Thursday, March 10, 2011

From fuel to film: The story of energy and movies

Scene from There Will Be Blood
On Wednesday March 9, energy and film experts gathered at the historic 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, for the most part, have been able to capture these transitions and illustrate the changes made to our quality of life, wealth, social status, and ability as a society to prosper. Energy and movies are uniquely intertwined at different points throughout history and have, at times, developed alongside each other. Therefore, movies present an interestingly look at something so critical to our way of life.

Coal and oil are two major energy sources that illustrate trade-offs and changing perceptions with their production and use.


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. Along with this new energy source came the prospects of jobs, as reflected by many films leading up to World War II. However, the portrayal of coal changed from that of an economic boost to impoverished communities to an environmental drain and hazardous profession for the working class.


Oil, unlike coal, is generally portrayed in a more positive light - at least until the 1970s. Shows such as  The Beverly Hillbillies depict oil as a source of mobility - not just literally as transportation source, but in social status. Oil had the power to elevate a poor, rural family from the hills to one of the wealthiest echelons of American society simply because they (literally) stumbled across black gold.
Two oil crises, unrest in the Middle East, and gasoline rationing marked the shift in our relationship with oil and how it is portrayed on screen. The salad days of The Beverly Hillbillies have now been replaced with stories of wealth, power, and corruption in 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 overconsumption and resource depletion?

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

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.

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