Carbon Nation

Image: Suat Eman

Last week, Kai and I went to see Carbon Nation, a documentary film about climate change, directed by Peter Byck.  The film was one of four of a “Sustainability Film Series” hosted by our own City Market Coop and Stonyfield Farm.  Tickets were $5 with proceeds benefiting the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFAVT).  I was pretty surprised by the film.  Continue reading to find out more about my thoughts and reaction.



First : Two Observations

People filled the theatre to see this film, which is a hopeful sign.  It means folks want to learn more about climate change, are interested in finding solutions and are potentially open to change on a personal and/or global level.

Kai and I were equally inspired and thankful for the director’s energy, personal sacrifice and dedication to making the film.  Mr. Byck was present for the showing and followed up with a Q & A session and it was apparent how much he believes in and is dedicated to educating people about the reality of climate change.  He was very well spoken, expressing his ideas and reasons for his approaches in the film with sincerity and clarity.

Initial Reaction to the Film = Not So Good

Carbon Nation is self described as focusing on “solutions” in relation to climate change, instead of “problems, blame and guilt”.  I appreciate this goal and I do give the film credit for focusing on being optimistic.  From the hip and happy music, to the colorful bubbles popping up around interviewees names and throughout the movie, a youthful and cheerful theme was created.  Who doesn’t want to support that kind of happy-go-lucky approach? Keep Calm and Carry On

Well, I discovered that I don’t when it comes to this subject matter.   Let me explain.  What I had a problem with was the way the film’s desire to focus on optimism continually downplays the urgency of climate change and, in some instances, even falsely labels actions in the film as “solutions”, when they are, in fact, part of the larger problem. 

Before you decide I’m horrible for criticizing a film that focuses on solutions for climate change, you should know I’m not into doom and gloom — really, I’m not.  I’m just as susceptible as the next person to burying my head in the sand when it comes to my own inadequate actions in relation to climate change and my effect upon this planet.  I’m also the type of person who has to find the silver lining, no matter how warped, to continue onward each day.  Beyond that, I wanted to like this film, because it’s intention is good and meaningful and worthwhile.  BUT, what I really, really, don’t like about the feel-good approach in relation to problems that are killing off humans, every other species, and the earth, especially in film making or other arenas meant to educate the masses, is the desire to make everyone feel, well…. good…. like everything is going to be just fine, when it is most definitely not “just fine”.  This kind of approach not only misses the opportunity to instill the kind of urgency and motivation needed for people to affect change or react to the problem but it also allows folks the “out” that they want.  They are offered the illusion that they don’t have to make any changes in their lives or worry about it today, or even tomorrow, and that everything will work out in the end because all those other people are out there making the changes that are needed to save the world.

Here are a couple of examples of the proposed “solutions” offered in the film that I felt either didn’t go far enough to be able to be helpful in the context of climate change or missed the mark entirely:

One scene focused on efficiency and transportation and touted use of a supplemental heating/cooling system that, using some battery power, was being installed on long haul trucks.

The idea was borne in reaction to the problem that truckers, traveling days on end must keep their trucks running constantly, day and night, even when they’re parked, because they sleep in their trucks, and they need their heat or air on to remain comfortable.  The supplemental system is used when they’re parked and cuts the fuel usage for supporting the continual use of such systems.

This would be a great idea if it weren’t for the fact that transporting food and products thousands of miles across America (not to mention around the world) using fossil-fuel driven vehicles, is part of the problem in the first place.  This system of trucking everything around, is not sustainable and, most likely, will not be possible to maintain into the future, no matter how much we wish it so.  At this point, it doesn’t make sense for us to spend money on supporting an unsustainable system that depends on and propagates a fossil-fuel driven economy.

Instead, shouldn’t we be looking for ways to end the climate damaging system of transporting all our food and goods such long distances altogether (before it is forced on us by lack of resources)?  How about replacing that system with one in which we start supporting local manufacturers and local farmers?  That solution wouldn’t just save a trucker a few bucks on fuel, it would actually affect our climate on a much larger, national scale.  We would use less fossil fuel to produce those foods and goods locally (especially if they’re organic) and it would be better for our local and national economy.  People would have access to jobs and fresher, healthier food.  Creating localized, supportive, sustainable systems and dismantling failing food/goods/transportation systems is a big picture, climate changing solution.  Although I love that drivers are installing the part-time, more efficient HVAC system on their trucks, it isn’t enough to warrant being part of a “solution” to the large scale problem of climate change.

Another scene focused on the  “Green Hawks”, who are top military officials apparently pushing for implementation of energy efficient alternatives in the military and throughout the nation, and their efforts to create more energy efficient tents for the troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In an attempt to “cool” these tents, our military trucks in massive amounts of fuel to run air conditioners attached to the tents.  Noticing the inefficiency of the entire process, a soldier suggested they spray foam insulation over the tents.  The film goes on to show us footage of the insulation being applied and reports that the tents are much more efficient and that they use less fuel than before to run the A/C units.

This example really irked me on several levels.  First of all, I was one of the millions of people who protested our going to war many years ago so my opinion is that we shouldn’t be there in the first place.  So far, the results of our war efforts include: 5500+ military deaths, 31,000+seriously wounded military (not including psychological injuries), 500,000+ Iraqi and Afghan deaths, countless ruined international relationships, and a price tag of over $1 TRILLION DOLLARS.  Here’s a list of some of the thingsSpray Foaming Tents : Photo credit Sgt. 1st Class Jeff Mullett Butch Kline we could have spent that $1 Trillion Dollars on to improve our economic stability and our relationship with the rest of the world: 

Funding the cleanup of the Gulf oil spill

Providing 1 Million Affordable housing units

Providing Health care for 1 million average people for one year

Hiring 1 million public safety officers for a year

Funding a Head start place for one million children for one year

Providing Renewable energy for 1 million residences for one year

AND WE STILL WOULD HAVE $811.9 billion to spare after all that!  (Check out this interactive calculator to determine how you would spend $1Trillion Dollars.)

On another level, the fact that spray foaming military tents in deserts so they could be air conditioned was offered as a viable solution for climate change is, to me, absolutely ludicrous.  To top it off, during this section of the film, it is suggested that we support the “Green Hawks” efforts, with the reasoning that it will speed up our national efforts to create viable energy alternatives, the implication being that if we just keep funneling our money to the military they’ll propel us more quickly toward climate change “solutions”.  The reasoning continues to purport that once we fund the military efforts to find our energy alternatives, those options will then trickle down to us “regular Joe’s” via a more affordable and accessible market.
By all means, we do need to push government, scientists and businesses to funnel our money into finding viable, long term, sustainable alternatives to the systems we utilize but why in the world would we funnel it through our Defense department?  Our military spending already accounts for almost half (46.5 %) of the WORLD’s total military spending.  Why not just divert some of that money toward direct efforts to finding viable solutions?  Wouldn’t that be more financially prudent, not to mention more “efficient”?  Besides, don’t our troops have enough things to worry about other than how to lead our nation in the fight against climate change?  And please, let’s not give faulty glorification to efforts billed as “energy efficient” (like air conditioning tents in deserts) when they are, in and of themselves, completely inefficient and wasteful.

Beyond those specific examples of out and out non-solutions, a couple of other big talking points in relation to climate change were surprisingly absent from the film. 

Although the word “efficiency” flashed several times on the screen during the film, there was little mention of changing the way we use resources in the form of conservation (not just using less of our finite resources, but trying to use as little as possible).

Another missing link was the complete and utter lack of mention of how our currently unsustainable and ever growing population impacts climate change.

When Kai asked about these two missing factors during the Q & A session, Mr. Byck expressed that he felt he did address conservation through his mention of efficiency measures in the film and that he struggled with how to introduce the factor of population into the film, but that he ultimately decided there wasn’t a place for it and that it came down to it being a personal choice.

OK.  I get that no one wants to talk about the taboo subject of having babies, because everybody loves babies, right?  And, anyone who even hints that we might not need more babies in the world is just an ugly, uncaring, horrible, no good, person, right?  But, c’mon, it is a PROBLEM that continues to grow more critical with each new body we add to this world and it is intricately tied to climate change.  The world can only sustain so many people and we are currently over 6 billion!  Has anyone noticed we’re depleting our resources in such a way that threatens our survival?  That we are waging wars over water, fossil fuels, and land?  That we’ve replaced sustainable food systems with commercial profit systems that are jeopardizing our ability to feed ourselves?  That there are millions of people starving?  That there are millions of orphans in the world?  That we’re sprawling into every nook and cranny available to us, and mowing down nature and causing extinctions of entire species in the process?

Perhaps we do notice it but we choose to ignore it, for whatever reason.  Regardless of our own personal reasons for not facing the facts, I do expect a documentary talking about climate change to, at the very least, mention that it’s a problem the world needs to tackle (and soon).


The Good Parts

One of the things I did like about the film was seeing every day people thinking about climate change and how their everyday actions can affect change.  Beyond providing examples of personal motivation, there was also a very distinct effort to point out the practical benefits of participating in efforts to combat climate change.

The farming community of Roscoe, Texas, was one example of how people can not only help turn our nation toward alternative, clean energy sources, but can also reap huge financial returns by doing so.  Instantly lovable Cliff Ethredge, wind and cotton farmer, walks us through how he enticed windmill developers to start doing business on a small farm basis instead of only with large acreage ranches.  His courting led developers to contract to build windmills on small farms.  This is a big win for the 400 family farmers and landowners, as they gain extra, steady income from the energy produced by the windmills without any limitations on their farming or their land.  It was also a boon to the local economy, which had been bleak before the arrival of the windmills.  The biggest win is that the windmills of Roscoe can provide clean, renewable power to 250,000 homes per year.

Another inspirational story was that of Van Jones and his mission to bring green jobs to disadvantaged communities.  Founder of “Green For All”, Mr. Jones brings us into neighborhoods where people are being trained to install solar panels on homes of people that otherwise would not have been able to afford it.  Bringing green jobs training to folks who are unemployed or disadvantaged not only improves the livelihood of people suffering the most from our economic hard times, it also improves our local and national economy and arms us with the ability to rapidly introduce renewable energy to neighborhoods across America.  This program’s return on investment is huge, not to mention it just makes sense in today’s world to combine jobs creation with our race to find solutions to climate change.

Beyond these examples of real pioneers in our midst, there were hundreds of people interviewed for the film, many of which consider finding solutions to climate change their number one priority.  There’s no doubt that these people can make a difference in the direction of our future.


In short, I appreciate and wholly support the premise of the movie — to get people to start thinking about climate change.  However, I was frustrated with how the film glossed over the severity of the problem and I think the tip-toe approach to climate change is a waste of time at this stage of the game.  

Granted, Mr. Byck did, in response to a question, say that his intended audience was the 50-60 year old crowd, the CEOs of our nation.  I’m assuming that he considers that group the most powerful in affecting change, perhaps because they are the wealthiest in our society and run our corporations, which in all reality, run our nation.  But that group has proven themselves to not have our best interests at heart and I doubt that they care about climate change as much as people of our generation and younger.  Do we really have time to spend cajoling and convincing the 50-60 year old demographic that climate change is real and they need to start thinking about it?

Toward the end of the film there was a brief, shining moment where the film mentions the “real kick in the pants” is that we may already be beyond the point of return and that immediate action is required in order for us to even have a chance of keeping us at the sorry state we’re in now, much less reverse the effects of climate change.  It is followed by a sincerely moving personal reflection by Van Jones over the loss of his father, giving us all moment to pause and consider our own fleeting mortality.

However, overall, the film needed a serious punch of reality, something to push people to question the very premise of the way we live, consume, breed, make peace or war, and how it all relates to climate change.  Perhaps if that had been incorporated into the film, people might have walked away with a feeling of urgency, a desire to immediately be a part of the solutions.  But, until people start to feel that urgency, we’ll still be driving our cars around, buying goods transported from far away, having more and more babies while living longer and longer lives, fighting wars over dwindling resources, and suffering from a delusion that everything will be “just fine”.


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