By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 12, 2011)
Remember those math story problems in elementary school? Good times. Anyway, here’s a fun one for you: Mankind’s daily energy use is 16 terawatts a day. Currently, an estimated 2 of those terawatts are derived from “green” sources. That means that the remaining 14 terawatts rely on traditional fossil fuels. Now, if the Sun alone (to name but one available form of “free” alternative energy) is bombarding the Earth with a potential tap of 86,000 terawatts a day, WTF IS WRONG WITH MANKIND? Oh-did you remember to carry the global warming deniers? Good! Now, you may put down your No. 2 pencils and pass your papers to the front of the class.
It’s a simple question, really. And it frames the premise of an eco-doc from director Peter Byck, called Carbon Nation. In all fairness, that little dig at the global warming deniers was my embellishment; the film’s tag line actually promises “a climate change solutions movie that doesn’t even care if you believe in climate change”. This is either good news or bad news, depending on what you generally look for in an eco-doc.
If you are looking to have your worst fears confirmed about how screwed the planet might be (An Inconvenient Truth, The 11th Hour) or a “catch ‘em with their pants down” muckraker about the fossil fuels industry, like GasLand-then you may be frustrated by Byck’s non-partisan approach. However, if you already “get” the part about the sky falling, yet are looking for some positive news on the “solutions” front, this film could be an inspiration.
Byck traverses America, profiling people who are striving to make a difference in lightening our carbon footprint. People like Cliff Etherege, a West Texas cotton farmer who talked a number of his neighbors into pooling their relatively small 500-acre farms together into forming an operation called Peak Wind, which is now (collectively) one of the largest wind farms in the world. The formation of the company literally saved the town of Roscoe, which had been slowly dying for a number of years.
There is Alaskan entrepreneur Bernie Karl (who I had the pleasure of meeting through my Fairbanks radio gig many moons ago). Karl is the owner of the Chena Hot Springs Resort, a popular tourist destination about 60 miles north of Fairbanks. He has devised a machine that generates geothermal power from a water temperature of 165 degrees. 95% of the liquid drilled from the ground by most oil wells is water, which averages a temperature of…165 degrees. In an ideal universe, each of those wells would have one of Bernie’s converters on hand-which would create a power output equivalent to 10 nuclear plants. Oil companies currently view the water simply as waste-but we can dream, right?
One of the more admirable folks profiled is Van Jones, the civil rights advocate who has become a green jobs organizer. He was a key advocate for the Green Jobs Act (signed into law back in 2007). Armed with an uplifting catchphrase (“Green jobs, not jails”) Jones is shown spreading his message through economically challenged urban communities like Richmond, California, where disadvantaged youths have found steady employment installing solar panels on neighborhood homes through one of his programs. It’s quite inspirational to see that someone has figured a way to mesh the idea of sustaining a green economy with making a positive social impact.
Byck also touches base with “Green Hawks” who are working with the Department of Defense to make overseas military support operations more energy efficient via wind and solar power. One of them, ex-CIA head R. James Woolsey, delivers the film’s money quote. In consideration of the “blood and treasure” sacrifices that we suffer as a result of our dependence on fossil fuels, he observes, “President (George Herbert Walker) Bush probably would not have felt like he had to protect Saudi Arabia from Iraq, if the Persian Gulf had been home to 2/3 of the world’s proven supply of broccoli.”
Woolsey’s comment is the closest that the film comes to being polemical; as I stated at the top of the review, Byck has made a concerted effort to just accentuate the positive. Which is all well and good (who can’t use an uplift and a little inspiration now and then?), but in a way it’s a bit of a shame, particularly with the timing of the film’s release (have any change left after filling your tank recently?).
With all the eco-docs that have dealt with the global warming/fossil fuels dependency issues, I’ve yet to see one that acknowledges and addresses the elephant in the room: Despite the fact that this is one issue that should transcend politics, it has been co-opted as a political football, and we need to get away from that (at least if we ever hope to see more planet-friendly legislation).
During my morning commute the other day I was listening to “Democracy Now” and heard Amy Goodman interviewing Naomi Klein, who is working on a new book about climate change and the climate change deniers. I thought Klein offered some thoughtful observations on why most of the deniers come from the Right:
But something very different is going on on the right, and I think we need to understand what that is. Why is climate change seen as such a threat? I don’t believe it’s an unreasonable fear. I think it is—it’s unreasonable to believe that scientists are making up the science. They’re not. It’s not a hoax. But actually, climate change really is a profound threat to a great many things that right-wing ideologues believe in. So, in fact, if you really wrestle with the implications of the science and what real climate action would mean, here’s just a few examples what it would mean.
Well, it would mean upending the whole free trade agenda, because it would mean that we would have to localize our economies, because we have the most energy-inefficient trade system that you could imagine. And this is the legacy of the free trade era. So, this has been a signature policy of the right, pushing globalization and free trade. That would have to be reversed.
You would have to deal with inequality. You would have to redistribute wealth, because this is a crisis that was created in the North, and the effects are being felt in the South. So, on the most basic, basic, “you broke it, you bought it,” polluter pays, you would have to redistribute wealth, which is also against their ideology.
You would have to regulate corporations. You simply would have to. I mean, any serious climate action has to intervene in the economy. You would have to subsidize renewable energy, which also breaks their worldview.
You would have to have a really strong United Nations, because individual countries can’t do this alone. You absolutely have to have a strong international architecture.
So when you go through this, you see, it challenges everything that they believe in. So they’re choosing to disbelieve it, because it’s easier to deny the science than to say, “OK, I accept that my whole worldview is going to fall apart,” that we have to have massive investments in public infrastructure, that we have to reverse free trade deals, that we have to have huge transfers of wealth from the North to the South. Imagine actually contending with that. It’s a lot easier to deny it.
Klein did go on to say that a lot of the major green groups are in a “kind of denial” as well; in that they don’t want to confront the fact that it this a political and economic issue. Getting back to Byck’s film, many of the people and companies he profiles are, in fact, proving that sustainability can be both an earth-friendly and economically sound proposition. So what’s stopping everybody from getting together on the same page? Anyone? Bueller? Bueller? Don’t make me turn this into another math story problem…