Here’s a Rainbow After My Act of Annihilation; or, Hydroelectric Romance and Terror
A film conversation between Teresa K. Miller and Gregory Giles
First the unrestricted stretch of Colorado River flows through the canyon, remnants of ancient civilizations tucked into its caves and overhangs; then we cut to houseboats and a powerboat disturbing the surface of stagnant water. That part of Glen Canyon has become the bottom of Lake Powell, Ben Knight explains in his documentary DamNation (2014). In Night Moves (2013), Kelly Reichart’s fictional narrative, we stare out the windshield of an RV, the gazes of its retiree inhabitants trained on a TV screen just above the glass, watching The Price Is Right. Someone on an ATV rides across our shared view. Taken together, we experience an exterior and interior view of the business of incursion and loss.
Floyd Dominy, Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner through the ’60s and perpetrator of the Glen Canyon submersion, said, “I’ve changed the environment…for the benefit of man…We created a lot more beauty and made it available.” The question is what exactly remains available once the damming, paving, and electrifying are done.
Taken together, we experience an exterior and interior view of the business of incursion and loss.
DamNation undoubtedly falls within your category of “contemporary environmentalist pop docs flooding Netflix, with their smooth animated graphics emulating hand drawings, and their nature-porn photography, and their Sufjanian soundtracks.” But despite its visual attention deficit, flitting from one shot and source to the next, I find the overall piece cohesive, deep, and nuanced—and hopeful. This was my third time watching the film, and I still got verklempt as silt spilled from the exploded base of the late Glines Canyon Dam, which used to block the upper Elwha River in my home state of Washington.
I still got verklempt as silt spilled from the exploded base of the late Glines Canyon Dam.
The Elwha restoration represents the culmination of a decades-long process of organized pressure on state government from tribal leaders, environmentalists, rafters, and others. That so many tons of concrete in the form of a still-functioning dam came down at all is a big deal, but in the face of escalating environmental crisis, it’s hard not to want something faster. Josh and Dena of Night Moves pursue one expedited response—direct action or eco-terrorism, depending on your perspective—by blowing up Oregon’s Green Peter Dam. (In the world of the film, the dam has created Lake of the Woods, actually a natural lake 200 miles south in real life.) Josh snaps at a distraught Dena afterward, “What did you think would happen?”—but the quiet, unsentimental film seems to wonder what he thought would happen as it follows his radical choices to their dark conclusion.
Direct action or eco-terrorism, depending on your perspective.
Maybe the animus toward dams seems strange; in an anything-is-better-than-fossil-fuel environmental context, hydropower typically gets lumped into the category of sustainable energy with solar and wind, as if they were all equivalent. Closer examination, however, reveals that hydropower reservoirs emit more than a fifth of man-made methane, a gas thirty-five times more potent than CO2 over a period of one hundred years. So dams do not “simply” displace people in the flood path, destroy natural beauty, eliminate habitat, thwart wild fish reproduction, and smother heritage sites—depending on their location, they may also have a more detrimental climate impact than coal plants, with tropical dam projects being the worst emitters. While DamNation proclaims that the age of American dams is over and points out that only three wind turbines could replace the power generated by an Elwha dam, there are thousands of new dam projects under construction around the world in the name of climate-change mitigation.
Both films implicitly argue that positive, collective—and initially slow—action is the only tenable solution, despite the short time horizon in which to save the planet as we know it. We don’t have to see Josh get arrested on screen to feel certain that his sloppily executed and ultimately murderous dam destruction will get him caught, banishing him from lasting conservation work. But this conclusion does not exclude the importance of rogue individual demonstrations and spectacle. In 2011, documentarian Knight, Travis Rummel, and friends suspended themselves from California’s Matilija Dam to paint a giant pair of scissors and dotted line—a “start removal here” symbol drawing attention to the four years that had elapsed since Congressional approval to demolish the structure. This creative civil disobedience joined political dam graffiti in the tradition of Edward Abbey, harming no one and destroying nothing except some measure of public complacency.
Creative civil disobedience in the tradition of Edward Abbey, harming no one and destroying nothing except some measure of public complacency.
Although you didn’t care for it, I don’t want to exclude Wild River (1960), Elia Kazan’s melancholy paean to the Tennessee Valley Authority of the 1930s, a period during which FDR’s administration combatted the Depression with an explosion of public works projects, including dam construction, symbolized most impressively by the massive Hoover Dam on the Colorado River, completed in 1936. The movie begins with heartbreaking newsreel footage of a man describing the loss of his family to a river flood, taken from Pare Lorentz’s 1938 film The River, which lauded the TVA’s interventions at that time. With this opening, manipulative salvo of found footage, we know that—as much as Kazan may try to complicate his tale and the players’ motivations throughout the film—he mostly intends to romanticize the New Deal and the WPA. As much as you and I disliked the mawkish Method acting between Montgomery Clift (blank-eyed TVA agent) and Lee Remick (periwinkle-eyed, backwoods daughter-in-law), playing unlikely lovers in an HR cautionary tale, the naturalist depiction of the white island-dwelling matriarch Ella Garth with her retinue of black sharecroppers smacks of authenticity, unsparing in the complexity of its racial politics and the socioeconomic rift between land-rich, otherwise-poor whites and their more incorporated, Jim-Crow neighbors who regard the elderly woman condescendingly as a curious hillbilly relic.
With this opening, manipulative salvo of found footage, we know that Kazan mostly intends to romanticize the New Deal and the WPA.
The dam, on the other hand, is mythically inevitable and sacrosanct, its rising backwater magnanimously leaving, by film’s end, a picturesque shoal of high land from Ella’s submerged island reserved for her grave by some beneficent force associated with hydropower, like the small-beer concession of an otherwise psychotic Old Testament god who nonetheless charms his worshipers into total submission with this quaint gesture: Here’s a rainbow for you after my act of annihilation.
The small-beer concession of an otherwise psychotic Old Testament god.
The anaphoric zeal with which Clift’s character Chuck Glover speaks of the domineering public-works impulse—“And it isn’t just this dam: It’s dam after dam after dam; we aim to tame this whole river!”—testifies to the construction lust embraced unquestioningly by a reformist political movement using the terrors of the Depression to its tumescent advantage. Dams are readymade Freudian sublimations of fulfillment and repression wrapped into one tidy edifice, the imperial ambitions over the natural world playing out neatly in concert with the American put-people-back-to-work mantra that will never get more nuanced even as varieties and qualities of work evolve. We will occlude your passage, we say to the rivers, and extract a toll of diverted energy, producing at the same time the invented entitlement of a new industry. A vintage TVA sign from the period depicts an upraised fist gripping a stiff lightning bolt: “Electricity for All,” it proclaims.
Ella and Chuck fall on either side of a quasi-theological argument regarding immanence in technology: Does hydroelectricity inspirit human bodies? Ella: “Takin’ away people’s souls—puttin’ ’lectricity in place of ’em—ain’t progress.” Chuck: “We’re not taking away people’s souls; just the opposite: We’re giving them a chance to have a soul.”
A quasi-theological argument regarding immanence in technology: Does hydroelectricity inspirit human bodies?
Can we be Promethean with a harness—our energies directed—or does the liberal subject require a complete lack of restraint? At its foundation, Chuck’s belief in hydroelectric empowerment involves a belief in synthesis, or the refinement discovered dialectically through the application of force, whether that force is simply potential energy in a wall obstructing a flume, or a verbalized refusal to conform to a mandate. Of course, he doesn’t quite openly recognize this same instinct in Ella, even if he begrudgingly admires her.
When Herbert Hoover vetoed a bill that would have developed the Tennessee Valley two years before FDR finally got it passed as part of the TVA in 1933, he justified his decision with the following remarks: “The real development of the resources and the industries of the Tennessee Valley can only be accomplished by the people in that valley themselves…[and] administered by the people upon the ground, responsible to their own communities, directing them solely for the benefit of their communities and not for purposes of pursuit of social theories or national politics. Any other course deprives them of liberty.”
Like the word “terrorism,” the word “liberty” will be deployed endlessly in our time to simplify any act that involves resistance to some force. It has the power of a reductive tagline, impressive for its concussive effacement of nuance. Even as a dam demonstrates a kind of manifest destiny that asserts man over nature in the high Romantic sense, it also ignores contrary individual liberties for the sake of eminent domain, what will always be considered the greater good.
The word “liberty” has the power of a reductive tagline, impressive for its concussive effacement of nuance.
It’s not so much about caring for Wild River as my failure to hold three films in mind simultaneously without waxing into a treatise. Then there’s the challenge of talking about the film without carelessly eliding its missteps in racial representation and the greater good you mention, namely that national—and later globalized—economic activity will save us from our worse selves. All change wrought by the market is not evil, but as Kazan celebrates the dam, he highlights how the construction process itself betters society by giving African Americans the opportunity to earn wages equal to those of whites—without questioning whether the oppressed might earn wages other than those paid for wreaking havoc on the natural world.
Vibrant local economies are essential—local control over production, resources, and decisions within a community context allow for intentional planning and stewardship of ecosystems—so I can’t abide the poverty-or-destruction false dichotomy (one, by the way, frequently wielded by The Heartland Institute: “Coal is the only solution to energy poverty in the developing world”). Naomi Klein has written about the paradox of the Alberta tar sands: how six-figure salaries offer economic opportunity to working-class people even as the destructive horror of the work fosters dissociation, addiction, and depression. What of getting paid to clearcut and flood the land your family has inhabited for generations?
And yes, Remick and Clift’s nauseating romance, wherein she desperately offers her love at the cost of all respect—but the potential gain of class status and security for her children—and he calculates for the sake of evicting her grandmother. My grandmother, who grew up poor but fancied herself a society lady in her adult life, once shushed my mother and me as we entered her house because she was watching “a history program”: as it turned out, Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. At some point, any grounding in historical inspiration jumps the rails by the force of melodrama.
At some point, any grounding in historical inspiration jumps the rails by the force of melodrama.
Thankfully, I see signs that eminent domain need not always be the bludgeon in the name of the greater good, as DamNation depicts local communities and river trusts coming together to buy and dismantle dams. Such purchases provide a partial solution within the rules of a flawed market that has led us toward neither equality nor stewardship.
I see signs that eminent domain need not always be the bludgeon in the name of the greater good.
It’s noteworthy that the TVA development you mention—vetoed by Hoover on the basis of states’ rights—was for the purpose of producing more nitrogen fertilizer, fossil-fuel guzzling, soil-depleting menace of our time as we stand nose to nose with the reality of climate change. I can’t help but place all of these films, years and decades old, in the context of the fresh Paris accord. If ever there were a reason to subvert individual liberty for the benefit of the collective, it would be to address our greenhouse-gas crisis for the survival of our species. Contrasted with the breakdown of the 2009 Conference of the Parties in Copenhagen, Paris feels miraculous—that rare payoff after years of grassroots organizing and political pressure to counter corporate greed and indifference. But here again, we have a nonbinding diplomatic framework aimed ultimately at provoking changes in the market, so that we may become consumers of our own salvation.
“Consumers of our own salvation”! If the Paris accord manages this feat, then the world is indeed saved: Nothing could stop the shininess of a consumer desire that adheres indifferently to the prospect of defeating the climate change we have precipitated and overlooked for centuries. Here’s hoping…
Perhaps part of this market-sensitive promise is the trust in nations to devise their own emissions-reduction program, specific to each country’s peculiar problems and abilities. This is a macro-analogue to—a broader concentric circle around—individual freedom, the “states’ rights” of the world, which is usually the first step toward courting consumerism: the captivating, addictive illusion of the shopper’s independent power of choice.
The first step toward courting consumerism: the captivating, addictive illusion of the shopper’s independent power of choice.
It could be, then, that the innovation is the armature, the only legally binding feature of the accord (reconvening every five years, transparency in planning, etc.), which will make it more difficult to avoid the shaming mechanisms of the agreement. While consumption and preservation seem diametrically opposed, discovering the means by which nations can facilitate short-run economic success through the reduction of emissions—this is the ultimate riddle, the solution to which would handily deliver us from an inhospitable world, as much as that is possible at this point.
When I was seven, my family rented a houseboat on Lake Powell in southern Utah, and after my rugged, over-lax uncle gave me the tiller, quickly forgetting in his quietly ecstatic canned-beer buzz that a child was navigating unpredictable sandstone walls with no shoreline, I proceeded to steer the boxy boat directly toward what could have been a half-submerged stone canvas of millennia-old Navajo pictographs. At the last second, he leapt and intervened—but not before the boat grazed the canyon wall with a jarring thud. He was used to the recreational capability of his own sun-burnished children who had grown up skiing, rock-climbing, and itching to drive ATVs; I was a Skinner box occupant by comparison.
I proceeded to steer the boxy boat directly toward what could have been a half-submerged stone canvas of millennia-old Navajo pictographs.
This white-trashy summer vacation, replete with historical and natural devastation, is a core memory from the ’70s. We caught crayfish from greenish pools and cooked them in butter, while slicks and rainbows of two-stroke engine oil surrounded the houseboat. Wild burros (whose domesticated ancestors helped bring the white man to these remote regions) wandered sadly along a path that supposedly led to ancient cliff dwellings we never reached because my brother became dehydrated, forcing us back to the boat. I wore a T-shirt with an iron-on patch showing a glittery tube spelling “SMILE” in toothpaste underneath. I remember hearing “Afternoon Delight” by the Starland Vocal Band and feeling the first pangs of acidic, transparent despair that would one day be diagnosed as depression.
Little did I know that a scoundrel named Floyd Dominy was responsible for the trappings of my fly-specked pellucid nightmare.
A touch of this misery recurs as we watch Josh apply for a job in a sporting goods store in Night Moves, resorting to anonymous customer service after murdering two people in the name of ecology, tents pitched under fluorescent light on cheap carpeting. This terrifyingly dreary ending slams the romantic, arrogant myth of the rogue individual against the lifestyles of the legions who work hard in depleting industries to protect their families from poverty, the primary distraction from direct action, whether homicidal or benignly artistic.
Little did I know that a scoundrel named Floyd Dominy was responsible for the trappings of my fly-specked pellucid nightmare.
I did enjoy DamNation—the best possible example of that untrustworthy, die-cast activist documentary genre—but I also want to acknowledge the lackluster scene in Night Moves when the wan young environmentalists gather to watch yet another film decrying nonspecific destruction—a faintly dumbed-down, satirical version of the scattershot, overreaching activist documentary—made for Reichardt by Larry Fessenden (who, not incidentally, is the only dedicated environmentalist horror filmmaker on the planet). Played straight, the scene speaks to the quotidian fatalism of disenchanted youths addicted to apocalypse, who seek power in their lives through the notion that they are on the cusp of a cataclysm. Rather than capitulate to the ordinary and bureaucratic—perhaps interning for an environmentalist not-for-profit with a suspiciously corporate endowment—they recount atrocities as a litany or a satisfyingly familiar legend to tell around a fire, a ritual that tightens the tribe along the margins of society but produces very little in the way of effective resistance within more economically and politically powerful channels. I understand this disaffection, and I am naïve in my own emotional responses toward common work and normative lifestyles, but the devil behind an unremarkable existence stripped of anarchic joy will likely never improve his offer.
The scene speaks to the quotidian fatalism of disenchanted youths addicted to apocalypse.
I know what you mean—something akin to the Hot Topic of political gestures, bumper-sticker activism or clicktivism—though I bristle at the word “notion” beside the overwhelming scientific evidence that we are, in fact, on the cusp of an environmental cataclysm. Along the continuum of possible responses, though, you’re right: Self-righteous dropping out shows few signs of saving the world. The first time I watched Night Moves, I found the tone spare and sincere, but on second viewing, conversations among the three activist antiheroes verged on satire. The explosives expert derides the water-guzzling golf course under construction but earns money mowing golf courses—there’s that pesky poverty vs. integrity conundrum again—leaving us to wonder where revolution ends and convenience begins. The film proposes a cautionary moral: Zeal must remain embedded in the fabric of community—because alienation kills.
But most maddening in our off-screen landscape: Preventing climate catastrophe while averting economic collapse is not a riddle, or at least it is a riddle that has been solved via three related principles. One, if we plan to work within the existing capitalist framework, economists agree that the most efficient way to curb an undesirable consumptive behavior is to put a price on it: thus the argument for carbon taxes or revenue-neutral fees rather than a cap-and-trade system. Two, to avoid intra- and international regressive penalties to the poor—and to ensure countries historically least responsible for the emissions and currently least able to pay do not bear the brunt of mitigation costs—redistribution must accompany collection, in the form of rebates within countries and a climate fund among countries. Three, abandoning carbon-based fuels does not mean traveling by horse and writing letters by candlelight: Stanford researchers have demonstrated that the world already has the resources and technology to transition away from fossil fuels entirely by 2050 (though note they project fulfilling ~4.4 percent of demand with hydropower).
Zeal must remain embedded in the fabric of community—because alienation kills.
So it’s not that we lack the economic mechanism or the technology to save ourselves, nor need we renounce a comfortable standard of living (at least within this last, fleeting window of opportunity to change). The problem is a lack of political will, a sense of complacency, a vague faith in an eleventh-hour, Gates-Foundation-funded researcher sucking all the excess CO2 from the atmosphere and forcing it underground—or spraying reflective particles into the stratosphere to prevent sunlight from reaching the earth, at some yet-to-be-determined neocolonialist cost. And, of course, individuals and corporations whose bottom lines ride on the status quo sponsor the devil we know—our fears and laziness rationalized by oxymorons like “clean coal” and “transitional fuel” or by free-market conspiracy theories about falsified climate data.
Perhaps, then, we could read Kazan’s Wild River not as a historical piece suffocated by Hollywood-mandated love stories but as an unflinching lesson in the application of power: We are, collectively, a social organism of faith, habit, and irrational whim—solutions are righteous or possible only insofar as they inspire passion. As contradictory logical-emotional beings holding the grave evidence in one hand and the knowledge of flawed human nature in the other, watching species die off while cars and concrete proliferate, what determines who among us builds, promotes, defaces, or explodes the dam?
Screenshots taken from DamNation (2014), Night Moves (2013), and Wild River (1960) are included here under principles of fair use for purposes of commentary. This conversation is the third in an occasional series on films with environmental and food justice themes.
About the Authors:
Author of sped (Sidebrow) and Forever No Lo (Tarpaulin Sky), Teresa K. Miller holds an MFA from Mills College. She co-edited the recently released retrospective anthology Food First: Selected Writings from 40 Years of Movement Building, and her essays and poetry have appeared in Common Dreams, AlterNet, ZYZZYVA, and elsewhere. @TeresaKMiller
Gregory Giles Gregory Giles is the founder and singer/songwriter emeritus of the San Francisco band 20 Minute Loop. He lives near Portland, Oregon, with his occasional collaborator Teresa K. Miller. The faintest sparkle of tinnitus attests to the monastic quiet of his new life. @gcgiles