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Stirring the Lawn Chemical Pot

(NOTE: This interview was conducted by Canadian journalist Mary Romanowski, who is allowing me to post it here)

An Interview with Activist Paul Tukey, Narrator of A Chemical Reaction

A new documentary film, A Chemical Reaction, is set to make the rounds at the film festival circuit for the next few months and then be released on DVD in 2010. Centering on the anti-pesticide movement that has swept across Canada in the past 20 years, the film asks a lot of important questions about lawns in the United States. We had a chance to sit down with one of the movie’s central characters and narrator for a behind-the-scenes look at why the film was made.

By Mary Romanowski

Q: Let’s start with the broad question. Why make A Chemical Reaction?

Paul Tukey: The director (Brett Plymale) and I get asked that question all the time now and I could go on an on with my answer. I guess I’d begin by saying that Al Gore was my motivation, or Al Gore’s movie, that is. The making of Inconvenient Truth was able to transform a relatively nondescript political player and an even more overlooked social issue. Suddenly Al Gore is giving the best acceptance speech at the Academy Awards and everyone is talking about global warming. I can’t think of a movie with more social impact in my lifetime. That’s how it is supposed to work when documentarians set out to make movies.

One of the early reviews of our movie in Canada set it off with the headline: An Inconvenient Lawn. I was thrilled that someone has already made that connection between our movie and his. I’m not so bold as to think our film will have the same impact that Al’s did; I’ll settle for half as much!

Q: How will you measure the impact or know if you are successful?

PT: A great question. Success in movies is measured in progressions. Just getting the story put down is one measure and I think Brett did a great job making a movie with absolutely no budget. That, alone, was sheer force of his will. Beyond that, you hope people go see it. So if we get into festivals, maybe get a distribution deal and sell some DVDs, or air it on a major cable network, that’s another measure. Ultimately, it does come back to why we made it and that motivation is the same, for me, whether I’m speaking in public or making this movie. It’s not enough for people to sit there and absorb what they are hearing and seeing. Success is measured by how many people take action when they leave the theatre, or their own livingrooms if they’re watching on DVD.

Here are just a few of the questions we hope they ask when they’re done watching: 1) If these lawn and garden chemicals are banned in Canada, why not in the United States? 2) If Home Depot of Canada has concluded it is a bad idea to sell lawn and garden chemicals, why does Home Depot in the U.S. still sell them? 3) Why did most states in the U.S. take away cities’ and towns’ right to decide whether or not to ban chemicals? 4) Why does the U.S. not honor the Precautionary Principle with respect to pesticides, when Canada and Europe long ago took the lead on this?

People need to take these questions back to their neighborhoods, to their political leaders. Often times, I find, members of the same household don’t agree. The wife will want a perfect lawn, but the husband would rather not spread toxic weed killers. Or vice versa. Most often it is the men who want the perfect lawn.

We’ll disseminate some take-action materials at the screenings and, of course, have them on our web sites etc.

Q: Will you know success when you see it?

PT: The truth is that it’s only a matter of time before the lawn and garden pesticide bans come to the U.S. in full force. In making the movie, we’re just trying to hasten the process. People are going organic. Today’s moms are worried about the impacts of pesticides on their children. So it’s coming. Jim Hagedorn, the president of Scotts Miracle-Go, knows it. The lobbyists for the chemical pesticide industry know it, too. They’re just trying to hold onto their jobs and market share for a few more years.

For me, personally, if someone calls me to speak and I can send the movie instead and have the same, or greater, impact, then I’m ahead of the game. I get to stay at home and play with my own kids on my organic lawn. I’ve visited 41 states and given essentially the same speech in the last four years. I can only do so much. But a successful movie has no limits in its reach.

Q: Can you be objective? Are you happy with the result?

PT: So many people will tell you that being your own critic is the most difficult thing in the world. The story on screen is the about Hudson’s ban in 1991 and what happened next, but it’s told through my voice and in my personal style. Anyone else might have done it a different way. I get the Michael Moore question a lot, meaning people want to know why we don’t show people slamming doors in our faces. Maybe the story, as we tell it, doesn’t have enough of that “gotcha!” impact for some people. Others, though, seem to like it and resonate with it.

So, yes, I am happy. Within our very meager means, we have a 75-minute movie that holds up well with just about any other documentary that I’ve seen in recent memory.

Q: You have been crusading against lawn chemicals for a long time. If you Google “Paul Tukey” or “organic lawn care,” you show up everywhere. It’s almost as if you and the movement are one and the same. Do you ever tire of the mission, of being the organic lawn guy?

PT: Like I say in the opening of the movie, I never set out to be an activist. When I got sick myself and later found out that people were getting sick from lawn chemicals that millions of people use every day, I figured somebody better speak out. When I looked around, no one else seemed to be saying anything, so I stepped up.

I consider myself a writer first and foremost, fundamentally a creative person. I have found ways to be creative within the mission of being a lawn care activist. I write every day. I shoot videos and made this movie. I meet amazing people.

Some day soon everyone in the United States will be caring for their lawns and landscapes organically. The fact is you can have an absolutely gorgeous landscape without the chemical fertilizers and pesticides. It’s a big job right now to teach everyone how. But soon enough there will be new challenges, new missions. Right now, though, I’m having too much fun to shift gears . . . Just tell everyone to come see the movie, OK? That will make my job easier!

About The Author

Paul Tukey

An international leader of the green movement, Mr. Tukey is a journalist, author, filmmaker, TV host, activist and award-winning public speaker, who is widely recognized as North America's leading advocate for landscape sustainability and toxic pesticide reduction strategies.

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