The University hosted a screening and panel discussion of the documentary “Chasing the Sun” on Thursday, Oct. 1 in PAC 001. The film, directed by Shalini Kantayya, explores the global growth of solar energy from a variety of perspectives, and includes: trainees at a solar panel installation training program in Richmond, Calif., the CEO of a large solar energy firm in Wuxi, China, Van Jones, author of “The Green Collar Economy” and former Special Advisor on Green Jobs, Enterprise, and Innovation for the Obama Administration, the Green Tea Party, a conservative political group that campaigns for the end of federal oil subsidies, and New York Climate March protestors among others.
The film claims that the United States risks being left behind in the field of green technology unless action is taken, and supports this assertion by comparing Chinese and German adoption of solar power to American oil reliance. After the screening, there was a panel discussion led by Associate Professor of Biology Michael Singer, Associate Professor of Economics Christiaan Hogendorn, and Professor of Physics and of Environmental Studies Brian Stewart. The discussion was then followed by a question and answer session.
The screening and panel discussion was organized and sponsored by the environmental non-profit organization IMPACT with help from students in the University community. Matthew Getz ’14, leader of an IMPACT solar promotion campaign in New Jersey, commented on his motivations for organizing the event.
“I work for a non-profit organization called IMPACT, and my campaign that I’m running right now is to expand the percentage of solar energy use in New Jersey, so as part of that outreach and as part of my recruitment drive at Wesleyan to hire new organizers for next year…we decided as an organization to sort of bring a taste of the campaign,” Getz said.
In his opening statement of the discussion, Stewart warned against what he believes to be the core problem facing the environment: excessive consumption.
“For me, going solar means reducing my total energy consumption because what we really need to do is reduce our footprint on Earth, and climate change is just a symptom, not the cause of the problem that we’re trying to address by using solar power,” Stewart said. “So I think as we think about pushing for wider adoption of solar energy, we have to really meditate on the reasons that we’re doing it, and adopt a strategy that’s actually going to work.”
Among the many contemporary environmental issues that the panelists felt deserved more attention were ocean acidification, overpopulation of humans, overconsumption, and mass extinction. Singer, however, stated that the increased attention on climate change was a good thing, not only for the attention it draws to itself, but also the attention it draws to other issues as a stand-in for broader societal impacts on the environment.
“Climate change and everything that goes into it is certainly not the only thing that threatens the environment, but it is a really important issue with respect to feeding back on to our societies in economically important ways and in ways that affect individual health…” Singer said. “There are plenty of people who care about polar bears, but for the people who hold a lot of power and the people who make investments and want returns on those investments, polar bears aren’t the answer. And so, the fact that climate change has the feedback that affects people in this way…it serves as an important wakeup call to our effect on the environment. In that sense, it’s a good issue to get around for its own thing, but also standing in for a broader set of environmental issues that human activities have caused….”
Hogendorn commented on the role of government in promoting renewable energy, stating that state intervention is a significant reason why China and Germany, explained in the film as foils for the United States, were more readily switching to solar power.
“One thing that this movie didn’t talk much about is the role of government, which fundamentally, from an economics background, this [climate change] is a collective problem,” Hogendorn said. “It’s not something that can be solved on purely free market basis. Now, there was the guy who said, ‘We’re just going to get solar so cheap that everyone will use it,’ and maybe that will happen—if that happens, that’s great, then we just get out of it the easy way. But my understanding is that, basically, the reason that China and Germany are doing more than we are is that they’re intervening in their economies more than we are, and they’re more willing to do that than we are.”
Mattheau Comerford, a graduate student at the University, said that he enjoyed the film and the subsequent discussion.
“I thought it was a well-informed discussion,” Comerford said. “I think it was pretty insightful to see the views of the panel, coming from an economic, physics, and ecology [background]. I thought the movie was well done; there were a lot of things that it might have overlooked with regards to the movement towards solar energy, but I think that it did shed light onto a lot of people’s, perhaps, fears or misconceptions.”
Getz also expressed his satisfaction with the event.
“It was awesome; it was better than I could have hoped for,” Getz said. “Such a great array of panelists, professors who are all experts in their fields, but who also had a really diverse set of expertise, really different…realms of expertise, so it was nice to get an economic perspective from Professor Hogendorn, a biological perspective from Professor Singer, and a perspective of physics–Professor Stewart is just one of the best in his field when it comes…to climate, so it was really just a dream panel of professors, and I’m so happy that this came to together.”