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People Suck

Three new documentaries slam conspicuous consumption, oil companies, and greedy traders.

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Colin Beavan, the Manhattan writer who's the subject of the documentary No Impact Man, began with the notion of penning a book about a year of living lightly on the earth — biking around the city, eating only locally grown food, using little (or no) electricity, buying no clothes, depositing his waste in a vat of worms, etc. That book, which has just been published, recounts his odyssey and its underlying philosophy with likable earnestness ("I became excited about the possibility of breaking through our socially endemic isolation and connecting to our community and to some larger sense of purpose as a replacement for the material things we'd be giving up"), but the movie gives off a stranger vibe. Beavan is both a hero and a figure of fun, a man whose ideals are in constant collision with the habits of modern life. Enduring withdrawal from Starbucks coffee, his wife, Michelle Conlin (who writes for, of all places, Business Week), incinerates him with her stare. Milk for his toddling daughter spoils. Larvae grow in his vat of worms. Almost as bad is the belittling New York Times account ("A Year Without Toilet Paper") and the media's tendency to portray him as either an eccentric or a threat to capitalism. The film's very frame is postmodern. This urban Thoreau is trailed by documentary cameras, and when Beavan flips off the circuit breakers that will plunge his family into darkness for six months, those cameras are shooting the cameras of Good Morning America. After the success of Julie & Julia, you can imagine a Colin & Henry — moving back and forth between Beavan (say, Jason Bateman) squabbling with his wife, and Thoreau (Daniel Day Lewis) roughing it on Walden Pond — high-concept no-impact.

But I guess that's how you break through to the public nowadays; the movie, directed by Laura Gabbert and Justin Schein, manages to be both amusing and unnerving, a reminder of how unsustainable our collective lifestyle has become. For all the media ridicule (and there's a New Yorker piece now that adds to it), Beavan is not behind the curve but ahead of it. The suburbs are crumbling. Peak oil is a short way off. The temperatures and the oceans are rising. Future archeologists will shake their heads at Good Morning America and bought-and-paid-for skeptics like Rush Limbaugh (who consumes more in a day than Beavan in a year and whose trips to the loo generate more methane than many dairy farms), and wonder why we didn't listen to people like Bill McKibben and, yes, Colin Beavan. No Impact Man — the film and the book — could well end up instruction manuals.

Joe Berlinger's Crude is another high-impact activist doc, except its media-saturated subtext even more pronounced than No Impact Man's. On the surface, Berlinger tells the story of Texaco's alleged desecration — a billion gallons of spilled oil — of the Ecuadorean Amazon Rain Forest and the 27-billion-dollar lawsuit against the company (since acquired by Chevron) that has dragged on since 1992, a year after Texaco sold its operations to an Ecuadorean consortium. Although Berlinger lets both sides have their say, his sympathies palpably lie with lawyer-from-the-jungle Pablo Fajardo and his voluble Upper West Side adviser, Steven Donzinger. Corporate talking heads argue that (a) petroleum has nothing to do with cancer rates, and (b) it wasn't Texaco (which came back and conducted an "environmental remediation"), but said consortium, that did the damage. Berlinger doesn't counter Chevron's counter charges with facts and figures. With footage of petrochemical-sludge swamps and babies covered with flaming sores, he doesn't especially need to.

The other part of Crude — the supposedly uplifting part — covers the coverage. The breakthrough comes when a writer for Vanity Fair does a profile of Fajardo and it runs with a nice color portrait. He's legit! Since VF penetrates celebrity bubbles, here comes Trudie Skyler, co-founder of the Rainforest Foundation and wife of Sting: She flies to Ecuador, surveys the sludge, and poses with a sick family. She calls the lawsuit "a David and Goliath tale" — a great hook. The emotional peak is a Police reunion concert and benefit, after which Sting himself presents Fajardo to the press. Although last week Chevron accused the case's independent investigator and presiding judge of corruption, things are looking up. Crude, after all, opens Friday.

I'm not poking fun at Vanity Fair, Skyler, Sting, or, for that matter, Berlinger. They've all done vital work. Here's what's depressing: that, given the millions spent on defense by multinational conglomerates, our last best hope isn't the courts but the fickle attentions of glossy magazines and the noblesse oblige of celebrities.


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