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4 Documentaries, 4 Lessons in Environmental Politics and Power

View across a small island in the Marshall Islands. | Courtesy of of Thomson Reuters Foundation
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Deep into a decisive election year in the United States that is unfolding in the midst of a global public health and economic crisis, four new “Earth Focus” documentaries explore environmental politics and power: from global youth climate activists to the United States Senate, via South Africa and the Peruvian Amazon.  

“Power corrupts,” according to the famous dictum. But as Robert Caro, the great biographer of Lyndon B. Johnson, has said, “power also reveals.”  

Environmental stories often hinge on moral authority, what is right and wrong, and in these stories, power is often associated with the bad guys. David versus Goliath is a common template for environmental stories. However, as these “Earth Focus” documentaries reveal, it behooves us to pay closer attention to what power reveals on all sides of environmental stories. Despite the title of the series, the hallmark of “Earth Focus” documentaries, beyond their obvious focus on planet Earth, is their attention to human stories. The dynamics of human political power drive this season’s stories at least as much and sometimes even more than the environmental concerns at their heart.

A man climbs stairs emerging from an abandoned coal mine. | Courtesy of of Thomson Reuters Foundation
A man climbs the stairs emerging from an abandoned coal mine. | Courtesy of of Thomson Reuters Foundation

We ignore this fact at our own peril, as the half-hour documentary on coal mining and renewable energy in South Africa shows. As the coal industry fragments in the face of an uncertain future, it is causing even more widespread environmental damage, as rogue companies walk away from open pit mines. Residents suffer from the long-term health effects, respiratory and cardiovascular issues, and other diseases. Unemployed miners go back into the tunnels to scrounge dangerously for the last dregs from the spent veins of a dying fossil fuel industry. Still, and despite a growing push for renewable wind energy, coal mining has a stranglehold on the Mpumalanga region.

Why? The current ruling party in South Africa overthrew the country’s racist apartheid regime precisely because of its power base in the coal mining unions. In fact, the current president of the country was the president of the mining union during the struggle against apartheid. Wind energy pushed by white entrepreneurs currently offers no alternative path to power for the Black unions and their members. Until that political and economic power dynamic changes, it’s likely that the Black unions will continue to assert that coal is the future, and renewable energy will have a hard time gaining ground in South Africa.

Alexandria Villaseñor and other youth activists demonstrate with posters on the steps of San Francisco City Hall. | Courtesy of of Thomson Reuters Foundation
Alexandria Villaseñor and other youth activists demonstrate with posters on the steps of San Francisco City Hall. | Courtesy of of Thomson Reuters Foundation

This is a harsh contrast with the uplifting, inspiring, deeply joyous documentary on the global youth climate movement in this season of “Earth Focus.” This half-hour film dips intimately into the home lives and activism of four young people — none named Greta, though she does appear briefly, too — from California, Alaska, the Marshall Islands, and South Africa.

The documentary reveals the diversity of the movement at the same time that it shows their unity of purpose. Their mass movement is buoyed by the moral power of their call for generational justice and equity. Their voices demand to be heard because they are the ones who will live with the consequences of climate change — and many adults are paying attention and acknowledging the authority of youth.  

The youth are part of a legal appeal to the United Nations, led by savvy international lawyers. Their case asserts that several nations have violated the agreement they made to protect the rights of youth when they signed the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which, by the way, the United States never signed. 

The legal case and the youth climate strikes are both part of a symbolic cultural and moral politics playing out in the court of public opinion. It is not clear whether there is much of a strategy to build political power beyond claiming the moral authority of youth and their call to “listen to the science.” Thinking about the real politics of South Africa, one wonders about the real political power of the global youth climate movement. 

EARTH FOCUS “The Price of Gold in Peru.” Image courtesy of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
A law enforcement officer featured in the episode “The Price of Gold in Peru” rides a boat during an operation to destroy illegal mining camps.  |  Image courtesy of Thomson Reuters Foundation

This kind of environmental politics, a legal strategy that is part of a moral movement, can certainly play a big role in motivating change, but other forms of political power may be necessary to carry out what needs to be done, as an “Earth Focus” documentary on rogue gold mining in Peru shows this season.  

Wildcat gold mines have been leaving a trail of devastation and misery around the Amazon for decades. They use dredges to pull sediments from riverbeds and mercury to pull gold from the soil. They burn the mercury off in crude crucibles to purify the gold. The mercury vaporizes and then settles back in the river, where it is taken up in the food chain, concentrating in fish that people eat, contaminating their bodies with a permanently brain-damaging poison that hits kids especially hard.  

The gold mining camps are hotbeds of violence, human trafficking, and drug trade. They flourish in a makeshift way until the gold runs out and then they vanish, leaving broken land, poisoned waters, and shattered lives in their wake.  

There has long been environmental and moral outrage about this illegal gold mining in the Amazon. But to make real change in Peru, it has taken the combination of a determined female prosecutor outraged by the human trafficking and environmental damage, a governor with a vision of transforming a regional economy, and a president who sees the future in global trade rather than an extractive run-and-gun economy, as well as a supportive military. 

Amazon gold mining stories have been some of the most relentlessly hopeless stories in environmental journalism for many years. There are glimmers of real hope in this story now. Technology is being adopted to lessen the mercury that gets into the environment. Laws are being passed to eventually stop mercury mining. Indigenous people who benefited from rogue mines in their territories are switching to raising fish for market. And a highway, often another symbol of destruction in the Amazon, may turn into a lever of change.  

There is no clearer symbol of the shifts in power that have enabled these changes than seeing the female prosecutor ordering the men under her command to burn down wildcat mine camps and blowing up their dredges. As the Amazon is more closely tied to the rest of the world, the balance of power is shifting from outlaws to government and business. How far and how fast this will happen, time will tell, but in this region, one woman is leading an important change as power shifts around her.  

EARTH FOCUS “The New West and the Politics of the Environment” features Nevada Senator Harry Reid. Image courtesy of UCLA LENS.
"Earth Focus" special “The New West and the Politics of the Environment” features Nevada Senator Harry Reid. | Courtesy of UCLA LENS

This season of “Earth Focus” includes a feature-length documentary that explores this theme — the uses of power to leverage change in an environment where power is shifting — through the little-known environmental history of former U.S. Senator Harry Reid. In this 90-minute portrait, not just of Reid, but of Nevada and the changing American West, “Earth Focus” gets closest to Caro’s interest in what power reveals.  

For this is not just a “great man” version of history, but an ensemble portrait of the people Reid worked with and sometimes fought with — farmers, ranchers, hunters, Native Americans, urban developers, the federal government itself — and the changing nature of the western economy, politics, and environment that enabled Reid to ride a changing West to power, and then use that power to help shepherd in a New West.

As the documentary reveals, Reid was driven by a moral vision and environmental conviction that was formed in his youth. Growing up in the busted-down remains of an Old West mining town, he saw his only youthful retreat, a nearby verdant spring in the otherwise bleak desert, destroyed by vandals. But he rarely wore that vision and conviction on his sleeve.

Instead, he recognized how power was shifting on the Truckee River in northern Nevada after a century of water wars and used negotiation as well as compromise to broker a new deal for endangered species and Native American tribes.  

He saw that a new deal could be struck between booming Las Vegas and protecting the surrounding public lands, while making the beauty of the desert accessible to changing urban populations. He made sensible compromises to protect millions of acres of wilderness in a state famous for opposing wilderness, at a time when progress on wilderness was at a standstill around the West. He worked behind the scenes to help kill coal in Nevada and jumpstart a transition to renewable energy that benefited Native Americans who had long suffered downwind of a dirty coal burning power plant. He figured out how to starve a mortal enemy, the Department of Energy, to keep nuclear waste out of Nevada.

And when he couldn’t do what he wanted one way, he figured out another to protect close to 1 million acres in Basin and Range National Monument, by calling in chits he had accrued by having President Barack Obama’s back in Congress.

All of these things add up to a vision for a kind of new green deal, emerging from the ground up in the American West, though Reid claims he has never had a grand vision — he just did what had to be done.

As this season of “Earth Focus” reveals, individuals are important. Passion, moral arguments, conviction, persistence, are all important, too. But so is political power and understanding how to use it in all of its complex forms.

Top image: View across a small island in the Marshall Islands. | Courtesy of of Thomson Reuters Foundation 

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