Posted May 6, 2008 by Miles Benson
WASHINGTON D.C. - The March weather was mild enough to draw throngs of visitors to theaters in museums, libraries, schools and other venues to see offerings of the 16th annual Environmental Film Festival in the Nation’s Capital.
An estimated 24,000 attended one or more of the 115 documentaries and short features before the 11-day festival concluded on United Nations-designated World Water Day, March 22, with the showing of Flow: For Love of Water, an hour and thirty three minute examination of the ugly tangle of politics, corruption, pollution and human rights issues in a world where 1.1 billion people still lack safe water for drinking and 2.6 billion are without adequate sanitation at the same time that multi-national corporations are extracting big profits bottling water for the wealthy and pushing for privatization of diminishing supplies.
Another festival film, Water First, traced efforts down in the weeds, underway today, to ease the suffering of those already beset by problems that computer models warn await the rest of humanity. This film, shot in Malawi and South Africa, demonstrates how simply delivering fresh water to people without it has a transformative impact on poverty, disease, gender equality and particularly education for girls. It focuses on the work of Charles Banda, a preacher and retired fireman, who founded the Freshwater Project in Malawi, drilling 800 wells in 10 years bringing potable water to one million, without support from outside organizations.
Balancing the immediacy of already existing water shortages with long-term environmental issues, the film festival also helped launch the “WASH—Schools-Initiative,” a U.S. based non-governmental, non-profit program enlisting American school children to help raise money to fund the small projects that bring water to schools in Africa, Asia and South America, with a school-to-school match-up.
“Half the world’s schools lack safe drinking water and adequate sanitation,” said David Douglas, president of Water Advocates, an organization that lobbies the U.S. Congress to increase funding for water programs abroad. In many impoverished communities, $6,000 is enough to get clean water to these children by drilling wells, laying pipe and building rain storage tanks.
Diseases associated with contaminated drinking water kill two to five million annually, with typhoid, cholera, dysentery, and hepatitis A among the chief culprits. Diarrheal dehydration is an especially big killer of children, who die at a rate of 4,500 every day from water-related diseases.
When safe water is provided, a 90 percent reduction in disease is not unusual among people who previously relied on water from polluted sources, often hauled over long distances on the heads of women and young girls who make repeated trips and then have no time do much of anything else, like attend school.
The cascading threats of falling water tables, imperiled food supplies, collapsing fisheries, glacial meltdowns, deforestation, desertification and all the other related consequences of climate change and global warming – has alarm bells clanging all over the world, but most government policy makers and leaders in business and industry do not seem very alarmed.
Hollywood for decades made money on Doomsday scenarios about alien invaders, mutant disease agents, killer asteroids and rogue comets on course to smash earth. I don’t recall any about planetary suicide by economic development. But that is what civilization faces based on the preponderance of scientific evidence that motivated the environmental film makers, who are not likely to enjoy box office bonanzas for their labors.
Sure, there remain unanswered questions about the multitude of dangers, such as where, exactly, is the tipping point beyond which reversal and recovery are not possible? Far in the future? Much sooner? Behind us already? And sure, all of it is complicated by uncertainties about how human contributions interact with the natural variability of climate.
What is not so complicated is the grim message that our great grand children, our grand children and perhaps even our children will be at risk in a dramatically different and more frightening world than the one we would wish for them, unless we arrest the malign processes eating away the biosphere.
We have plenty of evidence that millions, even billions of people, are already experiencing the kind of trouble forecast for us all eventually.
The business-as-usual mood that prevails in the upper reaches of the power structure is evident in the intense and protracted presidential campaign as most voters focus on other issues and the candidates themselves give minimal emphasis to environmental concerns.
While the film festival was underway, two pollsters, one a Democrat, the other a Republican, sat side by side explaining the political facts of life to a group of journalists at a breakfast meeting in a hotel close to the White House. “It’s a ‘big issue’ election,’ said Democrat Peter Hart, but climate change is not yet one of those big issues he conceded. “Other issues, like energy and the economy are there but the top three overwhelmingly are the economy followed by Iraq followed by health care. Those are the big three.”
Republican William McInturff, agreed with his colleague, but added that his own candidates, Sen. John McCain, is more concerned about climate change than many other Republicans and views it as “a national security issue.”
The rather different and prevailing view among Republicans was stated by Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, the leader of the House of Representatives’ GOP minority, when he was asked by a reporter where global warming fit into his party’s issue matrix. “Well, I myself and my colleagues are concerned about the issue of climate change,” Boehner said. “There’s no question we’ve had climate change over the last 100 years or so. The question is why, and while some would believe there’s a consensus, others don’t believe there is a consensus about the cause of it, and how much man has to do with it,” Boehner said. “More importantly,” he added, tellingly, “one nation trying to address a world-wide problem is not sufficient and puts our manufacturers at a huge disadvantage.”
One of those manufacturers is automobile maker General Motors, whose chairman and CEO Richard Wagoner also was in Washington, on other matters, on the day the environmental film festival opened. Because his products make sizeable carbon contributions to the atmosphere and therefore to global warming, I asked Wagoner if he believed the danger of environmental instability posed any ethical or moral challenge to GM?
Wagoner called global warming and climate change “externalities” to his business but acknowledged that his company did have some role to play in solving the problem of greenhouse gases. “We have smart people with great technology that can do that,” he said. He put one of those people in charge of developing GM’s electric vehicle concept. That would be GM’s vice chairman, Bob Lutz, who made headlines in Texas in February when he dismissed global warming as “a crock of shit.” That comment, Wagoner insisted, did not represent the company’s position or “the way we’re driving as a business.” But it does suggest that global warming is not among the incentives driving Lutz as he approaches the development of electric cars.
Wagoner went on to say that GM was supporting a cap and trade program to control greenhouse gas emissions, although he quickly added: “we put some caveats around that, too.”
Of course, come November, the distraction of the presidential campaign will be over. But don’t expect any immediate elevation of environmental issues after that, either. The transition of power to an incoming new administration will indeed provide some opportunities to promote responsible U.S. global engagement. But regardless of the election’s outcome, climate change is not going to jump to the top of the urgency agenda at a time when two wars and an economic slowdown are still dominating public attention. That was the assessment of a panel of experts advising non-governmental organizations conferencing here on strategies to deal with a government headed by a new White House tenant.