Prior to DamNation, the Patagonia-produced look at Americans dams, my knowledge of the environmental implications of said infrastructure was woefully ignorant. My understanding had been limited to seeing them on hikes and the occasional Angry Beavers cartoon.
So when I heard about this film making its way through South By Southwest and the Environmental Film Festival, I decided it was time for some basic education.
The film begins by walking viewers through, essentially, how dams came to be so prevalent in the United States. Most are familiar with the Federal-Aid Highway Act that was President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s baby. Well, dams appear to be the offspring of good ole FDR.
You see, dams were originally a source of energy and basically giving people something to do during and following the Great Depression. But like highways – another idea presumably developed with good intentions – we went overboard. And then after going overboard, we dove a little further.
Several arguments stick out. First, unnaturally-changing water flow has had environmental repercussions on communities, not least of all causing water shortages in a variety of areas. Second, various species of fish have been removed from areas they’ve thrived in for thousands of years. Salmon can no longer complete their natural life cycle, for instance.
Lastly, and perhaps most poignant of all, dams are yet another tragic reminder of how we have drastically altered the natural order of Mother Earth, which in turn has drastically altered the way of life of countless Native American tribes. To these people, we have committed an irreparable sin against the very core of their spiritual beliefs and way of life.
Directors Ben Knight and Travis Rummel clearly have a position in the film that might leave some calling “bias!” or asking to hear from the other side. But sometimes what we think of as the other side, which in this film is the pro-dam at any cost crowd, isn’t worth hearing from. It would be like giving equal time to climate change deniers or the flat-Earth crowd. The true debate lies in how many dams are economically feasible to tear down and how we can do this in an environmentally responsible way.
Besides, Knight and Rummel did actually attempt to hear from the other side. One interview asked them to leave. Everyone else simply denied their request.
They were, however, able to sneak into a pro-dam rally where dam removal activists were dismissed as fringe elements of the environmental left. Their arguments amounted to the same partisan talking points you hear in any other debate from the environmentally unsympathetic side of the aisle.
“These people hate freedom and want us to live in dung huts!”
Or some other concoction that evokes unwarranted hatred of an opposing viewpoint without presenting facts for their argument.
And though generally everyone else interviewed in the film supports some level of dam removal, there is certainly no feeling of extremism. Nobody is asking human civilization to go back to living in caves or huts. They simply want to treat the planet respectfully, so that human civilization can continue marching forward.
From an aesthetic standpoint, the film is beautifully shot. You see these dams and the havoc they’ve wreaked on our environment in ways that, at least to my knowledge, has never been done before. You’re given a front-row seat to peaceful environmental activism where activists scale dams to paint cracks or other images in the middle of the night, asking the dams to be removed to set the river free.
And if the film is of any indication, freedom is coming to a watershed near you.
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