Our relationship with the environment

Have you ever thought about how little you think about water? Have you ever attended a funeral for a car, or eaten a historically accurate tomato? P.O.V.'s Borders invites us to look at our day to day relationship with the environment, and might even convince you to run the family sedan on used french fry oil.

An offshoot of P.O.V., PBS's award-winning showcase for independent, non-fiction filmmaking, Borders is a web-only environmentalist series which takes its storytelling into the interactive arena. (So while you may be a regular watcher of the TV version, you'll only find this feature online.)

After a very brief opening animation, Borders presents an index page with eight floating silhouettes, each representing an episode of the program, with subjects including electric and alternative fuel cars, America's most polluted waterway, and the 7.7 billion dollar a year bottled water industry. (What? Nobody has access to a tap?) Placing the mouse pointer over each image will reveal episode titles, a photograph and soundbite, or, if you'd prefer to explore thematically, an "Air, Water, Earth" index to the right of the page cycles through the relevant episodes until you make a decision.

Episodes can be viewed individually, but each feature tops its page with links to the rest of its element group - to more easily access the bigger picture. (For example, the page dedicated to the country's dirtiest waterway -Newtown Creek, on the border between Brooklyn and Queens - also prominently displays links to other water-themed features as well as a general introduction to the subject.)

Content on each feature's page is varied and presented in a style reminiscent of some recently launched magazines that seem more concerned with visuals than content - i.e., multiple text blocks of assorted sizes, with varying colored backgrounds - and while I'm not a huge fan of the style in print, it works in this context, where the borders provided by the various colors help to clearly differentiate the numerous storylines featured on a single web page. (A useful feature, since each page is an exercise in variety. A combination of text, maps, quizzes and polls, related links collections, audio documentaries accompanied by slide shows, and even streaming videos might populate any episode's page.)

As for the videos available onsite, to their credit, Borders gives visitors a full choice of formats (MediaPlayer, RealPlayer, QuickTime) - though even with high quality QuickTime settings, the image quality is not the best. Still, the videos are well worth playing as the sound is flawless and reveals such eye-opening tidbits as; the fact that 3.5 mile Newtown Creek passes 12 hazardous waste sites, that Exxon once spilled 17 million gallons (that's twice the volume of the Exxon Valdez spill) into the creek in the 1950s -and has never paid a cent in damages - and that a wall was once erected alongside its shore due to fears that a simple discarded cigarette might cause an explosion and fire on an atomic scale.

Other Water subjects deal with the commercial bottling of H2O, while Air looks at the impact of our love of cars on our love of breathing (from fully electric cars to gas guzzling Hummers, with grease burning alternatives in between). Earth uses a pair of Flash interactives to illustrate the threat posed by the corporate homogenization of the world's seed crop. (90 percent of the vegetable varieties available a hundred years ago no longer exist.)

Access to all three themes is available at the top of every page, along with lesson plans for teachers, a consolidated collection of recommended links, and a site map. Border Talk offers online journals and visitor interaction with guest scientists, authors and artists. (These include a National Park Ranger and a team of weather observers on Mount Washington, New Hampshire - a location which lays claim to "the world's worst weather.")

To some degree, we're already aware of most of the issues dealt with at Borders, but it's worth being reminded about them, and true to the P.O.V. moniker, the site presents the facts from an angle we may not have seen before (as with the concept of the 'invisibility' of water in our lives). Given the importance of the subject matter, every little bit of education helps.

P.O.V.'s Borders: Environment can be found at http://www.pbs.org/pov/borders/2004/index.html.

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