On the ‘Sovereignty of Planet Earth:’ Bookending the Industrial Revolution with Tales of Life and Living.

Left, courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures. Right, courtesy Twentieth Century Fox.

Left, courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures. Right, courtesy Twentieth Century Fox.

Two of last year’s most popular films, The Revenant and Mad Max: Fury Road, both serve as allegories for humans’ perceived place in Earth’s ecosystem today. Each tells their respective cautionary tales of survival, bookending the peak of the industrial revolution and the logical end of its aftermath. Here we examine the films together in the context of each other, and how our ideas of the past and future reveal where we are now.

Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant pulls us into a tall tale of history, brimming with frosty mist and crackling firelight, depicting the harsh and sublime realities of nature through a plot driven by the human condition exposed to the elements. Protagonist Hugh Glass is repeatedly thrust into tests of will throughout the entire two and a half hour film. The action is relentless: competing fur trappers, warring native tribes, bears, white water rapids, an avalanche, and a blizzard, against a continuous backdrop of freezing temperatures and minimal food. Through everything, nature itself is the most volatile and persistent threat, repeatedly underscoring our own frailty and isolation in this world.

In Mad Max: Fury Road, director George Miller flings us into a dystopian future where constrained resources have eroded society into a post-oil, post-television alt-future running on resource scarcity, in an environment with surprising parallels to the pre-oil, pre-television milieu of The Revenant. It’s implied that intervening centuries of mismanagement and aggression led to the dire state we find in the film, creating space for only more oppression, resource-hoarding, and violence. It’s easy to wonder which came first, and whether the loop is as inevitable as the water cycle itself.

Set in the early nineteenth century, The Revenant brings us back to the fur-trapping route across the midwestern US and Canada. Iñárritu draws on motifs of family, loyalty, and friendship in a world that may otherwise appear completely desolate; the mesmerizing cinematography and sound editing are the driving force behind the film’s central theme of survival. Landscape plays a critical role in the film, perhaps even more important than Glass himself. Each location was chosen for its pristine and virgin condition, flawless in the sense that human interaction and development inherently alters (for the worse?) the ‘natural’ trajectory of the planet.

In immediate contrast with Glass’s experience, today we have come to enjoy our ability to mitigate (and to an extent control) the more extreme aspects of nature. First with heating systems, followed by portable air conditioning units, central air and now Nest—‘the learning thermostat’—we live in temperature settings prescribed by our everyday behavior, marking the natural world as a more romantic and exotic experience that exists beyond our daily lives. Glass’s nemesis John Fitzgerald hints at the dawn of this transition in one of The Revenant’s final scenes, mocking Captain Andrew Henry, “Didn’t figure an important man like yourself to be away from your stove on a night as cold as this, Captain. You lost?”

Fast forward through our comfortable and climate-controlled present to a future in Fury Road. A series of wars that may or may not have been nuclear but definitely involved oil and water transpired sometime during living memory, devastating civilization and bringing with them a vernacular of radiation sickness (tumor-riddled War Boy Nux is nearing the end of his “half life” and needs a nourishing transfusion from his captive “blood bag,” Max); a scrappy, scavenger mentality (those beautiful cars!), and a messianic fervor (“I live, I die, I live again”) as only the post-apocalypse can. Obviously the idea of coming back from the dead also pervades The Revenant; in his pursuit of Fitzgerald, Glass proclaims that he is unafraid to die, because he has died already, presumably along with the totems of his chosen life, his Pawnee wife and son. He tells his son (and is again told by his wife’s apparition), “As long as you can still grab a breath, you fight. You breathe. Keep breathing.” He is living to live, for the sake of being alive, like the elk, the buffalo, the bear. It is survival. He is aware that his nemesis, Fitzgerald, has everything to lose, even though Fitzgerald lamented at the loss of his pelts, “Life? What life are you talkin’ about? I ain’t got no life! I just got a living and the only way I get to do that is through these pelts!” Fitzgerald’s is a different kind of survival, one dictated by commerce, and work, and supply and demand. It is a living, and yet he feels he has no life. Glass and his foil are stand-ins for how the Industrial Revolution churned humanity away from animal-like survival, inventing a “living” as replacement for “life;” livelihoods moved away from the family unit, workers moved into the great (climate-controlled) indoors, and greenhouse gases began their rapid release into the sky. Yet the social, political, and climatic consequences of the IR, intended or not, seem by Max’s time to have boomeranged us back to yearning for a more basic existence, one rooted in family (blood or chosen), and the investment of human capital (mother’s milk and “hi-octane” blood, both byproducts of human existence, are active sources of sustenance). In Fury Road, Nux’s persistent quest for a meaningful death (“I live, I die, I live again”) transforms his first half-life living as a grunt War Boy into a second life-half for the survival of his chosen family: Furiosa, Max, the Brides, and by extension, everyone at The Citadel. The narrative has revolved full-circle, but what got lost in the process?

Beyond the narratives, both films were technical feats, becoming two of only five films ever to be nominated for all seven of the Academy Award technical categories (Fury Road walked away with five of the seven, losing out to The Revenant only in Cinematography and the non-technical category of Directing.). In order to create The Revenant’s spectacular visuals, Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezski only shot with natural light. But, it does seem dissonant to continuously tout the importance and difficulty of shooting with natural light, and avoid any CGI for its repugnant artificiality (aside from the bear, of course), while paying hydro-companies to raise the water levels of the rivers to achieve a certain effect. Even if we could, would we really desire a world where nature can be easily preserved, visited and manipulated, existing as a separate ‘Jurassic Park’ from our own comfortable daily routines?

In contrast, much of Fury Road was generously manipulated in post-production with CGI, including the more apocalyptic elements of the environment, but the cars and the majestic War Rig were authentic. The “western on wheels” is powered by a collection of handmade, foraged-from-scrap, gloriously souped-up muscle cars that all would have come off the assembly line sometime in the pre-1979 original Mad Max world, ironically for these post-apocalyptic scavengers, a time of gas-guzzling and low MPG (though surely their tinkering could solve that problem out of necessity; the sturdy hulking shells are what matter here). Notably, neither film won for visual effects, perhaps because of their vocal adherence to authenticity, however manufactured.

Furiosa drives the Brides in the War Rig off-road to forge her own path through the red wilderness, a “Fury Road” that leads away from Gas Town toward the Green Place of Many Mothers. That lush green place is now a miasmic blue bog, a literal quagmire populated by other scavengers: crows and the stilt-walking Crow Fishers, “Vuvalini who stayed behind” to eke out a living in their degraded homeland.

Deserts and bogs are archetypal no-man’s-lands, aptly set in juxtaposition as the barren wastescapes through which our fertile heroines are pursued. The Vuvalini who return in Furiosa’s caravan carry with them heirloom seeds saved from the Green Place, lushness frozen in time and space. The Citadel has turned inward, using the technology of indoor vertical farms and ersatz terraced green roofs to generate at least enough surplus produce to trade with Gas Town for guzzoline (presumably to close the loop by keeping the vertical farms running and the water pumping ever upward). These seeds—themselves heirs to a forgotten, landbound life of changing seasons and cyclical weather patterns—are tiny capsules of potential carried through treacherous terrain in hope of finding a new place to root. They are transported and protected to the death by the elder Vuvalini, along with a Bride and the War Boy Nux (from the Latin, “nut,” aka, the seed of a tree). This satchel of seeds is the bridge between the lost past and the future they are fighting for, the mechanism for both a way of life and life itself to survive passage through the inhospitable landscapes onscreen.

But in real life, deserts and bogs are, of course, just as teeming ecosystems as any lush green place on Earth. The film was shot in Namibia in part because the original setting in Australia was too lush after years of unusual rainfall—a phenomenon not unlike the El Niño-inspired superbloom that happened in Death Valley this spring or the Atacama Desert last year. When a place so accustomed to drought gets just a little bit of rain at the right time of year, all those markers of life that were there all along, just beneath the cracked and finely-tuned layer of lichen, bacteria and other microorganisms found in a cryptobiotic crust, come out of their (totally natural) hibernation in a way humans recognize as “alive,” even though the landscape was alive all along.

Perhaps it is again ironic that these films warning of the imagined effects of human-caused war, desperation, and resource depletion should have been hindered by the inadvertent effects of an IRL changing climate like this. Whether it is the unvarnished terroir of abundance in which our resourceful protagonist Glass nevertheless finds himself starving, or the scorched earth across which our merry band of antiheroes rebound toward their foregone origin in Fury Road, the desolation inherent in both landscapes is integral to the stories that unfold against them.

This twist in the narrative begs the question of what a post-nuclear landscape might actually look like. Is it so unlike a pre-nuclear landscape? In one expert’s opinion, a nuclear winter would mean a blackened sky, plunging temperatures, global ice age, and mass die-off. But, with the death of civilization would come a grinding halt to both human-influenced global warming and desertification. The water cycle would chug on. Dams would break without infrastructure maintenance, aquifers would recharge without crop irrigation or fracking runoff contamination. Any species that survived the ice age would grow anew, and start to evolve into new species.

By manipulating the actual scenery in The Revenant, Iñárritu nods to the delicate harmony of horror and beauty that exists in nature, and its subsequent interruption by American colonialism. As Glass lies dying, infection spreading deeply in his wounds, we are transported to a vision of the afterlife. Here, Iñárritu literally places Glass at a dilapidated altar in a snowy field with branches just beginning to sprout through the crumbling masonry. Glass clutches his murdered son only to realize he is clinging to a tree. Fury Road draws the inverse image of this same visual with the tree sinking into a dead oasis. Rather than civilization subordinating to nature, our future selves have marginalized nature to a mere bag of seeds and mechanized its processes with indoor vertical farms, Gas Town, the Bullet Farm, and the dead Green Place. This central theme of balance is repeated formulaically in Iñárritu’s overt symbolism: at the brink of starvation, fish and bison appear, Glass’s infection is cured by foraged Pawnee herbs, and, when the blizzard sets in, shelter manifests. In Glass’s survival, he paid penance, and nature came to the rescue. Max’s survival odyssey through a seemingly-dead landscape (“Who killed the world?”) also depended on a sort of foraging—sustenance through scavenging depends on available, unowned resources, points to the idea that even the post-apocalyptic world will continue to turn. We just have to make sure we have place in it.

“One of the problems when you have a regressed world is that people become territorial in the sense that they believe in a kind of sovereignty, either of a little patch of earth or an ideology. And it’s that kind of ignorance and rather limited view of the universe that is, I’ll be presumptuous enough to say, at the heart of all evil, of all the warmongering that goes on—in the film and in actuality. We’ll be able to breathe a sigh of relief only when the sovereignty of the planet Earth overrides all other sovereignties, be they ideological, national, or geographical.” – George Miller

Maybe Mad Max’s future is the best scenario we can hope for after all.

Elasti-City: Thoughts on Urban Resiliency Through Regional Policy

Detail of systems image by JL Bollinger.

Detail of systems image by JL Bollinger.

Like a mature ecosystem, a city is shaped by its users. Any healthy system produces waste, whether it is a digestive system, an ecosystem or a citysystem. It is helpful to think of the abandoned, in-between, leftover land in cities as leaves on a forest floor, or fish bones on a seabed; if the system is functioning properly, all will be absorbed back in. The waste itself is an indicator of the system’s health and vitality. Without abandoned spaces, how can a city turn inwards for growth? If a city is truly healthy, elastic, and vital, it will continue to produce wastescapes, only to reabsorb them to produce something new. By their nature, elastic things are at times taut, and at other times slack; it is in slack times that citizens (root word: “city”) can choose a path of abandonment or one of revitalization; they can leave, or they can take a stand and snap back to a taut state.

We can’t know whether specific extreme weather events are the direct effects of global climate change. However, we ignore the chance at our own peril. Pervasive car culture and creeping sprawl are the result of federal policies that unfortunately have much more localized consequences. Horizontal spread really should be dealt with on a single horizontal level of policy, namely the regional level. Densification in and of itself is not the solution to save declining cities for which there my be many causes for blight and abandonment, but coupled with the most important element of all—a willingness for elasticity, flexibility, fluidity, and agility—it is an important place to start. Local and regional authorities bear the burden of having to take the most effective action, as they are where the policies will be most effective. We have seen the need to align our notion of ownership with one of stewardship, recognizing existing ecosystem borders as more significant than political borders in deriving ecosystem services sustainably. Most important, we have seen the integral role of collective citizen participation and initiation in policy response; even below the local level, change starts with one individual. From the concrete canyons of New York City to the informal riverside settlements in Jakarta, it is this single most important motivator in the improvement of infrastructure, both hard and soft. The city and its citizens work together as a system, each an essential component without which the other would not exist.

The densest and the most popular.

Faced with the challenge of constantly doing more with less, the agribusiness has consistently championed the tools, practices and seed varieties that churn out higher crop yields, year over year. While this does provide more total cereal crops to an ever expanding global population, recent studies have pointed to the fact that this ‘sustainable intensification’ has sacrificed the overall nutritional content of these crops in order to produce higher yielding varieties, most notably in India. In fact, eating additional grains of poor nutrient content, likely further exacerbates the double-sided health challenges of obesity and malnutrition in LDCs.

Lisa Curtis, the Founder of Kuli Kuli, experienced this effect first hand while volunteering with the Peace Corps in Niger a few years ago. There, although calorically intaking enough food, she felt exhausted and malnourished after only a few months in the field. In her local village, traditional healers told her about moringa leaves that can be added as a meal supplement, and were known to fight diseases, respiratory illnesses, as well as ear and dental infections. Now, back in California, her company Kuli Kuli works with business cooperatives in West Africa to import and sell this leafy vegetable in powder and cold-pressed bar form in the U.S.

What does it take to start a ‘superfood’ trend?
These days it seems like everyone is posting their green smoothies and kale salads on Instagram. A previous article appeared in Bon Appétit magazine listing the ‘trendiest vegetables over the past fifty years’:

  1. Avocado (1969)
  2. Beets (1982)
  3. Sundried Tomatoes (1985)
  4. Arugula (1990)
  5. Asparagus (1993)
  6. Portobello Mushrooms (1995)
  7. Heirloom Tomatoes (2006)
  8. Brussel Sprouts (2010)
  9. Heirloom Carrots (2011)
  10. Kale (2012)

It was interesting to go through this list and match up my own eating habits with when each of these food items came into fashion (I feel like I definitely was very into my tween vegetarian phase right when Portobello mushrooms became an acceptable steak replacement). By far the most successful has been the avocado, originally introduced to the U.S. market by Italian communities in the 1920s, only then known as an alligator pear. Initially, Joel Denker notes in his book, The World on a Plate, that marketing the avocado was an enormous challenge both because it couldn’t be canned (which was extremely popular after WWII), and it’s texture was so markedly different from all other fruits. With a name change and an advertising campaign pitching the avocado as the main ingredient in upscale salads, along with lobster and grapefruit – the avocado quickly moved up the ranks to become a ‘luxury’ food item.

Balancing Demand
Occasionally, when a food becomes extremely popular, it can be hard to strike the right balance for demand. For example, in Ethiopia, teff is a staple food crop with nutritional benefits over other grains, but the sale of the raw product is currently banned to control demand. Teff-based products, known as injera (risen bread, pasta, biscuits), have garnered increasing popularity in the U.S. because of their gluten-free status, making them an ideal quinoa substitute, and since teff seeds are smaller they require less fuel to cook. Teff is a good example of a crop with denser nutritional value and lower yields (1.4 tons per hectare in Ethiopia instead of 3.2 tons per hectare being the global average for wheat). Increasing global demand for injera products from companies like Mama Fresh, and eventually teff in raw form when approved by the government, will contribute to rising local prices in Ethiopia, where many people rely on the product for its nutritional value.

We asked Lisa Curtis at Kuli Kuli if moringa faced any similar challenges as more and more people learned of its benefits. She explained that moringa grows like a weed in tropical regions and is extremely drought resistant. Although it would not compete with grains, it could potentially offer a more localized, sustainable alternative to micronutrient powders currently used to treat malnutrition as well as offer a new source of microcredit for cooperatives and small businesses. Recent studies published by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health have found a correlation to increased moringa consumption and a reduction of glucose levels in diabetic patients when taken with a calorie-controlled diet and even noted that it can potentially help stop the spreading of cancerous human lung cells.

Currently, the term superfood has no legal or medicinal definition. A simple Google search defines superfoods as “nutrient powerhouses that pack large doses of antioxidants, polyphenols, vitamins, and minerals. Eating them may reduce the risk of chronic disease, and prolong life, and people who eat more of them are healthier and thinner than those who don’t.” In a recent article, Metrics for land-scarce agriculture, the authors suggest that rather than simply looking at yield gap analyses, and year over year yield increases when considering land use management, it would be more meaningful to develop a “nutritional yield” measuring the number of adults who would be able to obtain 100% of their recommended dietary reference intake (DRI) of different nutrients for one year from a food item produced annually on one hectare. Only then would it be possible to take a closer look at the desired crop mix and proper land use management to maintain the food system.

reposted from: http://www.theskidiva.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/superfood.jpg

A Synthetic Approach to the Industrial Food System


Cultured Meat. From nextnature.net.

Cultured meat, or in vitro meat (IVM), has been science fiction for a long time; after a decade of research & development, in 2013 it became reality. IVM is actual meat created by harvesting muscle cells from a living animal, grown in a nutrient-dense medium for a number of weeks. It is not genetically modified; it is 100% muscle meat. One tissue sample can produce up to 20,000 tons of meat, and uses 50% of the energy and 2% of the land needed to raise cattle. It has the potential to someday be made in anyone’s kitchen, without using land for livestock, crops for feed, or fossil fuels for transportation. The first burger was eaten by a panel of chefs and food critics, and was declared to have a mouthfeel more or less like meat (Note here that IVM currently replicates hamburgers, an industry byproduct that renders desirable the cheaper cuts of meat that may have otherwise been wasted. We are still years from replicating anything near a juicy steak).

Yet despite all these statistics, people’s initial reactions are often ones of shock, confusion, and disgust. Can cultured meat ever overcome the ‘yuck factor,’ and if it does, can it expand to such a scale as to replace the industrial food system? The “core ideological justifications for in vitro meat” include lower energy and land uses, scalability to be both mass-produced and individually-produced, and the ethical argument that no animals were killed in its production.

Still, revulsion at IVM is an important factor in gauging its potential success. Calling it ‘cultured meat’ is smart marketing, evoking more than the cultured medium of a petri dish; it is the idea of a new cultural tradition aligned with the organic, locavore movement, ironically branding literally generic flesh. Artists and designers excited, yet conflicted, about IVM are exploring the concept with a cookbook called The In Vitro Meat Cookbook and a concept restaurant, Bistro In Vitro.

The project raises social and ethical questions, such as, “What will holiday dinners look like if in vitro meat replaces turkey? Would you eat meat grown from your own stem cells? Is lab-grown meat kosher? Or vegetarian?”

This last question is worth exploring. It may seem incongruous that PETA’s founder Ingrid Newkirk is a proponent of IVM, but viewed in the mechanical/technological context we encounter above, it makes sense. Her argument is that IVM is meat without suffering, therefore the only ethical meat to eat.

Yet Newkirk’s idea that IVM is free of suffering is debatable; the medium in which IVM is cultured is fetal bovine serum, another industry byproduct. The Tissue Culture and Art Project examines the idea of suffering and victimhood further with their Victimless Leather, presenting “an ambiguous and somewhat ironic take into the technological price our society will need to pay for achieving ‘a victimless utopia’.”

In other words, removing oneself from a life cycle does not eliminate the victimhood periodically suffered by participants in the cycle.

Though IVM was conceived as an antidote to the rising toll of the industrial food system, it was developed within the synthetic worldview that will only serve to perpetuate fragmented, consumptive, capital-intensive, labor-displacing synthetic solutions, rather than produce regenerative, low-cost, livelihood-generating solutions that can be sustained in our postindustrial world.

Indigenous Ecosystem Management


Rice terraces in the Sayan valley, Bali. Photo by JB Hardy.

In 2013, I attended a talk by Julia Watson of Studio REDE on indigenous landscapes and traditional ecological knowledge, and it has percolated in the back of my mind ever since. The talk was fascinating, and raised a lot of questions that I don’t see often explored in the sustainability discourse. The mainstream environmental movement generally treats humans as a self-loathing, predator-parasite on the Earth, sucking resources beyond our capacity to renew, woefully out of tune with the ecosystem around us. If humankind disappeared, the thinking goes, the Earth would rebalance itself. This perception has always left me cold. What problem would extracting us from the equation solve? Apart from the vulnerable poster-animals like polar bears and snow leopards, the species most widely affected by climate change is humans. A changing climate threatens our place-based way of life; it washes away lands, bringing the ocean into beachfront communities; it tosses the sky down on towns where tornadoes had never landed before; it evaporates riverbeds, growing land out of the water that nourishes desert cities. Humans can’t be extracted from the equation; we are the denominator the equation is built around. That humans are a threat to their environment is only a very new historical fact.

Indigenous cultures intuit this in a way that contemporary environmentalists do not. Watson discussed the shaman as ecosystem manager, regulating human behavior vis-à-vis environmental feedbacks, through taboo. Regional taboos and ceremonies are manifestations of a reverence for the sacred, and intuitively establish our place within the larger ecosystem by setting limits on resource use, protecting their boundaries as beyond our reach (off-limits). Contemporary environmentalists, perhaps in an attempt to polarize themselves from climate deniers on the right, have placed their faith solely in science, effectively marginalizing traditional ‘ways of knowing’ as superstitious, if not invalid. Meanwhile, the hyperlocal indigenous knowledge-practice-belief archetype of ‘traditional ecological knowledge’ that evolved over generations within specific microclimates is logically more suited to preserve humans’ role within an ecosystem, since that is the function it was developed to serve. It is now a question of whether it can be scaled up to meet global demand in comparable biomes where such practice has been lost. Stripping the traditional shaman of power in essence privatizes the ownership of generational collective knowledge, forcing the environmental movement to act within the corporate paradigm it pays lip service to overturning. Instead, environmentalists would be better served by re-establishing humans as complicated players within the climate drama, both predators and protectors.

One of Watson’s projects created design concepts for Bali’s World Heritage Cultural Landscape, the cooperative subak  system of rice terraces and water temples. Subak have been in use for over a thousand years, integrating watershed ecosystem management, religion, and culture into a closed-loop, functional, sustainable food system.  I have been to Bali many times; one thing that makes it a magical place is not simply its natural landscape, but the very fact that it has been shaped—used, managed—by humans for millennia. Ecosystems do not exist without the organisms that inhabit them, and humans are one of those organisms. Even in the seemingly pristine forest one might stumble upon a decaying temple or long-forgotten irrigation system. In this case, “pristine” doesn’t mean untouched by humans; it means stewarded by humans to preserve both its function in perpetuity, and our place within it.