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Jefferson Root Written by Jefferson Root
Feb. 17, 2011 | 10:24 PM

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Peter Byck’s new documentary Carbon Nation is being promoted as “a climate change solutions movie”, and his film doesn’t disappoint on that score.  A number of green activists are showcased, from a one armed Texas wind farmer to a former rock promoter who’s now recycling refrigerators, all of whom are working hard to address the problem of climate change in innovative ways.  With breezy narration from former CBS morning news anchor (and current Roger Ebert voice surrogate) Bill Kurtis, and a set of statistics that make the problems and the solutions easily digestible, the film works hard to try to deliver its message in a non partisan fashion. While the film glosses over the political hurdles that will have to be cleared in order to enact meaningful reform, there’s still plenty to be gained from the stories that Byck presents.

As the film’s title suggests, the global warming culprit singled out in Byck’s film is carbon.  According to Kurtis’s narration, the United States produces nearly 85 percent of carbon based pollution world wide, despite having only 5 percent of the world’s population.  There are brief mentions in the movie of wind energy projects in the UK and Denmark, but for the most part Byck stays focused on American approaches to the problem.  He begins by visiting a successful wind farm in Roscoe, Texas, where the wind energy business is drawing people back to what had been a dying town.  (“Even the Dairy Queen had closed’, we’re told).  In keeping with the film’s can do spirit, it matters little that Cliff Etheredge, the farm’s organizer, has only one arm.  He lost the other one in an industrial accident on a cotton farm in the 70’s and downplays the incident, claiming he “took it as a challenge.”  In the end credits we learn that at a certain point in time he achieved his goal of creating the world’s largest wind farm.

One of the strengths of Byck’s film is in its portrait of unlikely activists attacking the climate change issue in unorthodox ways.  One of the most compelling characters in the film is Dan
Nolan, a former colonel who now heads up a group called the Green Hawks.  The Hawks are making it their mission to convince the Department of Defense and the Pentagon to move towards energy efficiency and sustainable power.  During the Iraq war, Nolan led an effort to make air conditioning units for U.S.soldiers more efficient, with the hope that this would reduce the number of fuel trucks coming in and out of the region over dangerous roads. 

Much of the film’s final third features civil rights advocate and green jobs organizer Van Jones.  Employing the mantra “Green Jobs Not Jails”, Jones’ Green For All organization is dedicated to providing green jobs in disadvantaged communities.  In Richmond, CA, Jones has coordinated a program with the city where residents can save on their energy costs by having solar panels installed on their roofs.  The panels make it possible for excess energy that’s harnessed to be sent back to the grid, which lowers costs for utility customers.  Jones speaks movingly about how he was inspired to make a difference by his father, who passed away during the production of the film. Jones is the most powerful example of a theme that runs through Carbon Nation, namely, what kind of a world are we going to leave for future generations?  Jones is working both to preserve his father’s legacy of service and to insure a brighter future for his own young son.

Although the Obama administration is never mentioned by name, there’s a certain irony to seeing Van Jones in a film like Carbon Nation.  Jones was appointed to the newly created position of “Special Advisor for Green Jobs” by Obama in 2009, but ended up resigning several months later in the midst of a scandal that was largely manufactured by Obama’s political opponents.  Jones has a long record of distinguished public service, and he clearly believes in the possibilities of a new green jobs economy.  In a film where the closing credits encourage us to elect public servants who care about energy efficiency, the presence of Jones serves as a poignant reminder of how far away the U.S.government still remains from achieving real climate change reform.

There’s something a little disingenuous about Carbon Nation.  While the optimistic tone of the film is a refreshing change of pace from the usual dire docs on this topic, it’s attempts to depoliticize the issue sometimes result in oversimplification.  While the list of suggestions offered on how you, the viewer can help this problem are certainly worth following, it would also be nice to see a doc that attempts to get at the problem of how these changes can be affected at the institutional level.  Byck’s heart is in the right place, and many of the stories featured in Carbon Nation are truly inspiring.  The movie’s entertaining and informative, but it’s breezy tone prevents it from serving as the call to arms it might have been.

Carbon Nation
opens Friday, February 18th at the Laemmle Sunset 5 in West Hollywood.

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