Christopher X J. Jensen
Associate Professor, Pratt Institute

HOME, a documentary about the impacted Biosphere

Posted 18 Sep 2011 / 0

I just watched the video Home, a production of Yann Arthus-Bertrand and his Good Planet Foundation. Composed solely of high-quality panoramic images intensified by a soaring new-age soundtrack, the film provides viewers with a fairly comprehensive overview of the earth’s ecosystems and the challenges to the future health of these ecosystems posed by human industry. Unlike so many environmental documentaries, Home features no talking heads and relies instead on narration (by actress Glenn Close) to contextualize the really beautiful and sometimes haunting images it presents. A particular strength of the movie is its portrayal of ecosystems services: where they come from and the many ways in which we are reliant upon them. The film is also crystal clear about the way that modern civilization is built almost entirely on the foundation provided by cheap fossil fuels.

Although I would never show a movie this long and contemplative in class, I have posted it as an optional resource during the first of two weeks I spend talking about sustainability at the end of my Ecology course. If you are looking to use this film for class, here are some of the concepts that it covers well:

  • The earth supported life because of its precise composition and location in the solar system (“goldilocks earth”).
  • Early geologic and hydrologic processes set the stage for early life.
  • The evolution of photosynthesis allowed organisms to engineer a new atmosphere, one that changed the nature of the living world.
  • Life is supported by a series of cycles, some abiotic and others biotic. Circulation and reuse of finite materials is a common feature of these cycles.
  • Much of the earth’s early carbon-rich atmosphere was converted into stored carbon, which now resides in the rocks of the Earth’s crust.
  • Algae are critical components of the Biosphere because they are responsible for the majority of the photosynthesis that takes place on Earth.
  • Our rich soils are produced by the action of micro-organisms, which break down and ‘recycle’ dead matter.
  • Wetlands and marshes provide water purification and storage services.
  • Forest provide natural climate regulation and carbon storage.
  • Ecosystems represent a sort of ‘natural inheritance’, “the Earth’s bequeath”.
  • A recent agricultural transition has allowed humans to expand their civilizations, and nearly a quarter of the Earth’s human population still lives “off the grid”, tilling the land by hand and using sunlight as their primary source of energy.
  • Massive expansion of human civilization has occurred thanks to the discovery of fossil fuels (what the film aptly calls “pockets of sunlight”), whose energy has raised the standard of living of many people (who enjoy “unprecedented comforts”), in large part by replacing the power of the human body with that of machines.
  • While early agriculture was almost entirely aimed at producing food for humans, a large portion of our modern agriculture produces food that is turned into meat or biofuels.
  • Modern agriculture relies on a large number of inputs derived from fossil fuels (pesticides, herbicides, and synthetic fertilizer): “Our agriculture has become oil powered”.
  • Modern agriculture relies on massive amounts of diverted water.
  • Meat production only intensifies our use of water and fossil fuels.
  • Factory fishing is depleting our last source of wild-raised protein.
  • Deforestation is rapidly depleting our remaining old-growth forests.
  • Deforestation is driven by two major imperatives: to harvest wood and to convert to agriculture. Soybeans, palm oil, and eucalyptus are the three major cash crops that are produced after a tropical forest is cut down.
  • Deforestation can lead to massive erosion (as seen in Haiti and Madagascar).
  • Like our farms, our cities were built to depend on fossil fuels. Such cities are culturally successful, and have thus become the models for developing regions.
  • Cities rely on massive transport of water, food, and goods; all of this transport is made possible by fossil fuels.
  • In arid regions, fossil water is being depleted alongside fossil fuels.
  • We consume so much water from our rivers that some no longer flow all the way to the ocean (the River Jordan and the Colorado River are used as examples).
  • Humans are destroying wetlands, filling them in to build.
  • Global warming threatens to change the climate of the earth dramatically, particularly in the arctic regions.
  • Increases in droughts, wildfires, and glacial melting are all expected to occur due to global climate change.
  • If the permafrost of the arctic regions melts, massive amounts of methane will be released, accelerating the process of global warming.
  • The consumptive behaviors that fuel many of our ecological problems are not typical of all humans: a few people are responsible for most of global consumption.
  • The countries with the most exploitable resources are also the poorest.
  • While the benefits of high levels of consumption have been enjoyed by few, the costs of consumption have been spread to all. Particular regions suffer most from global warming (for instance the Maldives).
  • We are using ecosystem services faster than they can be produced (“the Earth cannot keep up”).
  • There is some evidence that poor management of ecosystem services has led historically to the collapse of civilizations (with the people of Rapa Nui used as an example).
  • Massive human migration may occur in response to changes we have brought on to our environment.

As you can see from this list, this film is concept-rich. At times these concepts come fast and furious, but the well-chosen images are simple enough to allow the viewer to soak in these many ideas. In terms of packing in a lot of critical ideas about global change, this is one of the best documentaries I have seen.

This film is not without its shortcomings. Chief among these is a tendency towards eco-mysticism, sometimes just too poetic but at other times misleading to readers. When the earth is personified so that its “rivers are the vessels” I do not worry so much that viewers will suddenly misperceive the earth as a living organism. But when the movie drops lines like “everything is linked, nothing is self-sufficient” I worry that the science of ecology is being misrepresented. The idea that we must preserve every living thing because ‘every species has its place’ is tossed around throughout the movie, and I have my worries about this concept. I do not disagree that true isolation does not exist in nature, but the other extreme — that all things depend on all other things — is a dangerous idea to promote. Justifiably readers may dismiss this as so much environmentalist gobbledygook, as it is clear that many ecosystems function despite be deprived of some of their original components. When Home tells us that ecosystems contain a “subtle, fragile harmony that is easily shattered”, I worry that we have lost much of our target audience by discarding scientific subtlety. The scientific truth (although still evolving) is probably closer to this:

Ecosystems are actually remarkably resilient, capable of maintaining function despite sometimes-dramatic alteration. But at a certain threshold of disruption these same resilient ecosystems can disintegrate, sometimes in a dramatically rapid fashion.

In other words, we are better off teaching about tipping points rather than “fragile harmony”.

More subtle eco-mysticism permeates the film. Trees are described as “a perfect living sculpture” (what does “perfect” mean in an evolutionary context?), and we learn that “the earth is a miracle, life remains a mystery” (under-crediting the brilliance of both the process and science of evolution). For the most part these little new ageisms express values rather than facts, and I share these values. But if viewers are confused about which components of the movie are facts and which components represent values, the film has diluted its impact with confusion. I prefer the end of the film where it is clear that we are being propositioned with values, most of which seem to make sense. As happens in a lot of films that outline massive problems, the solutions presented in rapid-succession during the last few minutes seem inadequate to the task outlined in the previous eighty minutes of deliberative imagery and rhetoric. The narration pays lip service to education, culture, and technology, and presents microlending and the global ‘sharing’ of Antarctica as examples of what can be done. We are told to be “responsible consumers” although the nature of the responsibility is poorly explained, and the movie only flirts with the idea that if we continue to eat meat we will effectively starve the earth’s poorest fraction of people. I do like the mantra used at the end: “It’s too late to be a pessimist”.

At times the film fills in gaps in scientific understanding with its own truisms. I do not doubt that petrochemicals have toxic effects — some of which have clearly been scientifically documented — but in this film all petrochemicals are treated with equal disdain. Follow everything in this movie to its logical end and you may end up throwing the baby out with its bathwater.

The movie is also sponsored by a consortium of fashion designers, an irony that is not lost on me and probably will not be lost on most viewers. Some of the images depicted in the film — such as polluted waterways and filthy, overpopulated industrial metropolises — could easily be linked to the business model of these sponsors, and so the clear question is whether a ‘99% sociopathic, 1% philanthropic’ approach is really meaningful. Sponsorship of this film by these industries is a little bit like Bernie Madoff giving free business ethics seminars on weekends.

Anthropogenic Change, Biodiversity Loss, Biomes, Bogs & Wetlands, Carrying Capacity, Climate Change, Ecology, Ecology Education, Economics, Ecosystem Services, Environmental Justice, Ethics, Extinction, Film, Television, & Video, Food, Freshwater Ecosystems, Hunger, Mangrove Forests, Marine Ecosystems, Pollution, Population Pressure, Public Policy, Resource Consumption, Sustainability, System Stability, Taiga (Boreal Forest), Temperate Forest, Terrestrial, Tropical Forest, Tundra, Vegetarianism, Water Supply

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