Imagine the following work scenario:
Staffer: “It’s complicated. It involves balancing environmental protection, jobs, and acoustic guitars. We need somebody who understands nuance; somebody who understands the complex issues of our day. Who, boss? Who could do something so incredibly difficult?”
Boss: “Clint. Give it to Clint. He’ll know what to do.”
That work scenario … has never happened.
I don’t want to have to think about the complex issues of our day. That’s why I write about movies.
So imagine my horror when told I have to watch this weekend’s movie at the Goldtown Nickelodeon, “Musicwood”. First off, “Musicwood” pits forest conservationists against Sealaska. Great. How am I going to write a synopsis of this movie that, by association, risks burning bridges with one of the most powerful entities in Alaska? Not that I’m aware of any bridges I may have with Sealaska, but still, you know, I don’t want to burn any bridges that I don’t even know I have yet. You understand.
On the other side, you guessed it, are guitar makers. Okay, so maybe you didn’t guess it, but that’s who the film follows. CEOs of the nation’s leading guitar making companies form a coalition called Musicwood. The Musicwood coalition tries to convince Sealaska to adopt sustainable forestry as defined by the Forest Service Council. Basically, quit clear cutting and adopt a slower pace of logging.
Sitka Spruce make the beautiful sound boards that front the guitars made by Gibson, Martin, and Taylor companies. Their long-term business interests require a long-term source of Sitka Spruce.
I’ll give this environmental documentary credit. The film does not use, entirely, the tired narrative of friction between corporate fascists and communist greenies. Instead, we get CEO versus CEO; business versus business. Two groups of capitalists with different designs on this forest we call home.
And that’s how Greenpeace wants it. Yes, Greenpeace is in the mix too. They’re smart enough to know they’re going to be ignored if they have concerns with clear cutting. So they go about finding businesses dependent on a small supply of old growth timber, and that’s where the guitar companies come in. It’s not a bad strategy, except…
You can imagine how excited various board members of Sealaska were with a bunch of outsiders suggesting to them how to manage their forests. Despite their reservations, the board initially worked well with the Musicwood coalition. How that working relationship pans out is the main story arc of the film.
Lots of Big Questions are touched upon in this film. What right do outsiders have to demand changes from a company doing a legal and permitted business on its own property? And when you consider that corporation provides jobs and dividends to a historically marginalized people, what right do Greenpeace and the guitar makers think they have to say anything to a group who only so recently acquired a smidge of economic and political power?
On the other hand, is Sealaska the voice of its Native Alaskan shareholders? As a shareholder in Hydaburg put it, “joining a corporation shouldn’t be confused with being part of the culture.” In that vein, the film is part of the ongoing assessment of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA). Did ANCSA empower Native cultures with money and land so tribes could better flourish in a western dominated society? Or did ANCSA commodify a culture, or more precisely, the natural resources that ground a culture, into things that can be bought and sold. Was there even an option other than ANCSA? It’s not like Native Alaskans were given much choice. In my reading of history, ensuring a political voice for Native Alaskans in 1971 required incorporation. It shouldn’t be surprising then, the decades long push since ANCSA for more recognition of tribal governments over corporate boards.
There was one question the film should have asked but didn’t, however. Are there enough buyers of FSC certified wood to move Sealaska away from the efficiency and profit margin of clear cutting? Clearly the film is sympathetic to the Greenpeace and guitar maker’s point of view. Fine. But I would have liked some more hard numbers on their predicament. As stated in the film, the wood that goes into making guitars is a fraction of a percent of the wood pulled out of the rainforest. From an economics perspective, that seems a terribly small percentage to try to sway corporate thinking. Other than a passing mention, there was little about how the Musicwood coalition would grow the FSC market. Is guitar making so cool that it can convince a major corporation to turn its back on millions in short term profits? An honorable quest perhaps, but quixotic.
One last point. Strong environmental protection is a function of democracy. Democratic countries tend to have better environmental protection relative to communist dictatorships, theocracies and whatever. That shouldn’t be surprising. People like to breathe and drink clean water. If you’re hacking up sooty phlegm and are fighting a bad case of giardia, it sort of saps your entrepreneurial spirit. Thus, democracies tend to have better economies too. So in a system where the regular folks vote, they vote for people who support reasonable controls on industry.
But that’s not the same as locking everything up. As in any decent democracy, you’ve got to debate. That’s exactly what’s going to happen this weekend. Question and answer periods will occur after the 5:30 p.m. show Friday and 4 p.m. show Saturday. Panelists will be the director and producer of “Musicwood”. Maybe somebody from Sealaska will be there too. Let’s (tree) hug it out.
And dear editor, could the next assignment be a romantic comedy where stuff gets blown up real good? Thanks.
• Clint J. Farr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.