Last night I attended the pre-screening of Matt Damon’s newest flick “Promised Land.” The film is about natural gas fracking and centres around an energy company land negotiator who is sent into a community where a new shale gas formation has been discovered to sign contracts with the land owners so development can begin. He is hit with opposition from the environmental movement due to questionable practices employed with hydraulic fracturing.
I am not writing this as a movie review because frankly I am no expert on cinema and you all will be able to draw your own conclusions, however I think this movie highlights some very important trends in energy and society’s perception of the energy industry.
In the world of energy there are two trade-offs that are constantly referenced – a prosperous economy vs. a pristine environment – and Promised Land was no different. The movie made several references to small agricultural communities having insufficient resources to adequately sustain themselves and that industry (of any kind, but energy in particular) gives hope for a comfortable life. Of course this is the crux of the energy dynamics and struggles we see around the world – energy use means quality of life.
While the movie focused on one community and what energy means to them, this issue is much more systemic than that. At a macro level, the developing world is hungry for energy to allow millions to come out of energy poverty and be afforded the same opportunities that those of us in the developed world have enjoyed since the industrial revolution. In the developed world, we have built our economies on consumerism and by using massive amounts of energy. To me this represents “energy evolution” and tremendous opportunity- the idea that in the past we were reliant on consumption to support economies but today we have many people and scarce resources. Our economies can evolve to decouple energy use from economic prosperity. I truly believe that with continuous innovation and vision in the space we will be able to strike the precarious balance between the economy and the environment with citizens of the world still having all they need and vast opportunity for advancement.
Us Against Them (Polarization)
I have noticed that over the years there has been a rise in the David and Goliath mentality in the energy industry. It seems that average citizens, communities and environmental groups are portrayed as the little guy going up against the big machine. In Promised Land, energy companies are portrayed as the big guys who throw their weight around and are able to pay anyone off. While the David and Goliath portrayal is likely grounded in truth I think it is important to recognize how dangerous this is to the discourse around energy issues. If consumers feel no trust and companies feel they constantly have to be reactionary it is difficult to achieve true, measured progress. To be clear, I am not letting anyone off the hook here but I do implore you all to remember that we are all in this together – governments, industry, consumers. Energy is a system that we are all a part of and pointing fingers will not get us anywhere.
Popularity of Energy Issues
Promised Land was the first motion picture I have seen that tackled an energy production technology in such a head-on manner; traditionally that job has been left to documentary filmmakers or as a sub-plot in a big action flick. I think this is important to note. Energy is no longer something that society simply sees as part of the background. It is a crucial part of daily life and the issues surrounding it are now discussed as prominently and openly as war, trade, social conditions and the like. I do not think this will be the last movie to have energy as the focal point and this is a function of how incredibly integrated the industry is with our every day lives.
Finally, I want to mention that the organization I represent, Student Energy, strives to provide balanced information on energy topics of all kinds. No energy technology is without trade-offs as I have mentioned above and there is a lot of polarized information about fracking. “Truth” is difficult to come by so here are a few easy-reading resources I have found that provide diverse but credible perspectives on natural gas fracking.
To reach a sustainable energy future we need an educated and critical public. I encourage you to dig into energy issues beyond just their surface debates (or Hollywood portrayal) and take into account various dimensions – economic, political, social, technological and geo-political – and perspectives. Once we have this we can raise the level of discourse to a solutions-focused, progressive dialogue and achieve change.
Image: Promised Land via Shutterstock