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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Carbon Nation: The Movie

Air Date: Week of

Cliff Etheredge runs the world’s largest wind farm in Roscoe, Texas.

Across America, there are ordinary people who are doing extraordinary projects that make both environmental and economic sense. These climate solutions are the subject of the new documentary Carbon Nation. Producer Chrisna van Zyl tells host Bruce Gellerman the film is about an energy movement that both climate change activists and climate skeptics can believe in.


CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood.

GELLERMAN: And I'm Bruce Gellerman. Making the rounds at film festivals and theaters around the country is the new documentary “Carbon Nation.”

[FILM CLIP, MUSIC: The U.S. has about five percent of the world’s people, but we create almost a quarter of the world’s CO2. CO2 is not the only greenhouse gas. It’s just the one making the most trouble right now…]

GELLERMAN: Typically, films about climate change are a downer, but the documentary “Carbon Nation” takes us on an upbeat road trip around the country, offering creative solutions and compelling reasons to act. Among those featured in the film is New York Times editorial writer Tom Friedman:

FRIEDMAN: This is geo-strategic, geo-economic. It’s the most patriotic thing you can be, do, think, or feel today. Green, baby, is the new red, white and blue.

GELLERMAN: Film critic Adam Siegel of The Huffington Post calls “Climate Nation” “entertaining…endearing…and exceptional.” I’ve seen it and we’ve called Chrisna Van Zyl, the producer of “Carbon Nation,” to talk about the film.

VAN ZYL: The whole idea of bringing a message of hope and inspiration was really what was behind the making of “Carbon Nation” - that was always the driving force. The project really started after Peter, the director of the film, Peter Byck, had seen “An Inconvenient Truth.” And it was like a call-to-action for him and he was hoping there were solutions. Didn’t know about it, but he set out to find them. And four years later, the product is Carbon Nation.

GELLERMAN: But some critics have said that you’re preaching to the choir. Who’s your target audience?

VAN ZYL: Well you need your base in order to have the message spread. So we definitely - you know, we are bringing this message to the choir. But I can tell you that if we can get the film seen by conservative folks, or folks who don’t necessarily care about this issue - once we get that done, the response is great.

We get told that we think so differently and that we are so divided in this country, but I think there’s a lot more common ground than what anybody would lead you to believe. And we see that when we show “Carbon Nation” to a variety of people with different viewpoints.

GELLERMAN: Well you have a variety of people starring in “Carbon Nation.” You have some of the country’s leading environmental superstars - you’ve got Amory Lovins, you’ve got Van Jones, you’ve got Lester Brown, but you also have a kind of everyday Joes and Janes that I think are the real stars of the film.

Cliff Etheredge runs the world’s largest wind farm in Roscoe, Texas.
(Photo: Peter Byck)

VAN ZYL: We wanted to set out to show examples of scale of things that can be done right now. But at the same time, we wanted to show that everyday people are doing it. So not just speak to the executives and, you know, the leaders that’s in the news, but we wanted to set out to find people who would be considered everyday people who are already doing wonderful things and they’re doing it - not just because they’re environmentalists - but because it makes financial sense to do that and they’re reaping the benefits. And one such a person is Cliff Etheridge, who is a cotton-farmer-turned-wind-farmer in Roscoe, West Texas.

GELLERMAN: This place, Roscoe, is really down on its luck. I mean, drought has left the farmers down and out and even the Dairy Queen pulled out of town. And then, you know, they get together - these farmers - and they produce what’s the world’s largest wind farm!

[FILM CLIP: Farmers really do appreciate these things. This is strictly dry land. We sat here and prayed for rain and cussed the wind. Now what we’ve been cussing all these years - it turned out to be a blessing.]

VAN ZYL: It’s an amazing story of what can happen if a community pulls together and if they have the proper leadership to steer them.

Bernie Karl of Alaska uses 165 degree water to create geothermal energy.

GELLERMAN: The guy I really like is Bernie Karl - he’s a real character! He’s developing geothermal energy from a hot spring in Alaska, and he’s not someone you’d expect to see in a documentary about climate change.

VAN ZYL: He was basically the person that opened our eyes to the fact that you don’t really have to care about climate change, but that you can still do these things and work towards cleaner energy sources.

[FILM CLIP: Do I think man is causing global warming? I think that we add to it. Do I think we’re causing it? No. But that doesn’t make any difference. I want clean water and I want clean air. And that’s so simple. Now this power plant is making power off of water that’s not as hot as McDonald’s coffee.”]

GELLERMAN: (Laughs). And he’s making money! And he’s saving energy.

VAN ZYL: Yes, he’s saving a lot of money. He’s doing it. He’s a living example of everything that we’re saying in the film.

GELLERMAN: You avoided the question of nuclear power as an alternative to burning fossil fuels. And you say that nuclear power splits atoms and opinions - and you made the film before the Japan nuclear disaster, of course - but you knew about, you know, Chernobyl, obviously, but not addressing nuclear power…isn’t that something of a cop-out?

VAN ZYL: We chose to focus on the positive and on the things that we know make sense right now. Nuclear power, because of it being so divisive and because of the fact that there’s…you know, even if they say yes to nuclear - a new nuclear plant today - it’s going to take ten years to even get that up and running. And we just thought that the solutions that we do present can be done on a shorter lead time and as maybe less controversial.

GELLERMAN: You did take a look at climate change gas other than carbon dioxide, and you talked to Michael Dunham. He’s quite a character too - he’s a former rock and roll producer from Haywood, California, who’s had quite a bit of change of careers.

Former rock producer Michael Dunham recycles old refrigerators.

[FILM CLIP: Refrigerators are really bad, bad environmental time-bombs. CFC12, which is in the cooling circuit - that’s what people typically call Freon, is 10,720 times greater a global warmer than CO2. When I was 20 years old, I started producing rock and roll concerts - I did everybody from Elvis to Sinatra and two tours with the Rolling Stones. And everybody goes, ‘Well, how did you go from rock and roll to refrigerators?’ And I say, ‘Well, it was quite easy - it involved a jetty.’]

GELLERMAN: Yeah, I guess he’s surfing, he hits a jetty, and he’s reborn as an environmentalist - a climate change activist.

VAN ZYL: Exactly. Well he decided he’s going to do something good with his life if he gets spared a little bit longer to get back on Earth. (Laughs).

And yeah, so he started doing this work, and he’s actually considered one of the experts in the field of refrigerators. You google Michael Dunham - he’s got some great credentials.

GELLERMAN: There’s a definite retro feel to your documentary. I guess that was deliberate - kind of the video, and the music composition, and the way you inserted the graphics.

VAN ZYL: I don’t know about retro feel. I think…we definitely filmed it on a standard definition camera. And the main reason for that is actually it wasn’t a planned look as much as when we started making the film, we had absolutely no, no budget - it came out of pocket and we just self-financed it.

GELLERMAN: What was the total budget, can you tell me?

VAN ZYL: Um, we got a lot of in-kind and reduced rates, so if you have to use real market prices, it’s over a million dollars. But we didn’t have to raise all that money - about half of that.

GELLERMAN: And what kind of reception have you had?

Carbon Nation logo

VAN ZYL: We have had wonderful reception. We find that the people who do get to see the film love it. The last time I checked on the website Rotten Tomatoes, our audience rating was over 90 percent, so that’s a good feel. With regards to reviewers, it’s been mixed. More so positive than not. We either…from the more conservative side, we sort of get lambasted that we are living in a Pollyanna world, we’ve heard that. And then, the more liberal press feels that we haven’t really gone after the bad guys, and they wanted to have a blame-and-shame film, and that’s just simply not the film we set out to make. We tried to make a film that’s non-partisan - that would bring people together rather than just helping to create the divide.

GELLERMAN: Well, Chrisna Van Zyl, thank you so very much.

VAN ZYL: Thank you very much, Bruce - it’s been a pleasure.

GELELRMAN: Chrisna Van Zyl is the producer of “Carbon Nation.” The film will be screened on college campuses across the nation on April 12th and is also showing in selected theatres and environmental film festivals, including in Miami, Florida, and the world’s largest - Boston’s “Wild and Scenic Film Festival.” “Carbon Nation” will also be out on DVD in May.



Carbon Nation website

Wild and Scenic Film Festival, March 25-26 in Boston, MA


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