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Published on September 19th, 2012 | by Leslie Finlay


“Switch” opens on Friday, September 21 at Landmark Sunshine Cinema.

Running time: 98 minutes.

Agenda-free journalism is an increasingly tricky area, and that’s what makes Harry Lynch’s latest documentary, “Switch,” so impressive. The film takes a critical look at the global problems of energy, dwindling natural resources, and an increasingly consumerist society, and delivers a tempered narrative highlighting the evolving energy industry.

Instead of laying on the criticism, “Switch” calls for an adjustment in attitude and awareness. It addresses the huge demand for energy, and acknowledges that making the switch isn’t as easy as turning off our addiction. After all, I’m writing this on a laptop, it’s posted with a tablet, and read through a smartphone. It would be difficult to stop all of this cold. According to its website, the Switch Energy Project is not just a film, but also an education program designed to build energy awareness, encourage efficiency, and find practical, balanced solutions to our energy challenges. Produced by Acros Films, the documentary is a compendium of all of the energy options that exist today, along with several promising possibilities just cresting the horizon. With Lynch behind the lens, renowned energy expert Dr. Scott Tinker engages with energy specialists, plant managers, policymakers, academics, and CEOs of international energy companies to piece together an illustration expressing where we are as a society in terms of energy needs and resources. The final cut of the film was drawn from two years of footage totaling 500 hours, some of which documents highly restricted areas never before seen on film. As the fields of science and engineering continue to advance year after year, it’s notable, too, that Tinker and Lynch keep all of the information contained in the film current, while still demonstrating how quickly these fields evolve. This same attribute also speaks to the fact that the core issues the film addresses are becoming more urgent with the passing of time.

Tinker offers a sobering summary of the current state of global energy usage, including which options are currently employed, and forecasts for the future. But he avoids promoting one option over another; he doesn’t damn modern energy models or champion any alternatives. Tinker suggests that some alternative energy proposals are idealistic and impractical. Many possibilities, from coal power, to nuclear energy, to private equity options, are thoroughly vetted and reviewed. It’s immediately clear that if Lynch and Tinker are subscribing to any agenda, it’s rooted in a conviction that there are obstacles standing in the way of a truly sustainable society, regardless of the energy option we support. For someone with as many industry accolades as Tinker, it seems like a humbling admission when he admits that he doesn’t know what the best answer is. Instead, the duo calls for practicality and pragmatism. Lynch and Tinker remain faithful to their role as documentarians—they offer up the facts, line up the challenges, and encourage both awareness and a change in attitude, without being preachy or employing scare tactics.

The film’s overarching theme seems to be that there is an economic reality that must be taken into account, and that we might need to let go of a “seemingly perfect solution.” According to Tinker and Lynch, the more idealistic the approach, the less cost-effective it is. The technology to produce clean energy could be developed, but it would be enormously expensive. Tinker emphasizes the fact that the scale at which the western world currently consumes energy poses a major challenge to the possibility of switching to less environmentally harmful sources. But the western world isn’t even half the problem. In the next two to three decades, the energy demands of India and China will be higher than those of North America and all of the European countries combined. Persuading these developing countries to use sustainable energy will be a challenge, especially since the western world hasn’t been so quick to change its own ways. This forecast isn’t necessarily damning to our planet, but it is guaranteed to be a point of friction politically, socially, and culturally. It could produce conflicts for which we aren’t currently prepared.

It is unlikely that Lynch and Tinker’s documentary will be particularly revolutionary, igniting some sort of great, sweeping change on any platform, but it’s an important component within the body of work the two are championing. The film also makes an interesting statement within a genre increasingly cluttered by agenda-backed (or at least unilaterally financed) documentaries. Offering up a tempered critique of a global problem, they’re much more likely to experience a reaction that isn’t weathered and worn. “Switch” is deliberately informative, ending like a movie leading into a sequel, its closing frame echoing its title: “When will we make the switch?”

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is a writer based in New York.

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