Friday, September 5, 2014

Film Review: DamNation

DamNation provides a broad overview of the use, abuse, and environmental problems that have arisen over the years with respect to America's seemingly obsessive damming of rivers. It also documents how wild rivers can be successfully reclaimed as old dams are removed. Before seeing the film, I had given very little thought to dams, and my understanding of their purpose was almost nonexistent. At most, it occurred to me that they were “necessary” to regulate natural water systems in relation to land development. I assumed they prevented floods and, I don’t know, were just a “natural” byproduct of human civilization. Something about their enormous mass, imposing scale, and ubiquity in this country made them feel inevitable to modern life. Of course, such an attitude is akin to thinking that an enormous highway and interstate system filled with sole individuals driving one-ton, petroleum-sucking machines for their every errand is a “natural” progression of humanity. DamNation illustrates that, similar in short-sightedness to our inefficient and destructive car culture, the overuse of dams has caused profound harm to our rivers, watersheds, and natural ecosystems while providing little more than short-term convenience in return. The film advocates and documents responsible dam removal which gives rivers the opportunity to run free and, more importantly,  restores the benefits they provide to watersheds, fish populations, and entire ecosystems that have been profoundly compromised.

Of course, dams have provided some utility to society including power production, irrigation, flood control, and municipal water sources. The sheer number of dams, however, is staggeringly excessive. The Corps of Engineers monitors over 80,000 of them and less than 2,500 of those generate hydropower, for instance. Better technology, conservation, and smarter planning offer beneficial alternatives to keeping dams in tact say the producers of DamNation. The press materials for the film describe some of the costs to landscape and wildlife of altering the natural flow of rivers:

Before our rivers were dammed, sand and silt eroded from mountains and traveled downstream to feed and protect our beaches, wetlands, and coastal communities. Salmon and steelhead swam millions of pounds of ocean nutrients back inland, feeding more than 140 different species from osprey to otters to grizzly bears and redwood trees. Dams across our country have severed this important link between land and sea. Fortunately, like unclogging a blocked artery, dam removal breathes new life into a region. The benefits are instantaneous, far reaching, and self-sustaining.

Perhaps most compelling and disturbing to me was the exploration of artificial fish hatcheries used to stock dammed rivers. It seems these publicly-funded fish farms are little more than giant in-breeding factories which are artificially altering entire species of some of the most majestic fish. When natural selection is bred out of a species the destruction is profound and, worse yet, can create a chain reaction of negative consequences throughout the local ecosystem to which it belongs.

Despite some of the depressing subject matter, DamNation uses gorgeous cinematography of epic rivers across the United States as it documents encouraging stories of activism, organizing, and civil disobedience. The film’s tone is informal and conversational with much of the narration provided by Ben Knight who begins the film acknowledging how little he know about dams at the start of this project. Knight and his production partner Travis Rummel were apparently approached by Patagonia (as in, the outdoor clothing manufacturer) founder, Yvon Chouinard, and his biologist friend, Matt Stoecker, to embark on this project. I note this because I find myself continually fascinated by Patagonia’s seemingly genuine and passionate efforts to raise issues of environmentalism while setting uniquely high standards for corporate responsibility.

While I’m sure that every practice of Patagonia’s is not above criticism, they are in the top .01% of businesses their size who seem to actually give a fuck about the world and the people around them. I once wrote to them with questions about their use (and most every other outdoor goods manufacturer's use) of Koch Industry fabrics. The Koch brothers are one of the largest funders of global warming denying pseudo-“science,” and Koch Industries is one of the largest producers of fossil fuels on the planet. Not only did they promptly respond to my email, they even scheduled a telephone conversation (which I declined as I was kind of half-assing an idea about putting together an “environmental index” for gear that wasn't at all ready for prime time and never came to fruition.) Their funding and support of DamNation, which includes some righteously rebellious and unlawful activism, only reinforces to me that Patagonia is the rare corporate entity that maintains genuine ethical independence and a real effort towards moral integrity. After all, how often is it that I can say I was educated about an issue of conservation, limited consumption, and a reverence for nature above short-term economic bumps by a large, moneyed manufacturing company? Such pleasant flukes of personality and success are damned rare, so take the opportunity to check out DamNation.
Film Information:
Directors: Ben Knight & Travis Rummel
Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 87 Min.

Click here for a list of theater screenings for DamNation
Click here to download DamNation from iTunes

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