Movies and music lift the lid on chemical pollution

When campaigning about pollution, environmentalists currently focus much of their attention on CO2 emissions and plastics. While this is understandable, it’s important to remember that there’s plenty of other stuff that we should be concerned about. The movie Dark Waters, which is based on real events in a small town in West Virginia, reminds us of the devastating impact that pollution by the chemical industry can have on communities and individuals.

factories with smoke under cloudy sky

PHOTO CREDIT: Patrick Hendry @worldbetweenlines via Unsplash

The star of the show is lawyer Robert Billott. Billott takes up the case of small-time livestock farmer Wilbur Tennant, who has watched in horror as his herd of cattle succumbs to a range of illnesses. Tennant believes, and his lawyer finally proves, that the sickness amongst his stock is due to contamination of their drinking water by chemical corporate giant, DuPont.

But the damage isn’t limited to Wilbur’s herd. Billott discovers that DuPont dumped toxic waste at a local landfill site for many years, apparently without regard to the possible consequences and despite the fact that its own research warned of the dangers.

The pollutants released from the landfill are shown to have found their way into local water courses, with probable links eventually being identified between them and medical conditions including various cancers, thyroid disease, pre-eclampsia, ulcerative colitis and rotting teeth in humans and animals alike.

The movie homes in on Billott’s marathon David v. Goliath battle. The lawyer takes on DuPont, and many years later finally wins justice for his clients and the local community.

For me, this movie generates a huge sense of indignation, as well as real fear for the future of our planet. If you haven’t done so already I encourage you to watch the movie Dark Waters, and to read the lengthy New York Times Magazine article upon which it is based.

This is not a happy movie, and in a sense I took no great pleasure in watching it – it was too raw, too traumatic. But I’m glad that I did so, to be reminded that I should be vigilant and not take at face value those who glibly tell me that we can trust scientists, big business – and their lawyers – always to do the right thing.

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And while we’re on the subject of chemical pollution, the Process Man (also known as the Chemical Worker’s Song and the ICI Song) tells another – equally horrifying – story. The song was written and recorded in 1964 by Ron Angel from Cleveland in the UK.

The economy of that part of north-east England has been dominated by the chemical industry for generations. The industry has provided employment for many thousands, but the human cost – as highlighted by Angel’s lyrics below – has been huge. The lyrics have been sourced from the Antiwar Songs website.

A process man am I and I’m telling you no lie.
I’ve worked and breathed among the fumes.
That trail across the sky.
There’s thunder all around me and poison in the air.
There’s a lousy smell that smacks of hell.
And dust all in my hair.

But you go boys go.
They time your every breath.
And every day you’re in this place.
you’re two days nearer death, but you go.

I’ve worked among the spinners I’ve breathed in the oil and smoke.
I’ve shovelled up the gypsum till it nigh on makes you choke.
I’ve stood knee deep in cyanide gone sick with a caustic burn.
I’ve been working rough I’ve seen enough to make your stomach turn.

But you go boys go.
They time your every breath.
And every day you’re in this place.
you’re two days nearer death, but you go.

There’s overtime there’s bonus opportunities galore.
The young men like the money. Aye they all come back for mare.
Ah but soon you’re knocking on. You look older than you should.
For every bob made on this job you pay with flesh and blood.

You can listen to Ron Angel singing his song by following this link on YouTube.

Such a powerful protest song has inevitably been recorded by a number of artists over the years. Possibly the best known was sung by the Canadian folk rock band Great Big Sea. However, my personal favourite is the version recorded by English folk duo Jimmy Aldridge and Sid Goldsmith.

At their best the arts, including music and film, are much more than simple entertainment: they are a repository of lessons that we forget at our peril. Songs like the Process Man are an important reminder that much of the prosperity we currently enjoy has been built upon the misery of the masses over many generations, while movies such as Dark Waters should serve as a warning that the profit motive continues to tempt organisations and individuals to do stuff we – and they, ultimately – will regret.

Pollution is an ever-present danger in our modern world. We owe it to the planet, to all creatures currently living on it, and to those who will come after us, to remain vigilant.

Cambridge through Chinese eyes

My last post bemoaned the hordes of tourists who clogged the narrow streets of Cambridge’s historic centre during our visit a few weeks ago.  Most of them appeared to hail from China, and as they came in groups of up to 50 they were impossible to miss or ignore. The days of Japanese mass tourism may be over, but in China the tour companies have found a worthy Far-Eastern successor.

Kings College Chapel: look carefully and you will see at least three tour groups

The new-found wealth of the People’s Republic of China has changed the face of international tourism.  We witnessed this first-hand during our trips to Tasmania (2016) and the USA’s Yellowstone National Park (2018)

In both places the bus-loads of phone-wielding, selfie-snapping Chinese tour groups were the dominant feature in the tourist landscape.  It was therefore no surprise to see so many Chinese folk in Cambridge, which is, of course, one of the UK’s major tourist destinations.

Punting on the River Cam

What was a surprise was to learn that there is another reason why the Chinese flock there in such large numbers.  In November 1928 a Chinese poet who had previously studied at Kings College, Xú Zhìmó, made a return visit to Cambridge and was moved to capture the moment in verse.  Xú is considered one of the most important modern Chinese poets, and Saying Goodbye to Cambridge Again is his most popular poem.

Xú died in controversial circumstances in a plane crash in 1931.  In 2018 he was commemorated through the creation, in the grounds of Kings College, Cambridge, of the China-UK Friendship Garden, also known as the Xú Zhìmó Garden.  Four lines of his poem are inscribed on a rock in the Friendship Garden, close to the banks of the River Cam. 

File:Kings College Xu Zhimo memorial.jpg

Photo credit: Cmglee [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D

Xú’s poem, and the Garden commemorating the poet and his most famous work, appear to be a contributory factor in attracting Chinese tourists to Cambridge.

The translation (below) is sourced from the East Asia Student website.

Saying Goodbye to Cambridge Again
by
Xú Zhìmó

 
Lightly I leave,
as lightly I came;
I lightly wave goodbye,
to the sunlit clouds in the western sky.
 
The golden willows of that riverside,
are brides in the setting sun;
their glimmering reflections in the water,
ripple in the depth of my heart.
 
The waterlilies in the soft mud,
sway splendidly under the water.
In the gentle waves of the Cam,
I would be a water plant!
 
That pool in the shade of elm trees,
is not springwater, but a heavenly rainbow;
crumbling amongst the floating grasses,
the settling rainbow seems like a dream.
 
Looking for dreams? Push a punt
to where the grass is greener still upstream;
a boat laden with starlight,

singing freely in the glorious light of stars.
 
But I cannot sing freely,
silence is the music of my departure,
even the summer insects are quiet for me,
tonight's Cambridge is silent!
 
Quietly I leave,
as quietly I came;
I cast my sleeves a little
not taking even a strand of cloud away
.

What a beautiful, evocative poem.  But the tranquillity it conveys is a million miles away from the febrile tourist trap we visited recently. 

I wonder what Xú Zhìmó would make of Cambridge, August 2019?