The Unforeseen
Hey! I can see my house from here! … Or is it that one over there? Or that one?

Theatrical Release Date: 04/18/2008
Director: Laura Dunn
Featuring Interviews with: Robert Redford, Willie Nelson, Ann Richards

In her documentary, “The Unforeseen”, director Laura Dunn attempts to use a fairly high profile instance of a developer, worried more about the bottom line than the effect on the environment and the community, in order to show how the balance of man and nature in America is shifting towards a disastrous result.

The film is about a planned community near Barton Springs outside of Austin, Texas and its developer, Gary Bradley. It is the early 90s and in the midst of constructing the project, the S&L scandal hits America. Just like that, all the money dries up. After Bradley finds an environmentally dubious company to help with the costs and liabilities, the Austin community realizes that the project will harm a major aquifer, which is the source of much of the water for Austin and San Antonio, as well as the basis for Barton Springs itself, a communal natural springs / pool.

Through interviews with residents, Willie Nelson, Robert Redford and former Texas Governor Ann Richards, Dunn lays out the picture of big business raping the land in order to make a dollar. She also makes an effective point in regards to current politics, since Richards’ successor to the Governor’s office was none other than George W. Bush. I doubt anyone will find it surprising that once in office, he was the one who approved the environmentally lenient law that allowed the community to finally be built – the same law Richards had vetoed while in office.

Politics aside, the tale Dunn weaves is unsettling. Growing up in Southern California, I’ve become rather jaded to new housing developments as every square inch of real estate that isn’t marked as a Federally protected sanctuary for some rare species of fly or earthworm is now either littered with identical rows of homes or a shopping center. Sadly, I’ve given up trying to figure out how bad for the environment these new developments are … not that it matters since it would take winning the lottery, marrying rich or getting a 17th job to buy a home in this market.

One thing that I appreciate in the film is that Dunn doesn’t completely demonize Bradley for his actions. It’s clear that he didn’t want to cause any damage to the aquifer, or the community. The S&L debacle that crippled much of the nation’s economy left him high and dry, holding the bill for far more than he could ever hope to leverage on his own. At that point, it became a matter of weighing his family’s needs versus the environmental impact and while in a perfect world, he might have tried harder to find another way, I can’t say I’d have done anything differently … other than leave town as quick as I could.

However, while Dunn does give Bradley some shelter from absolute blame, she also spends far too much time hyping up Barton Springs and its significance to the community. It’s a freaking pool! And not just a pool, but one more commonly flocked to by the kind of ultra-liberal hippies one thinks of when imagining the stereotype. This served to negatively counterbalance the factual and scientific basis for fighting the development. And while I’d like to see everyone take an environmentally responsible approach to urban sprawl, I also recognize the need for compromise.

Many of those interviewed for the documentary come off as the type who might sell you healing crystals at the side of the road. Even Robert Redford, who I respect on many levels, is hard to take completely seriously. I’d be a lot better at saving the planet if I didn’t have to work a 9 to 5 job in my life too. Hearing economically privileged people wax poetic about the natural beauty that’s being destroyed tends to come off weak with me, that’s just the way it goes.

The one really powerful person Dunn used throughout her documentary was an old farmer, whose land ended up being adjacent to the completed development begun by Bradley. Seeing the effect on his life that the process had is moving and a much more effective tool at humanizing the environmental impact rather than just being another propaganda piece.

After all that hot air I just blew, I suppose you’re wondering whether this is something you need to see. And while I’m going to give “The Unforeseen” just a 3 out of 5, I think this is an important story to tell and I’d like to see it make a strong showing in classrooms – as I think that with the right amount of reminding students that all documentaries should be viewed with a grain of salt, the information and ideas that spring from the film are going to be increasingly significant as the world’s population continues to grow.

Still, if any rich environmentalists want to give me a heaping pile of money, I’ll make sure my home is carbon-neutral and start driving alternative fuel vehicles as a thank you. Just drop me an e-mail. ;)