Episode 4: Chinatown

The ending of Roman Polanski’s 1974 noir Chinatown is devastating (seriously, if you haven’t seen it yet, go watch it right now! And then listen to our episode), especially its final line of dialogue: “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.” The speaker is referring to their literal location at the end of the film, Los Angeles’ Chinatown, but it’s also a metaphor for the tangled web of crime and deceit that has made it nearly impossible for protagonist and private investigator Jake Gittes to determine who is good and bad or what course of action he should take. What makes Chinatown such a classic, aside from its superb acting and screenplay, is how that theme resonates through time and space. Most environmentalists can point to a moment where the ins and outs- the intertwining ethics and science and politics- of an issue made them want to throw their hands up in despair and forget the whole thing.

In this week’s episode, we attempt to tease out the truth about water rights, urban-rural tensions, and the real life Los Angeles water wars that inspired Chinatown. Emily and Stephanie give us the dirty (or should I say dusty?) details on the contemporary California drought, which about half of the state is out of as of the end of January. And as always, we end our show with news and stories that are giving us hope for the Earth.

Updates from the Field

Jordan tells us about US Fibers, a polyester fiber producer in South Carolina that uses plastic bottles as their raw material. US Fibers just expanded their plant and added 20 new jobs. This is just a tiny addition to the recycling industry as a whole, but it highlights how recycling your waste creates jobs!

Steffi brings us news of a recent study published by scientists from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst says that the Northeastern United States will warm 50% more quickly than the rest of the globe. This will mean that there will warmer, rainier winters, but the precipitation will more likely come down as rain not snow due to warming. Due to less snow pack and warmer temperatures, summers are expected to have more intense heat waves and more severe drought.

Emily informs us that 20 organizations announced a new partnership at the World Economic Forum last week in Davos. They’ll work with the World Resources Institute to develop a global decision-support tool that uses GIS and remote sensing so that companies can monitor and address deforestation happening in their supply chains in real time.

What’s Giving us Hope for the Earth

Jordan is feeling good about Unilever’s announcement that they are committing to 100% recyclable plastic by 2025. This is in addition to their previous commitment to increase the use of recycled content in their packaging to at least 25% by 2025. These two things highlight Unilever’s commitment to recycling as well as their real understanding of how recycling works. Many companies want brownie points for calling their products recyclable, but don’t make a commitment to providing a market for recyclable plastics by using recycled content in their packaging. They also have a number of other environmental commitments which you can track in real time on their website.

Steffi is feeling optimistic that Rick Perry, Trump’s pick for head of the Department of Energy, appears to be coming around on climate change. In 2010 he said that climate science is a “contrived phony mess” and claimed in 2011 that “there are a substantial number of scientists who have manipulated data so that they will have dollars rolling into their projects.” Not great (and not accurate). But this Thursday he changed his tune, saying, “I believe the climate is changing. I believe some of it is naturally occurring, but some of it is caused by man-made activity. The question is how do we address it in a thoughtful way that doesn’t compromise economic growth, it affects the affordability of energy or American jobs.” Here’s hoping he continues to evolve on the issue.

To up the hope-quotient, Steffi also tells us that China appears to be on track to hit their goal of capping energy derived from coal at 1100 Gigawatts by 2020. They are stopping 100 new coal power plants from being built. These projects are worth $62 billion and would have added 100 GW of capacity to the grid. They instead have plans to add 130 GW of solar and wind by 2020 (as much as France has). They will begin constructing new coal plants after 2025, but only to replace old ones. Find out more here.

Emily brings us more news from the World Economic Forum in Davos. The government of Norway announced its $100 million investment in a $400 million fund that is projected to lead to over $1.6 billion in deforestation-free agriculture investments. The fund is expected to provide an incentive for tropical forest governments by driving investments in countries and jurisdictions that protect forests and reduce related greenhouse gas emissions. She also gives a shout-out to Unilever, the first corporate investor in the fund, who will invest $25 million over the next five years. The fund aims to protect over five million hectares of forests and peatlands by 2020.

Silvan is pleased to note that the USDA has issued new guidelines for organic livestock and poultry and clarified existing standards for organics. New rules require approximately two square feet per hen, among other specifications for the well-being of livestock. This not only supports happier, healthier livestock, it increases consumer confidence in organic labeling. And we can’t find anything wrong with consumer awareness! 

Suggested Further Reading:

Learn more about the complicated life and legacy of William Mulholland here.

More information on the legal framework of water rights in California can be found here.

After a lack of enforcement from water agencies in California, some residents took it upon themselves to “drought-shame” neighbors for egregious over-use of water. This article looks at the benefits and drawbacks of these tactics.


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