Poster for the movie "DamNation"

G 5 StarDamnation opens with one mind-boggling stat. The are currently 75,000 dams in the United States over three feet high. That’s one dam per day since Thomas Jefferson was in office. The film is a story of the history of dams and then moves to ask the question have some of them outlived their usefulness?

Here’s what I was expecting from the film – a far left cry from the wilderness that we should remove all dams and return the United States to her ‘natural state’. That dams represented all that was evil in the world and man’s encroachment upon nature. That the energy and flood control that dams provide were overstated and these long-haired hippies just wanted to bring industrial America to her knees.

Here’s what I got…pretty much none of that.

Directors Ben Knight (who also narrates the film) and Travis Rummel give an incredibly fair film about the issue and do so with some of the most beautiful cinematography I’ve seen.

Ben states in the opening of the films that dams played a pivotal role in the resurrection of the American economy but like all technology, it was pushed to far. As DamNation rolls through how national parks were flooded and many early dams failed under poor designs, it is also records how American policy often contradicted its practice of damming every river in sight.

As Congress passed endangered species acts and conservation laws to protect national parks, the Army Corp of Engineers and Bureau of Reclamation were still building dams at an incredible pace. In 1995, things finally came to head and a major movement to remove obsolete dams began in earnest. President Clinton appointed Dan Beard as his man to lead the Bureau of Reclamation. Beard proved to be instrumental in removing dams that were blocking salmon from spawning upstream.

DamNation insists that are many more dams that are obsolete and they have the stats to back it up. An obsolete dam is one that consumes more energy than it produces or could be easily replaced by wind farms. As our modes of transporting goods has improved with highways, railways, and air cargo, the need for a dam and lock system on many of our rivers is now completely unnecessary.

What’s really at stake in all of this? Knight and Rummel present a nuanced, articulate case that it’s more than just a bunch of hippies longing for a return to the natural order of things. It’s about the survival of Native American cultures who for centuries centered their cultures around the spawning sockeye. It’s about allowing these fish to spawn and create enough fish to feed the world. It’s about making sure that our ancestors will be able to enjoy these rivers. It’s about making sure nature’s way of replacing sediment on our coasts is allowed to run its course instead of blocking it all behind dams.

The film acknowledges the counter argument to all of this. The dams provide flood control to America’s watersheds, they minimize the effect of drought seasons, and they create waterways for recreation and commerce. DamNation is quick to note – it’s not that all dams are bad or need to be removed but to continue to fight for the lives of every dam in the country is short-sighted at best, suicidal to the species at worst.

There is a larger cost involved in maintaining all these dams – destroying cultures, natural parks, fish populations, coastlines, and beautiful venues for generations to come.

The film captivated me. It dares to ask what role do we as humans have in nature? Our history shows us to be destructive but isn’t it possible to one day be a redemptive force? Could this plan of destroying obsolete dams work to bringing back the salmon population in the Pacific Northwest?

They present a compelling argument and they present it very well. The cinematography is gorgeous. We get period photos showing the landscape impact that dams have had. We get interviews and candid conversations from both sides of the issue. The filmmakers stay mostly in the Pacific Northwest and even get themselves in a little trouble doing the research for the film.

One of the more provocative segments of the film is the story of Glen Canyon. In 1956, approval was given to dam the canyon to create Lake Powell. A group of archeologists and river runners set off into the canyon before the work was started to document more than 250 culturally significant sites to Native American history as well as the over 125 side canyons that the new lake would destroy. Katie Lee, a folk singer/Hollywood starlet/activist was one of those runners. Katie tells her story with photos and videos that they took on that journey. She was in her 30’s, posed nude in the canyon to illustrate that mankind was once again destroying Eden and as she talks about it today at age 95 it is hard to imagine that she has lost any of her spunk, fire, or grit.

Katie’s words of ‘destroying Eden’ struck a chord with me. I’m ashamed when I think about how little attention Christ-followers give the environment. I realize I am speaking in generalities and that’s always a dangerous proposition but it can’t be denied that environmental issues tend to get a back seat to other issues of morality.

While I do believe that a human life is more valuable than a fish’s, I’d be just as quick to point out that this doesn’t mean that the fish has no value. God created this fragile planet and put humanity responsible for care of it. If we take care of her, she’ll take care of us. God put this relationship as core to our existence just as he put the man/woman relationship as core. We are stewards of His creation and that charge I believe consistently is undervalued by many of us.

In DamNation, we get a beautiful film that elevates an issue that humanity could play a redemptive role in instead of destroyer.

And I don’t think that makes me a long-haired hippie. Not that there is anything wrong with that.


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