“If you spend much time in the Northwest these days, you see a world that is changing faster than anyone can imagine. It is ‘lonesome and crowded.’ It is ‘subdivided and conquered.’ It is overwatered. And it is about to be paved under. This film focuses on the arid lands of the mid-Columbia Basin, but in that landscape you find patterns that repeat themselves in communities all across the country.” ~ Grant Aaker & Josh Wallaert, Directors of Arid Lands
Hanford: the notorious ghost of a controversial past. Arid Lands traces its beginnings to current dynamics in an engrossing conversation with a myriad of parties involved. The award-winning documentary film was shown in a free screening this week in Seattle and the relevant discussion was a fascinating exploration of interconnectedness and systems thinking at work. From descriptions of the Yakima tribe losing their fishing grounds to fights of modern day agriculture over local water rights, rootedness in place is the key thematic backdrop. In 1943 the government invoked the cause of the war effort and evicted all original inhabitants of the area: the top-secret laboratory and production site of Hanford was birthed.
“That town went from a couple hundred people to fifty thousand people in less than a year. In less than eighteen months, Hanford workers produced and delivered the plutonium for two atomic bombs.” ~ Bill Wilkins, original resident of Hanford as a child
What was initially a catalyst for active wartime destruction became a continuation of defense supply, extending its production over several decades through the Cold War, leaving behind grave radioactive waste in exponential amounts, most of which was improperly stored. This externality has impacted the landscape and surrounding community in innumerous ways. Webbed connections abound within both the biological realm – from water and air contamination to habit and wildlife effects – and the economic dimension, with the draw of funds and personnel to the area for the world’s largest environment cleanup creating an ecosystem and economy that would not have existed otherwise.
“Very few communities have ever had their primary source of their economic well being centered in one area. And when people ask you what’s going to happen next year, you don’t know what’s going to happen next year.” ~ Dean Schau, Columbia Basin College economist
The trepidation over this ambiguity, while dealing with a disastrous environmental necessity that drives their local economic growth, is a juxtaposition best examined in systems terms. The 25 different players in the film voice distant perspectives of concerns and values, pointing to the reinforcing patterns still existant due to the continued hazard of leakage and resulting investment in cleanup.
“I can’t imagine all that acreage . . . just sitting from now to eternity. There’s nothing out there. It’s sagebrush and cheatgrass, and a few old concrete hulks of reactors.” ~ Walt Grisham, former resident of White Bluffs, evicted in 1943
This narrative illustrates a real life application of using a systems lens to examine a complex problem and in doing so successfully tells a compelling story. Sobering, thought-provoking, yet inspiring!
“We hope the film encourages viewers to think about geography—a dry, academic subject—in a way that is personal. When you start thinking that way, you see that geography is not just a catalogue of mountains and rivers. It’s a cultural force that affects all of us in our daily lives. The people we interview in the film define the word ‘wasteland’ in different ways. For some, wasteland is an acre of sagebrush. For some, it’s a nuclear site. For us, a wasteland is a place that has lost its identity. We wanted to make a film about someplace that hasn’t. Not yet. This is the story we found.” ~ Grant Aaker & Josh Wallaert, Directors