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With Tea Party on the Right and Occupy on the Left, Is There Room For the Rational Middle?

RP Siegel | Monday July 16th, 2012 | 1 Comment

Gregory Kallenberg, a journalist living in New York, moved back to his hometown of Shreveport, Louisiana to make a film. When he got down there, he discovered another story unfolding that was even more compelling than the one he was planning to tell. It was about the discovery of an enormous natural gas field in the area, and the impact it was having on the people who lived there.

Haynesville, the critically acclaimed documentary, tells the story of the Haynesville shale deposit from the perspective of three local residents: an African-American preacher who needs the money to build a school for his congregation, an environmental community organizer who is concerned about the impact this will have on the health of the environment and the people, and an old-time country boy torn between the potential loss of his ancestral land versus the massive cash windfall that would result from selling it.

When the film was released, Kallenberg traveled around the country screening it. It attracted a huge and diverse following, drawing praise from both sides of the environment-versus-business divide. Gregory saw that the film seemed to be filling two important needs. First, many people are uninformed or misinformed about energy.  “A lot of people have no idea where their energy comes from.” Second, there is a great need for a forum where people can speak calmly and rationally about the various energy alternatives without the divisiveness that has plagued this and other related issues, particularly in Washington. Because energy in so fundamental to our way of life, the position we take in relation to it, says a lot about who we are personally. How much, for example, are you willing to trade for cheap energy?

“Granted there was this polarization,” says Kallenberg, “where people were totally split on the issue, but what we saw was this larger group in the middle that were starting to collect around the film and the issue of energy.” He decided to call this group the Rational Middle.

So when it came time to ask, “what comes next,” Kallenberg decided to create an energy film series with the specific intent of filling these two needs. Thus, the Rational Middle Energy Series was born. This would be a series of short films, presumably from a neutral and objective viewpoint that would help inform the public and hopefully open the door to dialog that could ultimately lead to movement on the issue.

The series consists of ten short films featuring some of the world’s top energy experts from across the spectrum, to help us to understand the need to “manifest and bring about a cleaner energy future.”

Kallenberg spoke about this idea at the Aspen Ideas Festival, which is where he met Marvin Odum, the President of Shell. Odum had just recently seen Haynesville and was impressed by the balanced presentation of the issues. The two got together and after considerable discussion decided that Shell would fund the series, with the understanding that Kallenberg retained complete editorial control of all content.

If the fact that Shell funded the project makes you uncomfortable, you are not alone. In fact, Steve Horn wrote an exposé in Desmogblog, calling the film series “oil and gas advertising in disguise.” In his article, Horn points out that Kallenberg has deep family ties to the oil and gas industry, including his father’s company, Caddo Management. If a person is presenting what he calls an objective discussion of an issue as important as this one, his background is certainly relevant. Kallenberg responds to these charges on the Haynesville website.

We have been traveling “Haynesville” for a long time and, along the way, my background has been discussed in screenings, on the Web, on E-mail, etc. Part of this discussion has included questions and information about my family’s business and, among its other interests, its involvement in the oil and gas business. I have always been open about this and, in November, posted an article that detailed my relationship with my family’s business (I helped my dad with the buying and, hopefully, will help restore a dilapidated historic building in Shreveport’s downtown and also was a graphic designer for my father’s poetry books). I also pay Caddo Management to help me with my accounting on the project. My message hasn’t changed from when the question was first brought up: If you have any question about me or my beliefs, please check out my film. It is a clear statement that shows a balanced view of the current and future energy picture.

Of course we all have our internal biases, and while Gregory is passionately devoted to the idea of neutrality and objectivity, he does, in my opinion, lean a bit towards industry interests. On a phone conference which I attended at the launch of the film at the Aspen Ideas Conference, he made several statements that made me think so. When talking about the energy experts who appear in the film, he said that anyone with a “galvanized opinion,” who “didn’t see all sides of the issue,” ended up on the cutting room floor. Wondering who these extremists might be, I asked him what role sustainability as an issue plays in the film. He said, that “we need energy that is both sustainable and affordable.” As for sustainability itself, “it plays a little bit for the present but it plays a big part as we move towards the future.” That certainly begs the question of when does the present end and the future begin? Gregory’s answer suggests that as long as that day is not today, then we don’t have to worry too much about sustainability yet, which I disagree with. I seem to find that as many times as I go to sleep and wake up, it always seems to be today and never tomorrow.

Finally, I asked him how he compares what he is doing to what Al Gore has done and continues to do. He said, “I feel that the pundit position he has taken since [An Inconvenient Truth], has kind of moved to one side, to a kind of all-or-nothing strategy. I like the idea of an all-of-the-above strategy. But I think you have to follow your words with what is realistically there, what we are going to realistically use and what we’re going to realistically develop in the future.”

All this so-called realism seems to be directed at Don Quixote as he goes along tilting at windmills. But does it take into account the new reality of the DOE now saying we can get 80 percent of our electricity from renewables by 2050?

These may well be minor quibbles on my part, but they do show a difference in slant, and perhaps urgency. At the end of the day, I do wonder, if in his eagerness to embrace the middle, which presumably lies somewhere between old and new ways of creating energy, and maybe for no other reason, Gregory might be a bit reluctant to let go of the old.

All that notwithstanding, I am enthusiastic about what Gregory is trying to achieve with this film series, and perhaps, more importantly, with his discovery of the Rational Middle. Clearly there is a need to move past the divisiveness and into a constructive space. Gregory’s experience while touring with Haynesville showed that there was an eagerness, perhaps even a hunger to develop a dialog that will lead towards solutions. I highly recommend viewing the series which is available for free online. The first three episodes have been posted, and the rest will follow over the next several months.

I do have one other issue to raise here. I mentioned it in closing the fusion article in my energy series. The fact is that as important as energy is, it is not the entire story. It must be viewed in a larger context.

If we were to suddenly receive overnight, a perfectly clean, affordable energy supply, installed and ready to go, we would surely have dodged one bullet, but we would be far from out of the woods in transitioning to a sustainable way of life. And the fact that the energy question is forcing us to reconsider the way we live, work, eat, travel, consume, etc., it is probably the best chance we have to take the bull by the horns rather than merely continuing with business as usual.

Once the Rational Middle has identified itself and coalesced into a force to be reckoned with, why not direct it at the larger question of how we are going to continue to sustain ourselves on this planet for centuries to come?

[Image credit: Rationalmiddle.com]

RP Siegel, PE, is an inventor, consultant and author. He co-wrote the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water in an exciting and entertaining format. Now available on Kindle.

Follow RP Siegel on Twitter.

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  • Chris Lyon

    The path to sustainable lifestyle starts with energy. The way we consume water, food, and conduct business is all attached to energy. Start here, and see where that ship turns. As a part of the Rational Middle team, I know where this is headed. We each have strong convictions about how to get there, but until we can all start with a base of information and bring everyone to a place where progress can be made through rational discussion, it’s just hype and hyperbole. Stay with us, there’s more in store.