Films to Educate Yourself & Others

Below is a list of some films I have found insightful and also useful for teaching and debating in class. I have run film nights as part of my teaching for 15 years both in my environmental option class for masters students and end of semester film shows, and have used films and film clips in class.

Walls and the Tiger (external link)
This is an independent production covering land grabbing in India. I helped the production team with the creation of teaching materials. The story is told through the rural resistance to the creation of a monetary economy they neither need nor want. India’s modernisation dream pushed by a minority on the majority. The hypocrisy of growth as addressing poverty is revealed. The corporations that are buying up land are profiting from a comprehensive state-sponsored program of building “special economic zones” (SEZ) that offer low-tax or tax-free havens for international corporations.

Walls and the Tiger is a powerful documentary exposing the hypocrisy of the push for economic growth being described as development. Even those opposing growth in ‘developed countries’ (like Tim Jackson and Peter Victor) continue to recommend it everywhere else regardless of the land grabbing and dislocation of rural communities and indigenous people that results. Here we have those living in rural India being given a rare opportunity to voice what is wrong with the drive for (Western & Eastern) materialism and economic growth, that ruins their previously sustainable lives. Behind this is corporate profiteering (e.g. Nike, Pfizer) and the provision of cheap consumer goods, made cheap by exploitation of workers—on wages no American or European would ever accept—the environment and the least powerful in society. This is something prevalent across the globe. Breaking rural India is just part of the process. The only hope for the rural poor is to get organised, show solidarity and fight back against the machine, which in this case they do. The social ecological and economic are combined in their struggle as we follow a village community oppressed by police and failing justice systems that do the work of corrupt and/or uncaring government officials obsessed by money and the promise of corporate riches. There is also hope here in that the institutions of politics, law and human rights allow some victories even for the poorest, but only with the help of dedicated activists prepared to risk everything to support the oppressed.

Land Grabbing (external link)
This film covers the massive financial push for international investment in the agro-economy. Since the economic crash of 2007-2008 the financial sector has been keen to find new areas of investment.  Food price hikes have made agriculture an attractive investment proposition and created the new “land rush”. The amazing thing about this film is how a variety of case studies are presented, where both sides speak in their own words, with no commentary, and the exploiters condemn themselves with their arrogant disregard for humanity and the environment.  The cases include: Palm Oil production in Indonesia under authoritarian regimes imposed on workers by Cargill; the European Unions multi-million funding of industrial agricultural projects that destroy small farmers lives and traditional sustainable practices; coverage is given of land grabbing for sugar production in Cambodia, Danish investors taking over in Eastern Europe and a biofuels project by Addax in Sierra Leone; then there is luxury vegetable production in Ethopia for the tables of the oil rich nations with workers paid 24 euros a month. Formerly independent sustainable subsistence farmers and rural communities are forced into wage slavery for the very corporations that grabbed their land and destroyed their lives.

Carbon Rush (external link, trailer only)
This film explores the impact of the international move to carbon trading and more specifically the establishment of carbon offsetting. This is the idea, under the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), that greenhouse gas emissions can increase in one location (i.e., in Europe, North America and the BRICs nations) while being reduced elsewhere (i.e., amongst the poorest and most disadvantaged in the world). The film documents a series of cases where offsetting schemes including waste incinerators, wind farms, hydroelectric schemes and reforestation projects have lead to social ecological exploitation. The coverage of emissions trading and the CDM is brief (for more details see Spash, 2010) and the central point is to show how a range of supposedly environmental projects are causing both environmental devastation and social harm in the name of addressing climate change. Environmental non-governmental organisations such as The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) support offsetting (see Spash 2016) and legitimise the practices of major oil and mining corporations who are attempting to ‘greenwash’ their operations (this is what I refer to as New Environmental Pragmatism). In addition, the film exposes links to corruption, securitisation, militarisation and the failure of legal systems to either enforce laws against such power groups, or protect indigenous communities and the poor. Land grabbing and accumulation by dispossession are rife.

The film is very powerful in exposing these issues. Weakness of the film are the lack of connection to those who actually buy offsets, namely, the guilty Western consumer, firms claiming ecological credentials and financial speculators on the stock exchange .  For example, a Norwegian shopping mall is briefly mentioned as a purchaser of offsets from one of the awful schemes exposed and I would have liked the mall owners and customers to be interviewed about this.  Airlines are also a major promoter of voluntary offsets and what passengers think they are doing might have been linked-in and exposed.  (For more on voluntary offsets see Spash and Theine 2016 external link.) The other weakness is the ending which merely states there are alternative ‘solutions’, but goes no further. I find ‘problem-solution’ framings in themselves misleading, but also there is a need to go beyond awareness raising to what needs to be done (i.e. social ecological transformation of the economy) and how it might be achieved.

What the film does should not be underestimated and is in itself exceedingly valuable. Undoubtedly its production required much bravery on the part of the makers and those speaking out (as is shown some interviewees were assassinated before they got to the camera).  The film reveals how environmentalism is being used by capitalism for profit and exploitation in a new phase of its evolution under the titles of Green Economy and Natural Capital. It should dispel any myths about the legitimacy of the international carbon markets, offsetting and their intended expansion under the Paris Agreement.

The Corporation (external link)
A film based on a book that documents the rise of the modern corporation and how it became a legal individual by exploiting the legal system in America (under legislation meant to aid freed slaves) and continues to gather power through the same use of legal process. The film asks “what type of individual is the corporation?”, and runs through all the behavioural attributes that confirm “it as a psychopath”. There are revealing interviews by a range of corporate employees, financiers, marketing functionaries and executives. The coverage includes a whole range of corporate ‘wrong doing’, from IBM‘s involvement in the Holocaust throughout World War II; to Monsanto‘s power over American media to suppress the health impacts of the milk production additive BGH, a controversial synthetic hormone widely used in the United States (but banned in Europe and Canada); to the market media company Initiative Corporation, advertising on advertising expenditure of spending $22 billion a year, and its project ‘The Nag Factor’, targeting children through advertising to get them to nag their parents for to purchase corporate products.  There is also much more including corporate complicity, through its products and pollution, in what an epidemiologist terms “the cancer epidemic” in society today.

Aftermath (external link to trailer)
A production by the Vienna based independent film makers Golden Girls (external link). The film explores the role of the non-governmental sector in providing disaster aid and the mess they can create as a result of looking after their own interests. Broader questions about the meaning of development, education and aid are raised.  The story is told through the experience of a social anthropologist (who has also been engage in social ecology) who tries to help the community he has been studying and living in on the Nicobar Islands after the Tsunami 2004. The impacts of ‘development’ aid that comes in the form of money and consumer goods into a largely non-monetary and non-consumer society is equated to a second Tsunami, worst than the first.

Merchants of Doubt (external link to Sony official trailer)
The film of a book (external link) by the same name, produced by Sony pictures. This explores how corporations have hired professional saboteurs to bring science, on a range of harmful products and practices, into question.  From cancer, due to smoking tobacco, to denied existence, from fossil fuel emissions, these professional merchants of doubt are hired guns who shoot down truth and realty for an industry that cares nothing about the harm it creates in the pursuit of profit and power. This film also raises issues about the science-policy interface and how regulatory frameworks are captured by the rich and powerful. A quote from a Republican who lost his seat after deciding human induced climate change was real: “the reason we need the science to be wrong is that otherwise we see that we need to change. That’s really a hard pill to swallow.” Congressman Bob Inglis (R, South Carolina)

True Cost (external link)
Covers the fashion industry and its role in pushing products and exploiting labour around the world.  Mass consumerism and cheap clothes to be thrown away by teenagers who never even wear them. The industry apologists interviewed include Stella McCarteny explaining the importance of providing luxury products. The industry is blind to the contradictions between the throwaway consumer culture it promotes and pursuing sustainability, low impact lifestyles, avoiding resource waste, and minimising energy and material throughput. The fashion industry also fails to address the social exploitation of labour on which it has built its massive profit margins.

Banking Nature
Development of offsetting that started with carbon under the Kyoto Protocol has spread to biodiversity and endangered species. A range of organisations are promoting this financialisation of Nature including environmental NGOs such as WWF and the Nature Conservancy. Amongst those supporting and pushing the schemes the films highlights the role of Pavan Sukdev, a former Deutsch Bank future markets financier. Behind him stands a mainstream orthodox economics profession as exemplified in the film by environmental economist Geoffrey Heal. The film explains the extent to which the simplistic market rhetoric of such economists is employed to justify profiteering from species extinction under the guise of providing ‘Nature Based Solutions’ to offset the environmental destruction of extractivism and economic growth.