Green Filmmaking, Urban Homesteads, and Preparing for the Future

When Lauren Selman first took on the “greening” of a major film shoot, she had all sorts of lofty goals: reused materials for set production; biodiesel vehicles for transporting cast, crew, and equipment; solar-powered cameras; LEED-certified hotel accommodations. Nearly every logistical variable in the shooting of a film could be oriented toward sustainability in some way.  But as a one-woman greening machine, Selman simply didn’t have the time to work on most of these variables and decided to hone in on just a few goals that would not only green the film but also educate the cast and crew along the way. Her two simple goals: eliminate bottled water from the production set, and compost or recycle everything possible.

At last week’s Downtown Film Festival in Los Angeles, I attended a screening of Greenlit, a documentary that tells the story of Selman’s green consulting efforts. The film shows the cast and crew whining a bit about the water jug that replaces the oh-so-convenient pile of disposable water bottles, but the water effort is still mostly a success. The task of sorting trash, however, is a far more frustrating change. At meal times, Selman stands near the three clearly labeled waste bins—trash, recycling, compost—to educate folks about how to separate their waste. The usual compost confusion ensues. Crew members seem frustrated rather than curious when Selman tells them that their soiled napkins are in fact compostable, so let’s pull them back out of the trash and put them where they belong! The extra five-second effort of composting turns out to be a tough sell. At one point, a crew member dumps a load of Styrofoam peanuts in the compost bin in retaliation.

Selman has started a company called Reel Green Media to do consulting on all her lofty ideas (including recycling and composting) for film productions looking to go green. It’s clear she’s passionate about her work but also aware of just how far the film industry has to go before it obtains any semblance of true sustainability. If we can’t even get the film crew to separate their plastic forks from their apple cores, how will we ever build a truly sustainable film industry?

It’s the same with so many pioneering efforts to shift our cultures toward sustainability. At the film festival, I sat on a panel discussion on “How to Grow, Source, and Cook Sustainably in L.A.” All the panelists had visions of a future with locally based diets and food education for kids, but when we got into the details of how that future will come about, the required steps seemed almost infinite. Subsidies were mentioned over and over again. In the United States, there is a vast array of financial supports—direct and indirect—that make staple grains, fatty foods, and highly processed meals cheaper choices than fresh fruits and vegetables, masking the true cost of those choices. The only way currently to experience the true cost of food is to grow your own. Jules Dervaes, founder of Urban Homestead, supports his entire family with food grown in his Pasadena backyard. He noted that lettuces and other veggies are both the healthiest and easiest calories to grow on your own, even if supermarket prices might indicate otherwise.

In order to achieve a one-planet world—one in which our rate of resource consumption matches Earth’s ability to generate those resources—financial subsidies as well as our behaviors will have to change. Greenlit, and the Food Panel, reminded me that each unsustainable subsidy or behavior out there will require attention if it is to be reshaped into something more eco-friendly. Do we have time for that? Do we have time, before Earth’s productivity is completely overrun by human consumption, for the Lauren Selmans of the world to visit every film shoot, or for people like Jules Dervaes to redesign every backyard for food production? Do we have time for sustainability advocates to carefully and systematically reshape the world toward sustainability?

When imagining the number of pioneers we would need for such a task, I begin to think the answer is “no.” The shift to a sustainable culture will not come about in such a coordinated and well-planned way. Eventually, we will experience such hard-hitting shortages and wallet-emptying resource prices that we will simply be forced to seek out new sustainable habits. But for now, people like Selman and Dervaes are cultivating awareness and a how-to guide on this transition. So that when the real wake-up-call arrives, we can all quickly apply the benefits of living sustainably, with the help of the stories of the early pioneers’ efforts.

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