Carbon Nation Dir. Peter Byck

[Earth School Educational Foundation; 2011]

Styles: activism, propaganda
Others: An Inconvenient Truth, Crude, Food Inc.

“The good thing about the green economy, the clean energy economy, the low carbon economy — it’s a labor-intensive economy. It will create an infinite amount of jobs.” With that unequivocal and completely straight-faced statement by Van Jones, Carbon Nation stopped being an interesting if a bit heavy-handed documentary about climate change and gleefully launched itself into the realm of utopian baby-boomer wish-fulfillment. Jones envisions a future America that boasts full employment owing to the unprecedented vastness of jobs created when the Government finally shapes up and forces every single building in the United States to incorporate retro-fitted carbon-reducing design features. The fact that such a giant and far-reaching project might prove impossible to adequately fund isn’t addressed, and after a while you get the feeling that this omission, and many others, are made by design.

It makes a lot of sense that a company called Earth School Educational Foundation put up the money to make this film, as its format and tone are uncannily like those of a movie you might’ve seen in a high school classroom. The documentary is broken up into chapters, each with a nice graphic and intro theme (perfect for a pause and some Q&A, maybe?). To start things off, we are introduced to the very real problem of the dangerously high level of carbon in our atmosphere, which is elucidated quite clearly and effectively by a number of experts in the field. We are subsequently treated to a great example of how much money, energy, and lives we could save if the US Armed Forces treated all of its battlefield tents with high-density foam insulation and other truly ingenious ways we could help reduce the rate at which we’re totally destroying our planet. Then the movie introduces us to the under-utilized potential of various forms of renewable energy, which is where the things take a turn for the proselytic.

The most irksome quality of Carbon Nation is its lack of context in dealing with the impressive statistics it provides concerning how much renewable energy we could be tapping. The most notable example of this occurs when the film delves into the enormous potential of solar energy. The sun produces roughly 86 terawatts of power daily. While that’s a thoroughly impressive stat, the film tacitly assumes that most of that energy can feasibly be captured, thereby negating our need for dirty coal and risky nuclear power plants. In a perfect world, I suppose we could manufacture solar panels to cover well over half of the dry land on the globe, but I don’t think that’s going to happen anytime soon. I don’t think the filmmakers think it’s going to happen anytime soon, either. But I also don’t think it’s in their best interests to tell you that.

“Energy efficiency is a no-brainer, but because it’s free to emit CO2, making carbon-based energy artificially cheap, energy efficiency is still routinely ignored… That’s a huge mistake in the industrial world,” the narrator informs us, dumbfounded that so many American manufacturers haven’t incorporated energy-saving practices into their operations. The argument kind of makes sense, but it’s worth noting that placing a price tag on something erstwhile free of charge is the artificial thing to do. Depending on your point of view, that type of artificiality is a large part of what living in a civil society entails, but it’s still by its very nature an artificial activity. To imply otherwise is indicative of the filmmakers’ unease with just coming out and saying they want tighter regulations for industry until the film is nearly over.

By turns optimistic and apocalyptic in outlook, the film suffers from a bit of an identity crisis. The way in which it browbeats its audience leaves it a jumbled mess of good intentions and half-assed, unconvincingly cloying injunctions to pollute less and reduce their carbon footprints. At times touting the renewable energy field as a great arena in which to make boatloads of cash, and conversely admonishing people to consume much, much less than they do now, Carbon Nation can’t decide whether to appeal to our better angels, or our ugly, heartless greed. So it hedges its bets and appeals to both.

Near the film’s end, its makers finally reveal the true purpose of Carbon Nation, namely, to convince us that we urgently need to start charging people for emitting carbon. At this point, the film feels less like an educational aid than an infomercial, and even less like a serious documentary. It’s essentially propaganda. As far as things to create propaganda for, battling climate change is probably one of the most noble, but it still leaves that saccharine propaganda-y taste in your mouth after its over. Perhaps some will be inspired by this movie to lead more responsible and environmentally friendly lives. I sincerely hope they do. But I also know that many viewers will feel resentment after having their intelligence insulted, and this in turn might just end up spurring cynicism among those who could probably benefit the most from an honest exploration of climate, public policy, and the relationship between the two.

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