Friday, December 10, 2010

Carbon Nation: A Review of the Documentary Movie

A recent documentary, <i>Carbon Nation</i>, takes a refreshing look at the issue of America’s dependence of carbon-based fuel, and the potential options for reducing that dependence through alternative energy and improved energy efficiency.

With the exception of a few commentators, such as Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, the discussion on this topic is often focused on the science and scientific consensus for global warming, and the need to move from carbon-based fuels to alternative energy sources to reduce carbon dioxide emissions; sometimes it will be mentioned that there can be economic benefits to moving to alternative energy, but it is at best a secondary argument.  In <i>Carbon Nation</i> the main argument carried throughout the movie is that there are significant economic benefits to be gained by reducing our dependence on carbon based fuels.  The filmmakers do include information on the current science of global warming, but it becomes a secondary argument to the economic reasons for moving to new, non-carbon sources of energy.  Thus the movie is addressed directly to the main concern of the people who have the power to make the changes: their bottom line.

The documentary presents a wide variety of approaches to reducing the use of carbon-based fuels - from the common, such as wind and solar, to the controversial, such as nuclear, and the unusual, such as growing sod to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and sequester it back into the soil. In keeping with its approach of focusing on the economic benefits, the film looks primarily at the work of small entrepreneurs, and individuals in larger companies and organizations, who find ways to profit or increase their profits through the development or use of alternative energy sources and energy efficiency techniques.

The thesis presented is that the best way to increase the spread of many of these new technologies is for businesses, small and large, to recognize the benefit it can bring to their bottom line and take the initiative individually to harness these money-making or money-saving possibilities, as opposed to waiting for the government to move forward on larger initiatives.  This view of carrying out the fight at the local level is a particularly appealing aspect of the movie, given the deadlock that exists in Washington DC these days over both energy policy and the issue of global warming.

Mixed in with statistics on current and predicted future energy usage, the science of global warming and some discussion of the politics of energy, are extended, detailed looks at how entrepreneurs around the country are finding ways to make money through alternative energy and energy efficiency.  The majority of these stories show the impact that individuals and small groups of people can have in the transformation away from carbon-based fuels, whether the individual is one person bringing together the owners of many small farms in his area to work as a cooperative with the local utility to develop a large wind energy farm, or is the owner of a company who realizes savings by simply painting the roof of his city building white to reflect sunlight and so lower his air conditioning usage and so energy costs.

Along the way the film presents many interesting stories and facts.  One small example is regarding the concern of mercury in compact fluorescent bulbs, which requires them to be recycled.  The movie reports from a study showing that even if all the CF bulbs in use today were simply thrown into landfills when the bulbs quit working (thus releasing their mercury into the environment), there would be less mercury put into the environment than if incandescent bulbs had been used in their place.  This is because coal burning power plants are a significant source of mercury in the environment, and the equivalent light provided from incandescent bulbs would have required enough more electricity, that the additional amount of coal burned would generate more mercury than would come from the (non-recycled) CF bulbs.

This is a minor point in the movie, but it demonstrates the systems level thinking that plays a large part in making the movie effective and ultimately interesting to watch.

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