Not-So-Environmental Movie Review: Switch

Two days ago, Taylor and I watched a frustrating un-environmental film called “Switch” (trailer) that explores alternative energy sources.

The film follows Texas geology professor Dr. Scott Tinker on a quest around the world to find practical solutions to our energy problems.  He explores every major source of energy, including hydro, coal, oil, biofuels, wind, solar, and nuclear and judges how economically practical they are.  Tinker interviews experts on each energy type, and tries to show how our current power sources logistically and technically operate.  We see a variety of energy machinery and infrastructure, from a Shell oil rig in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico to a bubbling geothermal power plant in Iceland.  The film turns shortly thereafter into a “natural gas and fracking are awesome” show, and cuts to a clip of Tinker lecturing a class on how alternative energy technologies need at least another fifty years of development before they can supplant fossil fuels.  In the meantime, he calls for increased natural gas and nuclear energy production. 

We had a few problems with this film.  First, it barely took health or environmental issues into consideration and even outright lied about the pollution potential of fracking. Although carbon sequestration is mentioned, I don’t remember hearing the buzzwords “global warming” or “greenhouse gases.” Nor were environmental activists interviewed or longterm health effects mentioned.

Second, in order to access the coal and oil plants, you can bet that Tinker needed industrial approval of what content went into the film, which means that none of the associated interviews were objective.  There is no controversy, only optimism for the coal and oil enterprise, and no mention of the environmental impacts of these respective technologies.

Third, “Switch” turned out to just be a pro-tracking film under the pretenses of environmentalism. Tinker does not mention on film that he is career petroleum geologist, researches natural gas solutions (an oxymoron), and worked for the petroleum industry for 17 years before entering academia. Biases considered, no wonder his conclusion was that we need to embrace natural gas.

Tinker writes off solar, wind, and other clean energy sources because they are too geographically dependent and inconsistent.  The quip “the sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow” intellectually falls short. I believe that we can utilize multiple energy solutions for different geographic regions, connecting the various energy hot spots with a well planned grid system.  We don’t need one world wide solution; we can make this work with many individual ones, and certainly without coal, natural gas, or nuclear power.

In a fit of frustration, Taylor even sent Tinker an email directly bringing up many of these issues, but just got back a canned sounding and vague “please continue to be a student of energy” response.

Bottom line: “Switch” is worth watching as long as you know going in that it’s not balanced or fair or well rounded, especially in regards to fracking and nuclear vs. solar and wind.  Overall, it’s a film about economics, not environmentalism, but at least it helps start a dialog on alternative energy.

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Resources:

Switch Energy project’s homepage

Boston Globe Review

Treehugger Review

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