April 1, 2021
This month marks the 51st anniversary of Earth Day, first celebrated on April 22, 1970.
But as any environmentalist will remind you, our survival as a planet requires us to act as if "everyday is Earth Day" — which means we've actually had over 18,000 Earth Days to address the concerns raised five decades ago. Looking back over the intervening years, it's clear the environmental agenda has made some significant progress in the U.S.: the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency, the passage of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, national and international protections for endangered species and habitats, the growth and general acceptance of the science of ecology and the new environmental policy and planning frameworks informed by it.
Despite these positive steps, however, the same problems persist. As the planet struggles to support a population more than double what it carried in 1970, and as the processes of industrialization and desertification spread around the world, it seems those problems always manage to stay a few steps ahead of the solutions. Even more distressing, entire new categories of threats have arisen or been recognized, from new chemical toxins and microplastics in drinking water to the increasingly existential threat of global climate change.
Given these challenges, it's unsurprising that environmentalists often come across as a pretty pessimistic bunch. Perhaps more so than any other field of planning, the problems seem so epic and daunting, the solutions so distant. Worse yet, due to the interconnected nature of so many of the issues involved, most environmental challenges are exacerbated — and exacerbate — the world's other "wicked problems," like poverty, racism, war and ethnic conflict, forced migration, and lack of education.
As evidence of this trend in pessimism, one need look no further than the scores of documentaries produced each year on environmental topics ranging from the decline of honey bees population and industrial pollution to the mother of all depressing topics: the eventual death of the planet. And in preparing for this column, I watched dozens of them — enough to rattle even the most optimistic planner. But buried within all this footage of habitat destruction, toxic waste, and environmental collapse, I found a few encouraging signs, like crocuses popping up in the spring: the rare gems that begin with problems and end with solutions.
We face monumental challenges, but as Daniel Burnham famously implored, let us "make big plans; aim high in hope and work." To everyone reading this, emerging and experienced planners alike, let's use this Earth Day to start the work of the next 50 years, knowing that big ideas now can mean big differences later.
In this spirit, I present an elemental tour of films that can direct us down a number of possible paths forward.
Kiss the Ground
Rebecca Harrell Tickell and Josh Tickell, 2020
What better place to start our environmental tour of the elements than the very matter of earth itself: soil. Despite its humble position and seemingly common nature — we literally walk all over it and treat it like dirt — the planet's thin layer of arable topsoil is essential to life as we know it. It's both incredibly important and complex, two themes explored in Kiss the Ground, a groundbreaking (get it?) new film about regenerative agriculture.
The main point, delivered with charm and a calm folksiness by none other than Woody Harrelson, is simple: Soil is alive. Every handful of healthy dirt contains more microorganisms than there are humans on the planet, an entire invisible universe under our feet. Importantly, all these magical little critters are hard at work around the clock, exchanging water and nutrients, breaking down organic matter, feeding plants, and sequestering carbon.
All day long, plants capture carbon from the air and feed it down into the ground through their roots. As an added bonus, they also provide a matrix to hold the soil in place, preventing erosion, and slowly breathe moisture back into the rain cycle, preventing drought. But when abused — through mechanized plowing and the application of chemical fertilizer and pesticides — the soil eventually dies. The living dirt becomes dry dust, ending the entire virtuous cycle. This process, known as desertification, began with the advent of agriculture and the invention of the plow, but has accelerated dramatically in recent years, just when we most need to keep this excess carbon in the ground.
The genius of the film and the science behind it lies in making the connection between healthy, sustainable farming and the potential to prevent (and possibly reverse) climate change. By redefining our role in the system as stewards of the soil, we can discover ways to work with nature, not against it. In other words: Save the soil, save the world.
Better yet, the film shows the way forward, through concrete examples at multiple scales, including no-till farming techniques, regenerative ranch management, and even urban composting. The projects come from around the globe —from North Dakota to Zimbabwe, California's Half Moon Bay to China's vast Loess Plateau — each a beacon of hope that we can actually make a difference, and are even making on-the-ground progress (quite literally).
To learn more, you might also want to read The Soil Will Save Us: How Scientists, Farmers, and Foodies Are Healing the Soil to Save the Planet by Kristin Ohlson and Drawdown by Paul Hawken; both authors feature prominently in the film.
Kiss the Ground is available for streaming via Netflix, or you can rent it for just a dollar on Vimeo. Better yet, the film is being provided free for students and teachers, or you can even sign up to host a community screening. See the film's website for links and more info.
Brave Blue World
Tim Neeves, 2020
Question: What's tasteless, slippery, toxic when unregulated, and piped into every house in America at an ever-increasing volume?
Answer: No, not divisive rhetoric and partisan politics. I'm talking about water.
Just as Kiss the Ground highlights the importance of lowly dirt, a new documentary from BlueTech Research's founder Paul O'Callaghan, Brave Blue World, celebrates the life-giving power of another simple, common, everyday substance. Although it may seem plentiful, the globe's water system is increasingly fragile and precarious. Over two billion people lack clean and reliable drinking water, and each year more than one million children under five die from lack of proper water and sanitation. These problems are all preventable, which is depressing, of course, but also offers a glimmer of hope.
After establishing the scale and urgency of the problem, Brave Blue World devotes most of its time to optimistically exploring a wide range of proven, implementable, affordable solutions. The film includes a number of celebrity ambassadors — Jaden Smith (founder of nonprofit, 501cthree), Matt Damon (co-founder of water.org), and voice-over by Liam Neeson — but the real heroes of the story remain the many scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs, and local advocates working to solve our planet's water problem.
Solutions range from small to large, including composting toilets, solar-powered water harvesters developed by microenterprises in Kenya, industrial water recycling in Indian textile miles, and the world's largest wastewater nutrient recovery facility, managed by Chicago's Metropolitan Water District. As the film emphasizes, there is no one solution, but rather a diverse toolkit for reforming every stage of the process and every aspect of our lives, from residential water supply and home gardens to manufacturing processes, wastewater treatment, and commercial farming.
For planners working on the policy side of the problem, the film also discusses a wide range of fixes like smarter regulations, financial incentives, and the importance of governmental leadership and follow-through. And for those who love cool high-tech solutions, the film showcases some ingenious bio-engineering techniques using advanced smart-filter membranes. The team even takes a junket to learn about water reclamation protocols developed by NASA for use of the International Space Station, to avoid the unnecessary — and astronomical — expense of transporting clean water into orbit.
Through these varied examples, a common theme emerges, familiar to just about everyone anyone: reduce, reuse, recycle. But beyond this basic mantra, the goal is to begin to see water as a renewable resource — not something to be taken from nature, used once, and flushed away.
You'll come away inspired and ready for the next big challenge. As Matt Damon reminds us in his closing arguments, "How lucky are we, that we get to be the ones that solve this?" Someday, hopefully, future generations will be jealous of the exciting big problems we were able to confront with such optimism and ambition.
Reinventing Power: America's Renewable Energy Boom
Tony Valentino, 2018
To round out our elemental tour, let's raise our eyes above the horizon. Reinventing Power: America's Renewable Energy Boom, a 50-minute documentary produced by the Sierra Club, demonstrate the power of the wind and the sun to provide sustainable and renewable energy for current and future generations, and inspires us through these success stories.
Although it lacks some of the celebrity star-power of the previous two films, the film shares their upbeat optimism and can-do spirit. And, as with the challenges of saving the soil and cleaning the water, the solutions to our growing energy needs are as diverse as our communities. The film takes us across the US to visit energy producers both large and small: the Block Island Wind Farm, the nation's first off-shore wind project; new wind turbines installed to replace the now-defunct Colstrip coal plant on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in Montana; community solar projects for low-income areas of Austin and Saint Louis; and a new local industry built around the manufacturing of electric buses in Lancaster, California.
In short, the solutions are out there, all around us, if we can just shift our perspective. By redefining the call for wind and solar power as a "renewable energy boom" — not a crisis — the film reminds us that every problem is just an opportunity in disguise.
Reinventing Power: America's Renewable Energy Boom is available for free on Vimeo.