Journey to Planet Earth

(This column was first published in the April 12, 1999 Buffalo News.)

    Tonight at 9:00 p.m. and continuing at the same time the following two weeks, WNEQ-TV (Channel 23) will carry the remarkable documentary, "Journey to Planet Earth." Produced by Emmy Award-winning filmmakers Marilyn and Hal Weiner, this environmental miniseries deserves our full attention.

    The first episode is about rivers: Mississippi, Amazon, Jordan and Mekong. The second turns to urban communities: Istanbul, Mexico City, Shanghai and New York City. (Critics of the Big Apple will be shocked to find that New York, despite some problems, is identified here as a major success story.) The final episode is about farming: in Zimbabwe, the Auvergne and Brittany regions of France, the Yangtze River Delta, Iowa and Pennsylvania.

    Many of the scenes are breathtaking, the images gorgeous. But neither they nor the soft, understated narration of actress Kelly McGillis, hide the basic message of the series: We face very serious environmental problems, many of them due to misjudgments in the past, but all demanding our immediate attention and response.

    As I previewed this series, I was constantly reminded of the old cartoon by Bill Mauldin. In it a cigar-smoking industrialist looks out a window at his factory belching pollutants. Beside the factory is a billboard announcing, "Within 30 years we will have completely destroyed our ecosystem." Obviously relieved, the boss turns to a colleague and says, "Gosh, for a minute there I thought it said three years."

    The presentation of these huge environmental problems is set against some mostly small and obviously only partial solutions. These are wonderful responses, many of them by tiny villages or neighborhoods or even individual citizens. They turn the overall impact of the series that could have been only disturbing into one of hope for the future. Two of these segments in particular I found most heart warming and encouraging.

    In Zimbabwe, where 13 million inhabitants are faced with famine due to drought, David Jura, a village elementary school principal, foresaw the problem and set out to address it locally. Working alone in his spare time for almost four years, he built a dam across a stream, creating a water source for irrigation that has saved his community. This sparked memories of a time when my father identified a neighborhood problem and set out to solve it. A tiny, usually dry ditch behind our home flooded each spring, filling many neighborhood basements. My dad didn't call on town engineers; instead he spent an hour each morning deepening the waterway until he finally dug through to the larger drain a quarter mile away. At the time I was a reluctant helper, but I honor my father for that smaller scale individual contribution just as I do David Jura for saving his village.

    Another series episode focuses on a young Pennsylvania Mennonite farmer, Steve Groff, who is confronting the enormous problem of soil erosion -- half of regional soil has already washed down the Susquehanna River. He has adopted "no till" cultivation, a kind of management that plants directly into cover crops. Steve's is the definitive success story. His methods have reduced soil runoff by 90 percent with two bonuses: a ten percent increase in the family's tomato production and reduced pesticide needs. Steve leaves us with an uplifting statement: "My mission in life is to leave the soil in better condition than I found it."

    My one concern about this excellent series is its lack of stress on the ultimate source of most of the difficulties presented in the documentary, our ever increasing population. I would like to see this fine production team now turn its attention to this profound and politically sensitive problem. -- Gerry Rising