THE BLOG

Saving The Bay (It's The Ecology, Stupid!)

04/12/2011 04:34 am ET | Updated Jun 11, 2011

When I first saw Stanley Kramer's 1959 movie, On The Beach, I was living on the East Coast and had no idea what San Francisco looked like. However, a few years ago, I decided to TiVo the film to see how well it stood the test of time.

In particular, I wanted to watch the scenes in which the submarine Sawfish surfaced in San Francisco Bay. As they look through the periscope, the crew can see the empty streets of San Francisco's financial district where there are no moving vehicles or signs of human life.

Why not? By that point, every creature in North America has succumbed to nuclear radiation. Once a thriving port city, San Francisco has become a ghost town whose hills lack their legendary hustle and bustle.

The tragic news coming from Japan has led many media outlets to speculate on worst case scenarios for the future of northern Japan. One scenario predicts that an area around Fukushima as large as several Northeastern states could become a totally uninhabitable "dead zone." Another theorizes what might happen if a radioactive cloud drifted north to Sapporo (population 1.9 million) or south and southwest toward:

  • Tokyo (population 13 million)
  • Yokohama (population 3.6 million)
  • Osaka (population 2.66 million)
  • Kyoto (population 1.46 million)
  • Fukuoka (population 1.46 million)
  • Hiroshima (population 1.17 million)

Further to the west lie Korea and China, with millions more. The following newsclip, shows what downtown Melbourne looked like after being evacuated for a scene in On The Beach.

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With Republicans doing their very best to roll back every advance ever made in the pursuit of environmental protection, it's hard not to look out at San Francisco Bay and think about the horror that might have been. Although the brunch I'm thinking about took place nearly 35 years ago, I remember the moment with frightening clarity.

I was sitting with some friends who were entertaining visitors from Los Angeles when one of the Los Angelenos smugly stated "You people here in San Francisco are crazy. You should just level all of those hills and build out into the Bay!"

Having only arrived in San Francisco in 1972 and been awed by the beauty of the local topography, I was shocked by the woman's callous disregard for nature. What I did not know was that, in the 1950s and 1960s, developers were desperately trying to reclaim land with such a frenzy that San Francisco Bay might have been reduced to a shadow of its former glory.

Written by Miles Saunders and produced by Ron Blatman (with some stunning cinematography by Kit Tyler), Saving the Bay is not your typical nature documentary. While it examines the geological changes that have shaped San Francisco Bay from the last Ice Age until the present, it also focuses on the Bay's unfortunate years of exploitation as people thoughtlessly dumped all kinds of garbage and sewage into its waters.

Hailed as the second most important estuary in the United States (after Chesapeake Bay), San Francisco Bay has continually made history. Did you know that:

  • The volume of water per second moving out of the Bay and through the Golden Gate to the Pacific Ocean is up to seven times that of the Mississippi River flowing into the Gulf of Mexico.
  • Following the discovery of gold near Sutter's Mill on January 24, 1848, San Francisco became the point of debarkation for ships carrying men hoping to strike it rich. Within a short period, its quiet harbor was cluttered with hundreds of clipper ships.
  • Completed in 1936, the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and Golden Gate Bridge (completed in 1937) dramatically altered patterns of transportation in Northern California.
  • Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the Kaiser Shipyards in Richmond, California produced 747 ships. One Liberty ship was assembled in less than five days!
  • One of America's most beautiful harbors, San Francisco Bay is also the most invaded aquatic ecosystem in North America.
  • A critical link in the Pacific Flyway for millions of migrating birds, San Francisco Bay is home to the first National Bird Sanctuary (Oakland's Lake Merritt), the last urban fishery (herring), and the largest urban national park in the country (Golden Gate National Recreation Area).

Narrated by Robert Redford, Saving The Bay chronicles man's impact on San Francisco Bay over the past 350 years. It covers a period from when the Bay area boasted a wealth of untouched marshes and wetlands to the Bay's transformation into a world-class port for container ships. Most important, it shows how the efforts of three pioneering and well-connected women to save San Francisco Bay transformed the region -- and our nation -- into a more environmentally conscious society. Saving The Bay consists of the following four one-hour segments:

  • Marvel of Nature (Prehistory-1848) describes the geological history of the Bay, its early inhabitants, and shows how the Gold Rush changed the Bay's importance to California and the nation.
  • Harbor of Harbors (1849-1906) shows how the sudden spectacular growth following the Gold Rush turned San Francisco into a major economic center for the Pacific Ocean and, partly due to the building of the Transcontinental Railroad, introduced new species to the environment. It discusses the Chinese shrimp fishery, the oaks of Oakland, and the dangerous introduction of mercury into the Bay's waters as a result of mining activities.
  • Miracle Workers (1906-1959) depicts how the Great Earthquake and Fire of 1906 sent much of the population over to the East Bay. It also details the first water redistribution projects, the erection of San Francisco Bay's two world-famous bridges, the critical role the Richmond Shipyards played in World War II, and the early attempts to fill in large portions of the Bay.
  • Bay in the Balance (1960-Present) follows the birth of the Save The Bay campaign in the 1960s, which led to the birth of a national movement for conservation, environmental preservation, ecological social networking, and smarter urban planning.

To coincide with Earth Week, Saving the Bay will be broadcast nationally in prime time on PBS beginning Wednesday evening April 20, 2011 at 10pm and continuing for the next three Wednesday evenings. Here's the official trailer:

To read more of George Heymont go to My Cultural Landscape