Movie review: SWITCH

This year, the Geological Society of America is rolling out their SWITCH Energy Awareness campaign . The centerpiece of the campaign is a documentary film, SWITCH, which purports to be about the need for a transformation in the world’s energy systems. Recently, I attended the Chicago premier of the film, presented as part of the Environmental Film Series of the Lutheran School of Theology. I had high hopes for this film. They were disappointed. Given the mismatch between what the movie promises and what it delivers, it would be more aptly titled, “BAIT AND SWITCH.”

Switch Still

The film is soporifically narrated by Scott Tinker , of the Texas Bureau of Economic Geology, who was also the major content advisor for the film. This a guy who has never met a fossil fuel he didn’t like. Dramatic footage of giant coal seams being merrily blasted to bits and carted off by hefty he-men driving 400 ton trucks are interspersed with wide-eyed kid-gloves interviews of energy-industry workers and executives in which Tinker looks like he’s overdosed on Quaaludes by way of preparation. There are a few segments on renewables thrown in, and even the token environmentalist or two, but the impression you get over most of the film is that only the fossil fuel guys have the right stuff.

Fossil fuels are unrelentingly portrayed as powerful, cool and desirable. Problems are swept under the rug, or given only the barest mention, mostly as a prelude to casual dismissal. Shots of the giant scar of an open pit coal mine in the Powder River basin cut over to shots of a credulous Tinker nodding like a bobble-headed doll while the foreman explains to him how it will all be all right because they saved the topsoil and will put it all back the way it was. Maybe that’s true, but given the intuitive implausibility of recreating a living, breathing ecosystem from the lunar lanscape the mining created, one would like to see at least a little probing of how well that all works out. Imagine Tinker coming upon a bunch of kids fiddling with a disemboweled flayed cat. This is how I imagine the interview would play out:

TINKER: Looks like you guys got yourself a dead cat there!

BOYS: Yep, did it ourselves. But dontcha worry, we saved the fur, and we’re gonna put everything back JUST THE WAY IT WAS!

TINKER: (glassy-eyed and nodding) Why, that’s just AMAZING!

Be that as it may, you never get to see or hear anything about mountain top removal coal mining (hint: they don’t save the mountaintop and put it back). On a tour of the Alberta Tar Sands, you get to see the insides of an antiseptic lab where happy technicians reverently pass around an adorable little flask of dilute bitumen (it looks so pure don’t you just want to drink it right down) while Tinker gapes in awe, but you never get to see the vast scale of environmental destruction wrought by tar sands mining outside. And while the film eventually gets around to loving natural gas, it skirts around the paradox that the tar sands consume a relatively low-carbon clean fuel (natural gas) that could be used directly as transportation fuel, to produce a dirty high carbon product (dilute bitumen and petcoke). Happy drillers on a mighty Shell offshore platform duly tsk-tsk about the big Oopsie! that was the Deepwater Horizon blowout, while assuring viewers that they’ve got that one licked, and golly no that couldn’t happen to us. Why, they even have Internet so they can get advice from the mainland if they need it!

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