Three films at the 2017 San Francisco Green Film Festival (April 20-26) highlight, perhaps unintentionally, how hard it is to do the right thing. Or maybe they demonstrate how easy it is, but how often the right thing is ignored in favor of the expedient. This dilemma is familiar to anyone paying attention, vexing arguments that range across the landscape of human activity. Yes, it might be true that a particular practice is harmful in the long run, but the short-term benefits (usually jobs, economics) trump all other concerns.
What I mean is best expressed in the story of Dick Goin, a man whose decades-long fight to remove two dams and return Chinook salmon to their ancestral spawning grounds in Washington’s Elwha River is poetically profiled in Jennifer Galvin & Sachi Cunningham’s The Memory of Fish (Saturday, April 22, 3pm, Roxie Cinema).
Goin’s relationship with the river began when he was just a kid. His family suffered the ravages of the infamous Dust Bowl, sold what little they had and headed west from southwestern Iowa. They arrived on the banks of the Elwha “poor as rats,” surviving starvation because of the river’s rich natural resources, most particularly the hefty salmon that thrived there. Goin spent his whole life on the river, which was dammed early in the 20th century to produce hydro-electricity, fueling mills that produced everything from tires to canned fish. At 18, Goin went to work at Rayonier Incorporated, servicing the machines powered by the dams he despised for 41 1/2 years. He recounts witnessing juvenile salmonids hit the pollution generated by Rayonier and going belly up and wonders at his inaction. “Should I have then said, ‘Hell, I won’t work here anymore?'” How would he have put food on the table for his young family? He says, “You accept the necessities of life…”
The combination of the dams, which inhibited spawning, the canneries that chopped and packaged the fish and other companies that spewed pollution resulted in a huge decline of the Chinook population. Goin’s own fishing records track reductions in the size and quantity of the fish. Once Goin retired, and most of the factories previously powered by the dams went out of business, he began to lobby for the restoration of the river. Of course there was resistance. No one had ever undertaken such a massive dam removal project. What would happen to the river if it was returned to its former state?
This timeline brings up a troubling question. Did Goin advocate for the river’s restoration when his livelihood depended on the power generated by its two dams? This is the complicated heart of the conservation question, the sticky point located at the center of enlightenment, convenience and self interest. Why is it so difficult to do the right thing?
The festival’s opening night film, Mark Kitchell’s Evolution of Organic (Thursday, April 20, 7:30pm, Castro Theatre) provides a partial answer. There were indeed people devoted to a principle that was a little more enlightened than it was self-interested. In reaction to the industrial farming practices of the late 1960s and early 1970s, a small band of “hippies” sought natural food alternatives for themselves, their families and their communities. However, making a living as an organic farmer was exceedingly difficult in an era when the term was at best obscure and at worst denigrated. This core group of true believers persisted because growing healthy food and responsibly stewarding the land was the right thing to do. They adopted farming practices and innovated food distribution operations out of necessity.
Images of this early movement are endearingly hilarious, looking how you would expect coastal Californians looked in the early 1970s. One image, the one I would have liked to use to promote this post, is of a group of naked, long-haired men and women crouched together on a patch of land, boobs and penises dangling freely, arms draped over one another as the afternoon sun kisses their honey-colored skin. One can only imagine the night ahead after a day’s work digging in the dirt!
The film — in four acts — tracks the rise of the “organic” movement, which has come to mean so much (and sometimes so little) in today’s supermarket. Inspired by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, an influential tome documenting the detrimental effects of pesticides, and the arrival of English master gardener Alan Chadwick at the University of California, Santa Cruz, early organic farmers had to resist prevalent farming practices and rediscover a history of seemingly lost knowledge. (Funny that. A few decades of industrial farming could somehow wipe away millennia of practice. How easily we humans forget.)
Starting with the beginnings of the movement, when the desire for clean food meant either growing it or distributing it yourself, the film documents the rise of organic practice, illuminating an era when producers shared knowledge on the tailgates of their pick-up trucks. As with all things, organic farming grew because there was a demand. The cash register really is capitalism’s ballot box. After a couple of decades in obscurity, the baby lettuce (AKA “spring mix”) craze of the early 1990s put organic on the map. A couple well-publicized pesticide health scares later, large supermarket chains began to feel the demand. Increased value brought larger producers, many switching their commercial practices to organic. The film’s final act locates the current seeds of the movement’s future, perhaps even as a redress to atmospheric carbon.
An interesting point that quickly rushed by was the impending retirement of the organic “elders.” This made me wonder about the fate of all the organic farmland this group of pioneers has cleared and converted. Is it in the process of sub-division, turning into vineyards or remote homes for California’s coastal elite?
Again, the question arises: what is the right action? Is it favorably aligned with the self interests of those who struggled in obscurity for decades before finding themselves at the vanguard of a food movement that generated a great deal of health and wealth?
If Susan Froemke and John Hoffman’s Discovery Channel documentary Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman (Wednesday, April 26, 6pm, Castro Theatre) is any indication, the answer would be … complicated. Ultimately, the documentary’s characters fight a good fight, protecting land from oil drilling, adopting till-free farming practices and creating fishing quotas to responsibly steward the delicate resources of a fishery. But what motivates these people to ultimately do the right thing?
In the case of the Montana ranchers, the large tracts of property their families have inhabited for generations became threatened by proposed drilling on nearby federal lands. They fought not only to shut this activity down, but worked with conservation groups to permanently secure adjacent areas and limit the uses for their own properties for generations. Their self interest conserves the landscape for their descendants, while also protecting over a million acres from development. It’s a net good, with direct benefits for a select few.
Similarly, the cadre of Louisiana commercial fishermen featured in the film created fishing quotas for themselves, but only after the stocks of red snapper from which they made their living very nearly collapsed. Finally, after years of warning, they came together to cooperatively save the fishery on which their lives depended. Why did this action take so long? What is it about the human species that makes this kind of enlightened action so elusive?
I suppose there is no answer to this question, only a willingness to continue asking that is the hallmark of the San Francisco Green Film Festival. The festival runs April 20-26, 2017. For tickets and information visit greenfilmfest.org.