Switch is possibly the driest and most balanced documentary on the current energy crisis. Instead of dwelling on the problem of diminishing energy reserves itself, this unusually dispassionate doc surveys the world’s range of current energy production from the executive-level perspective of Dr. Scott Tinker, Texas State Geologist and director of the Bureau of Economic Geology at the University of Texas, an educated man who, while interviewing numerous energy experts, CEOs, academics, and oil-industry spokespeople, somehow gives the impression that he’s learning everything for the first time.
To make the film as understandable to the layperson as possible, Dr. Tinker measures energy sources—solar, nuclear, coal, geothermal, wind, biofuels, oil—by how many people they can supply if the average person consumes 20,000,000 watt hours in a year. But as welcome as it is to see a levelheaded documentary concerned with our future that doesn’t preach the apocalypse, how Dr. Tinker has come up with this number, which he uses to measure everything in the film, is questionable, as he doesn’t explain how he calculated it, and given his seeming obliviousness to the blinders of his own class (he calls India “more exotic” than he imagined), it’s difficult to trust he’s accurately factored in the energy consumption of those whose lifestyles are different than his own.
If you can accept Dr. Tinker’s example, then Switch may prove useful in providing a rudimentary understanding of how the modern world is powered up. And the journey is, admittedly, pretty spectacular: In the manner of a National Geographic program, we’re taken all over the globe to look at everything from Spain’s PS10, a 300-foot-tall solar power tower that collects reflected sun rays from the 624 panels surrounding it, to a hydroelectric power plant built inside of a mountain in Norway, to an oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico. It’s pleasant to hitch a ride on this grand tour, though Dr. Tinker’s magnanimous approach to giving all of his interviewees equal heft, not to mention the benefit of the doubt that they’re right, tends to lend a specious PR-like sheen to the documentary, giving the unverifiable impression that all methods are more or less environmentally sound and that the world still has hundreds of years or more of energy reserves left.
That’s a far cry from the 40 years Michael Ruppert predicts we have left in the chilling documentary Collapse, and even though Switch prescribes the same directions to use less energy to save the planet as the stimulating Surviving Progress does, Switch’s buoyant assumption that, with time on our side, we can still count on progress to save us seems destined to mostly appeal to the conservative demographics that those two previously mentioned docs probably didn’t reach. But it’s only in the last scene, where Dr. Tinker proudly drives his family around in a golf cart through their suburban Texas neighborhood to do their part to save the planet, that Switch makes explicit who it’s targeting with this keeping-up-with-the-Joneses fantasy-like purchase.