Recap of Energy at the Movies with Dr. Michael Webber

A couple weeks ago I got to see a high school classmate of mine in action as he continues to make a huge name for himself in the world of energy education. It was the pre-screening of a public TV special called Energy At The Movies with an additional Q&A session with Dr. Michael Webber. A college course that used films to teach about the holocaust inspired him to use that idea to teach the Japanese about energy and culture while working at the Rand Corporation. Years later he turned that format into an engaging and entertaining film to show the way movies influence how we think about energy, and in turn, how we influence energy policy.

Dr. Webber uses film clips woven with commentary to walk us through 70 years of energy on the big screen to understand how filmmakers captured the use of energy. He repeats several times that "energy transitions are something we do, over time." Webber guides us to look at movies as historical documents showing the context of what was going on as we shifted from wood to coal to oil to hydroelectric to nuclear and renewables. "Energy is not static; it is dynamic. It changes over time," says Webber. The transitions have made things better – wood is the most carbon intensive per fuel use. He concludes that "Energy enriches us, it is bad for foreign policy, and it pollutes…and we must balance the upsides and downsides."

Webber points out the ironies present in our shifts from one fuel source to another. For instance, when coal replaced firewood as a fuel source, it dramatically slowed the deforestation of the northeast. So, coal once helped save the forests, but now threatens them again with acid rain, and logging roads and mountaintop removal and polluting river valleys. Another irony is that fossil-fuel-based kerosene initially helped save the whales when it replaced whale oil as a fuel source. Kerosene oil also burned brighter and had less smell and smoke, improving quality of life for humans as well.

So for a little science background…1 btu = 1 match… the US uses 100 Quadrillion (a million billions) BTUs per year! That's quite a demand! We used less than one QUAD until the 1800s when we were burning wood and decimating our forests. Consumption stepped up when we shifted to the use of coal during Industrial Revolution. This form of energy was more dense burned hotter and cleaner than wood. Then we we entered the post-war era, a time of more EVERYTHING – more economic growth, more jobs, more population, more pollution.

I should note that during the Q&A Dr. Webber shared a distrubing set of facts. If we use the height of a human as a yardstick, the per capita energy consumption levels of the Chinese and the global average (they are currently the same) would be up to the knees. British consumption would be up to the hips. US consumption would be up to the head, and Texas consumption is, unbelievably, twice that! So Chinese/Global average x2 = British x2 = US x2 = Texas. Whoa!

A truly great primer that chronicles the history and challenge of energy consumption is one of my childhood favorites, Schoolhouse Rock's "Energy Blues" (1979). It tells us that energy conservation should be our focus: "If we all try a little harder we'll make it go farther and farther… till we find a fuel that never runs out… Energy, we're gonna be stretching you ooooooooout."

I took the following notes while watching the film once. I put the movies in chronological order even though Dr. Webber showed clips in a slightly different order in his film.

1) Wood – peaked in 1875, and movies weren’t made until the 20th century – therefore very little representation except in a few silent films

2) Coal – heyday 30s and 40s – Despite coal's importance as a fuel, overall it was portrayed negatively. Frequent themes included the balance about past vs. future and intergenerational tensions. Portrayals of unions fighting for protections for coal workers. Subtle accusations of socialism

  • How Green Was My Valley (1941)  honorable badge of the coal miner – span of good to bad in 2 hours – sons died in the mine, sons moved away to get jobs  – Coal is bad, Coal pollutes, Environmental degradation, mines collapse, black lung
  • Pittsburgh (1942) – Union themes
  • Coal Miner's Daughter (1980) – "You've got three choices if you're born here – Coal mine, moonshine or moving on down the line"
  • Matewan (1987) – Union themes
  • October Sky (1999) – "Coal mining is your life, not mine", father dying, black lung
  • Zoolander (2001) – Derek attempts to reconnect with his father and brothers by helping in the coal mines. His family rejects him.

3) Oil – Initially, oil is portrayed positive, pleasant, nostalgic. Movies about oil frequently feature dashing actors – our finest. Makes us rich and strong and free.

  • Three Stooges, "Oily to Bed Oily to RIse" (1939)
  • Boomtown (1940) – extravagance and multiple cars
  • Tulsa (1949) – land of the Native Americans had oil underground that "had to come out" – sought for and fought for all over the world. It's here, it's ours.
  • Bugs Bunny – Oily Hare (1952)
  • Written on the WInd (1956)
  • Giant (1956) – "We're in the Money, the sky is honey," glamour, high life
  • Hellfighters (1968)

But then in the 70s, oil peaked and oil becomes confusing. We don't have gushers any more – have to work harder to get it. It's combustible – makes it a great fuel but dangerous and hard to replae. Even in 1449, in Tulsa an angry woman says, “I don't like the way you operate! You pollute our water and our men too. You have left a wasteland- there’s no grass growing, and oil polluted the stream.”

After the turn of the century, 9-11 & Katrina,  Oil is bad, and films about it feature actors who are nobodies.

  • Syriana (2005) – declining production, conflicts between old and new culture, autocracy vs. democracy
  • The Kingdom (2007) – national security issue, Osama bin Laden could help – then against

4) Nuclear – bad. Cliches and common themes – lax safety precautions ie. voluntary screening, cover ups – falsifying, questioning, greedy and mismanaged, sloppy – food in the control room. Note: now have better safety records.

  • The China Syndrome (1979)  – scary – dangerous – "people who lie and faced with the agony of telling the truth" – came out 12 days before 3-mile Island – freaked people out —-blamed killed the industry
  • Silkwood (1983) – Whistleblower killed
  • Note in Back to the Future (1985) we get a hint that small nuclear, micro reactors will be a part of our future

5) Hydroelectric – weaves together jobs, irrigation, flood control, political power, water management, energy. Theme of displacement, especially of poor people.
At one point the four largest dams in the world were in the U.S.

  • Wild River (1960) – flood the island with the Tennessee River – harness it – provide electricity and tame it – call it progress – we aim to tame this whole river – versus letting things run wild, natural wants and needs – against dams of any kind
  • Deliverance (1972) – rape the landscape – versus progress – flood control. Man rapes land and then nature rapes man later.
  • O Brother Where Art Thou (2000) – searching for treasure before river is dammed and lake floods it

6) Renewables – Renewables are a great time stamp – futuristic. There isn't a lot yet. Renewables do not have enough dramatic challenge to make them good movie fodder. Renewables = no tailpipe and no smoke – cleaner air.  But most futuristic movies are not happy. There are few non-apocolyptic portrayals of renewables.

  • Gattaca (1997) – depiction of solar in the background
  • Wall-E (2008) – Solar powered main characters

Webber shows how history predicts the future better than we might anticipate. In Thunder Bay (1953) they oilmen are pushing the rig and then can't stop it because the blow-out preventer didn't work. Fast forward to 2010 and the Deep Water Horizon oil spill and Gulf Coast disaster  – the blow-outpreventer didn't work.

Webber subtly foreshadows where I hope we are headed with inclusion of the world of Monsters, Inc. (2001), where homes are powered by the frightened screams of children, provoked by monsters. The monsters shift their tactics after they realize that laughter is a more powerful energy than screaming. Webber parallels the extraction industry and to monster power: we think we need advanced technology to get better scares, but we are learning that there is another, more effective way. By saying "We can torture it or partner with it”, Webber hearkens an optimistic vision of a renewable energy future that "will bring something happier for all of us."

For those who want to read and watch more, you can go to and see a panel discussion, interviews with experts, and more. The good news, for those who like to learn their history in more fun ways, Dr. Webber has plans to create a whole series of programs including "Water at the movies", "Oil at the movies", and "Nuclear at the movies." Stay tuned…

Q&A with Michael Webber at the Pre-Screening of Energy at the Movies at the KLRU studios

The following are raw notes captured during the open Q&A session. Many of the points were in response to Dr. Webber's question to the audience about what other examples of energy in the movies did we know of that were not depicted in this first program.

  • 35th Anniversary of Star Wars – solar powered stuff was there when we first met Luke Skywalker
  • Avatar – plans to destroy ancient forest to extract energy from beneath
  • Wall-e – Overconsumption made the earth uninhabitable – have to go somewhere else – even renewables couldn't save us
  • Give a hoot, don't pollute – 70s
  • Women in Love – coal scene
  • Quest for fire – represents wood – prehistoric times – trying to keep a little coal alive
  • Hunger Games – Old coal mining precinct
  • Dilithium crystals – Star Trek source of energy
  • Consider the BTUs represented in Up in the Air – Consumption of energy for flying
  • Science in the Movies – book – includes using energy to accomplish stunts and special effects. Great level for bright kids to understand.
  • International – is there an Arab version of Giant? Bollywood?
  • We are harvesting resources to get rich and have to look at what are the downsides in the process

Q – There are movies, like The Avengers, and lore about unlimited free energy, perpetual motion, cold fusion, and OverUnity which can generate more than input.  Do movies predict the future?
A – Cannot undo the laws of thermodynamics

  • Webber – Would be fun to do “Crazy scientists in the movies” – Pittsburgh – handsome Professor from Gilligan's Island
  • Webber – Beverly Hillbillies 60s and went off the air the year oil production peaked- Showed you can be stupid and still get rich. Gusher gives them physical and social mobility.
  • Webber – Dallas went off the air when we go to war over oil – fighting over the wealth that their parents made

Q – What is known of Japanese popular culture as it relates to atomic energy?  
A – Texas has some grad students looking into this especially in light of the Fukushima disaster – songs, music, poetry, art, movies. Certainly the Japanese have fears of destroyed cities – Godzilla

Actors that show up in energy-themed movies

  • Chris Cooper starred in many energy related movies – Syriana, Kingdom, October Sky, Muppets – about the Evil Oil Man destroying the Muppet theater
  • Jake Gillenhall
  • Rock Hudson in both movies
  • Timothy Hutton

Natural Gas

  • Doesn't show up except in background in stoves
  • GE turbines  – There are documentaries – gasland and ___
  • Gas doesn't have a presence yet in mainstream films – it has not yet captured our conscience
  • WIll likely be more come up due to fracking – audience member shared that Matt Damon will be coming in a movie about hydraulic fracturing
  • A bit in Syriana
  • Note the transition from US to China for negotiating oil – note the Chinese bother to learn Arabic


  • Matrix – biofuels – growing humans as a power plant – couldn't weave it in
  • Soilent Green – 70s film about the end of humanity and humans start eating humans – it's about climate change and fuel sources being predicted by future

Energy Storage – batteries, compressed air, other. Hydro is our current version of energy storage – but how small it can deliver
don't know how it will show up in movies

  • Night and Day – battery
  • Terminator – he pulls out his energy source

Water – Energy Nexus???
Water Movies – Deliverance, WIld River, Water world, RIngo, Chinatown,

  • Who Killed the Electric Car – documentaries

Event was co-hosted by Laura Benold, President of the Clean TX Foundation + Webber Energy Group + KLRU + American Clean Skies Foundation + AMD + Center for European Studies + Austin Energy + The Butler Firm

Juan Garcia – Producer
Griffin and Lawrence
Michael Webber

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