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7 Must-See Films Inspiring a Healthier Planet

One of my favorite events of the year is only one week away—the Cleveland International Film Festival (CIFF), celebrating 41 years. EcoWatch is a media sponsor, once again, and thrilled to sponsor the film RiverBlue.

CIFF, one of the nation's top film festivals, will showcase 202 feature films and 216 short films representing 71 countries from March 29 – April 9. Here's a synopsis of the seven eco-related films being featured this year, courtesy of CIFF:

1. RiverBlue

Narrated by Jason Priestley, the original concept for RiverBlue was to film renowned conservationist Mark Angelo as he toured rivers across the world. Not only would the film spotlight the beauty of nature, but also it would examine the effects of pollution.

While it wasn't intended to focus on a specific cause, Angelo and the film's directors began to see a pattern as they embarked on their journey. A lot of the chemical waste spilling into our water is coming from the plants that manufacture our clothing. From the dyes used to make our jeans to the chemicals that go into producing leather—fashion comes at a cost to our environment.

As they ventured through China, India, Africa, Indonesia, and several other countries, including the U.S., they witnessed the horrors first-hand. A number of popular clothing brands are disposing of chemical waste improperly, leading to some very serious consequences. By exposing this underreported issue, this provocative documentary enlightens the public and makes a passionate plea to push the fashion industry into changing their unprincipled practices.

2. The Age of Consequences

For better or worse, we are all connected. Thanks to globalization, the ebbs and flows of a nation can be felt, to varying degrees, in communities on opposite sides of the world. Yet all these waves have one thing in common: climate change.

Compelling case studies reveal a powerful connection between climate change and global conflict that, without immediate attention, will be society's ultimate demise. When severe droughts, flooding, and natural disasters decimate the food and water supply for millions of people, these basic necessities can quickly turn into instruments of war.

Issues of poverty, mass migrations, and a limited capacity to provide international aid only intensify when combined with extreme weather's unpredictability. U.S. military veterans, who have firsthand experience with the devastating impacts of climate change on failing regions around the world, are leading the charge to take action. But they cannot do it alone. Relevant now more than ever, The Age of Consequences unveils a terrifying look at our present reality and the desperate race against time we are dangerously losing.

3. Footprint: Population, Consumption, and Sustainability

In 2011 a baby born in the Philippines marked a world population milestone: seven billion. Every life is cause for celebration, but with the population growing at a rapid speed, hitting such a high number raises serious concerns.

Does Earth have enough resources to meet each child's needs? Can it sustain the damage done by the humongous collective carbon footprint? And what do we do with all the trash?

Even more troubling is the issue of equality. The U.S. accounts for just five percent of the world's population, but uses over a quarter of the world's fossil fuel resources—clearly the pie is not being equally shared. As the birth rate rises, so will the disparity.

In Footprint: Population, Consumption and Sustainability, director Valentina Canavesio tours the planet, surveying the results of population explosions and overconsumption. This revealing film also spotlights activists who are doing all they can to limit population growth, despite the fierce opposition that such a controversial issue brings. Canavesio's exceptional documentary offers a comprehensive profile of a planet stretched beyond its limits.

4. Food Evolution

The reputation surrounding GMO foods paints a picture of chemically enhanced produce, pumped with steroids and other poisons, being conned into our children's mouths. But what if we have it all wrong? Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson narrates this documentary, which sheds light on the fervor against food that has been scientifically altered to meet the needs of a growing population.

The fight between organic foods versus GMO foods has been raging for a few years now, enabled by passionate advocates on both sides spreading misinformation. And Food Evolution attempts to quell the biggest fears, using science, interviews with scientists, and accumulated data about modifying our crops. Yes, there are genuine concerns about agri-giants like Monsanto, but when you finally get a glimpse at the bogus claims the "other" side has been making in the name of "organic" food, you begin to wonder which side is harder to swallow.

Beginning with Hawaii's ban on all GMO products, followed by other countries (including those in Africa) that are simply not in a place to deny food to their populace, Food Evolution will open your eyes to the state of our food today—and where it will be in the years to come.

5. The University

"Discover what being exponential means to you" is the philosophy behind Singularity University, the brainchild of X Prize founder Peter Diamandis and famous inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil. At Singularity grad and post-grad students—some of the smartest in the world—join together with the stated goal to use their intellect and ingenuity to create a business that will impact a billion people within ten years.

The University is a behind-the-scenes look at a think tank dedicated to using exponential technology to change the world and the young men and women who are determined to do it. Five years in the making, this inspiring film provides us with hope that our capabilities will be able to work for us and help humanity live long and prosper.

From self-driving cars, to printing tools in space, to being able to remotely deliver aid to those in need, The University is not only a glimpse at who will change the world, but also an in-depth look into our future and where we're headed as a people and planet.

6. Bugs

In recent years the United Nations has suggested that, due to a growing population, we may find ourselves dealing with a food shortage sooner than we think. One of their recommendations: edible insects. Championed by cooks for their unique flavors, and embraced by environmentalists for their small ecological impact, creepy crawlers are being hailed as the miracle cure.

In Bugs, director Andreas Johnsen teams up with researchers and chefs from Copenhagen's Nordic Food Lab to determine whether or not that's the case. Traveling to such places as Mexico, Australia, Kenya, and Japan, they encounter communities where such delicacies as grasshoppers, termite queens, and venomous hornets are eaten. That may sound unappetizing, but the film's expert chefs transform these gooey creatures into beautiful, great tasting dishes.

Along the way, however, the filmmakers discover a number of things that could dampen the U.N.'s perfect plan. They also learn the food dilemma is less about population growth and more about unfair distribution and corporate greed. This colorful documentary is powerful in its message while allowing for some incredibly fun moments
as well.

7. Tale of a Lake

A film of astonishing grandeur, Tale of a Lake takes us on a plunge into the icy waters of Finland. In this land of 190,000 lakes, endless misty forests, and burbling brooks, water is forever reborn.

English narrator Jonathan Hutchings accompanies us along the cyclical path of a tiny Finnish mythological water spirit. We learn that ancient Finnic people considered the swan their divine ancestor, the elk their guardian spirit. Miraculous cinematography by Teemu Liakka captures mysterious loons and mischievous otters, up-close and personal. We marvel at the building skills of busy beavers—the engineers of the eco-system—as well as toad wrestling matches and water insect ballets.

There is even poetry to be found in the hatching of fish eggs. Lush symphonic sound by composer Panu Aaltio adds to the thrilling sensory experience of Tale of a Lake. Not just a hydrobiologist's dream, this film will carry viewers of all ages along its course, revealing the power of flowing water that teems with eternal life.

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This Map Shows How Your Consumption Habits Impact Wildlife Thousands of Miles Away

By Shreya Dasgupta

Global trade has made it easier to buy things. But our consumption habits often fuel threats to biodiversity—such as deforestation, overhunting and overfishing—thousands of miles away.

Now, scientists have mapped how major consuming countries drive threats to endangered species elsewhere. Such maps could be useful for finding the most efficient ways to protect critical areas important for biodiversity, the researchers suggest in a new study published in Nature Ecology & Evolution.

"Conservation measures must consider not just the point of impact, but also the consumer demand that ultimately drives resource use," the researchers wrote in the paper.

Researchers Daniel Moran of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and Keiichiro Kanemoto of Shinshu University in Japan, identified 6,803 threatened species (species that are listed as vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered on the IUCN Red List) and pinpointed the commodities that contribute to various threats affecting those species. Then they traced the implicated commodities to their final consumers in 187 countries using a global trade model.

The resulting maps can tell which countries and which commodities, threaten species at the various hotspots, the researchers said.

For example, the maps show that commodities used in the U.S. and the European Union exert several threats on marine species in Southeast Asia, mainly due to overfishing, pollution and aquaculture. The U.S. also exerts pressure on hotspots off the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica and Nicaragua, and at the mouth of the Orinoco around Trinidad and Tobago. European Union's impacts extend to the islands around Madagascar: Réunion, Mauritius and the Seychelles.

The maps also revealed some unexpected linkages. For instance, the impact of U.S. consumption in Brazil appears to be much greater in southern Brazil (in the Brazilian Highlands where agriculture and grazing are extensive) than inside the Amazon basin, which receives a larger chunk of the attention. The U.S. also has high biodiversity footprint in southern Spain and Portugal, due to their impacts on threatened fish and bird species. These countries are rarely perceived as threat hotspots.

EU consumption is fueling threats in African countries like Morocco, Ethiopia, Madagascar and Zimbabwe. Similarly, consumption in Japan is driving threat hotspots in Southeast Asia, and around Colombo and southern Sri Lanka, where threats are linked to tea, rubber and other manufactured goods sent to Japan.

Global species threat hotspots linked to consumption in the EU-27.Moran and Kanemoto, Nature, Ecology & Evolution

The researchers write that their maps can help connect conservationists, consumers, companies and governments to better target conservation actions. Companies, for example, can use the maps to see where their inputs are sourced and to reduce their biodiversity impacts. Conservationists, too, can use the maps to identify the intermediate and final consumers whose purchases sustain industries that threaten endangered species.

"Connecting observations of environmental problems to economic activity, that is the innovation here," Moran said in a statement. "Once you connect the environmental impact to a supply chain, then many people along the supply chain, not only producers, can participate in cleaning up that supply chain."

Map showing areas of threat hotspots driven by U.S. consumption. Moran and Kanemoto, Nature, Ecology & Evolution

Global species threat hotspots linked to consumption in Japan.Moran and Kanemoto, Nature, Ecology & Evolution

Global species threat hotspots linked to consumption in the China.Map by Moran and Kanemoto, Nature, Ecology & Evolution

Reposted with permission from our media associate Mongabay.

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Climate Change Roulette and Water Scarcity

By Suzanne York

A new study by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that climate change is likely to put 40 percent more people worldwide at risk of absolute water scarcity, due to changes in rainfall and evaporation.

Unsurprisingly, the study noted that “Expected future population changes will, in many countries as well as globally, increase the pressure on available water resources.”

With a mid-range United Nations projection of 9.6 billion people by 2050, how countries around the world manage water resources is becoming more critical with each passing day. And a changing climate is likely to play havoc with even the best laid plans.

Today, between one and two people out of 100 live in countries with absolute water scarcity (defined as less than 500 cubic meters of water available per year and per person). On average, each person consumes about 1,200 cubic meters of water each year, and even more in industrialized countries. Yet the impacts of continued population growth and increasing climate changes could bring the ratio of people living in countries with absolute water scarcity up to about 10 in 100 people.

The Mediterranean, Middle East, southern U.S. and southern China could experience “a pronounced decrease of available water;” southern India, western China and parts of eastern Africa could have an increase.

The authors of the study found that “This dwindling per-capita water availability is likely to pose major challenges for societies to adapt their water use and management.”

Just last month, the World Resources Institute (WRI) released the results from its Aqueduct water project in which it found that 37 countries face “extremely high” levels of baseline water stress. This means that more than 80 percent of the water available to agricultural, domestic and industrial users is withdrawn annually—leaving businesses, farms and communities vulnerable to scarcity.

According to WRI :

…the world’s water systems face formidable threats. More than a billion people currently live in water-scarce regions, and as many as 3.5 billion could experience water scarcity by 2025. Increasing pollution degrades freshwater and coastal aquatic ecosystems. And climate change is poised to shift precipitation patterns and speed glacial melt, altering water supplies and intensifying floods and drought.

Greater conservation and more efficient water systems (especially for industrial agriculture) will help. Also incorporating traditional and indigenous methods of water storage and usage that is applicable to each community and/or region will be needed. But what is most needed is global action on climate change to reduce global greenhouse emissions and thereby put the world on a path toward a more sustainable future.

There is too much at stake, and water is too precious of a resource to not implement policies to help countries, communities and families adapt to the coming changes.

Visit EcoWatch’s CLIMATE CHANGE page for more related news on this topic.

The Issue of Population is More Than a Little Radioactive

Climate Central

By Michael D. Lemonick

Talk to people who care about the environment and you’ll hear plenty about pollution, deforestation, sustainability and climate change. What you won’t hear is the word “population,” unless it refers to populations of endangered species. 

But if you think about it, the Earth’s booming human population is at the root of just about every environmental crisis that threatens the natural world. Last Oct. 31, Earth’s population reached 7 billion people (unofficially, because there’s no way to pinpoint the actual day, but it was in the ballpark). Every last one of them taps into the planet’s resources as they eat, work and create waste in a myriad of different forms. By 2027 we’ll be up to 8 billion, and the U.N. predicts we’ll hit 9 billion in 2047.

Even now, however, the pressure on Earth’s resources is already extreme, and more people will only make it worse. Deforestation and other forms of habitat destruction, for example, are mostly the result of all those billions of people clearing land for places to live and grow food. Destroy natural habitats and you throw ecosystems out of whack, to say nothing of wiping species off the planet at such an alarming rate that scientists believe we may be seeing Earth’s sixth mass extinction (the previous five were caused by things like asteroid impacts or gigantic volcanic eruptions). All those billions of people burning wood and coal and oil, for heating, transportation, electricity and manufacturing, moreover, generate air pollution, including heat-trapping greenhouse gases.

Most of us never stop to think about the flip side of that equation, however: if the world had significantly fewer people, all of these strains on the planet would be much less. Two thousand years ago, the world’s population stood at about 300 million people, according to the U.N., and by 500 years ago, that number had climbed to half a billion, or one fourteenth of today’s population.

What if it had just stayed there? Would our current environmental problems be slashed by a factor of 14? Well, OK, probably not. Back in 1500, even the richest people had a standard of living far below what people in the U.S. have now: they had no electricity, no motorized transportation, a monotonous and not very nutritious diet. As a result, their impact on the planet was far less than what a half-billion people living at modern U.S. standards would be—and even so, the impact of pre-industrial civilization was hardly zero.

It’s also true that in the modern world, the richest people consume vastly more resources, and contribute vastly more to the planet’s environmental ills, than the poorest. By some estimates, fully 50 percent of all human CO2 emissions come from the richest 500 million people, while the poorest 3 billion generate a mere 7 percent. If those billions can raise their standard of living significantly, as they have every right to do, the impacts of all that consumption and those emissions will become vastly worse.

It would be simplistic, then, to put all the blame for the planet’s environmental woes on population. Nevertheless, it’s clear that if the Earth’s population were to magically drop from 7 billion to, say, 1 billion  (“magically,” because you could do it with a horrifying disease or some other catastrophe, but I’d just as soon not), most of the issues environmentalists worry about would become easier to manage, even though they’d hardly disappear.

So why aren’t policymakers talking more about population? Why aren’t the media reporting more about it? One reason is that it’s a very touchy subject. Plenty of religious leaders have a real problem with family planning in any form, and China’s infamous one-child policy has led to forced abortions, forced sterilization and, thanks to a strong preference for boys, a severe gender imbalance. In large part, it was his opposition to the excesses of the one-child policy that got Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng in trouble with authorities earlier this year.

The issue of population is, in short, more than a little radioactive. Besides, fertility rates have been dropping in recent decades thanks largely to the education of women, so the problem clearly isn’t as bad as it could be. In fact, the U.N. was projecting 15 billion people by the middle of this century only a couple of decades ago, so we’re moving in the right direction. But the U.N. also acknowledges that just the slightest uptick in those rates could drive the number drastically upward again. A problem that appears to have stabilized could destabilize very quickly.

That’s why at least one environmental group has taken on the issue of overpopulation: last year, the Center for Biological Diversity began talking about population growth as a key factor in environmental degradation. According to an article in the New York Times, the group is, among other things, handing out condoms in packages with endangered animals on them and emblazoned with slogans including “Wrap with care, save the polar bear,” and “Wear a condom now, save the spotted owl.”

OK, it’s a bit silly (although not as silly as this condom promo video from India), and there’s nothing much we can do to reduce the population by any significant amount. But as July’s World Population Day approaches, it’s worth remembering that the sheer number of people on Earth makes every threat to the environment worse than it would otherwise be.

And it wouldn’t be a bad thing if more of us were talking about it.

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