'Shock Doctrine' in Action: Vital Freshwater Resources Under Attack by Privatization Capitalists
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I spoke with Patagonia Rising director Brian Lilla about that choked-off trickle in Chile and abroad, and why dams are "slow suicide" for those who cave in to the global water wars.
Scott Thill: What did you think about dams before you made this film, and how do you feel about them now?
Brian Lilla: Before I made this film I had a vague understanding that big dams have a negative impact on rivers. In college, I spent a lot of time kayaking rivers and eventually read the book Cadillac Desert by Marc Reisner. Reading that book was like peeking behind the curtain in The Wizard Of Oz. I started to realize what was behind all these massive reservoirs in the Western United States, which began my process of unraveling how dams kill rivers. By the time I finished directing Patagonia Rising, I had a much clearer understanding of how dams affect the entire hydrologic process all the way into the ocean. It's ironic that 15 years ago I shot my first piece of film while skateboarding the 30-foot overflow tube inside the Monticello Dam in Napa County. When I needed footage of dams for Patagonia Rising, I went back to that same spot with a very different intention.
ST: Are we fucking with the program by rerouting nature in the names of consumption and energy, given that we're not really keen on sustainability or conservation in either one?
BL: There's no arguing that large-scale hydro-electric dams provide cheap electricity and water storage. But when it comes to the pursuit of development for energy and consumption, humans are completely short-sighted. A century after the first big dams were built in the United States, we have realized the long-term effects of cutting off nutrient flows, loss of habitat and killing fish migration routes. These are just a few of the reasons we stopped building dams 30 years ago. We've fucked up so many rivers and natural water systems that United States is now decommissioning dams and shifting towards habitat restoration.
It took me a long time to realize rivers are the arteries from which humans and thousands of other species are dependent. Dams are a slow suicide going unnoticed. If we want to sustain our place on the planet, we need to reconsider our relationship to water and how we treat it. I don't consider this an environmentalist point of view; I'm just a human who is scared shitless of the future. And Patagonia Rising was an opportunity to shed light on the fact that we have a major problem on a global scale. But if developing countries like Chile decide not to build dams in Patagonia, we are steps closer toward shaping a sustainable future.
ST: What is Patagonia's particular role in the planet's freshwater puzzle? And how do you think climate change will make that worse?
BL: Patagonia's ice caps are the third largest freshwater reserve on the planet, and play a critical role in driving biodiversity and contributing to healthy oceans. Its rivers are free-flowing, but their biggest threat has been climate change. Patagonia's glaciers are temperate, and rapidly melting ice is triggering massive flooding. People are losing lives and moving to higher ground. Some of the river valleys we descended while filming are complete death traps, with unexpected glacial lake outburst floods. The scenery was epic, but I was glad to get out of there alive.
ST: Is the multinational race to develop what's left of undeveloped South America just going to make things worse for all of us?