Originally published at Stillwater Historians, February 27, 2014.
As my students are no doubt sick of hearing me say, my Environmental Issues and Insights course is very much about the collisions between science, policy, personal and communal economy, and culture. And because of my own disciplinary orientation I am drawn to case studies that have played out in the past and what they might tell us about the stormy present. Meanwhile, my history students are similarly weary of hearing me tell them that history has as much to do with the present as the past.
As good fortune would have it, that very history class meets in the evenings in the basement classroom of the Unity College Center for the Performing Arts—which also hosts an amazing film series in collaboration with the Camden International Film Festival and its founder, and fellow Unity instructor, Ben Fowlie. A couple weeks back I blew the whistle on class a bit early so my students, and their instructor could take in the film being screened upstairs. It was called Uranium Drive-In, directed by Suzan Beraza of Reel Thing Films. After the film Fowlie orchestrated a short Skype Q&A with Beraza, who took questions from students and faculty in the audience.
The film could easily find a place in the curriculum of any environmental studies course and for that matter any course in modern U.S. History, environmental or otherwise, as well. It centers on two communities in southwestern Colorado that grew abruptly in the mid twentieth century as technology created a marketplace for uranium, which the western slope of Colorado’s Rockies have in abundance. In the industry’s heyday, the product was so valuable and in such high demand that promotion of productive capacity outweighed concerns for worker safety. We had become aware of both the destructive military potential and the generative civilian energy-making potential of uranium—but hadn’t yet fully appreciated the devastating effects it might have on humans who came into contact with it, both directly and indirectly through ground and surface water contamination. The film depicts a community in which the suffering created by the uranium industryits dangerous health effects, felt across generations, and the economic torture of its rapid growth and equally abrupt flight when high profile nuclear accidents and scares depressed the market for uraniumis profound. Somewhat shockingly though, much of the local community favors nuclear power and the siting of a new uranium mill outside their community, which will stimulate the reopening of the many mines in the surrounding hills. Their economic desperation is such that they are driven back into the arms of the very industry that created their plight in the first place.
In another interesting twist, that dramatizes nicely for students why environmental problems are so complex and difficult to unravel, it is the much wealthier resort community of Telluride, some miles north, but within the same watershed, that objects to the siting of the mill. In an odd sort of reversed NIMBY-ism, advocacy groups create barriers through lawsuits and injunctions to the siting of the mill, arguing that the likely contamination of groundwater will affect them as well. But this creates a troubling class divide between the lower class residents of these long-downtrodden communities, and the wealthier elites who have the means to think more about water quality than about mortgage payments and how to keep the lights on. In the film, the company seeking to establish the new mill almost fades to the background as the conflict that emerges is between desperate communities willing to cast their lot with any scheme that will create jobs and relieve economic hardship, regardless of its dubious legacy, and the elite environmentalists who attempt to sympathize with their situation, but inevitably come off a bit aloof and inauthentic in their concern. As Beraza described, and her film makes clear, her objective here was not so much to take sides, but to demonstrate the problematic nature of the sides themselves and how good people with the best of intentions all, come into conflict with one another over our emerging environmental scenarios.
But the most profound element of the film for me was nostalgia. As an historian I suppose it’s impossible to not have a somewhat honed radar for people’s uses and manipulations of the past for their own purposes—whether motivated by capitalism, comfort, or pride. This film looks backwards and forwards at the same time, while reporting upon a very troubling present. Rather late in the film we are shown footage from an old drive-in movie theater, which was called, yes, the Uranium Drive-In. As it happened the heyday of the drive-in movie theater matched up quite nicely with the prosperity and opportunity (albeit with heavy costs) of the uranium industry. Later in the film, when it becomes clear that any immediate plans for siting the mill have been abandoned and the community recognizes it will need to look elsewhere for more modest forms of economic opportunity, they decide to resurrect the old sign that pointed to and announced the drive-in. I was unclear as to whether they intended to reopen a drive-in movie theater, or merely to celebrate the sign as a landmark and a commemorative symbol of more robust economic times.
Either way, there’s a compelling ambiguity in the film because I get the distinct impression we’re supposed to be inspired by this—to appreciate the community’s resilience. But what I get is the exact opposite! After sympathizing with their plight for more than an hour, it’s here that I want to smack these people around! Creating a monument to the uranium industry and its era is as stupid as creating a monument to a drive-in movie theater…and this was BOTH! Nostalgia is a powerful force and one that can hold communities together. But at a certain point, are we using it to hold together communities that shouldn’t exist any longer? Industries and economies shift. I recently heard someone say (though I can’t remember who or where or in what context) that when the automobile became mainstream no on cried for the guys who made buggy whips! At what point do we need to accept that the past is past and that future prosperity is possible, but sometimes not in the same places, and certainly not by the sheer force of willing it to be so. And certainly not by trying to resurrect industries that became obsolete for a collection of very practical reasons—as both uranium and drive-in movie theaters did! I have the same reaction when I see disaster footage on TV, and people four and five times bitten by forest fires, hurricanes, tornadoes and floods promising to rebuild, for no other reason than because it’s what they’ve always done!
Perhaps it’s ironic for a historian to sit here and rail against nostalgia—maybe it’s actually unsustainable to do so. It’s the nostalgic who tend to be most interested in the things me and my friends have to say! Nonetheless, who better to notice its effects and warn against its potential to apply counterproductive force? Is it odd for an historian to advocate looking forward and not back?
The trajectory of the film nicely encourages the viewer to get lost in paradoxes such as these and debate internally and externally, as I, sometimes haplessly, encourage my students to do, the ethical dilemmas that circulate just above our toughest environmental questions and conflicts. Uranium Drive-In is a fantastic film that uses emotion and story-telling to challenge viewers assumptions and priorities and encourage a greater appreciation for nuance, and the complex place that history occupies in the sensibilities of environmental actors.