil company responsible for securing foreign oil and gas for China. Today he wears various hats, including Director of the China National Association of International Studies and sits on the international board of the Asia Society. Any question as to which language to conduct the interview ends when he mentions that he served as a translator in the 80s for Deng Xiaoping as the President was guiding the country out of the trauma of the Cultural Revolution. He also has two degrees from Yale. Mr. Gao describes being Deng Xiaoping’s translator and witness to the barely imaginable last 30 years of growth during which China was transformed. He attributes this amazing feat in part to the Chinese character and its tradition of Confusciusism – an “ideology” that places society’s management in the hands of its elites. He does not need to say that he regards the present system of capitalism under Communist control as an extension of Confuciusism. Though he expresses the official government positions he does lament that the car has become a status symbol in China and he also acknowledges that China is in the same boat as the resat of the world. “Mankind” [his word] faces serious challenges that can only be resolved collectively. On the other hand when it comes to the question of where are all the resources to come from to drive the Chinese economy, he cuts the figure of imperialists going back to Roman times and beyond. In Africa, for instance, where China is a major exploiter of oil he sees China bringing the benefits of civilization. A railroad here, a hospital there. Gao defends China’s record in Africa despite its support of despicable regimes and when asked he also argues that it isn’t in Canada’s interest to place Alberta’s oil sands off limits to China. The bottom line is that China now imports almost half its daily oil needs and operates on a reserve measured in months. The country needs petrochemicals to make everything from fertilizer to Barbie dolls and the number of cars on China’s roads is increasing by 2.5 million a year.
Later on we meet up with student activist “Jason” and, after interviewing him further about his environmentalism, he is filmed from the back of a scooter as he rides his bike through the streets of a hutong and around a miniature lake The scooter belongs to the owner of a student restaurant we lunched in. He manages to steer without spilling either Mario or his camera into the street. As foreigners we not are permitted to film inside FM 103.9 but a hired Chinese cameraman is. He films two DJs do their patter, take a call from Chin Ming enroute back to Beijing and talk about the need that FM 103.9 – as China’s most popular car talk radio program – fulfills in the lives of car owners. After dark the car club is filmed pulling into their depot at journey’s end. Chen Ming carries a bouquet of flowers and after some final words and a group photo everyone disperses into the night. A couple of newly weds are asked to describe for us the highlights of the trip before they too disperse. Next morning, the crew visits with Sing and Nigel. They are cap and traders who make their living as go-betweens in a business whose purpose is to control pollution. Companies that reduce their carbon footprint can sell their unused rights to pollute [or credits] to those who cannot meet their allotted quota of pollution rights. Even in one’s own language the logic of this free market-based mechanism for controlling carbon emissions is hard to grasp and the hope is that despite the Babel like confusion of tongues between broken English and Mandarin some shining nuggets of revelation about the global inter-connectedness of polluters may be panned from the interview. The crew heads for its final rendez-vous with Chen Ming. The purpose of visiting his house is to understand through Chen Ming’s family the changes China is going through. His father and mother talk about their famous artist parents whose careers spanned the period before and during the Communist era of Chairman Mao. Dad is filmed flipping through examples of their beautiful work in art books. But a disagreement unexpectedly flares up when father expresses his regrets for the environmental costs of the new path China is taking. Despite the fact the camera is rolling, Chen Ming criticizes his father in front of the visitors for suggesting improvements are not being made. Mother sides with her son. In the old days she points out that they could not travel and now they can. Her words echo what her son had told us on the road about the ancient Chinese definition of a well-lived life being to read 10,000 books and travel 10,000 miles. The identity of travel and self-fulfillment is a recurring theme both here as it was among the self-drivers. But Dad only retreats to the edge of the frame. All is not well in the house of Chen. Does their conflict echo the one at the heart of our film. There are limits that we ignore at our peril. Or, as the historian of technology Vaclav Smil insists, North Americans, in the face of Chinese and Indian just aspirations, must downscale our own per capita energy use: Our economies are just subsystems of the biosphere. If we aren’t going to engineer gradual reductions, we run a considerable risk the biosphere may do the scaling-down for us in a much less desirable (if not catastrophic) manner. Though Chen Ming is furious, civility is maintained. The crew leaves with the gift of a couple of complimentary soft-cover out-of-print books and a DVD of an hour documentary program on the family that was broadcast over CCTV. For 3,000 years China has managed to keep burning without using up its energy sources. But now it has traded self-sufficiency for capitalist growth and interdependence, and by doing so, is joining the West at the crossroads. Two civilizations, the West and the East, so long so separate in every way, now recognize they share a common fate. The way ahead offers a choice. Either we limit growth and energy use and put the brakes on globalization, or, as those such as Nordau and Shellenberger of the Breakthrough Institute [whom we shall be interviewing in December in California] and scientists like Craig Venter insist, we go forward in the conscious knowledge that we are a species like no other and of limitless possibilities and that our fate depends on successfully applying human intelligence to devising new technologies that will prevent us from destroying our habitat in time. All of which takes us back to our primate brain and its capacity to adapt to a future that can only be imagined.
From: Harold Crooks
Subject: Re: In NYC
Date: 12 November, 2008 4:27:32 EST
Trip back went without a hitch. And I used the time at Beijing 3 to begin the final China travelogue in Starbucks. And Medrie was waiting at JFK. She loved the engraved silver bracelet from Fenghuang (Phoenix City) so much that she just laughed when I told her the Opera Singer placed her hand on my ass when we all posed for that photograph in front of the falls.
I am glad to know I was missed — because the crew you’ve assembled is the finest and funniest group I have ever had the pleasure to work with. So I take it as a great compliment. Look forward to hearing how Monday went. Best
From: Daniel Louis
Sent: Nov 11, 2008 8:14 AM
To: Harold CROOKS
Subject: In NYC ?
Good morning Harold, How did your trip go ? Semi-alive this morning ? You were missed by the group yesterday. Just ain’t the same without you !
From: Harold Crooks
Subject: China Log Part 2
Date: 3 November, 2008 2:59:04 EST
Dear Colleagues and Confederates
Please ignore previous draft of this log that I once again misfired in my rush to get it off to you before we take off for Shanghai. This brief condensation cannot do justice to the specifics of interviews in Chinese with Chen Ming and others, for which we need detailed translation. Nor does it describe the non stop filming. Its purpose is to give the flavour of the past days as we head to the big cities.
Travelling through Chongquing province towards Hunan with the auto club arm of FM 103,9 China’s largest self-driving organization, brings to mind Jonathan Swift’s famous satire Travels Into Several Remote Nations of The World.
Except instead of entering a land of super small people we are travelling through what seems like a nation inhabited by a race of giants. All of us are awed by the scale of new construction. Our SUV convoy darts past what seem like impossible engineering feats – including unfinished overpasses sititng on shafts of cement rising far above river valleys. This is a section of an expressway under construction between Chongqing and Changsha, part of a network of hermetically sealed highways that will allow cars to speed across the ancient landscape of the longest intact civilization in history.
Along the way we learn more from Chen Meng about his life and China’s very recent romance with cars. He and club members repeat a common refrain. The car embodies progress for them.
Typical of club members interviewed, an accountant, we call her the Opera Singer. We record her singing over the walkie talkies that link all 11 club SUVs. Chen Ming can be heard asking her [he is in the lead SUV and she s in number 5] if she is “a daughter of the Communist Party?” The song she is singing is from The Shining Red Star. The Opera Singer tells us in an interview beside a canal in Phoenix City [imagine a kind of Chinese Venice with gondolas] that she bought a car as soon as the Communist government decreed citizens could own them. She did so even before she had a license or knew how to drive.
Our crew spends many hours with Cheng Meng speeding across the fabulous misted landcape. He guides the pack of SUVs that move like a herd of wildebeasts across a savannah. They travel as one, all their emergency lights flashing. Cheng Ming provides a running banter via walkie talkie. Safety tips about approaching hazards, jokes, snatches of film songs. We are positioned strategically inside his lead vehicle and also directly behind, both vehicles connected via our aerial on Chen Ming’s four by four to Comtex receivers, so that the filmed conversation with Chen Ming can be monitored and new questions put.
We pass, and spend fleeting moments, in this hybrid of new and traditional China. Huge cities that dwarf our own; tourist sights never mentioned in Lonely Planet; village markets with slabs of beef being hacked at, oranges, pomegrantes, root vegetables; rice paddies, ducks being taken to market on poles, peasants in conical bamboo hats, water buffaloes. As the camera rolls, Chen Meng explains that growing up cars were not symbols for the rich and poor. Only the politically important had them and they were chauffeured. Thus the romance with “self driving.”
As soon as he got his first car, a Russian style Lada, his quality of life improved. He was treated as if he was rich and envied for how his Lada expanded his horizons. By 2005 he had traded in for a Nissan 2.4 Limited Edition just like the one used by a well known Chinese car rally champion.
We learn more about his background.
Communist Premier Chou En Lai commissioned his artist grandfather to do a series of paintings for the 5th Anniversay of what he calls “the new China.” No sooner than had he completed the work that he died in his sleep of a heart attack. Despite being left with 5 children to support his grandmother also became a renowned artist. But, Cheng Meng insists, she never accepted anything from the government. She was a “pure artist” and would not take an official car or apartment. But her work and her husbands would later make her descendants rich. But not before they lost money in the new Chinese stock market as China adopted a policy of “Capitalism Yes, Democracy No.”
A few years ago, Cheng Meng explains, as we leave behind the deeply rutted roads of Chongqing and reach the better roads of Chairman Mao’s birthplace of Hunan province, the Chinese art market took off “exponentially.” So the Ming family began selling of the works and investing in new condos around Beijing. The value of those condos also went through the roof “exponentially”, and now he is a millionaire. [Cheng Meng tried but did not succeed in gaining access for us to film a painting of his grandmother's that hangs in the Forbidden City. But he has agreed to meet up with us at journey's end in his house. Here he will show us his grandparents' work. As well we shall obtain a copy for archival purposes of the one hour TV program done for CCTV on his family, that includes an honest political notable who served at the royal court and didn't take bribes.]
After being immersed in the gang controlled favelas of Sao Paulo and the lawless wilds of the Amazon, we are now travelling with a group of affluent Chinese in a caravan of SUVs. This does not however guarantee that we have compeletely dodged the menace that shadows countries with huge social gulfs. Enroute we learn that the hotel we had been booked into in Wulong [our first stop out of Chongqing] could not honour our reservations.There had been a gang shoot out the night before in town killing a Chinese’s dozen [8 to 18] and the relatives of the deceased had taken all the rooms.
We film various instances of Cheng Ming’s take charge capability. When a small landslide traps a truck full of new motorcycles, he directs the effort to dislodge the vehicle and in one village in Hunan there is a traffic jam. A vehicle knocked someone down. The victim wants money and Cheng Ming takes over from the police and creates an opening through the commotion. Despite the warnings of Li Li that this is a dangerous place the crew films and buys bananas.
Cheng Ming talks about the charitable contributions that club members make on their tours, which includes delivering equipment to schools along Mao’s Long March route and Tibet. But what surprises us is when he is asked a question about where China gets its oil from. He seemed flummoxed and admitted that he had no idea. Knowing he had created an editing opportunity for us [cut to Libya where China is drilling for oil] we filmed the car club gassing up twice, once at night and once during the day, at stations of the state oil company Sinopec.
In Shanghai we shall interview Wien Tan a financial wizard with a joint venture of the Bank of China and the Rothschilds. He once worked for Sinopec. Besides learning from him what the current world financial crisis tells us about the interdependence of the nations of the world [is this or is this not a truly global civilization?] and what role China might play in saving the capitalist system, we hope Mister Tan he can also help us access Sinopec to answer the question Chen Ming could not answer: Where is China going to find the energy resources it needs to support an aspiring society of one point five billion souls without burning up not only the Amazon [from where it gets soyabeans, beef and biofuel] but burning up the entire planet?
We also interviewed an executive with Beijing office of Shanxi, a major coal producing region of China. He and his wife explained how they never imagined what China would be today and like the others equate progress with the personal freedom that driving affords. They and a newly married couple as well as the Opera singer responded to questions about the price of such progress. They acknowledged the issue and the opera singer said that everyone had to do their part and create a “butterfly effect”.
In Beijing we have arranged to film the arrival of the capitalist roaders back home, visit with Chen Ming, who will do a call in to FM 103.9, whose car talk radio host we shall also interview. FM 103.9 is an essential part of the new car culture. Besides wrapping up the journey with Chen Ming with a few final questions we are also looking to interview a high ranking energy specialist to link the car club to the larger themes of the film: i.e. if it is true that as China goes so goes the world then how is China going to sustain its 5000 year long civilization now that it cannot slow down [or so its leaders believe] for fear of unleasing social chaos. As one observer has pointed out China is like the movie Speed. The plot involves a bus rigged with a bomb timed to detonate if the bus slows down. Keannu Reaves and Sandra Bullock must keep the bus hurtling through LA at more than 50 MPH or blow up. That bus is China.
Gotta fly. Hope this helps give a picture of our days and nights — none of us have been sick despite the exotic fare — none of us except for our shadow, young Corex, who seems to handle the challengiing country cusine less well than we have.
From: Harold Crooks
Subject: From Wu Long, China
Date: 30 October, 2008 13:29:10 EDT
Ok here is fuller sketch from the uncompleted one misfired off in a state of fatigue from Wu Long, a small city five or so hours north east of Chongqing.
Today we hit the road with the “self driving” car club led by a charismatic take charge car club organizer Chen Meng. There are 30 members in a convoy of gas guzzling maroon Hyundai 4X4 V6 SUVs. Club members are affluent upper middle class. They work for multi- national corporations, manufacture cashmere clothes, have kids studying in Australia … But because so many informed observers see the future of the planet depending on what road China takes ["as China goes so goes the planet"], it is taken as a fact the global environment [and our civilization] cannot survive a giant Chinese middle class using energy and consuming like North Americans.
Our club members all are wearing red FM 1039 jackets [as the club is affiliated with a major Beijing radio station] and they personify a class whose rise is feared by environmentalists the world over. They are being told that while the West could pollute and deforest its way to prosperity this is not an option for China because the consquences are global — or as Ronald Wright would put it: each time history repeats itself [with ecological ruin] the price goes up.
The crew had already filmed the club members’ arriving at Chongqing airport, and a group meal at a well known hot pot restaurant, which served as a way to begin the “anthropological” bonding process with the subjects, and the morning exit from the underground hotel parking lot into a a narrow street clogged with humanity [from coolies bearing huge bags of clothing parts to fashionably dressed hot panted employers]in one of the planet’s fastest growing mega cities. Chongqing is one of the major human repositories where the shift in the world’s population from rural to urban has occured in past few years and we filmed the habitations being thrown up to greet the newcomers to the 5000 year experiment in what we call civilization.
After four hours plus on the road [during which we filmed inside Chen Meng's lead SUV that is linked to the entire convoy by walkie-talkie and endless chatter ] we ended up inside a fantastic system of caves on the banks of the Furong Jiang river.
Being in nature here you understand where classical Chinese art and drawing comes from — the mist shrouded mountains whose water falls cascade into deep river gorges. Cheng Meng was interviewed against such a background about the significance of cars for the Chinese and he told us that it was not so long ago a Chinese person never travelled 40 kilometers from home and he now travels 400 kilometers thanks to the car. So given that an ancient Chinese life’s goal is to read 10,000 books and travel 10,000 miles he said that the car has helped put China on the road to that ancient definition of fulfilment.
In fact so strong is car culture associated with self fulfilment that the principal characters [except for the Pig] of a famous Chinese fable [known as the Trip To The West] appear on the SUVs. Chen Meng explains that this myth involves the pursuit of enlightment and he links the freedom of travel with its attainment. Furthermore, faced with questions about the irony of North Americans considering the price of oil based car culture to have become too expensive, he admitted that the growth of car culture in China was making a negative impact on the environment – and that as for himself he was going back to a bicycle for everyday life in Beijing. The SUV would be spared for the pursuit of enlightenment only. [A paradox we hope to explore further in coming days with Chen Meng and other capitalist roaders.]
The crew also filmed inside the domed shaped cave chambers [named Flower King, Dog Tooth Coral Pond, the Great Curtain and the Visual Stalagmite of Man's Energy] with the sense that these images can also be used in the film to evoke our Cro-Magnon past [think Lascaux] and the future some predict we are headed back towards if we fail to navigate our current progress traps. As well they offer images that can be used to conjure up the ancient world that our Radio Anarchy host John Zerzan will celebrate in the public radio program he will devote to ASHOP as the best of all possible worlds for our species.
Once the car clubers emerged from sightseeing in the caves they got back in their vehicles and, half way down the mountain we had climbed, the crew waited in the rain to film them slowly descend through the mist at dusk — and followed them slowly snaking down a switch back road, their flashers winking, until they reached the river below and receded into the distance.
The day ended at the hotel where Li Li [of Up The Yangtze renown] had ordered a surprise for our state tv shadow. Corex was 25 yesterday and the surprise was a cake brought up to his room. Then crew members descended to the karaoke bar next door for a night cap. [Our more worldly colleagues pointed out that in this part of the planet karaoke bars also double as brothels.] Those who remained for a second beer before evacuating the premises and [for the record] alone were rewarded with a priceless post Tower of Babel globalization moment when a Chinese female singer appeared on the big screen covering Celine Dion’s My Heart Will Go On.
Tomorrow morning we rejoin the convoy. They are on a 7 hour leg of their tour.
Any contribution of questions will be appreciated.
BTW, Cheng Meng, a former tv professional, did not have to be told twice about where to direct his gaze when being questioned.
Good night agian.
From: Harold Crooks
Subject: It’s A Wrap [Brazil]
Date: 19 October, 2008 18:32:27 EDT
Ashopiens and Ashopiennes
Here follows notes on last day of Brazil shoot. This followed on our arrival back in Sao Paulo from Cuiaba previous day. A day that had begun at the Hotel Ebenezer on the dusty main drag of a town on the way back from the IBAMA operational center in Colniza. The Ebenezer was a stop over allowing us to make the morning ferry boat. It featured walls too thin to keep out the lights and goings on next door, and a proprietor with an ancient lined accounting ledger and pencil. Our presence seemed to perplex him or maybe he simply was far more invested in a Globo TV teleroman and the big soccer match to follow featuring Brazil.
Back in Sao Paulo, the big news story of the clashing police forces [it had shared top news billing with reports of various other IBAMA operations] was giving away to a sensational new story. One that unexpectedly resonated with our own ASHOPIAN story. Police were negotiating with a 22 year old kidnapper for the release of his much younger ex. The stand off ended with the man’s arrest and the carrying out of the building of the mortally wounded female victim.
Our fixer, Daniel Caldeira, was reading about the outcome of the kidnapping in the morning paper as he waited for us to check out of our Sao Paulo hotel, the Tryps Higienopolis, and he observed:
The kidnapper is a dead man. Why?
Because his neighbourhood, San Andres, is controlled by the P.C.C., Marcola’s gang. By drawing so many cops into their neigbourhood, the P.C.C. gang [whose membership is estimated to include 90% of Sao Paulo's 140,000 inmates] had lost three days worth of drug revenues. They would kill the arrested man long before he ever made it to trial. For us, the point of the story is that the P.C.C., part of our social pyramid narrative, is not history — but it remains very much alive in the favelas.
Indeed our favela host at the beginning of the shoot had undoubtedly been the P.C.C. Some of their all-seeing confederates had negotiated an in-kind contribution for permitting our presence and had watched over us inside the favela. We were monitored from a low slung mini car that cruised the rutted dirt streets of the hillside community of refugees from the North. The car had the words Gangsta Familia stencilled on its darkened windshield. At the end of that day’s shoot, the crew had hit the favela bar with Marcos, the president of the favela association [a porter by day], and the Gangstas had looked on, bemused witnesses to us gringos drinking beer and hard stuff and playing pool and samba rock on the juke box.
We reached Drauzio Varella through his assistant. For 13 years the good doctor volunteered his services at Carandiru prison, Sao Paulo home to the P.C.C. Varella is a respected cancer doctor, book author, including a memoir of Carandiru, and producer of a popular tv documentary series on health issues. He could not manage to meet us our last weekend but is willing to meet, possibly in Montreal, when next in States. His role will be to illuminate for us the consequences the societal dysfunction that comes with unbridgeable social gulfs. The ASHOPIAN pyramid that Ronald Wright identifies across time.
Our last location was to complete shooting in Alphaville, the fortified colony to which many affluent flee Sao Paulo rather than risk being pillaged, kidnapped and killed.
Entering Alphaville 2, one of 60 such units, is not so unlike leaving one country for another. Our passports are examned at a gate that looks like Checkpoint Charlie. Anda Patrhulament private patrol car shadows us to our destination, 268 Al. Argentina, the home of Marcello Gusmao and his family.
Brazilian to the core, Marcellos G has German, Dutch, Italian, and, through his 4 foot tall mother, Indian blood. She hails from Minas Gerais that translates as General Mines, the gold and diamond Eldorado. He is in soybeans grown in Mato Grosso, from where we have just come. His American boss is a 70 year old Ferrari-driving Illinois redneck [Marcello's words] who has no trouble hedging his soybean purchases. Banks are no longer lending to anyone. But the Illinois trader isn’t anyone. He has $5 billion cash parked in the bank.
From Marcello we learn quite a few things: China is the major buyer of Brazilian soybeans, making Brazil a Chinese breadbasket. Marcello insists, however, that soybean producers aren’t the culprit in the deforestaton drama. In fact sugar cane producers are pushing them out of Mato Grosso whose poor soil is not so great for soybeans but is, as we found much evidence of, ideal for cattle pasture. So bottom line is this: the giant Dallas-style cattle fazendas and our beef consumption are driving the destruction of the rainforest.
The Gusmaos are filmed as a family portrait on their sofa. Marcello, Anna Maria [mum], Anna Flavia [sis] and Marcello Jr.
Mum and Dad seem robust, but the kids seem harried and as fragile as hothouse flowers. How great can such a cocoon be for breeding secure and resilient social beings ? But because Dad is away so often travelling on business [Caracas and Saskatoon on potash business, Chicago on soyabean and shepherding whisky loving Chinese buyers around Mato Grosso], he chooses to live here in Alphaville. The security from the evil that lurks beyond its barbed wired walls spares him the worry. But even he chafes at the price of such an ultra protected environment.
For instance, the “patrulhamento” boss has it in for his own son. He had taken exception to an article Marcello Jr. wrote in the paper he works for, the Alphaville News, opposing the “patrulhamento” boss’ request for permission to carry weapons inside the compound. Now the boss wants pay back. He denies young Marcello every request for information or support. This includes a request to allow us to flm inside Alphaville 2 !
As the Gusmao interview continues, there is a knock on the door. A woman appears bearing a large cloth bag. It turns out to contain a plaster Our Lady of Aparecida, Brazil’s patron saint. The women of Alphaville take turns keeping the Madonna in their homes and now it is Anna Maria’s turn.
Each of the Gusamos is asked to define progress and then the crew films the tv room where home owners can monitor their surroundings 24/7 via Alphaville TV. The ever obliging Marcello explains how it works.
When the crew leaves the Gusamo house and begins filming a real estate agent from central casting, Marcello Sr. notices that our “patrulhamento” shadow car has reappeared. He strides down the landscaped street to chase him away.
The crew follows the real estate lady into a house for sale and she “sells” straight into the lens of the camera the super security benefits of home owning in Alphaville.
Finally, the crew succeeds in avoiding the “patrulhamento” shadow long enough to secretly shoot on the streets inside the A2 compound from inside the equipment van.
The Brazil trip ends where it had begun two weeks ago. Then the weather was bleak and the helicopters we had come to shoot taking off from a helipad opposite where the crew was perched atop the Eagle Point building were nowhere in sight. It was raining too hard and nobody could imagine how our planned shoot was to unfold. Now the talk is about the wrap to follow the last location:
The iconic Alphaville sign carved in blocks of stone on a roundabout at the approach to the colony. An image we first had seen in a film magazine article about Godard’s city of pain.
Next stop Chongching.
From: Harold Crooks
Subject: Back in Sao Paulo
Date: 18 October, 2008 6:41:41 EDT
Cher et cheres ASHOPIENS*,
Landed back at Guarulhos intl airport, the cawing sound turns out not to be tropical birds but, as our soundman Joao informs, car alarms. Of course. Welcome back to the urban jungle where yesterday two police forces clashed like Easter Island clans in front of the downtown state govenor’s office, the Palacio de Banderiotes. The grey city is cement grey and the air suffocating with toxins. The first location is top of the Edificio Italia, one of the city’s landmarks, built by the Circolo Italiano. The Roman Empire is history but Italians go on being great builders. This building has immense0 solidity and polished marble floors. On its top floor there is the Terraco Italia, a top of the social pyramid eatery and panelled bar with sofas and giant chandelier.
At magic hour, actually magic despite the cover of grey, the city seems hallucinating. There may not be a million highrises out there stretching as far as the eye can see but it sure looks like there could be. The buildings recede into the horizon and dissolve into the clouds.
To film up here is to capture a vision of complex civilization – something that has been evolving from the Sumerians invention of the city right up until the immense limitless sprawl of today into tomorrow. Like a self-replicating organism, part beast, part dream.
Our fixer Daniel Caldiera points out three boulevards that run like canyons below. Locals like to say that Avenida Paulista (which the crew helicoptered down last time here so low that office workers could be seen photocopying and at the end of which Ferrari the pilot did a canyon turn that sent crews stomachs flying) is said to be like marriage. It begins in Paradise (an intersecting avenue) and ends in Consolation (another intersecting avenue).
Today it is off to Alphaville, ironically named for the Godard film and also a vision of a future best avoided. Like Godard, who said you only need two things to make a film, a girl and a gun, we all are already missing our pistol packing IBAMA girl Raquel.
To be continued from the next port of call, Carre St Louis. Gotta fly. Harold
*ASHOP refers to the working title of the film – “A Short History of Progress”. In the final stages of post-production the title was changed to “Surviving Progress”.
From: Harold Crooks
Suject: From Cuiabá
Date: 17 October, 2008 8:25:48 EDT
Here´s the next ´´travelogue`´ from state capítal of Mato Grosso.
We are just returned from documenting forces at play in the rainforest drama. We interviewed a black migrant (who could have been cast by Speilberg for the role) from drought ridden Bahia on the piece of rainforest he is slashing and burning. His goal is to receive title to the land from INCRA, an agrarian reform agency. INCRA holds out the promise that if he improves 80% of these few acres he no longer will be landless. But IBAMA whose operations we were embedded with in Colniza is enforcing a 20% logging limit !
The ASHOPIAN paradox was evident to us in many ways, especially during a raid we filmed on sawmill. The operation involved IBAMA agents, the federal police and national guard, a well armed task force that swooped down on a sawmill making furniture veneers using tropical logs.
We filmed the patrona gather his 180 workers in the 100 degree sun and tell them that until further notice he was forced to lay them off while IBAMA searched his property for evidence of illegal logging. Like the powerful black peasant whose shoes had no soles, the patrona angrily railed against government that promotes an irrational policy. One arm insists on rapid economic development while another champions environmental protection.
The surreal sight of a sawmill occupied by a military force is explained by the fact that this paradox often leads to violence. Last year for instance, another IBAMA action near Alta Floresta (12 hours from Colniza by the road we took) resulted in an uprising by locals. IBAMA agents were surrounded and held hostage 12 hours before a release was negotiated.
IBAMA is taking no chances in Colniza, which is an even more remote part of this wild west. Indeed we learned later that our chauffeur´s wife is angry with him for agreeing to take us to Colniza. She is a justice department civil servant in Cuiaba from where I write and knowing the statistics first hand she has no illusions about the menace represented by desperate workers and the powerful vested interests driving defortestation.
About 80 per cent of recent world deforestation is estimated to have taken place in Brazil nd recent satellite data used by IBAMA from two software systems known as Prodes and Deter that allow officials to view on their computers high resolutions of small sections of the Amazon based on a series of polygons (something we also shot) reveals that in last five months of 2007 alone about 7,000 square kilometres of rainforest were destroyed. The highest rate of deforestation is Mato Grosso, where we filmed with ´´our´´ 27 year old IBAMA pilot Mariana the vast cattle ranches (some of biggest ranches on planet) responsible for eating the Amazon alive.
We also interviewed some laid off sawmill workers workers, and on a ferry boat on the way out of the Amazon, we had a moving interview with our IBAMA ´´star´´ Raquel abut the personal paradoxes & challenges of trying to enforce environmental laws in the face of so much social turmoil and conflicting forces.
Raquel represents a new guard of college educated agents brought in to chnage the image of IBAMA whose field officers had been exclusively composed of good old boys. These guys ruined the agency reputation by warning targets of planned actions. Today the young pistol and lap top toting agents work cheek by jowl with the machete toting old boys who know how to find the keys ranchers hide near their locked fence gates !
In a word the entire human material progress drama we witnessed is on view here in the Amazon. And the government seems to have little choice but to impose IBAMA´s presence by armed force even as its growth policies undermine the agency´s mission. Despite lovely Raquel´s insistence that the attempt to save the rainforest is not hopeless, IBAMA manages to collect only about one to two percent of the fines it imposes for environmental crimes.
Hotel internet erratic so I best stop here.
On to Sao Paulo today. Best, Harold
From: Harold Crooks Subject: Re: ASHOP – Lost in translation ?
Date: 14 October, 2008 9:16:22 EDT
Writing from the municipal gymnasium in the wild west Amazonia town of Colniza, occupied by army preparing for a major anti logging mission tomorrow. We have been provided an army pilot (young woman) and helicopter to shoot useful aerials yesterday and today. Simply awesome access plus the protection of armed force in middle of Mato Grosso, a major Amazon deforestation area contested by many interests.
As I write I hear the flutter of “our” Huey taking off and new troops are filling the bunk beds that line the perimeter of the huge tin roof sports arena, playing soccer, watching tv, polishing rifles, using the Internet. Defending the Amazon we are observing is now an armed struggle between contending forces. Our 29 year old “star” Raquel tells us how cheap life is in these parts. For 100 Reais you can have someone killed around here professionally. First in her university class of 5000 she hopes her low paying law enforcement job on the dangerous edge of nowhere will help her build up a resume compelling enough to allow her to apply for a scholarship to study environmental law in Nottingham, England. Re Portuguese interview issue, little will be lost in translation. Our prepared questions were put to Marina Silva in Portuguese by our fixer researcher, the estimable Nancy Marcotte — who is fluent in Portuguese and who totally understands the answers !!! For on the run interviews Nancy provides crew a running commentary. This is how we did The World Is Watching, The World Stopped Watching and Bhopal with excellent results. To be continued.
From: Harold Crooks
Subject: Re: Stats: 1 acre per second
Date: 9 October, 2008 7:27:28 EDT
Hi Mark Thanks for this. Today we are off to Brazilia for the interviews of Fernside and Marina Silva after 4 intense days here including a day spent in a favela yesterday where we spent time with chauffeur of an aristocratic woman whose grandfather was youngest Admiral in Brazilian Navy, whose great grandfather was a cattle baron and from whose mother she inherited a Da Vinci. Today you cannot safely walk the streets of her neighbourhood that lives in fear of the favela controlled by drug cartels etc. Privatization of all has created a power vaccuum into which the abandoned poor rely on the Marcola gangs of the world. It was an intense experience for all with lots of film opportunities. The aerial visuals of the previous day yielded hallucinating images of the social gulfs. Gotta go now. Best Harold
From: mark achbar
Sent: Oct 8, 2008 1:16 PM
Subject: Stats: 1 acre per second
On Dan Rather Reports today:
Up to 20% of greenhouse gasses are tied to deforestation.
Stuart Eisenstat: Negotiated Kyoto for USA.
There was a decline in deforestation in Brazil, but it rose 69% over the past year.
We are losing one acre of tropical forest every second.
Losing 13,000,000 hectares per year.
From: Harold Crooks
Subject: Re: Q’s
Date: 6 October, 2008 15:46:46 EDT
There are going to be two major eyeliner interviews in Brazil: one with the ex-pat ecological eocnomist Phillip Fearnside of the Instituto Nacional de Pesquinas da Amazonia and one with recently resigned Environment Minister Marina Silva. Others to be filmed in a less formal and more imprpovised manner about their lives so as to reflect on the broken social contract in the world’s 6th largest city and on the psychological impact of the Mother’s Day, 2006 attack include: a armoured car salesman [done this morning]; a helicopter pilot who ferries the top of the social pyramid over the bottom of the pyramid; an Alphaville reporter; an Alphaville real estate agent and security guard; a washer of windows in a weathy condo complex overlooking his favela; a chauffeur in same favela involved in resistance campaign against expropriation by developers. As well through her extraordindary efforts, and not without much complex & patient negotiation between various ministries, Nancy Marcotte has succeeded in securing us access to Raquel, an IBAMA officer. IBAMA is federal agency responsible for managing Amazon. Raquel will lead the Arco de Fogo operation we are documenting into Mato Grosso. We shall fly from Brasilia after completing our IVs with Dr Fearnside and Marina Silva with Raquel to the Amazon. Questions to her can be inferred by going to the treatment where the issues to be dealt with learned are laid out. Attached is a draft list of questions for Fearnside to which I look forward to any suggestions. A draft of questions for Marina Silva to follow. Suffice it to add that Daniel has assembled a really cracker jack crew [both Quebeco-Canuck and Brazilian, including body guards Eduardo and Foreman] that is working flat out and in harmony. And Mathieu is demonstrating that he possesses great valiance. An old fashioned word but no less valuable for that.
From: mark achbar
Sent: Oct 6, 2008 1:46 PM
Is it correct that on this trip you’re trying to cover: the rich guy in his ivory tower, the favelas & prison rebellion, the groups trying to maintain the Amazon, and the people profiting from Amazon felling?
That’s a tall order. Do you have your interview questions worked out? Do you want to run them by us?