REVIEW: Last Call at the Oasis
By Walker Foley
Drought, famine, disease and war – are these the buzz words of our nightmares, distanced from public perception by vast oceans and foreign lands? Or are they the social products of the rapidly dwindling resource vital to life on Earth?
In many areas of the U.S., the concept of water shortages may seem as foreign as excavating icebergs for potable product. Turn on your tap after all, and the water gods will make it rain. But for those not so blessed, shrinking water supplies in the American Southwest and elsewhere on the globe serve a painful lesson: the tap is running dry.
Jessica Yu’s new film, Last Call at the Oasis, sounds the alarm on dwindling global water resources, and invites Americans to bridge the distance between them and their water.
Through the opening credits water waltzes seductively, teasing the audience with a glittering, circus-spectacle. The circus must end though, and the film must tell its dark tale.
When the Lights Go Out
“Water,” Erin Brockovich begins, “is everything. The single most necessary element for any of us to sustain, and live, and thrive is water.” Speaking of water’s importance, Brockovich draws from her father’s wisdom who warned her, “… in my lifetime that we would see water become more valuable than oil, he said, because there will be so little of it.”
There’s nothing fanciful about the predictions of Brockovich’s childhood memories – the evidence is everywhere. Last Call at the Oasis begins by examining the consequences for the Southwest as climate change, water mismanagement and population growth threaten the long-term viability of the entire region. Having over-tapped the Colorado River, farms are unable to get water for irrigation, while cities struggle to find an electrical alternative to the failing Hoover Dam. Despite the slowdown in agriculture and energy, development (and population) escalates.
In Australia we see the problems are similar, if not worse. Severe heat waves, wildfires, and drought have destroyed farmers’ crops, leading roughly one farmer every four days to commit suicide at the peak of the drought. Rural social workers are struggling to ease unrest, and farmers are scaling back production. Australia, the film posits, is past its “carrying capacity.”
What Lurks in the Deep
Shortages aren’t simply due to lack of water, but also the pollution of drinkable water. Every day, treatment plants struggle to filter heavy metals, pharmaceuticals and other toxins from our drinking water. Sewage and industrial chemicals flow into our streams and seep into our aquifers – let us not forgot Erin Brockovich’s work in Hinkley,Texas.
The citizens of Hinkley, however, can’t forget. Their nightmares are reoccurring, as cancerous hexavalent chromium is still part of daily life. Brockovich, a central figure in the film, knows Hinkley isn’t an isolated event. She receives emails daily from all corners of the U.S., voiced by the victims of industrial contamination. Her response to their despair: help is not on the way.
With over 1,200 queued Superfund sites and a meager budget, the EPA is unable to address the industrial catastrophes plaguing the masses. Meanwhile, these communities lack access to safe drinking water. Brockovich encourages them to organize, to protest and to pursue legal action and research – really, the only hope they have of salvation.
Other activists, like Michigan family farmer Lynn Henning, bear witness to industrial abuse and pollution. Henning won the 2010 Goldman Environmental Prize for her do-it-yourself research of the toxic runoff from neighboring CAFOs. She lost a good amount of her lung capacity in standing her polluted ground, but worked tirelessly to expose CAFO abuses in the hope she might make her community a better place for her granddaughter.
While the film may seem to deliver a despairing message, it unites the struggles of communities, activists and researchers on common ground. We can no longer live passively, watching the growth of industry rip society apart. We can no longer expect our government to play deus ex machina, redeeming our hope in the final act. We must unite as citizens. We must become the researcher, the advocate, the guardian of a future we cherish.
The Last Few Hurdles
We must also escape the alluring psychology of corporate marketing. Corporate advertising campaigns have been incredibly successful in falsely convincing the American public that bottled water is a safer option than municipal tap water. Almost laughably, the public has forgotten they have access to the safest, cleanest municipal water system in the world.
In the film, a team of advertising talent and water experts put together an urban campaign to sell the idea of recycled water to consumers. Recycled water is exactly what it sounds like – used water. The implications may sound slimy, but the end product is safe, drinkable H2O.
Jack Black makes a cameo in the film to endorse Porcelain Springs, the final product, and the ad team takes to the streets for consumer testing. As you can imagine there were mixed reactions, as many people still cling to the myth of bottled superiority.
In Shortage, Strife?
The film finally looks at the most unsavory implications of water shortage: war. Certainly there have been conflicts over water, but what we learn is that water has an incredible potential to engage people in peace. Water, after all, is borderless.
Friends of the Earth Middle East (FOEME), bridges the political and cultural differences of Jordan, Palestine and Israel in an attempt to unite them in a common conservation effort. In some parts of its 156 mile journey, the Jordan River flows at 2 percent of its historical capacity, and along the way is also laden with toxic industrial chemicals. Bearing more than an economic significance for Middle Eastern nations, the Jordan River is sacred to the world’s foremost monotheistic religions. Where political differences divide, the Jordan unites cultural heritage. FOEME strives for international cooperation around the region’s lifeline, calling governments peacefully to the table over conservation efforts.
If conflict can be avoided in such a volatile region, then hopefully the same will hold true around the global as communities and leadership face the challenges of a new, drier century.
Last Call at the Oasis provides a critical look at the outcome of water mismanagement. Not another wonky environmental flick, it’s an intelligent and decisive look at the global crisis civilization faces in the era of a hotter planet. Public perception and politics still remain the greatest threat to our survival, but water, most basic of necessities, transcends environmental and political debate. We are asked to question our careless consumption, and consider a future without water. This film is a must-see for all citizens, and will hopefully ignite awareness and action before the oasis runs dry.
The film opens this weekend in select theaters across the US. For more information on production and screenings, visit www.takepart.com/lastcall. Also, follow the discussion on Twitter: LastCallOasis.
Also, be sure to visit Food & Water Watch to take action against the abuse and pollution of our water systems.