Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Last Call At The Oasis

Illustration for article titled Last Call At The Oasis

Ismail Serageldin, a former vice president of the World Bank, famously predicted that the wars of the 21st century would be fought not over oil but for water, a non-renewable resource for which there is no alternative. And while Jessica Yu’s documentary Last Call At The Oasis downplays that particular claim, it offers plenty of reasons to panic about the future availability of H20. Or rather, make that clean, drinkable water, since what’s at stake is not just the availability of water but its usability: Your taps may work, but that’s no guarantee that the clear liquid that flows out isn’t contaminated with anything from industrial solvents to herbicides that have caused frogs to change sex.

Focusing overwhelmingly on water-related issues in the U.S.—and thereby paying only glancing heed to the spread of waterborne illnesses and the privatization of the water supply in developing nations—Last Call targets a country that is still largely isolated (or at least believing itself to be) from the looming global crisis. Where European regulatory agencies operate according to the precautionary principle, whereby a chemical must be proved safe before being introduced into the environment, in the U.S. the situation is reversed, which in practice means that long-term harm must be caused before it’s addressed.

Such short-term thinking gives us the so-called “Halliburton loophole,” which exempts hydraulic fracturing—where chemical-laced fluid is used to free natural gas from rock and then drains into the water supply—from the Safe Water Drinking Act. (The regulatory blind spot owes its name to the fact that it was shepherded through Congress under then-Vice President, and former Halliburton chair, Dick Cheney.) But it’s not just the government, or the perpetually understaffed and legislatively hamstrung Environmental Protection Agency. The same vice afflicts journalists and commentators who cast the restriction of water resources in California’s San Joaquin Valley as an attempt to place the interests of a three-inch fish called the delta smelt over those of the region’s farmers. And it manifests in the reactions of passers-by who blanch when the filmmakers raise the subject of drinking recycled sewer water, which is cleaner and more strictly regulated than bottled water.

Unfortunately, Last Call At The Oasis isn’t exempt from cloistered thinking. In its zeal to sell the subject to an American audience—the film was produced by Participant Productions, funders of agitprop like An Inconvenient Truth and Food, Inc.—the movie all but neglects the rest of the world, where water-related issues of life and death are no longer a matter for speculation. Although it doesn’t boast Last Call’s production values (or a Jack Black cameo), the documentary Flow: For The Love Of Water does a far more comprehensive and ultimately sobering job of covering the whole planet and not just one privileged corner of it. It’s true that Americans contribute disproportionately to the problem, but catering to the idea that we’re separate from the rest of the world isn’t part of the solution.