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Film Review: Carbon Nation

Take a trip across the United States to find out who is developing low-carbon solutions.

Directed by Peter Byck, 2010, 82 minutes.

The last time Americans united behind a single cause was during the 1940s, when we overhauled our national industry to fight WWII, according to Peter Byck, director of the documentary Carbon Nation. He believes a national mobilization of that scale could halt our excessive carbon production and combat the escalation of climate change.

Carbon Nation stillCarbon Nation zigzags across the United States, seeking out those who are developing low-carbon energy projects now—finding common ground among rural entrepreneurs, nonprofits, urban community organizers, and even planners in the Pentagon.

“This is no longer the purview of Birkenstock-loving tree-huggers,” says Col. Daniel A. Nolan III of the Department of Defense “Green Hawks” who promote energy alternatives in the interest of national security and to save soldiers’ lives.

One of Carbon Nation’s virtues is its celebration of Americans who are far from that tree-hugger stereotype and working for carbon solutions. Cliff Etheridge is a farmer from Roscoe, Texas, who once struggled to make a living on arid, windy land. “We sat here and prayed for rain and cussed the wind. Now, what we’ve been cussing all these years turned out to be a blessing,” he says. Wind-farming installations are providing Roscoe’s farmers with steady income, while allowing them to continue farming around the turbines. The enterprise will eventually provide clean energy to more than 250,000 homes.

Some reviews have criticized Byck as naive about the overwhelming political, cultural, and legislative obstacles to adopting carbon-neutral alternatives on a national scale. Perhaps Byck set himself up for criticism with his overuse of the campy stylistic devices of an infomercial-style voice-over and retro graphics. Yet the dire warnings of other climate change films have done little to inspire unified national action. Byck’s film, with its documentation of Americans across the political and cultural spectrum, transcends partisanship and makes progress toward a rational, national conversation.

While carbon-conscious innovators are successfully expanding their activities, the well hasn’t yet run dry for carbon producers, and there are no direct financial disincentives to producing carbon. Given these “perverse incentives,” the film’s message is especially important: We can start creating the market for carbon alternatives ourselves, now, and peacefully make the changes needed for our future well-being.


Robert MellingerRobert Mellinger wrote this article for New Livelihoods, the Fall 2011 issue of YES! Magazine. Robert is a former YES! intern.

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