30 November 2009

Turk Pipkin : A Simple Truth... or Two

Turk Pipkin with students at Mahiga Primary School in Kenya.

One Peace at a Time:
A simple truth… or two

By Turk Pipkin / The Rag Blog / November 30, 2009

With the problems of the world appearing more challenging with each passing year, there has never been a greater need for simple truths that can guide us to a better way. Shooting my new film One Peace at a Time in 20 countries gave me the opportunity to interview brilliant people who share a common trait -- the ability to cut to the heart of the matter.

“We are not the last generation on this planet,” Nobel Peace laureate Muhammad Yunus told me from his Grameen Bank office in Dhaka, Bangladesh. “We have to think about Generation Number Two after us, and about Generation One Hundred after us.”

Having dedicated his life to bringing millions of people out of extreme poverty, Yunus has benefitted both from his long-term view, and by making his work easy to understand. Imagine that you’re a village woman who wants a microloan to start a small business to support your children. In addition to repaying the loan, you have to agree to grow fresh vegetables year-round, to feed your children fresh vegetables every day, and to keep them in school. In the past 30 years, that simple deal has brought millions of Bangladeshi families out of extreme poverty (while dramatically reducing malnutrition and Night Blindness caused by Vitamin A deficiency).

Here’s a simple truth that’s considerably less inspiring. There are a billion people on earth who don’t have access to clean water.

One Peace at a Time opens at Austin’s Arbor Cinema this Friday, December 4, continuing through the 10th, and will be bouncing around the country between now and its DVD release in April. You can watch the trailer, which is loaded with simple truths from Yunus, Willie Nelson and many others, at www.nobelity.org.
My film looks at the possibility of providing basic rights to every child. I spent three years shooting this film in a lot of places where children have very limited access to clean water, adequate nutrition, healthcare, education or opportunity. That may sound like a wall-to-wall bummer, but I’m willing to wager that One Peace at a Time is one of the most inspiring films you’ll ever see. Like the Ben Harper song that carries the trailer, there is A Better Way.

From halfway around the world, it’s not easy to imagine any way to provide basic rights for every child. But if you look closely at communities where simple solutions are already working, the possibilities are astounding. Consider the Austin-based nonprofit, A Glimmer of Hope, which works to bring Ethiopians out of poverty by partnering on integrated development -- water, education, healthcare and opportunity.

Water is the foundation on which the others are built. For eight dollars a person, Glimmer has provided a clean and reliable source of water for well over a million Ethiopians, reducing infant mortality rates and water-borne illnesses, and enabling women to trade a life of lugging water for a life of education and productivity. Nearly 3000 of these water projects have been hand-dug wells.

“We buy the pump; they dig the wells,” Glimmer’s founder Philip Berber told me at a new well celebration in Northern Ethiopia. My daughter’s photo of a group of Ethiopian boys welcoming us shows one of the boys holding a hand-painted sign that says, “Water is life.”

Photo by Katie Rose Pipkin / The Rag Blog.

“It’s about people,” Philip Berber told me as he examined the school report card of a boy who hadn’t missed a single day of school. “You think it’s about projects, but it’s not, it’s about people.”

Having watched wells go dry in much of Texas, I was skeptical of the long-term success of Glimmer’s large-scale well digging. But Ethiopians, as it turns out, are smarter with their water resources than Texans. The same people who benefit from those wells also participate in the Food for Work programs that pay one meal a day for workers who build mountainside terraces and other simple structures that catch the rain water, prevent soil erosion and increase the amount of water going into the aquifers. More wells doesn’t have to mean depleted aquifers.

Water is life. That’s why Ethiopia has educated vast numbers of hydrologists to coordinate this work. With America facing dire water shortages in the coming decades -- particularly in the American West where climate change is greatly reducing the snowpack and threatens to destroy the world’s most productive agriculture economy -- perhaps we should take a Generation 2-to-100 view of our education priorities and our response to climate change. Do we need more investment bankers or do we need more scientists?

Everywhere I show the new film, young people tell me that instead of working on Wall Street, they’d like to engage with the world through a non-profit or NGO. Can our nation harness their talent and energy in a partnership that restores America’s reputation as the world’s greatest beacon of hope while bringing meaningful change to people in need?

I have another photo of a simple truth -- this one from the Shia Festival of Muharram in Calcutta. I was told that hanging with 200,000 Muslims in the wake of America’s fiascos in Afghanistan and Iraq was too dangerous for an American. But here I am with a group of smiling teens, one of them wearing a t-shirt that reads, “If you are looking for a big opportunity, seek out a big problem!”

Photo by Vance Holmes / The Rag Blog.

Replicating A Glimmer of Hope’s work with communities in need across the planet is a tremendous opportunity. At the Glimmer rate, we’d need $8 billion dollars to tackle the water challenge alone. That’s a big sum, but only half of what America spends on bottled water each year. The enormous negative impacts of bottled water include massive amounts of energy, and millions of tons of carbon emissions for transporting the water. All this when almost all Americans already have a clean source of water. (Don’t like the chlorine in municipal water? Build a rainwater system and you’ll be drinking the purest water possible.)

With a plastic recycling rate of 23%, Americans toss 38 billion polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic bottles into landfills each year. Those bottles are made from oil, and making them creates even more carbon emissions. Glass bottles are much heavier and require even more energy to make and transport them. And where do we obtain the raw materials for the glass?

I was visiting The Nobelity Project’s tree-planting partnership in Southern Kenya, and had my first look at Tata India’s soda ash factory operating on the shore of Lake Magadi. Magadi is one of the prime breeding grounds of East Africa’s 4 million pink flamingos, and I was expecting to see perhaps a million flamingos. Instead I found a train track laid across the dry lake bottom and heavy industrial equipment mining the soda ash that comes up with the hot mineral waters that used to sustain the flamingos. Lake Magadi is already imperiled by reduced rainfall resulting from climate change and from deforestation due to illegal logging for producing charcoal. Add long man-made dikes that split the lake in half to enable a massive level of mineral extraction and the result is a potential for disaster. Instead of a million flamingos at Magadi, after two days of searching, we finally found a hundred.

By now you’ve probably concluded that the soda ash being mined from the lake is used to make glass bottles. A ton of new glass requires 400 pounds of soda ash. And the world blasts through a lot of glass, primarily because the great majority of us are too lazy to recycle. So how’s this simple truth for an advertising slogan? Tap water – the source that doesn’t kill pink flamingos when you drink it.

The world is not likely to ban bottled water. We’ve seen over and over that jobs for Generation 1 trump sustainability for Generation 2-100. But maybe it’s time for some Lasik surgery on our short-term vision. For the sustainability of the world, the price of all products -- including bottled water, glass and plastic -- must include their real costs to every generation, from Gen 1 to Gen 100.

To make that a reality, America needs a nationwide deposit law on glass and plastic bottles. You want to throw it away anyway? Fine, but you’ll have to pay for the privilege. In an ideal world, a small portion of that deposit money would go to provide clean drinking water for children in the developing world.

The new wells in their communities could each have a sign with a small American flag on it. That would create more friends and greater security in the world than the trillions we spend on weapons and war.

I’ve lately been hearing that our response to climate change should be adaptation to the new conditions. That may sound innovative but what about the Masai people whose way of life is being destroyed by diminishing rainfall? Or the tens of millions of Bangladeshis who will be displaced from their low-lying homes by rising sea levels. How do they adapt?

“For us it is a life and death issue,” Muhammad Yunus told me as the Muezzin sang the call to prayer outside his office window in Dhaka.

“It’s not only my life,” he concluded. “I have to think about my children’s life, and my grandchildren’s life and their grandchildren’s life. From that I have to decide what I have to do.”

[Turk Pipkin is an Austin-based writer, actor, and filmmaker, and the director of the new feature documentary, One Peace at a Time, which looks at the possibility of providing basic rights to every child. He is the author of 10 books including the New York Times bestseller, The Tao of Willie, which Turk coauthored with American music legend, Willie Nelson. Turk's acting work includes the feature films Friday Night Lights and A Scanner Darkly, and a recurring role in HBO's The Sopranos. Turk also directed the feature documentary, Nobelity, and is the co-founder of the education and action nonprofit, The Nobelity Project, online at www.nobelity.org.]
  • Turk Pipkin will be Thorne Dreyer's guest on Rag Radio Tuesday, December 1, from 2-3 p.m. on KOOP 91.7 FM in Austin. To stream the show online, go here.

  • From December 4-9, Turk Pipkin will have an audience Q&A following the evening screenings of One Peace at a Time at Austin’s Arbor Cinema. Learn more about the film and about The Nobelity Project’s work to build Mahiga Hope High School in Kenya, at www.nobelity.org
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