Monday, December 19, 2011

Book Review: Detroit: 138 Square Miles

There are many haunting images in this gargantuan photography book by Julia Reyes Taubman, but the one that devastates my dad is a picture of two disintegrating steam Bob-Lo boats docked next to a US Steel plant in west Detroit. For nearly 100 years, the boats carried generations of Detroiters to Bob-Lo Island amusement park on the Detroit River. I vaguely remember riding in one myself as a kid - if there was anything exotic and exciting about living there, that was it.

To my dad, the abandonment of these boats is nothing less than the desecration of our elders. The rusting stacks, the ghostly white sheets hanging off the sides: these images are hard to look at for someone with affectionate memories. That the boats are now docked next to a steel manufacturing plant is weirdly insulting.

Photos of abandoned Detroit, aka "ruin porn" are pretty cliche at this point. Everyone's seen a photo of the empty Michigan Central Railroad Station or crumbling ceiling in some old factory. On the other hand, it's hard not to take a photo of abandoned buildings in the city - they're everywhere. Taubman's book contains many pictures of these ruins, but they don't feel like a rehash. The color tones, the sometimes ethereal perspectives seem to come from a place more of empathy and history than exploitation.

The East Side's empty lots (Photo: Taubman)
As an environmentalist, I was drawn to Taubman's photos of heavy industry. From the Marathon Oil tank farm and piles of coal on Zug Island to the Detroit salt mine and Ford River Rouge Plant, there are some epic images of the guts of our country's manufacturing legacy. Even my dad, who's been to some of these sites at ground level was surprised at the extent of the operations in Taubman's areal views.

"US Steel's manufacturing operations entirely occupy Zug Island" (Photo: Taubman)
The book provides visual confirmation of why zip code 48217 was recently identified as the most polluted region in the state. Michigan Radio's Environment Report has been following the expansion of the Marathon Oil refinery (the only oil refinery in Michigan) in the last month, particularly the buy-out offer Marathon's given to people living in surrounding neighborhoods. The expansion would "upgrade" the plant to allow it to process -- surprise, surprise -- tar sands oil from Canada. In Taubman's photos, the refinery's impossible tangle of pipes and smokestacks is fascinating and creepy.

There are people in Taubman's book too, but they are usually overshadowed by their surroundings. For instance, there are a few grainy, snap-shot quality photos of smiling people hanging out in dim bar rooms. After being inundated with images of architectural emptiness, these informal shots feel more weighted than they might be otherwise because we want to know what it takes to live here.

In the introduction, Jerry Herron describes Detroit as "the most fully-realized American place", a place created by leaving and forgetting, by immigrating "moment by moment to someplace we hadn't dreamed of yet", a place where we sacrificed the past for material plenty. By documenting the results of this driving character, Taubman forces us to question our cultural values.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Quote of the Day: Emily White

"E.O. Wilson... has described ours as the “Age of Loneliness." He's not speaking metaphorically. He means that, as we continue to let species perish, we're inevitably going to feel more isolated and bereft in the world they've left behind. With loneliness conceptualized in this reasonable way--as a state that reflects, at least in part, our ties to the world around us--it's impossible to think that the extinction rate can climb upward while the loneliness rate remains unchanged. Environmental losses will translate into personally felt absences. What's different about environmental loss is its quiet nature. There's no one storming out, no one slamming a door or leaving a hastily written note. Rather, extinction is a gradual, perpetual, and silent good-bye." - Emily White, Lonely: Learning to Live With Solitude

Friday, December 9, 2011

You've Been Negotiating All My Life

As many expected, the high-level posturing at COP 17 in Durban has been a disappointment - sane people recognize that the 2020 date proposed for a legally binding deal for carbon reduction simply doesn't match the urgency that the scientific findings are demanding of us. Those who point this out, notably the youth contingent most effected by these negotiations, are being led away in handcuffs. Here are two videos from today, the first of Anjali Appadurai was just posted on the Facebook page and is worth the viral treatment:

And here's video of the protest this morning:

Talks were expected to conclude today, but have run over until a negotiation can be reached. The Guardian has been keeping a succinct play-by-play of developments at COP 17.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Movie Review: Even the Rain

Spain's official submission to this year's Academy Awards, También la lluvia, is a film that draws parallels between the historical European colonization of Central and South America and the more ambiguous economic colonization by multinational corporations today. The common denominator in both is access to natural resources.

The plot follows a fictional film crew as they shoot a movie in Cochabamba, Bolivia on Christopher Columbus' arrival in today's Cuba. Much to the crew's befuddlement and anxiety, the shoot coincides with a resistance movement that flares up when foreign companies attempt to privatize the city's water supply. The film muddies the distinction between the events so that history is shown to exist in the present.

While the events themselves made the movie exciting (this was the first time I'd heard of the real-life Cochabamba Water Wars), it was the characters' responses to them that I was drawn to. Despite the obvious connections the film makes between colonization in the past and present, the characters resist acknowledging them. Director Sebastián (played by Gael García Bernal) is visibly moved by the story of Dominican friar Bartolomé de Las Casas who defended the indigenous people against the Spaniards, but he lacks heroism when it comes to speaking out for the indigenous actors in his film. We are not made to despise his cowardice though - his avoidance shows why fictional heroism is so difficult to translate to the real world.

The jaded, alcoholic Antón who plays Columbus (Cristóbal Colón, if you want to be accurate - played by Karra Elejalde) is ironically the only non-indigenous character that understands his relationship to history and the persistence of greed. At one point, the crew is invited to the local government official's office and Antón sarcastically taunts the official with cries of "Let them eat cake!" as riots erupt outside.

También la lluvia illuminates in a simple and entertaining way why neoliberalism has led to revolution and reform in much of Latin America and perhaps gives us a glimpse of water wars to come. It also encourages the viewer to ask uncomfortable questions about their own moral responsibilities in a living history.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Reflections on Climate Change in Siberia

In this short doc, Candice Sly interviews people in Siberia about climate change, dacha culture and life around Lake Baikal, the oldest and deepest lake in the world.