Greed, Need & Climate Change

Images of Sudan staggering on painful legs brought tears to my eyes. At the sight of his painful, oozing sores the tears flowed down my cheeks. And when Sudan was finally euthanised to the obvious distress of his carers, I had to mop my chin and blow my nose. What made Sudan’s death more tragic was the fact that he was the last male northern white rhino – in the world – to die. The species was effectively extinct. And then, wonderfully, the veterinarians who attended Sudan’s last moments withdrew his DNA. And with this DNA will be able to resurrect the species. Good news from bad. But I have to wonder: when this magnificent creature once again browses the grasslands of Kenya (or elsewhere) will it be as relentlessly hunted as before? After all, man’s greed and concomitant need is something that has yet to be addressed.

This children’s book by Dr Seuss promotes care for the environment

I had been watching Sudan’s story in the form of a documentary called Kifaru (kifaru is the Swahili for rhinoceros) which was screened at the 2019 Durban International Film Festival. Another festival documentary that highlighted both the greed and the need of man was Mossville: When Great Trees Fall. Briefly, Mossville: When Great Trees Fall is the story of how Sasol established a refinery in the American town of Mossville. How Sasol’s gigantic, emissions-producing setup chased people from their homes, and gave them in return very little in compensation and a whole host of social and health problems. Sasol and other large companies continue seemingly unabated.

These and other documentaries show how humans are fuelled by both greed and need. And by consequence how climate change is also fuelled by both greed and need. These documentaries are distressing to watch. And messages about climate change that are coming thick and fast are also distressing. Bad news indeed. Glimmers of hope glow when scientists speak of climate change solutions in the form of renewable energy sources (see Climate Change: The Facts BBC Earth). But even these messages are confusing. Visit Renewable Energy is a Scam  and see possible drawbacks of renewables. The speaker in this video is pro-nuclear as an alternate source of energy.

Views of Germany’s Rhine River and Mainz. Germany is committed to denuclearisation within the next decade.

One climate change solution posed in the BBC programme stands out for me, however. Stem our throwaway culture. This solution I think addresses – at least ideologically – one half of the world’s greed, the other half’s need, and what both greed and its concomitant need have done to accelerate climate change.

Now that you’re here,

the word of the Lorax seems perfectly clear,

UNLESS someone like you cares a whole awful lot,

nothing is going to get better.

It’s not.

(from The Lorax, Dr Seuss)

 

 

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The Stories Behind Writers

Aren’t you curious about writers? The faces behind the words you read, what inspired them as writers, who they are, how they write? I know I am. And judging by two films and one series I watched recently so are others. All three focus on writers, their lives, experiences and influences. They are: Agatha Christie and the Truth of Murder (2018 film), Tolkien (2019 film) and Little Women (BBC television series 2017).

Of the three Agatha and the Truth of Murder was the one I liked least. I’m not a fan of Agatha Christie plots. And this film addresses Christie’s own doubts about the predictability of her stories. In real life Agatha Christie went ‘missing’ for a number of days during her career and Agatha and the Truth of Murder is an imaginative story of how Christie might have spent that mysterious time. The writers place Christie squarely in an actual murder case which she is forced to solve. This experience ultimately helps her own writing – or so the story goes. The point made by the film is that an author’s lived experiences informs their writing.

Tolkien makes this very point clearly. In this film, however, what is portrayed may reflect actual events in the author’s life. The film is an in-depth, sensitive biography of the famous author’s formative years and how the many influences in his life ultimately had great bearing on his famous works. His poverty, orphanhood, intelligence, love of language, and desire for friendship all influenced the man and the writer he became. His romance with fellow orphan Edith Bratt, which ultimately matured into marriage was an integral part of his life. And WWI, which cut through everything – his studies, career, romance and friendship circle – profoundly affected the man and writer he became.

Slightly more subtle on the theme of experiences influencing writing is the BBC television series Little Women based on the book by Louisa May Alcott. Of the four sisters in Little Women, Jo March was the writer. She wrote initially because she loved writing. Then she wrote out of necessity. And finally she wrote out of pain, as a way to process the death of her beloved sister, Beth. Jo’s life circumstances obviously influenced the writer she became.

Practical Criticism or New Criticism is a branch of literary theory that studies the form of texts. The theory disregards author intention and reader response. There is certainly merit to this approach to studying literature, especially with poems or stories for which the reader has no idea of the author’s intent.

However, I just can’t help wondering… What influences of your life can be brought to bear on the writer you are?

 

 

The Lion King: Animation or CGI?

It’s 25 years this year since The Lion King animated movie released. Two thousand and nineteen sees a computer-animated (or computer-generated imagery, CGI) re-release of the same story. The visuals in this new release are absolutely stunning. And the same unforgettable music that defined the first one is used, such as Hakuna Matata, Nants’ Ingonyama and The Lion Sleeps Tonight.

The same well-rounded, satisfying coming-of-age story features. A young lion, Simba, is destined to be king. Through the machinations of his evil uncle, Scar, tragedy strikes Pride Rock and Simba flees. He befriends a comic warthog and meerkat pair who teach him not to worry about anything. Simba then spends his days avoiding his past, shirking his responsibilities, and generally living in a world that doesn’t function as it should. Duty calls, however, and Simba returns to Pride Rock to put things right.

The 1994 The Lion King was the very first video (note: not DVD) owned by my – then very young – children. It was also the only one for a long time. Hence it was watched over and over again and my children and I became brilliant at quoting lines and singing music lyrics.

Timon and Pumbaa, and their counterparts the snivelling, servile, sneaky hyenas became embedded in our memories. The well-defined characters of Mufasa and his anti-hero brother Scar (Simba’s father and uncle respectively) and their motives were clear in our minds. And the emotions invoked by music, romance, visuals of the beautiful African plains, and the tragedy of death will remain with us forever.

Gosh, I’m being dramatic and terribly nostalgic here. But I couldn’t stop comparing the two films while watching the new one.

So how does the new The Lion King compare to the old? I think the old one edges out this exceptional new version. There’s just something about animation. Even young children know that animation is not ‘real’. In animation comedy, accidents, dialogue and drama can all be ramped up. This heightens the entertainment for the viewer. As marvellous as this computer animated The Lion King is, it looks so real that I think the antics have to be dialled back so as to be in keeping with the ‘realness’ of the medium. And in that you lose something.

The Lion King opens at cinemas in South Africa on 19 July 2019. Don’t miss it.

 

Aladdin

Why You Should Watch Aladdin

The children’s film, Aladdin, released at cinemas in South Africa aladdinrecently. It is based on the story Aladdin and the Magic Lamp and explores the themes of power and desire. The clever, satisfying ending makes the moral of the story clear for viewers: Your motives are powerful; be careful of them because, unchecked, they can lead to your destruction.

For parents keen to expose their children to films and stories that provoke interesting, worthwhile discussions I recommend Aladdin. But parental guidance is advised. This 2019 version is very similar to the 1992 animated one – funny, endearing and entertaining. However, this year’s film stars real people. Without the barrier of cartoon characters the romance between Aladdin and the princess Jasmine seems inappropriate for very small children. (Of course, this point is mild when you compare it to one of the older written versions of the story. In the latter, Aladdin spends the night with the princess after having lured an earlier suitor out of the way!)

aladdinBriefly, the story Aladdin opens with an unlikely hero: a poor, fatherless, young thief named Aladdin. The antagonist is a powerful man called Jafar, counsellor to the country’s Sultan. Jafar wants the Sultan’s powerful position for himself. Desire (for position and power). Aladdin – to put it crudely – wants the Sultan’s daughter (Jasmine) for himself. Desire (for riches and love). The source of empowerment in the story is a supposed magic lamp which contains a genie who is able to grant the lamp keeper’s wishes. Jafar and Aladdin vie for the lamp and this creates the conflict in the story.

Whilst the genie has the power to grant the wishes, the genie’s power is directed by the wishes and desires of the one who owns the lamp. He is enslaved to whoever commands him. As the story progresses it becomes clear that Genie’s enslavement is a picture of what our own desires do to us: they gradually enslave us.

As the struggle intensifies both Aladdin and Jafar become more desperate to have their thwarted desires met. And their desires escalate; instead of wanting only to be sultan Jafar eventually wants to become the most powerful genie in the land. (Think Saruman in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring). For his part Aladdin is tempted to go back on his word in order to get what he wants.

Conniving and betrayal make up both Jafar’s and Aladdin’s journeys until the final scenes of the film see Jafar’s wish to be the most powerful genie coming true. But the benefits of Jafar’s new position (in particular) don’t quite live up to his expectations!

The Christian Bible essentially teaches the same idea. Romans 6:16 says: Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness.

Watch Aladdin with your children and discuss how the different characters (including Abu, Aladdin’s monkey!):

  • are tempted,
  • what desires within the characters are stirred by those temptations,
  • and the consequences of giving in to those temptations.

Talk about Aladdin:

  • do you think he was a ‘better person’ than Jafar was?
  • were Aladdin’s desires ‘more worthy’ than Jafar’s?
  • could Aladdin have had the same end as Jafar did? How? Why?

Telling Tales that Make You Sit Up & Listen

In this stirring video Sir David Attenborough tells us humans how we can save our planet from destruction. How we can provide a sustainable future. To do it, says Attenborough in the video, we need to ‘rewild’ our planet. Rewilding will help people move back into a harmonious balance with nature.

Attenborough outlines three other ‘simple’ ways to save our planet: phase out fossil fuels, produce food more efficiently, and correctly manage our oceans.

Attenborough’s video has helped raise the profile of a crisis that most of us simply ignore.the wolf wilder

In light of this heightened awareness I found it interesting that – shortly before I saw this video – I read a children’s book called The Wolf Wilder. Author, Katherine Rundell, bases this exotic adventure on the real concept of ‘rewilding’ wild animals who have formerly been tamed. In the story the wolf wilder is actually a feisty young girl called Feodora who lives in freezing Russia with her wolf-wilding mother and a pack of wolves. When Feo’s mother is kidnapped Feo chases after her with the wolves, making friends as she goes and starting a revolution. It’s an entrancing, almost bizarre story in which children – and wild wolves – are firmly the heroes. I highly recommend it.

Reading fiction – especially in the Wolf Wilder’s case – is an entertaining way of confronting very serious issues. Likewise, non-fiction told in narrative form can be an effective way of holding and at the same teaching an audience. The Radium Girls by Kate Moore is a case in point.

the radium girlsAs recently as 2011 a bronze statue was unveiled in Ottawa, Illinois to commemorate a group of women ‘dial painters’ known as the ‘radium girls’. Kate Moore tells in her book The Dial Painters the horrific story of young women who were employed in America during World War I to paint dials on watches and clocks used in the war effort. The paint these women used contained radium. The poisonous effects of the radium on the women were astounding. Bones became brittle, teeth loosened, jawbones cracked and fell out of the gums, cancers grew to huge proportions and blood markers changed. Many died excruciatingly painful deaths. And even in death the women’s skeletons glowed with radium.

What was even more astounding was their employers’ cover-up, denial and outright lies regarding the dangers of radium. It was the bravery of a handful of these women that finally resulted in proper workplace safety standards and government legislation regarding radium. The contribution to science – thanks to the girls’ suffering – has been invaluable.

All of this was told in an easy-reading style – as a story – as opposed to history. The characters were written by Moore as real, individual – and therefore relatable – people. I also highly recommend this book.

The Least of These: A Story of Enduring Love

The Least of These: The Graham Staines Story is based on the true story of the murder of Australian Christian missionary Graham Staines and his two young sons in 1999. The film is set in India and is directed by Aneesh Daniel. South African, Bruce Retief, was responsible for the stirring soundtrack.

Decades before his death Graham Staines and his wife Gladys started and ran a leprosy mission in India. They imbued the patients with dignity, defying conventional wisdom that treated lepers as outcasts. In the 1990s religious tensions rose, when, in Hindu areas, accusations of ‘illegal conversions’ were levelled at Christians.

The action in The Least of These starts at this point and centres on journalist Manav Banerjee (Sharman Joshi) who has a wife and a new baby. Banerjee is an ambitious writer with desperate living conditions and he tries to make it big by covering the sensationalist rumours of the aforementioned illegal Christian conversions. Urged on by his editor, Kedar Mishra (Prakash Belawardi), Banerjee searches for evidence linking Staines (Stephen Baldwin) to these accusations. Along the way Banerjee unwittingly speaks inflammatory words to a listening crowd, and influences a serious outcome.

Banerjee’s own journey in the story takes him from scepticism and suspicion, through regret, to realisation and putting things right. The journalist’s journey also acts as a vehicle for highlighting the role of the media in political and religious tensions.

Ultimately, though, The Least of These is a gently told story of relationships, of faithfulness, of genuine, selfless love, and of forgiveness.

Some of the acting in The Least of These is stilted – particularly from Stephen Baldwin and Shari Rigby (who plays Gladys Staines). The focus on a White ‘saviour-type’ missionary in an Indian environment is racially uncomfortable. But the setting in the suburbs of Odisha, India, is authentic and the storyline well-rounded. The Least of These is worthwhile viewing and is currently on at cinemas in South Africa countrywide.

Middlesex and the Subject of Intersex

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides is now one of my most memorable reads. I read this 2002 novel for the first time in 2015 and listened recently to the audio version. The latter was brilliantly narrated by Kristoffer Tabori. Tabori appears to know the text intimately and gives just the right inflection. Because of Tabori’s reading I realised just how funny Middlesex really is. One of the most amusing scenes comes right near the end when the main character’s father, Milton Stephanides, dies in a car crash while chasing another vehicle. Milton’s life stretches out before him in his last moments and, in some way, his thoughts act as a summary of the different strands the text of Middlesex explores.

These strands include the troubling subject of intersex conditions, cultural prejudices in Detroit USA, and the replacement of an older generation (and its viewpoint) by a younger one. The scene is also a fine example of the intriguing narrative technique used by Eugenides. Eugenides uses a combination of first person and third-person omniscient narrative viewpoint. This has the effect of casting Cal Stephanides, the ‘I’ in the book, as an omniscient narrator of his own life, from before conception to present day. So, in the scene when Cal’s father, Milton, meets his end, it appears as if Cal has entered his own father’s head. I loved this masterful narrative technique.

Of course, the opening scene of the book is one readers of Middlesex are also likely never to forget: ‘I was born twice: first, as a baby girl…. and then again, as a teenage boy…’ Readers immediately have an idea of the subject that is to follow. Eugenides employs this foreshadowing method throughout. It functions to draw the reader in, and in no way spoils the experience of this complex, highly thought-provoking novel.

It is thought-provoking in large part because of its treatment of the sensitive subject of intersex conditions. Middlesex attributes the abnormal development of intersex to incest. But then goes on to portray the main character (Cal Stephanides) as choosing to embrace the facets of his condition, rather than trying to change it.

One viewpoint that endorses embracing intersex conditions rather than trying to change them is the Christian ‘The Reformation Project’. The speakers in this Youtube video say that God created all variations of gender and should therefore be accepted as they are.

For a slightly different perspective a very thoughtful Christian talk from the Gospel Coalition on the subject can be listened to here. Andrew Wilson, the speaker, emphasises what a loving Christian response should be to intersex conditions and how to live with them.