Thoughts About the Movie “Houston We Have a Problem”

27 08 2012

Well, I think this wraps up energy-themed documentary reviews on this site for a while, but if that’s the case I do declare the run is going out on a high note. It was refreshing to see a documentary on a – put mildly – touchy subject that cast everyone in a new light and explored the issues without overt axe-grinding.

Not that there wasn’t any axe-grinding, it was just more fun to watch.

Spoilers follow.

The central theme of the documentary is that we, the USA, cannot go on indefinitely relying on oil as an energy source. We don’t use it exclusively, but our consumption is so massive that eventually, there just won’t be any. Factor in emerging gas-guzzlers like India (not really discussed) and China (be very afraid) and if we’re not going to get off our butts and figure out what else to rely on and how, we deserve everything that happens.

The Good:

I was shocked, shocked to see oil executives – and I’m not talking “spokespeople” and flacks, I mean CEOs and the like – talk frankly about the pros and cons of the oil business. Because the media apparently thrives on “good guys and bad guys” and similar punchy narratives, at present we’re led to believe that to the last, every person involved in the oil industry is the devil himself. And I’ll admit, if you get a steady enough diet of that narrative, but – and this is key – if the people you’re demonizing don’t get the chance to speak frankly and become human, then yes, they’re all evil and hate your mother.

This is not to say that the oil industry as a whole is saintly and has never done one “bad” thing in the pursuit of the almighty dollar. But if we are willing to face facts, the oil industry isn’t the only sector that ever did, or does that.

Lots and lots of clever quotes and things to chew on. Big credit to the filmmakers for making the final 20 minutes or so about alternatives to oil.

The Bad:

I was going to file this under “the ugly” but I’ll be charitable tonight: I’m not a fan of cheeky animations that are meant to undermine the interview subject. That’s Michael Moore territory and need not be re-tread.

I about did a spit-take when natural gas was touted by people who should know better as “clean” energy. It burns “clean”, sure. But mining for it is a doozy. I won’t re-hash GasLand.

I wanted to see more about how and if the oil business is making the transition to some other energy economy, such as geothermal. It gets a sentence or two but I was left with the impression that the oil business worldwide is bent on draining every last drop of oil and then there’s no plan B.

The Ugly:

Nothing worth mentioning, off the cuff.

My $0.02:

I’ll discuss this at length in a forthcoming article, but in brief the focus was less on distribution of energy sources than coming up with how to harness which ones and how. Distribution gets a mention in terms of how to increase the capacity and distance of transmission lines for say, wind and solar but I’ll harp on another thing: The discussion really needs to turn to how energy can be produced where it is consumed.

The film did show that Nellis AFB in Nevada made some inroads to that goal by implementing and maintaining a solar farm. It currently (at last word) generates 25% of the power used by the base daily. It may not seem like much but if you read the stats and then realize that the US military uses a massive amount of energy daily, 25% beats 0% hands down.

Now: What I’d like to focus on is what we’re using energy for. As noted in the movie, most Americans think electricity comes from “the socket”. Well, sure, but what feeds the socket? I think a huge fallacy has been to make “the socket” a veritable bottomless pit of energy, which makes it real easy to not think about what goes in to the supply chain. Frankly, and I do this too, we leave lights on all day and night because we can. What if you had to pedal an exercise bike every day to generate the electricity you need to power your home? One, we’d all be in great shape, and two, we’d be thinking real hard about why we need the lights on 24/7.

I’ll rant on all of that later. This movie bags a 4/5 stars on Netflix only because 3.5 wasn’t an option and I really want more people to see it, and think about where the oil business has been and where energy production and consumption is going in the future.

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