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As Earth Day approaches, GFI intern Isabella Lyle-Durham shares her thoughts on the global environmental landscape in both the Global Lens 2013 film SHYAMAL UNCLE TURNS OFF THE LIGHTS and reality…

On April 22nd, Earth Day, we dedicate 24 hours, as a global society, to thinking about our physical future.  And sometimes that “thinking” means we step away from the rhetoric, and into films like SHYAMAL UNCLE TURNS OFF THE LIGHTS—shining a light not just on what we can do to preserve the earth, but also on how what we’re currently doing may not be working and may actually contradict the idea of ‘conservation.’

SHYAMAL UNCLE TURNS OFF THE LIGHTS exposes us to the ironic world of a city with tight restrictions on resources such as water and electricity (in the film, the water supply does not turn on until 7 A.M. and there is a curfew every night for household electricity), and no limitations on streetlight use. This sort of contradiction is evident in countries around the world. In this way the film transports an unintentional mirror; while failures and struggles in a system are frequently associated with undeveloped and underdeveloped countries, in reality these struggles reflect on a global scale. There are inherent contradictions in conservation practices around the world.

SHYAMAL UNCLE TURNS OFF THE LIGHTS, Global Lens 2013,  tells the story of Shyamal Uncle, an 80-year-old retiree living in the center of Kolkata, as he embarks on a quest to turn off wasteful street lights that remain on during the day.

SHYAMAL UNCLE TURNS OFF THE LIGHTS, Global Lens 2013, tells the story of Shyamal Uncle, an 80-year-old retiree living in the center of Kolkata, as he embarks on a quest to turn off wasteful street lights that remain on during the day

In many areas of India currently, energy isn’t being used efficiently and there is an acute water shortage and other resource scarcity. One of the biggest misuses of water is the excessive pumping of groundwater, especially in India, which relies on large-scale industrialized agriculture to feed its huge population. Measures are being taken to combat this phenomenon in Gujarat, one of India’s northern states. Gujarat is set to potentially use the existing 19,000 km-long system of Narmada canals across the state for setting up solar panels to generate power, while maintaining water flow in the region. Because these solar panels are directly over the canals, no land is being uprooted meaning about 11,000 acres of land can be conserved. The amount of energy from the sun that falls on the earth’s surface is enormous. To put things in perspective, all the energy stored in the earth’s reserves of coal, oil, and natural gas is matched by the energy from just twenty days of sunshine. 

Here in the United States, there is a culture of conservation contradictions. For example, driving seemingly environmentally friendly cars to go buy a case of bottled water at the grocery store is a daily occurrence that is harmful to the environment. But the problem isn’t the water – it’s the use of resources. It takes a lot of oil to make all those little bottles and ship them, sometimes halfway around the world. Plastic water bottles produced for U.S. consumption take 1.5 million barrels of oil per year, according to a 2007 resolution passed by the U.S. Conference of Mayors. The amount of energy that goes into bottling water for the United States could also power 250,000 homes or fuel 100,000 cars for a year. Doug James, a Cornell University professor and environmentalist, said the irony of bottled water is that people think that it is clean and healthy when its production contributes to unnecessary environmental degradation. James used the example of Fiji water: “A one-liter bottle is taken out of the aquifer of this little island, and shipped all the way across the world, producing like half a pound of greenhouse gases so you can have this one-liter bottle of water,” he said in a USA TODAY interview.

Bottled water

Just a few bottled water companies

Water consumption in the US takes another ironic turn. In big Texas cities, even with the state’s water shortage, the golf courses are still green, as well as people’s lawns. Some places do have restrictions, for example, El Paso residents pay fines if the sprinklers in their front yards accidentally water the streets and in Austin, watering the yard is restricted to one or two days per week. But in the suburbs, where a lot of voters live in houses surrounded by grass, water restrictions are a touchy subject. The “keeping up with Joneses” mentality pervades in these areas. Instead of having a perfect lawn, areas where drought is common should focus on a better yard given the environment they’re in. One method that accomplishes this is xeriscaping, which involves planting drought tolerant plants in places where lawn used to exist. This is, by far, a more comprehensive solution to the problem of water shortage.

A 'xeriscaped' garden. Photo from    organicfarmingblog.com

A ‘xeriscaped’ garden. Photo from organicfarmingblog.com

The universal misuse of resources and the ironic nature of these conservation practices appear in landscapes as different, but also as similar as India and the United States. Films like SHYAMAL UNCLE TURNS OFF THE LIGHTS touch on the conservation contradictions that occur in the world today and bring us back to the human condition. This film, and films in general, create a mirror that can reflect these issues and create a platform for discussion. Shyamal Uncle is relentless on his mission, talking to locals and going from government official to government official in hopes of changing the system. From a community scale to a global one, human foibles are universal and it is important to be aware of this factor, for it connects everyone.

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