TBS hour puts environmental crisis into perspective


When Jimmy Carter was trying to convince the country to end its dependence on foreign oil -- something he clearly failed to do as recent events around the Persian Gulf attest -- he called on America to view its assault on the energy problem as "the moral equivalent of war."

That might have been an inappropriate analogy at the time since the most recent war was the one in Vietnam and that came complete with muddled morality. Carter was clearly thinking about his rite-of-passage war, World War II, and the way in which the country bonded as it went after its common enemy.

The analogy has a better chance these days in a country flush with pride at having routed an immoral enemy in Iraq. An interesting program that airs tonight at 8:05 on cable super station TBS, Channel 17, tries to take advantage of that feeling by recasting Carter's call in both a more general and more specific way.

"Top Guns and Toxic Whales," a co-production of the Better World Society and England's Central Television, is more general in that it asks for a war-like commitment not only in regards to our profligate ways with energy, but in dealing with the whole gamut of environmental crises facing our world.

And this hour is more specific in that it compares the money we spend on military hardware to what it would cost to launch an attack on these ecological problems. Just as important, it also points out how rectifying these problems would help eliminate the need for fighting in the future.

As a segment near the beginning of the hour points out, in the past, our wars were fought for reasons of ideology. But, the downfall of the East-West differences means that future wars are more likely to be fought over environmental clashes.

It constructs a plausible and frightening scenario in which Egypt engineers a coup in the Sudan and attacks Ethiopia over control of the supply of water in the Nile. A similar situation exists today between Turkey and Iraq over the Tigris and Euphrates. This program even contends that the Israeli tenacity in hanging onto the West Bank and the Golan Heights relates directly to access to the water of the Jordan.

Closer to home, "Top Guns and Toxic Whales" points out the fact that the United States drains practically every drop of water from the Colorado before it goes into Mexico is a constant source of tension between the two countries.

Indeed, this hour contends that environmental problems throughout Mexico -- from a variety of sources -- are ultimately the driving force behind the thousands who attempt illegal border crossings into the United States each year.

Then it asks us to think about the millions and millions of dollars spent annually to try -- for the most part unsuccessfully -- to keep the Mexicans from crossing the border. What if that money was instead spent on preserving and restoring the farmlands of Mexico so that people did not feel that they had to leave their barren lands to survive?

The documentary also repeats the amazing fact that more money flows from the undeveloped nations to the developed nations in the form of loan and interest payments than goes the other way in the form of aid. To meet those payments, the third world countries are committing all sorts of environmental plunder.

"Top Guns and Toxic Whales" takes its title from its two main images: a multi-million dollar Stealth fighter-bomber, the type so vaunted for its performance in Iraq, and a whale, that precious species of mammal that, as the narration by Anthony Hopkins points out, is in some areas classified as toxic because it has digested so many poisons that have made their way into the oceans.

Though laden with a didactic tone that is not at all alleviated by some clumsy, classroom-like computer graphics, "Top Guns and Toxic Whales" is a thought-provoking documentary that keeps its feet squarely planted in plausibility as it tries to get its viewers to adjust their points of view.

For generations, we have spent our resources to arm ourselves against the potential of invasion from another country that was spending its resources to guard against a similar attack. This hour tries to get us to see our common enemy -- environmental disaster -- and to convince us that if we would just spend a tiny fraction of the amount we spend on arms fighting the environmental battle then we would go a long way toward eliminating the need for those weapons in the future.

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