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From fuel to film: The story of energy and movies

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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On Wednesday March 9, energy and film experts gathered at the original Austin City Limits studio on The University of Texas campus to discuss the role of energy and movies in our lives. The event was hosted by Dr. Michael E. Webber, and featured a panel of energy and film experts: author Sheril Kirshenbaum, producer Turk Pipkin, screenwriter and director Matthew Chapman, and film historian and distinguished UT professor Dr. Charles Ramirez-Berg.

Readers of Scientific American were able to watch the event live, and I was livetweeting at the event. In this post I will summarize some of the major themes that were discussed.

The story of energy is one about transitions and adapting to a new and uncertain future. Movies have captured this story by providing us with a historical record that illustrates the changes made to our quality of life, wealth, social status, and prosperity. Energy and movies are intertwined at different points throughout history and have, at times, developed alongside each other. With this idea in mind, we can glean the a little history of our interactions with energy and the environment through popular culture.

To do this, we’ll look at three major points in our energy history: coal, oil, and the future.

Coal

The story of coal dates back several centuries to before the industrial revolution. For centuries, wood was the fuel of choice for producing heat and steam, but was replaced by coal after forests in the Northeast were destroyed. Ironically, coal might have saved the forests over a hundred years ago. Mining operations in the coal belt brought along jobs and a level of prosperity not seen before in certain parts of the country. Films created up until World War II depicts coal in this light, as a savior to many people. However, the caricature of coal changed from that of an economic boost to an environmental drain and hazardous profession for the working class in rural parts of the country.

Oil

Oil, unlike coal, was portrayed in a more positive light – at least until the 1970s. Television hows such as The Beverly Hillbillies depict oil as a source of mobility – as both transportation source, but in social status. Oil is depicted with the power to elevate a poor, rural family from the hills to one of the wealthiest enclaves of American society by (literally) stumbling across black gold.

Two oil crises, unrest in the Middle East, and gasoline rationing marked the shift in our relationship with oil, and this shift is reflected on the screen. The salad days of The Beverly Hillbillies were then replaced with stories of wealth, power, and corruption in television shows like Dallas. And Dallas, like the global oil market, crossed borders and cultures.

The 9/11 attacks and war in Iraq are the latest chapter in our relationship with oil. As we see in movies like Syriana, The Kingdom, and Jarhead, there is a growing tension between oil producing nations and consumers. Corruption, confusion, and deception make up the landscape that seems to swallow governments, terrorist organizations, and businesses alike. If our relationship with oil had a Facebook status, it would probably read "it’s complicated".

The Future

So where do we go from here? There is renewed unrest in the Middle East and energy prices are rising (again). Perhaps movies hold clues to our future. Do films like Monsters, Inc. and Wall-E offer us a glimpse at a future powered by new fuel sources, human spirit, and determination? Or are they subtle warnings about the perils of over consumption and resource depletion?

Perhaps they are both. What we can be certain of is that there will be more transitions ahead. One lesson from the last 70 years of film and cinema is transitions are inevitable and it is up to us to make the most of them. Who knows what the next 70 years will look like?

The video feed will be posted. In the meantime, you can check out the Twitter feed here.

About The Author: David Wogan is a dual-degree graduate student at The University of Texas at Austin in Mechanical Engineering and Public Affairs. David’s work includes the integration of engineering, biological, and policy disciplines to assess advanced energy production in Texas. David received his BS in Mechanical Engineering from U.T. Austin in December 2006. David has worked at National Instruments and at the White House Council on Environmental Quality on the Energy & Climate Change Team. David is a currently a graduate researcher with the Webber Energy Group and writes at The Daily Wogan, his energy and sustainability blog.

 

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.






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