In a world of many glass half-empty (or completely empty) environmental documentaries, filmmaker Peter Byck is a glass half-full guy. Consider his 2010 documentary, Carbon Nation. Not only does the title indicate that its maker doesn’t take himself too seriously, the solutions based film reaches out to everybody – whether they believe in climate change or not.
Byck, a freshly minted addition to the Arizona State University faculty, didn’t set out to be a teacher. After finishing film school at California Institute of the Arts, he embarked on a career in the business, spending more than 20 years doing things like directing shows for MTV, and editing documentaries and promotional shorts for big names and big studios. Yet even though he didn’t plan on becoming an educator, his mind sort of worked that way.
“It’s funny. When I was in film school, which is a long time ago, 82 to 86, I was already thinking of ways to teach, not planning on it, but things were popping into my head. There’s always been something there.”
Something there will be something here this fall when Byck starts his new job as Professor of Practice at Arizona State University’s School of Sustainability and the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Media. There, in a class called Sustainability Storytelling, students will learn how to make documentaries about clean energy. Byck describes himself as a big fan of solar power, the perfect thing to explore in Arizona.
“The first place that we’re going to delve into is all the solar work that’s going on in Gila Bend. The class starts in August and we’ll starting shooting in September.” Byck’s goal is to teach his students everything he knows in the process. “You can’t replace experience, but you can give the rules … all the mechanisms I’ve learned in filmmaking.”
One of the recent mechanisms he’s used is approaching environmental issues, most notably carbon, from a positive standpoint. While Byck notes that there are films he admires for how they were able to motivate change, he wanted to take a different view. “When I saw ‘An Inconvenient Truth,’ I thought it was a very well-made film about what the problem was. And then I wanted to make a film about the solution.”
That fresh perspective has opened doors. According to Byck, donors, audiences, liberals and conservatives all liked the approach. “I’ve been asked to show the film and speak at places all over the world and I don’t think it would happen if it wasn’t about solutions. No one knew who I was before I made the movie, so it wasn’t that.” Nor is he focused on making everybody believe the same thing he does. In fact, one of the individuals featured in the film does not believe that humans are causing climate change, yet has created break-through geothermal technology. By setting aside the debate about whether or not climate change is happening, people can look at larger issues. Byck suggests that the commonality between us is that we all seem to like clean air and water.
Most of us can agree that, by their nature, documentaries are educational, sometimes to the point where viewers might feel like they’re being hovered over by a watchful parent and being forced to those mushy brussel sprouts. Carbon Nation is a meticulously researched educational tool, but it’s more than that. “We look at is as entertainment, too. If it’s not entertaining, no one’s going to watch it. Even our title has a sense of humor. We want people to know that we’re not taking ourselves too seriously. … (But) we took the art and the entertainment piece seriously to make sure it communicated to people.”
That approach is working. After a screening for 250 students at a Lexington, Kentucky high school, the film received a standing ovation. “What we’ve been told and what we’ve seen is that climate and energy films really scare the living daylights out of kids. Our film doesn’t scare them. It was a relief to them.”
The film’s reach into educational settings will grow this fall. When Byck learned from leaders at The Boeing Company (who also sponsored the film’s premier in Seattle) that the film could be an important supplement or to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) education, he decided make sure it was accessible. Recently, at the Clinton Global Initiative America, he announced that Carbon Nation will be available – free – to students and teachers. Interested educators and students can go to carbonnationmovie.com to sign up for viewing.
In addition to his teaching duties at ASU, Byck has started work on Carbon Nation 2.0. As he starts to put together the pieces for a new film, finding those who are making a difference and introducing them to us, he’s sure that the project will be delivered with a light touch. “When I’m laughing, I’m also more apt to take action. That’s part of the inspiration.”