One dusty afternoon in a South American farm field, workers pick, produce, chop branches and complete other manual tasks. Infants are tied to the backs of their mothers and even those barely old enough to walk help their parents in the fields. These people work in food production and farming all of their lives – all the while belonging to some of the most deprived and emaciated populations in the world. They are forced to grow «cash crops» for export, like their counterparts in several African countries or India – tying them to a lifetime of servitude and sickness.
The Swiss festival Visions du Reel has been screening documentary films since 1969 and has since then acquired the reputation of being one of the most important documentary film events in the world. This year’s programme explains why: In the picturesque town of Nyon by the Geneva lake, 174 documentaries from 53 countries have been shown, their subjects ranging from intimate portraits to examinations of European and global political issues.
The Canadian-Swiss documentary Dispossession by Mathieu Roy addresses the desperate realities of small farmers worldwide. Together with its predecessor, The Dispossessed, it works as an effective critique of the exploitation within the global agriculture industry.
Dispossession illustrates the cyclical nature of hunger, debt and privation instigated by modern global farming methods. The documentary shows workers who exert themselves to the bone or disintegrate from chronic diseases, a consequence of physical realities, such as exposure to poisonous tobacco fields.
Seeing Dispossession together with The Dispossessed, the viewer soon realises that any protective measures and regulations that we take for granted, that might allow for people’s rights and health are the preserve – or even the luxury of Western countries. As one of the interviewees of the films attests, there is a war ensuing, even if mostly fought via the economy and not with weapons.
Commodification of climate change
Maybe the answer is science? With our heightened capabilities in terms of biological and technical engineering, maybe society will soon devise a means by which to take the fiscal and physical pressure off humans? A Canadian documentary by Matthieu Rytz, Anote’s Ark, explores the relevance of technological development to society at large. Anote’s Ark explores the idea of a Japanese-designed aquatic high-rise system that could withstand waves and save the people of a disparate island nation, set to succumb to rising sea levels.
«Dispossession illustrates the cyclical nature of hunger, debt and privation instigated by modern global farming methods.»
The Pacific Island nation of Kiribati – a republic composed of some 33 different islands and atolls. Kiribati is, unsurprisingly, one of the strongest advocates for global action on climate change. By the end of the century it will be submerged as a result of climate change. The most common (but not especially reassuring) advice the Kiribati get is to relocate somewhere else. But the simple fact stands that even the airfare is too expensive for many, and such a high-rise system would cost millions of dollars. «This is an act of war and we don’t have the means to counter,» says Anote Tong, the former president of Kiribati, referring to global indifference from unaffected nations, which has been made even more apparent after the US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement.
What is to be done?
It seems logical to assume that the massive damage to the environment can only be stopped by mobilising political will, establishing international cooperation on the issue, making extreme sacrifices and other similar moves. Both films ultimately suggest that if humanity is at war for survival, then we live in a world in which all nations would have to become allies – but at the same time make it disturbingly clear that the notion of reaching a cooperative solution is somewhat idealistic, and that the reality is lagging far behind.
The realities of global agricultural exploitation, the indifference of the global community to the consequences of global warming and climate change felt by third world countries, and the shady, deeply exploitative economies that are at the core of scientific research, clearly suggest that there is indeed a war going on – but it is a war of economics, power and knowledge.
Aided by films such as Dispossession and Anote’s Ark, notions of the «global environmental crisis» are revealing themselves to be social and political constructs, obscuring the differences in how the consequences of pollution are felt in different parts of the world; some parts feel them much more keenly than others.
«There is indeed a war going on – but it is a war of economics, power and knowledge.»
The films consider that whether «we» can be saved by technology and international cooperation largely depends on wealth, power and access. This also applies to the land devoted to agriculture, or the resources and the rate at which people’s resources are being depleted – even if said resource is nothing more than fertile, unpolluted land for the production of food. People often depend on the power of a nation state to introduce protective legislation, when the nation state itself is subject to and limited by global economic trends.
The media divided
However, these issues might also mean different things to different people and be addressed in a variety of ways depending on where they are being discussed: in the (liberal, conservative) mass media, in scientific journals or in economics journals we will continually here different angles on the same issue.
With this absence of unity in approach, it could be argued that most of the world’s population has no concept of a shared desire to solve pressing issues, let alone a global environmental crisis at all.
«Economy is the system to which all other parts of society, systems and organisations are forced to adapt.»
Environmentalists’ claims are not solely disputed by conservative parties, media or corporations in the West (whose maximisation of profit often depends on disputing them); their efforts are also questioned by Third World countries, who see them as an unfair obstacle to their share of industrialisation.
Even more interestingly, they are also partly opposed by the intellectuals of those countries, who see it as a philosophy that is founded on the liberal ideals of the West, which ignore the working realities of the exploited workers in other areas of the world. Most notably, environmental issues are seldom recognised by economic journals. When they are, they are purported to be resolvable by the proper functioning of the market.
When different parts, organisations or classes of a society don’t have equal power, a common response to an environmental crisis becomes a problematic concept too. In the issues explored by the two documentaries, it is made clear that the course of action in the contemporary societies is determined by dynamics of the economy.
Economy is the system to which all other parts of society, systems and organisations are forced to adapt. If an issue is to be seen as an issue relevant to a society as a whole, it most likely has to be presented first and foremost as an economic issue.
The biggest results are being achieved through the pressure of direct action, while the market (despite common claims to the contrary) proves to be a very limited device for regulating economic, social and political activity.
Nature as commodity?
Perhaps the reason is that attempting to solve environmental issues through the market is akin to attempting to solve them using the same principles that caused them in the first place. Evaluating nature in terms of its exchange or monetary value, as a commodity, mystifies its relationship with people.
Treating natural conditions as capital and people’s creative potential as labour power to be bought and sold is obscuring complex power relations and the quiet degradation of both nature and people.
Behind the seemingly mathematically-sound logic is hidden the irrationality of a system where goods are produced not to be used, but for profit; where firms, fighting for survival, must keep exploiting nature and society to find new markets; and where the levels of inequality keep growing higher. What this also obscures, is the possibility of creating a better kind of society.