What do Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and Indonesian Forests All Have in Common?

, , analyst, Tropical Forest & Climate Initiative | April 11, 2014, 4:41 pm EDT
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The answer, of course, is Harrison Ford. He stars in Showtime’s new dramatic documentary series on climate change Years of Living Dangerously, and deforestation due to palm oil is Ford’s latest crusade.

Indy in Indonesia

While the show premiers on Sunday, April 13 at 10 pm, the first episode is already available for a sneak peek. Episode one focuses in on three main storylines: Don Cheadle visits Texas to talk about drought, climate science, and religion; Thomas L. Friedman explores the role of drought in the civil war in Syria; and Ford visits Indonesia, traveling by seaplane, motorboat, elephant, and helicopter to see firsthand the havoc being wreaked upon tropical forests and peatlands by encroaching oil palm plantations.

When I watched the episode, I was especially pleased to see the focus on peat. I’ve been spending quite a bit of my time researching and writing (see another blog post!) about the importance of peat soils in carbon sequestration. As Ford explains, “The most remarkable and precious thing about this jungle is right under our feet.  What we’re walking on isn’t mud, it’s a thick layer of compressed, decaying vegetation called peat. Many of Indonesia’s forests sit on peat. And peat is full of carbon.” Well said, Indiana.

Harrison Ford

If watching Harrison Ford glide through a peat swamp forest in the rain inspires you to take action, please tell America’s biggest brands to only use palm oil that does not contribute to deforestation or peatland destruction.

“Never tell me the odds”

In my experience, it is much easier to get people excited about conserving forests filled with majestic elephants, tigers, and orangutans (or ewoks!) than it is to convey the importance of soil. Peat certainly is a lot less charismatic than animals, but the carbon stored in peat soils is an issue that everybody who cares about climate change should pay attention to. So I was interested to see how the show brought to life the peat story through Ford’s narration, core sampling, and conversations with experts.

In fact, the idea that some of the most urgent issues are also some of the most difficult to communicate is an issue the science community has been struggling with for years. Years of Living Dangerously itself is an effort to rethink how we tell the story of climate change. Too often we have seen documentaries pitch the urgency of climate change while boring its viewers and leaving them unmotivated to demand action. Years of Living Dangerously uses all of Hollywood’s magic to engage the audience including celebrities, high production value, suspenseful music, and personal stories.

But the other thing Years of Living Dangerously uses is science. Facts and statistics are peppered throughout the show, but my favorite part is the corresponding website. I explored the page dedicated to the palm oil story and found some (but not all) of the facts backed up with sources from which they drew their information. I appreciate the ability to tell a story while still ensuring the science is verifiable.

A New Hope?

It remains to be seen how successful this effort will be at changing the public conversation and engaging audiences around climate change. But because of the show, there is at least one convert who recognizes just how vital it is to ensure palm oil does not come at the expense of tropical forests or peat. Upon seeing vast expanses of an Indonesian national park clear cut for economic gain, Ford is outraged and wants to take someone to task for the devastation. As a foreshadowing of the second episode (and with a little bit of a Han Solo attitude) he exclaims, “I can’t wait to see the Minister of Forestry. I can’t wait.”

And you know what? I can’t wait to see that either.

Posted in: Global Warming, Science Communication, Tropical Forests Tags: , , , , ,

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  • Dear Lael,

    Great to see someone write about Peatland in Indonesia. We are very thankful that Years project show our project as an example. Please check out our website http://www.katinganproject.com

    • Lael Goodman

      So great to hear from you! Thank you for all the work you did on Years of Living Dangerously, but especially your day-to-day work protecting and restoring peatland in Kalimantan. I’ll continue to follow your work closely, and keep up the good work!

  • There’s a simple answer to climate change that’s been available all along. Really? You don’t believe me?
    The answer is to switch to a proven, cheaper, safer, CO2-free fuel that is also non toxic when used and would have saved, according to the WHO, seven million air pollution deaths last year.
    All internal combustion motors can be converted easily to run on NH3 fuel, which with new tech can be made anywhere from solar energy, wind and water.

    see here http://co2freefuelexistsnow.wordpress.com/

    So why not do it?? If UCS were to promote NH3 maybe it could finally take off.!!

    • Lael Goodman

      Thanks for your comment, Mike.

  • Lael,

    Read this with great interest because we, at the CFS’ Cool Foods Campaign, are amazed by soil and its incredible ability to hold carbon and are also thrilled that “Years of Living Dangerously” is highlighting peat. We’ve been using social media to spread the word about the soil/carbon connection, so do check us out on Twitter, Instagram, FB and Pinterest.
    Here is a blog I posted yesterday that compliments yours!


    Thanks for your good work!
    Diana Donlon, Director, Cool Foods Campaign, Center for Food Safety

    • Lael Goodman

      Thanks for reading and sharing your work, Diana- you make some great points in your blog. And I’m especially glad to know there are other peat champions out there!

  • Very powerful stuff. Kudos to the producers and actors who were brave enough to take part in this modern day exposé. I look forward to seeing and learning more about how the people of the planet, humanity as a whole, is being robbed of our very right to live healthy lives. It’s time we stood up as a race, the human race, for the rights that are ours — our inalienable right to live happy, healthy lives.

    • Lael Goodman

      Hear, hear! Thanks for reading!