by Tom Valtin
In mid-January, ten Atlanta knitters gathered at the home of Sierra Club organizer Anna Swinson for a “Stitch & Bitch” party and to watch the first episode of a new TV series: Sierra Club Chronicles, from filmmaker Robert Greenwald. The episode, “9/11 Forgotten Heroes,” tells how the federal government has reneged on its pledge to help cover medical expenses for 9/11 first responders who have experienced health problems due to toxic pollution at Ground Zero.
The same evening, 2,500 miles to the west, the San Francisco Bay Chapter’s Energy Committee watched an advance screening of the series’ second episode, “The Day the Water Died,” about Exxon’s refusal to pay court-ordered punitive damages to residents of Cordova, Alaska, after the Valdez oil spill crippled the local economy. Near the beginning of “The Day the Water Died,” an Exxon spokesman assures Cordova residents four days after the spill that the company will do whatever it takes to “make them whole” again. But as we learn from Cordova fishermen, businesspeople, scientists, and civic leaders, the company has done nothing of the sort.
For 16 years, Exxon—now ExxonMobil—has appealed the case again and again and used every legal maneuver at its disposal to wriggle off the hook. Meanwhile, 2,000 plaintiffs in Alaska whose livelihoods were wrecked or hamstrung by the Valdez spill have died without seeing a penny of the court-ordered recompense. In late January, as ExxonMobil’s record 2005 profits of $37 billion were making front-page news, the company appealed yet again in the U.S. 9th Circuit Court to avoid paying punitive damages.
Sierra Club Chronicles is the latest project by Greenwald, whose 2005 film, Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price, attracted hundreds of thousands of Americans to home screenings and continues to keep Wal-Mart’s PR brain trust scrambling to do damage control. The new series captures the David vs. Goliath stories of ordinary Americans, such as small-town Mississippi residents going up against a corporate giant to improve lax safety practices at a local chemical plant (Episode 3), or New Mexico ranchers fighting back against mining operations that are poisoning their water and killing their cattle (Episode 4).
Sierra Club Chronicles debuted January 19 on Link TV, a public broadcast satellite channel whose mission is to “engage, educate, and activate viewers to become involved in the world.” Hosted by Daryl Hannah, the 7-episode series airs the second Thursday of each month through July, at 8:30 PM Eastern and Pacific. Sierra Club members around the country are hosting house parties to get people talking about the issues explored in the series.
But you don’t have to have satellite TV or watch on Thursday nights. Both Swinson, who hosted the Atlanta Stitch & Bitch, and the Bay Chapter Energy Committee ordered a free DVD from Sierra Club Productions, which created the series with Greenwald’s production company, Brave New Films.
“House parties are a great way to get to know people in your local environmental community,” says Swinson. “We surveyed our members, and a lot of people said they like to knit while they talk about politics—that’s where the idea of the Stitch & Bitch came from. Our first get-together was right before Christmas—folks knitted holiday scarves and talked about local environmental issues. It’s a fun community-building learning experience.”
Swinson invited inexperienced knitters to show up an hour early to learn the basics. The old hands arrived at 7:30, and after a potluck dinner, the whole crew got out their needles and yarn and settled in to watch “9/11 Forgotten Heroes.”
“People were outraged that the government would lie to people about the environmental hazards at Ground Zero, and then vote to withdraw the aid they’d allocated to help first responders,” says Georgia Chapter Vice Chair Julie Stuart, who attended the Stitch & Bitch. The sierraclub.org/tv Web address appears on-screen several times during each episode of Chronicles, and activists who go to the Web site will find a list of ways to take action. For example, viewers of “The Day the Water Died” are urged not to purchase ExxonMobil’s gas or products or invest in ExxonMobil stock, and to write to the company’s CEO explaining why. Sample letters are provided, and e-mails can be sent directly from the Web site with a click of the mouse.
Greenwald says one of the things he hopes to convey in the series is that people can do something about environmental problems. “The common thread in all these films is, ‘Here’s a story, and with community involvement, something can be done,’” he told the Planet in January. “None of these are ‘the-sky-is-falling’ stories. These are problems with solutions.”
To read the interview with Greenwald, see sierraclub.org/tv/greenwald. To learn more about Sierra Club Chronicles, order a free DVD, and get info on hosting a house party, go to sierraclub.org/tv. Link TV is broadcast on DIRECTV channel 375 and Dish Network channel 9410. Sierra Club Chronicles runs back-to-back with The ACLU Freedom Files, also produced by Greenwald’s Brave New Films, in association with the American Civil Liberties Union.
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