Voice of the Belly

It's just a blog, not a tablet of stone

The environmental cost of filmmaking

I gave a lecture yesterday on the media, popular culture and the environment with the subheading ‘Is popular culture costing the Earth?’ It’s the first time I’ve tackled this subject in class in any depth since it had simply never occurred to me before that the media had any discernible environmental impact. I’d assumed that the creative media industries were relatively clean and green, certainly in comparison to the old heavy industries that are commonly associated with fossil fuels and polluting black smoke. But when you consider that contemporary popular culture is dependent upon electricity – just think about your own domestic consumption via TVs, DVD players, games consoles, phones, radios etc – then suddenly you begin to appreciate just how much energy is involved and the subsequent CO2 emissions. On the other hand, take a trip to any dump to see the mountains of e-waste – obsolete TVs, mobile phones, computers etc – and again, the environmental consequences of popular culture become apparent.

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I suppose the energy and waste involved in the production and consumption of popular culture didn’t come as that big a surprise to me but the carelessness (or eco-vandalism) of the film industry did. Richard Maxwell and Toby Miller recount two occasions in their book Greening the Media (2012).

In preparation for the making of Titanic (James Cameron, 1997), Fox Studios renovated the Estudios Churubusco in Baja California, Mexico, attracted there by the promise of lower production costs. They built a huge water tank near the fishing village of Popotla and a 6 foot high, 500 foot long wall to keep villagers away, barring local access to the beach and fisheries. They also chlorinated the surrounding sea water, decimating sea urchins and reducing fish levels by a third, which you would imagine would be pretty catastrophic for the fishermen in the village.

A similar disregard for the natural world was shown during filming of The Beach (Danny Boyle, 2000), also a Fox Studios production, when producers took bulldozers to the Maya Beach, part of the Phi Phi Island Natural Park in Thailand, because the idyllic natural scenery wasn’t quite idyllic enough, apparently. They relocated sand dunes and flora, and planted coconut palms. But the sand dunes collapsed when the monsoons came because the natural defences that preserved them had been destroyed by Fox Studios’ bulldozers. Still, the Thai government was slipped a few bob for its Royal Forestry Department and Fox and the local tourist board campaigned together to promote the film. So s’all good!

Mulling all this over on the eve of the lecture I wondered was there a local angle and I google the obvious choice: ‘Game of Thrones’ and ‘environment’. I found a discussion as to whether the TV series’ own climate makes any scientific sense and the idea that the show might actually be helping its audience get to grips with the climate change debate, but also this: Did HBO Destroy an Ecosystem for Its New Show?

The brief report says:

HBO is sparing no expense for its upcoming fantasy drama Game of Thrones, but did the network’s largesse come at the expense of the environment? The Malta Times reports that the series recently shot on a protected beach in Dwerja, where the production covered the area in “a sand-like substance made from powdered stone.” (Apparently, beaches don’t have enough sand on their own?) “It obliterated the micro habitat of all the species in that area, whether flora or fauna,” said biodiversity expert Alfred E. Baldacchino, who accused the network of “environmental crime.”

As well as the Malta Times coverage cited above there is also an interesting blog post that castigates the Malta Environment and Planning Authority for screwing up big time on this occasion.

More recently, and closer to home, Game of Thrones has been mentioned as a reason not to carry forward plans to build wind turbines near Castle Ward in Co. Down. As the Belfast Telegraph reports: “The area is also increasingly popular with tourists after it was one of the settings for the first series of Game of Thrones. Local resident Robbie Hughes said it would hinder attempts to cash in on the hit series.”

By now we should all be familiar with the strategic and economic importance that Northern Ireland’s (currently part-time, casual) executive places on global media events as a way to project the region on to the world stage, in the hope that this will attract inward investment and tourist dollars. But would the executive play fast and loose with our environment?

As Maxwell and Miller point out, there is a political economy to the sort of environmental destructiveness that Fox Studios have been associated with, “shaped by economic-structural adjustment peddled by neoliberal high priests at the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organisation and the sovereign states that dominate them.” (2012: 71) Countries on the periphery of metropolitan capitalism are being encouraged to sacrifice social and environmental sustainability for foreign investment, tourism and entry into the global free market. Northern Ireland is among them. Here, global media corporations are given financial sweeteners and ‘access all areas’ while the region is touted, in the words of Northern Ireland Screen, as “the most compact 5,196 square miles of back-lot in the world”.

In my own research I’ve spent sometime trying to work out the politics and economics of film production in Northern Ireland. But I’m beginning to wonder whether we need to keep a closer eye on the environmental consequences for a region like ours, one that is determined to trade on its ‘myriad stunning locations from beautiful coastlines to idyllic villages, mountains, glens and loughs, through to urban landscapes and bustling cities with a diverse mix of architectural styles, from Victorian red-brick to 21st century glass and steel.’

Reference

Richard Maxwell and Toby Miller (2012) Greening the Media (Oxford: Oxford University Press)

Scotland’s dreaming

I’m writing this as the electrifying independence referendum reaches its climax in Scotland and voters go to the polls.

This is the most significant and vital political decision I’ve witnessed in my lifetime, trumping even the Good Friday Agreement – and I still have the cork from the bottle of Champagne I popped and drank when that was signed. Admittedly, sixteen years later the bubbles have gone flat on all that. And while I’m glad and relieved that there is relative peace, the politics of Northern Ireland remain rancid – mired in sectarianism; dominated by conservative voices; insensible and insensitive on questions of class, gender, sexuality and race.

Looking back the die was cast early. Ulster unionism and Irish nationalism were politically and intellectually exhausted at the end of the 20th century and the negotiations were narrowly focused on finding somewhere for them to park their historic dispute. The outcome allowed them to reconstitute their animosity within institutions and systems that could accommodate and contain their competing national and sectarian allegiances. Meanwhile any awkward social and economic questions were swept up and bundled together in the promise of a vaguely defined peace dividend. It never arrived. What we’ve got in its place is austerity and politicians bickering over flags and parades – that is when they’re not united in attacking women rights.

By contrast, what’s happening in Scotland is qualitatively different. Over there voters are engaging with questions about sustaining a publicly funded health service; about the future of the welfare state in Scotland; about the deployment of Trident missiles; about pensions and currency: substantial social and economic questions rather than clashing nationalistic sentiments, although the latter haven’t been entirely absent.

For me, the credit for this enlivening debate can be claimed by the Yes campaign. It has forced onto the political agenda questions and ideas which for a long time (all my adult life, in fact) have been stifled, ignored or treated with derision in what passes for debate in the UK’s mainstream media. It has set out a vision of an attractive social democratic future that knocks the grinding austerity guaranteed by the status quo into a cocked hat. In doing so it has the advantage of projecting its ideals of democracy and social justice onto a future Scotland, while the Westminster parties supporting No can be judged by their dispiriting records in power. When Gordon Brown appeals to Scots to vote No by trying to assure them that Labour will never allow the NHS to be dismantled, who believes him? Didn’t the Labour Party begin the process of privatisation when it was in power and isn’t it presently committed to imposing austerity in opposition?

Maybe that’s why the No camp has looked leaden-footed and lacklustre; it just has no good news to share. So its been forced to fall back on the politics of fear and intimidation. Ironically, No supporters have complained that they have been bullied and silenced by Yes campaigners, but their allies in Westminster haven’t been averse to issuing warnings about the dire consequences and punitive actions that will follow a vote for independence.

When it’s not threatening, the No campaign tries to appeal to Scots with fond remembrances of a shared, glorious past in which the Second World War features prominently. The courage of Britain, united against the forces of fascism is symbolically very powerful and its spirit is conjured up on the Times’ front-cover today, emblazoned with a union flag and the stark headline: ‘D-Day for the union.’ Ironically though it’s an independent Scotland that potentially might lay a better claim to the legacy of Britain’s finest hour and not the Westminster politicians presently selling off the NHS and tearing up the post-war settlement.

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However Scotland votes today the referendum has been divisive and its aftermath could be more so. And yet somehow I imagine that all this anxiety and antagonism might have been avoided if we had achieved a ‘cordial union’ (to coin a phrase) between all the peoples of these islands: that is to say that a progressive unionism (to coin another phrase) might have rid this place of the inherited wealth and power that has assumed the right to leadership and influence for too long. It might have produced a modern constitution enshrining a commitment to human rights. It might have founded an economy, not on aggressive individualism and the endless, ruthless pursuit of profit to the determent of the common good, but on cooperation and social justice. It might have provided welfare without feeling the need to demonise those who sometimes depend upon it. It might have defended a publicly funded health service and free education because these are central to public well-being and enlightenment. All his might have provided the context for a lasting multicultural, multinational community in which we could all have said we were genuinely better together.

What the past few weeks of campaigning in Scotland has demonstrated is how Britain and Ireland, (and elsewhere, for that matter) have been shackled to a politics of ‘realism’ that withers and prescribes the political imagination, strives to predetermine the future and entrenches the rich and powerful in their privileged circumstances. Maybe it’s time to dream like Scotland…

Melancholic Ulster

Northern Ireland’s race relations are in poor repair. Research published recently reveals that there are up to three racist hate crimes daily and of 14,000 reported incidents only 12 have resulted in prosecution. That report comes in the wake of the controversy surrounding Pastor James McConnell’s derogatory remarks about Islam, when he referred to Muslims as ‘the spawn of Devil.’ McConnell later apologised but not before the First Minister, Peter Robinson intervened in his defense, turning a bad situation into PR disaster of international proportions. Robinson also eventually apologised for his comments, perhaps realising (or having it pointed out to him) that pissing off 23% of the world’s population is poor politics in a global free-market economy. Now this week (19 June 2014) there are reports of a Nigerian man being intimated out of his proposed home by group of East Belfast residents who say they want local houses reserved for local people.

McConnell, Robinson and the East Belfast residents are co-religionists (and we might deduce then that they are also unionists), which adds credence to a popular perception that one community in Northern Ireland has a greater propensity for racism than the other. That may or may not be the case. Recently the loyalist UVF have been accused of orchestrating racist attacks in Belfast. On the other hand, there is conscientious position advanced from within working class unionism that argues that racism is incompatible with the principles of loyalism since the United Kingdom is made up of ‘multiple nations, countless cultures and a rainbow of peoples.’

Coincidently I’ve been reading Paul Gilroy’s After Empire: Melancholia or Convivial Culture? Published in 2004, it reflects on the state of race relations in Britain in the aftermath of 9/11 and following what the author describes as the ‘depressing’ counter-reaction to the publication of Lord Bhikhu Parekh’s report, The Future of Multi-Ethinic Britain (2000) that proposed rethinking the national story, eliminating racism and reducing material inequality.

In his book, Gilroy comes to the defence of multicultural society and advances the cause of a convivial cosmopolitanism, ideas that are well worth reflecting upon in the context of Northern Ireland’s current woes. He sees Britain labouring under a ‘postimperial melancholia’, a condition brought on by the refusal to acknowledge the brutal and repressive forms of its lost empire. As he says: ‘It is not only that the greatness of the British nation is evidently still at stake in the contested history of its difficult relationships with its colonial subjects. Repressed and buried knowledge of the cruelty and injustice that recur in diverse accounts of imperial administration can only be denied at a considerable moral and psychological cost’ (p102)

In avoiding an honest appraisal of the past, the post-imperial melancholic resorts instead to bouts of nostalgia, morbid forms of heritage and what Gilroy describes as a ‘neurotic’ citation of the two world wars (p97). This can be neatly encapsulated in how England football fans recall former triumphs by chanting ‘Two world wars and one world cup’ at their opponents from the terraces, despite their team’s current underwhelming form. Gilroy isn’t the first to note how integral a ‘pleasure culture of war’ is to the constitution of a particular version of Britishness (Dawson, 1994; Paris, 2000), but he sees it as being deployed to block the consciousness of the irreversible loss of Britain’s imperial potency (p120-121). This refusal to maturely mourn what is gone forever, to accommodate to its consequences and accept a more modest role in international affairs, leaves British people struggling to build a new national identity ‘from the debris of their broken narcissism’ (p108). British melancholia is left replaying and re-staging the signs of British ‘greatness’ in a vain attempt to stave off or deny change – change that is rendered most visible in the loss of the nation’s once assumed homogeneity. As a consequence, encounters with Others and immigrants are fraught affairs, diversity appearing as risky and threatening to the integrity of a narrowly and racially defined national identity that crouches behind the ‘nation-defining ramparts of the white cliffs of Dover’ (p15).

Perhaps After Empire speaks to unionism’s predicament because to some extent unionism’s predicament is also Britain’s – how to manage the decline of one identity and reconstitute a new one. This is not to say that Irish nationalism has any reason to be complacent about racism and its own identity crisis, only that there may be a specificity to racist manifestations. Ulster unionists, like their English counterparts, are confronted with a loss they seem unable to mourn – the loss of prestige; the loss of the industry and economy upon which their sense of political integrity and cultural genius depended, and the slow disintegration of the national formation to which they give their allegiance. We might surmise that Gilroy’s advice to them would be, that like the English, Ulster’s Protestants need to think about who they are in Britain’s post-imperial twilight; to confront the past they played a part in and consider their precarious place in a world of mobile capital and labour. However, the peace process has afforded precious little room or encouragement for this sort of reflection, since the conflict is commonly configured as an endogenous affair – just a little local difficulty concerning two warring tribes! By this account, peace and reconciliation is achieved by the two sides embracing, without anything so intrusive or impertinent as questions being asked about the Britishness and Irishness to which they feel integral.

But these questions won’t go away and are most pressing for working class unionism, so ill-served by its own bourgeoisie. Does it apply the old siege mentality and hide behind its own ramparts – historically and metaphorically Derry’s walls – staving off change, denying the future? Or does it seek an alliance of equals with the ‘multiple nations, countless cultures and a rainbow of peoples’ that have shared for good and ill in the history of empire? The British birthright bequeathed to Ulster Protestants need not be a stifling post-imperial melancholia. It could be convivial cosmopolitan culture if there is will to explore it.

 

References

Dawson, G (1994) Soldier Heroes: British Adventure, Empire and the Imagining of Masculinities. London: Routledge

Gilroy, P (2004) After Empire: Melancholia or Convivial Culture. London: Routledge

Paris, M (2000) Warrior Nation Images of War in British Popular Culture 1850-2000. London: Reaktion Books

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