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The Moviegoer's Guide to the Energy Crisis
By Scott Bittle & Jean Johnson,
Authors of Book Who Turned Out the Lights: Your Guided Tour to the Energy Crisis

In the hit TV series, NCIS, Navy investigator Tony DiNozzo, has a habit of finding a movie analogy for nearly every case his team handles. Sometimes it falls flat, since not everybody's seen the movie in question. Thinking about things that are new and unfamiliar by comparing them to things most people already know is a time-honored way of coping with a complicated world. In some respects, it's one of pop culture's greatest benefits: providing a shorthand frame of reference. When President Obama compared being chief executive to being a contestant on American Idol "except that everyone is Simon Cowell," we all knew what he meant.

But we like Tony's take on the world, and our concern is America's energy problem. So here's how some famous films shed light on the country's energy problems. As far as we're concerned, four movies tell the story. 

The way we get and use energy now poses two big dangers. One is that we'll destroy Earth as we know it by continuing to pump carbon dioxide into the air, causing global warming. There's a whole host of stupid-and-greedy-humans-destroy-the-Earth movies, but we feel a moral obligation not to recommend anything that's actually bad, even if it makes the point. (Sorry, Waterworld.) So we've chosen the 1973 sci-fi classic Soylent Green. Charlton Heston and Edward G. Robinson (in his last film role) play two cops in a future where New Yorkers are starving in a polluted, corrupt, broiling hot city. A few rich people live well enough amid the environmental disaster, but most people survive by eating "soylent green," a substance that . . . well, we can't tell you what it is without spoiling the plot. Suffice to say that nutritional labeling rules must have been dramatically relaxed. 

At one point, the older Robinson talks about how the stores used to be full of food, and you could pick apples off trees. "I know, Sol, you've told me a hundred times before," Heston says. "People were better, the world was better. . . ." Robinson shakes his head. "People were always rotten," he answers, "but the world was beautiful."

Soylent Green imagines what the human costs of environmental disaster might be. It sums up the fear that basic human decency itself wouldn't survive the strains of climate change.

The other big energy danger is that, because we import so much oil and rely mainly on fossil fuels which won't last forever, the United States might not be able to get the energy it needs. The Mad Max trilogy is the way to go here (We nominate The Road Warrior as the best of the three.) Sometime in the future, oil is in very short supply (for reasons that are never fully explained), and Mel Gibson wanders through the Australian outback, where society is coming apart at the seams in the struggle for fuel. In the first movie, the police and hospitals are functioning, but just barely. By the second and third films, small bands of people living in ever-stranger social orders barricade themselves inside refineries, holding off ruthless biker gangs dressed like 1980s hair bands, only far more vicious. This is the worst-case scenario -- a lurid, pop culture version of "peak oil," the idea that the end of the petroleum age may be near. Whether peak oil is near or not, energy experts agree that the whole world is going to be scrambling to meet oil demand as people in China and India finally start buying cars and catching up with our standard of living. Mad Max sums up the fear that running out of energy means running out of civilization as well.

The third movie in our energy film fest is Groundhog Day, where Bill Murray is doomed to relive the same small-town holiday over and over again. To us, this pretty much sums up our country's history of dealing with its energy problems. Every so often, oil and gas prices shoot up. Voters get upset. Politicians say we absolutely, positively need to change the way we get and use energy. We make a few adjustments here and there -- both in the country's overall policies and in our own personal habits. Then a couple of years later, we go back to our same old ways. At least Bill Murray changed his line of attack after hearing Sonny and Cher sing "I Got You Babe" on his radio alarm for the umpteenth time.

So far, not so good, when it comes to U.S. energy policy. Still, we do seem to be able to get our act together when we have to. For all the pain and angst involved, the gasoline price spikes of 2008 showed again what people can do when they see a reason to do it. Americans cut their driving, switched to hybrids, and found all kinds of new energy alternatives. 

That's why we keep coming back to a different kind of movie: Apollo 13. Based on the actual events in 1970, it tells the story of the Apollo 13 moon mission, which had to be aborted when an oxygen tank exploded in space. This is a movie about problem solving, and while the astronauts are gallant, the real heroes are the NASA engineers on the ground -- classic Sixties engineers with buzz cuts and horn-rimmed glasses.

In one sequence, Gary Sinise, playing one of the astronauts left behind, sits in the Apollo simulator trying to figure out how to bring the spacecraft home on the paltry amount of electricity left in the batteries, barely enough to run a coffeepot. He tries dozens of things dozens of times, but he eventually comes up with a plan that ekes out enough voltage to get the ship home. Directing the operation is mission control chief Gene Krantz, played by Ed Harris, who won't let the engineers and scientists fall into recriminations and rivalry. "Let's work the problem, people!" Harris urges. 

The people who brought the Apollo 13 spacecraft back to Earth faced a terrifying emergency, but they didn't allow themselves to become immobilized because they were confused. They looked over their choices and did the best they could with what they had. In the end, they brought the crew back to Earth safely.

To be fair, Tony and the NCIS team aren't such bad models either. They don't have a lot in common; there's a former Marine gunnery sergeant, a Goth forensic scientist, an erudite Scottish pathologist. They squabble; Tony seems like a lazy, overgrown frat boy much of the time. But when they have to solve a case, they put their differences aside and get to work.  

And that's the issue for the United States right now: Can we stop squabbling, get off our duffs, and start to work the problem, people?

©2009 Scott Bittle & Jean Johnson, authors of Who Turned Out the Lights: Your Guided Tour to the Energy Crisis

Author Bios
Scott Bittle, co-author of Who Turned Out the Lights: Your Guided Tour to the Energy Crisis, is executive editor of, where he has prepared citizen guides on more than twenty major issues including the federal budget deficit, Social Security, and the economy. He is also the website director for Planet Forward, an innovative PBS program designed to bring citizen voices to the energy debate.

Jean Johnson, co-author of Who Turned Out the Lights: Your Guided Tour to the Energy Crisis, is co-founder of, and has written articles and op-eds for USA Today, Education Week, School Board News, Educational Leadership, and the Huffington Post Website.

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