Monthly Archives: November 2014

Movie Review with a Side of Greens- An Interstellar Exploration of Space, Time, and Love

*SPOILER WARNING: go watch this movie; it will make you want to go stargazing for hours afterward

On Space

At its surface level, Interstellar, as evidenced by the name, is about space exploration. The film is not shy about placing space exploration in contrast to coping with life on earth (specifically a farm not unlike an Iowan cornfield). Cooper, the former NASA pilot, reminisces on the front porch, “We used to be explorers and pioneers, not caretakers.” Some critics of the space program have argued there is a trade-off between colonizing and caretaking. Lynda Williams compellingly articulates in the Peace Review:

Life on Earth is more urgently threatened by the destruction of the biosphere and its life-sustaining habitat due to environmental catastrophes such as climate change, ocean acidification, disruption of the food chain, bio-warfare, nuclear war, nuclear winter, and myriads of other manmade doomsday possibilities. If we accept these threats as inevitabilities on par with real astronomical dangers and divert our natural, intellectual, political, and technological resources from solving these problems into escaping them, will we be playing into a self-fulfilling prophesy of our own planetary doom?

And sure, perhaps the easy answer is that we can both invest in colonizing another planet and preserving the biosphere of our own. But the ethical dilemma still remains: Is each dollar spent on life-sustaining plants one that could have been better spent on sustaining life on earth? And even more important, does the pull of the space frontier also disconnect us from the environmental conditions on the home front?

The film offers an almost poetic response to these critiques of space colonization as an escape hatch toward our own planetary doom. Newton’s Third Law is framed “You have to leave something behind to go forward.” Dr. Brand, the head of what is left of NASA, opines, “We’re not meant to save the world, we are meant to leave it.” Indeed, this post highlights interviews of the screenwriters that reveal their intention of portraying humanity’s ability to transcend environmental problems.

What the movie, and what so many frontier seekers and explorers, leave out is what happens after settlement. The location may change but the same destructive tendencies remain. Let us assume it was monocropping and soil deterioration, which allowed a crop blight to threaten humanity. When the new colony on the other side of the wormhole is farmed in the same way, will the explorers hop from planet to planet, leaving behind worlds of devastation in their wake? So, suspending plotlines, I wonder if the subtext of the movie even concedes the call to STAY. It is the imploring message in Morse code from the future father transferred through the young daughter to the present self.

On Time

The conceptualization of time also has some parallels with the go to space vs. stay on earth dichotomy. There’s a light moment later on in the movie when McConaughey jokes, “Neither one of us has time to worry about relativity.” But, in fact, it is the relativity components of space travel that provides the deepest explorations of time. For instance, ponder on this. One hour on one of the potential new earths amounts to seven years on earth. Maybe you knew that from a theory level, but to see Cooper losing decades with his family as water is drained from a spaceship is to actually relate to relativity.

Consequently, in a world where planets are judged by the potential of their resources to support life, time is the most prized resource. Similarly, so many fundamental resources – water, air, soil – permeate climate change discourse but time is the ultimate resource to be measured. We don’t have much time to act on climate and we act on climate because we want more time. Time is quantified in the 400,000 deaths from climate change ever year according to the Climate Vulnerability Monitor report, which was a significant revision above previous estimates. As mentioned earlier, a civilization collapsing crop blight serves as the backdrop for the movie’s desperation. Interestingly enough, this revision to the 150,000 deaths per year figure from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report in 2007 was made to include effects of heat waves, crop losses due to pest increase, and other deadly diseases.

The movie oft quotes the Dylan Thomas poem, the first stanza of which reads:

Do not go gentle into that good night,

Old age should burn and rave at close of day;

Rage against the dying of the light.

Thankfully, in a pre-crop blight world, we do have time to rage against the dying of the light, to treat each hour as precious as seven years, and to realize the devastating implications of delay.

On Love

The movie is not perfect. Given his obviously vast imagination, Nolan could have found an alternative to American flags posted prominently on the new space colonies – a reminder that even in imaginary mid-apocalypse worlds, nationalism still reigns. There are plot holes, but in a movie with wormholes and black holes, shouldn’t we just accept that as an inevitability? Yet the most hard-hitting criticism attacks the movie as another cheesy love-conquers-all flick.

And I will admit that the phrase, “Love is the one thing we’re capable of perceiving that transcends dimensions of time and space” is a tad cheesy. But the presence of Dr. Mann, the most elite space traveler, elevates the rhetoric. Two lines in particular stand out:  1) Survival instinct is our single most important source of inspiration. 2) We can care deeply, selflessly for people we know, but our empathy rarely extends beyond our line of sight. The counter comes from a more altruistic, collective call to love by Dr. Brand when he talks about space travel, “We must think not as individuals, but as a species.” The comparison to climate action applies here as well: the first two motivations are based on love of self and extensions of the self, while the third is a more encompassing form of love, one that extends to the environment, to the developing nations in the Global South, to the future generations that one will never see but would still drop into the abyss of a black hole for.

And why is it so bad to focus on love? Using a painstakingly scientific method for analysis, I found there were 35,581 quotes about love on Goodreads, 2859 about time, and only 365 about space ( There are more quotes about love than about life itself (23,567). Maybe it is the Thanksgiving spirit or the intense emotions after watching an epic movie, but I think the greatest stories are, at their root, stories about love. In our discussion about the final climate narrative projects, we have discussed the importance of conflict and character, and I think that emotions like love can really tie together characters and conflicts into coherent narratives.

And now these three remain: space, time, and love. But the greatest of these is love.

Return of the Nematode

I’ve been browsing some farm press publications, and I ran across our old friend, the nematode! Unfortunately, it doesn’t portray the nematode in the most positive of lights…


Creating the Menu

Like Jenna, I will foreclose that the following is very rough; please forgive my jumbled mess of thoughts here. I am meeting a friend in the next few days who will be helping me plan the menu for my dinner and discussion, so the courses I have listed so far are tentative. Also, I stumbled across an article describing a dinner that is very similar to what I’m trying to create. I am working on how to channel the theme into the food that I serve, beyond the fact that it will be a local, mainly in season, vegetarian meal. I want to utilize presentation (black rice can visually resemble soil, for example), but doing this while limiting the ingredients to what is in season may prove to be a challenge.

Theme:  How can we change the way is which we eat to combat climate change? And a look at how this relates to food equity.


Bob Andrlik: a food rescue hero; Director of Table to Table

Grant Shultz: an innovator, problem-solver, enthusiastic permaculture farmer

Katy Meyer: near zero-waste vegan restaurant owner, brilliant chef

Fred Meyer: a man with a vision; Director of Backyard Abundance

Setting: Reoccurring visual–> Grant, Katy, Fred, and Bob sitting around a dining table with a clear vase centerpiece holding soil and [plant/herb]. In the art gallery basement of Public Space One. There is an empty seat at the table… who is it for? For those that aren’t represented in the discussion? For those without access to local food? Or for the viewer?

I am still playing with incorporating Environment, Economic, and Social themes with Acts I, II, and III respectively. I don’t know if this would add, detract, or be unnecessary to the overall film.

Act I: Everyone gathers around the dinner table, an appetizer is served: kale and spinach salad with cranberries and almonds. [I am having trouble imagining how to start the story, is this normally the hardest part?] However, I will introduce the theme. I want to briefly describe our current food system and how this contributes to climate change, so turning this into a story may show Grant talking about a recent qualm him and his neighbor have. Grant’s organic and Farmer Jim next door just sprayed his fields with pesticide on a particularly windy day. Follow with discussion on sustainable farming alternatives such as selling produce locally and using methods such as keyline swales and polycultures, etc.

Act II: The main course is brought to the table: eggplant steak with mushroom and onions. Someone does not finish their entire meal, what are the implications? Discussion on food waste and food rescue. At this point I’d like to talk/show about an experience volunteering with Table to Table (which I have not done yet). Katy talks about a vegan/vegetarian diet and what this could mean in terms of feeding all those that are hungry.

Act III: A sweet finish, serving chocolate beet cupcakes. I want to show images of edible landscapes around Iowa City, and since it’s November I’ll probably flash a series of photos instead of film. Begin a discussion on edible landscapes and how this creates a bridge between the food that we eat and what we see in our day to day lives. Food can no longer be thought of as grown “out there (on the farm)” or magically appearing in the grocery stores. It is here in Iowa City, in our backyards. Real, healthy food can be available for everyone to enjoy if we work together as a community. As the climate changes, we too can change our relationship with the food that we eat, how it is produced, and what we do with what’s left over.

Lasting image shows the empty seat. Voice over with a question for the viewer along the lines of “What’s your role?” “What will you do?” “Where do you sit?” I haven’t nailed it down. I’m looking forward to taking a day or two and letting my brain reboot over Thanksgiving break, then letting the creative juices flow.

Sketch of Soil Ownership Project

Theme or Question: Conservation through claiming ownership of the soil

Setting:  A farm at the outskirts of town. A mosaic of corn, soybeans, miscanthus, prairie, and riparian tree buffers. A farm association meeting, the restaurant where everyone gathers, the local church.

Characters:  The academics and University experts: Ferman Milster and Emily Heaton. The farmers: Dan Black and Steve Schomberg. The farm managers and nonprofit groups: Bur Oak Land Trust and Women’s Land and Legacy.

Act I:  On the way to Steve Schomberg’s farm, I am realizing that the fields I have probably driven past 100 times, without a second thought, contain diverse lands and soils.

Act II: The recruiting pitch to prospective Miscanthus farmers at Dan Black’s farm. Clear statistics from Emily Heaton’s extension project back up Dan’s personal experience.

Act III: A meeting between a farmer and farm management company or trust. Daughter and son are settled in on two different coastal cities. The farm has been in the family for the past 50 years, and the neighbor wants to add the land into his larger farming area.

Bare Bones Layout

A spread of veggies at the Global Greens market in Des Moines. photo cred: Christopher Gannon, Des Moines Register

A spread of veggies at the Global Greens market in Des Moines. photo cred: Christopher Gannon, Des Moines Register



I’m happy Jeff asked us to come up with a basic outline for our projects today. Despite all the pre-Thanksgiving craziness, I think this exercise allowed me to see where my setting will be set (ACT I), where a conflict will present itself (ACT II), and where some questions could be raised (ACT III). I’m unsure as of yet whether or not I’ll add the fourth act. Let me know what you all think based on this primitive outline.

Theme or question: Many of Iowa City’s immigrant and refugee communities want to grow their own food. How can we transform this town into a place where that can happen?


Marcela, Iowa city resident from Mexico, devoted mother of two, confident and strong

Simon Bucumi and Marselina Manirakiza, light-hearted couple from Burundi, emotive

Angelique Hakuzimana, Rwandan woman with no family left, farms a large plot in West

Des Moines, excited, animated

Misty, bilingual coordinator for the CWJ in Iowa City, high-energy and passionate


ACT I setting:

Bread Garden Market in Iowa City’s pedestrian mall, evening

Narrator is tipsy from the two glasses of wine she had, helps with the Spanish

Seated under heat lamps at a 3×5 wooden table



-Marcela explains the things she finds shocking and ironic about food in the U.S.

-She tells me how when she was a little girl, you ate what your parents gave you. Now her children ask for what they eat at school (pizza, hamburgers)

-She always cooks real food for them at home; she tends a garden in her trailer park the size of our wooden table. Her eyes glimmer when she says how beautiful it would be to raise more food for her own use


ACT II setting:

Center for Workers Justice 2nd Birthday Party

Multi-ethnic perfume of delicious food smells

Traditionally Mexican guitar and vocals in background




-I chase down a busy, social Misty to ask one question: Do any of the members at CWJ have urban farms?

-I find her! Ask the question. Her cheerful expression fades. She explains that property is much too expensive in Iowa City, everyone lives in an apartment or a trailer. They don’t have land. She’s hopeful, though. She says, “Go ask so-and-so!” Grabs so-and-so. So-and-so’s gaze drops too. Misty has walked away, but so-and-so tells me the same thing. Verbatim.

ACT III setting:

Small meeting room at Lutheran Services of Iowa in Des Moines with English-learning  pictograms taped on white walls

Building is not fancy but well-kept

Simon and Marselina were punching out numbers with a Global Greens administrator

Zach Couture when I arrived. They’re assessing their profit for the previous growing        season


-Open with Hilary Burbank’s description of the program and the refugees’ expressed desire for some Iowa land that inspired the whole project

-Simon and Marselina are glowing telling me about how proud they are to sell African eggplant and lenga lenga (amaranth) to American consumers. “We are trying to plant them so we can bring them into American culture…We live on what we plant.”

-Later on, I am taken to Angelique’s ¼ acre plot. It’s late on a Friday night. We cannot communicate but we pick tomatillos together for tomorrow’s market. We can hear a basketball game going on in the Valley Community Center about 50 yards away.


—May end here, should I go on? Or raise the question and stop?


ACT IV: Take it back to Iowa City. The Ecopolis community forum specifically, discussing Iowa City’s move to action. Mention my potential project to partner with community orgs here to match immigrant families with residents that have unused yards, based on proximity.

SEED: Urban Farm on the Stage

From LA-based Cornerstone Theater Company’s Hunger Cycle, SEED: A Weird Act of Faith, a fantastical tale that travels between an urban farm, a rural haven, and the contested space of agribusiness. Inspired by the community of South Los Angeles and those fighting for sustainable and healthful food choices, SEED follows a neighborhood struggling to grow greens amid concrete. The only hitch? The gods have deemed humanity bound for destruction, and our survival depends on the success of one urban farm. SEED takes you on a journey where you’ll dig deep into the dirt and ask, “What are we putting in, and what are we getting out?”

The Climate Narrative as Dance – A U.S.-China Panel on the Current Environmental Issues

I last mentioned discourse surrounding U.S.-China environmental cooperation in this post.

“Why don’t we start the Q&A session with the panelists each talking about the progress China is making in the areas of the environment, health and education?”

Tactful. Diplomatic. Subtle. “Why don’t we start” instead of “We should start” or even “ Let us start”. It’s the recovery move in Chess after a blunder, which makes the opponent wonder if the series of moves was a coordinated trap all along.

The conference, a 100K Strong student reunion to promote educational exchanges between the U.S. and China, had been running smoothly up to this point: a documentary profiling students who discovered themselves through study abroad followed by a welcoming reception at the Chinese embassy’s ministry of education residence featuring a heartwarming story of how the Chinese Government scholarship brought an American to love Chinese philosophy and to his future wife. But in a morning breakout session on current affairs in China, the facade gave way to the true face of the relationship between the two great powers. It’s the realization that there is a reason why the 100K Strong initiative came out of the Department of State and not the Department of Education.

“Excuse me, but what you are saying about the state of education in China is just not true. It may have been like this – many rural children dropping out of elementary school and subsisting on one-egg meals – 20 years ago, but it is much different now. Where are you getting your statistics? What are your sources?” A spokeswoman from the Chinese embassy interrupted the Teach for China representative’s overview of China’s education system. She corrected the session again when the Teach for China alum talked about access to education for migrant workers and their families.

The great songs all contain tension, a crescendo before the powerful refrain, the dissonance before a harmonious cadence. Dancers must navigate the dynamics of the song while staying in step with the rhythm of the beat. The Teach for America alum counters with her personal experience in these poor Chinese communities but struggles to come up with the sources of her statistics from earlier. It’s a misstep that throws off the rest of the song.

Susan Chan Shiffllet, the next panelist from the Wilson Environmental Forum, is a more capable dancer. (sidenote: can we all recognize how awesome it is that Woodrow Wilson’s legacy is enshrined not on a stagnant statue but rather a breathing think-tank ?) She outlines a clear structure for her presentation, entitled “China’s Environment – At a Tipping Point”: 1) China’s Environment CRISIS, 2) US LINKS to China’s environment, and 3) You: BRIDGE for US-China cooperation. There is no hiding from the truth – she cites the rivers running red, green, and denim blue (60% of China’s water is considered relatively polluted). The trend might get worse before it gets better – in 2013, China surpassed the world record by selling 20 million cars. Soil damage was highlighted as a major issue, since 20% of China’s farmland is polluted.

But she also recognizes the dance partners are tied together for better or worse. The Iowa connection is significant. This first part in a Des Moines Register Feeding China series reveals how seed companies, agricultural technologies, eco-resorts, and organic food ventures are all linking Iowa to China. The trade of wealth also trades pollution. The U.S. exports massive amounts of agricultural products to

China: $1.08 billion in wheat and $.87 billion in corn. Export-related emissions make up a substantial portion of

Feeding China picture

Li Zhao is the president of China operations of China Iowa Group, an advisory firm (Photo: Rodney White/Pulitzer Center and The Register)

Chinese pollution and outsourcing from East Coast companies to China cycles back to the US as pollution on the West Coast.

She ends with a flourish, citing China as a leader in clean energy technology specific reformers like Jack Ma of Alibaba. Finally she outlines how students of both countries can build the connections that inform sustainability on the two sides of the relationship. There are no interruptions from the Chinese embassy.

I’m reminded of a conversation I had with a graduate student at Georgetown during the conference. He talks about how the international students who come to the U.S. really are the top 1% of China – the people from families with enough wealth and ambition to support them to study in the U.S. And I wonder how many international students are enrolled in the sustainability certificate at the University of Iowa? How do we inform the future leaders of government, artistic realms, and industry of the impact of their actions on the environment. How do we invite them to the dance in the first place?

So we return to the moderator’s beginning bow and the subtle, diplomatic, and tactful ways to navigate the delicate dance between the two most influential countries in the world. And how do the two largest economies manage to manage their environmental impacts. But that requires an understanding of what China has done on the environment and the linkages between the two countries – to understand the nature of the relationship of dance partners on the global stage. To dance is not to merely teach for China but also to learn from China.

Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations

dirt Check out this recent public radio interview with Dr. David Montgomery, Professor of Geomorphology at the University of Washington, and author of Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations. He works to bring the impact of geological processes on human history to a wider audience. Montgomery joins Steve Kraske to explain why dirt is the foundation of civilizations, how we’re losing it to erosion, and the lessons geology teaches us.

Here’s an excerpt from his book:

“Many ancient civilizations indirectly mined soil to fuel their growth as agricultural practices accelerated soil erosion well beyond the pace of soil production. Some figured out how to reinvest in their land and maintain their soil. All depended on an adequate supply of fertile dirt. Despite recognition of the importance of enhancing soil fertility, soil loss con-
tributed to the demise of societies from the first agricultural civilizations to the ancient Greeks and Romans, and later helped spur the rise of European colonialism and the American push westward across North America.

Such problems are not just ancient history. That soil abuse remains a threat to modern society is clear from the plight of environmental refugees driven from the southern plains’ Dust Bowl in the 1930s, the African Sahel in the 1970s, and across the Amazon basin today. While the world’s population keeps growing, the amount of productive farmland began declining in the
1970s and the supply of cheap fossil fuels used to make synthetic fertilizers will run out later this century. Unless more immediate disasters do us in, how we address the twin problems of soil degradation and accelerated erosion will eventually determine the fate of modern civilization.

In exploring the fundamental role of soil in human history, the key lesson is as simple as it is clear: modern society risks repeating mistakes that hastened the demise of past civilizations. Mortgaging our grandchildren’s future by consuming soil faster than it forms, we face the dilemma that sometimes the slowest changes prove most difficult to stop.

For most of recorded history, soil occupied a central place in human cultures. Some of the earliest books were agricultural manuals that passed on knowledge of soils and farming methods. The first of Aristotle’s fundamental elements of earth, air, fire, and water, soil is the root of our existence, essential to life on earth. But we treat it as a cheap industrial commodity. Oil is what most of us think of as a strategic material. Yet soil is every bit as important in a longer time frame. Still, who ever thinks about dirt as a strategic resource? In our accelerated modern lives it is easy to forget that fertile soil still provides the foundation for supporting large concentrations of people on our planet.

Geography controls many of the causes of and the problems created by soil erosion. In some regions farming without regard for soil conservation rapidly leads to crippling soil loss. Other regions have quite a supply of fresh dirt to plow through. Few places produce soil fast enough to sustain industrial agriculture over human time scales, let alone over geologic time.
Considered globally, we are slowly running out of dirt.”