Inspiring People

Documentary Filmmaker, Todd Darling

Todd Darling

Todd Darling received his BA from UC Berkeley, and his MFA in Motion Pictures and Television from UCLA. His producing and directing credits include: “Año Nuevo” which won the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Eric Sevareid Award; “Saviors of the Forest” (exec. producer) a feature documentary which screened at Sundance and on Encore and PBS; “High Tech Families” on PBS stations; “Farm Club” (director) for USA; “Murder in Small Town X (director) for Fox TV; and “Laguna Beach: The Real OC” (director) for MTV (seasons 1 and 2).

A Snow Mobile for George” screened at festivals including: Santa Barbara, Big Sky, Sedona, Newport Beach, Port Townsend, New Orleans, and the Ashland Independent Film Festival which named it a “2008 Best Documentary: Feature Length Finalist”. The Denver Film Society screened “A Snow Mobile for George” as part of their “October Election Year Series”, and the Fledgling Fund supported an eight state tour of the film of in conjunction with the Western Organization of Resource Councils and the Endangered Species Coalition.

Todd is currently at work on his next project in Venice, CA where he lives with his family.

In his documentary film, A Snow Mobile for George, Todd Darling demonstrates why rules matter! He does a brilliant job of communicating the urgent fact that,

Each and every one of us needs to be aware and needs to participate in the process that will ultimately determine how well we will live.

This is an important film.

DR: What was the spark that ignited the drive in you to take on such a big project?

TD: The spark that ignited the film took a little while to generate itself...

It started really with the California energy crisis in which California got ripped off for literally billions of dollars. Initially, California had an eight billion dollar reserve for the state and within a few short months it was all in the hands of energy traders like Enron. We found out that the crisis was all a completely fabricated and was really due entirely to deregulation and no one watching the store. That made me start to think about how amazing the power of very small rules are to safeguard what modern society has become; what our democracy has become.

During Bush’s term I started to watch the rules that he was changing and then I noticed that some of the rules that he was changing had to do with things that I knew something about.

When he started changing the rules pertaining to two stroke snowmobiles - a pretty obscure engine - I had to take note. We spend a lot of time in the mountains. My neighbors have snowmobiles. My kids ride snowmobiles. Snowmobiles are something we know about and we know that these two stroke snowmobile engines are phenomenally polluting; incredibly smoky.

The regulation of the two stroke snowmobiles were supposed to be phased out and when George Bush rolled that back I thought:

“Ya know, that’s sumthin’’”


DR: Yeah...


TD: That’s sumthin’. Ha! Why’d he do that? What possible rationale could there be for that?”

DR: Snowmobiles certainly don’t seem to be something that would necessarily get George Bush’s attention.

TD: Well, exactly.

He is a man from Texas (if we are to believe that he is really a Texan). How many snowmobiles has the guy ridden?

So then I thought:

“Okay, fine. We are going to load the family snowmobile onto a trailer, we are going drive across America and we are going to find out why he changed that rule, what other rules he has changed and to what effect.”

I knew when I took off on this trip about the situation on the Klamath River. That was in the papers. The water in the Klamath River, due to drought conditions and over allotment to irrigation districts, was stretched very thin and endangered the Salmon. It was a situation where the Republican Administration wanted the votes in southern Oregon and wound up over rewarding water allotments to the irrigation districts in southern Oregon. President Bush and Karl Rove sent out two Cabinet Secretaries and a United States Senator to literally, physically turn the wheel that diverted the water from the drought stricken river to the irrigators and I thought:

“Boy! Those are big fingerprints.”

I mean how could they be so dumb? This is going to come back and bite ‘em. There is just no way around it.

Sure enough, four months later that water diversion resulted in the biggest fish kill - Chinook salmon, a really precious commodity – in United States history.

I knew about that story. The other stories – the story in New York, the story in Wyoming – I was really not aware of it all. There was a certain amount of serendipity where I just got out on the road, started looking around, making phone calls and bumping into people.

DR: I love the fact that New York got included in the film because it provides a diversity of examples that informs a particular demographic that might otherwise think that somehow none of this is relevant to them. You going to urban America and uncovering violations there really drew me in.

As the film gets more exposure, are you finding that people are able to locate their own self interest in this issue?

TD: They do.

Everyone has their favorite story and they are all very quick to tell me just like you told me that you really liked the one from New York.

People do identify with a story and that’s kind of why I wanted to make it a series of stories. I figured that different people would identify to each story differently and they would, like you said, see their own self interest in one or another.

The environment has been sort of reduced to just the care of cute fuzzy creatures and, it is that but, it is more than that. New York exemplifies the fact that most of the worst environmental conditions are in urban areas.

People who suffer from the worst environmental degradation are in minority communities. There is a component of justice and economic injustice that is inherent in environmental issues but not necessarily in environmental politics. I sort of wanted to take a step to sort of address that.

People think about regulations and rules as being an irritant. When it comes to some things like the environment or the economy or healthcare, regulation is what keeps our civilization glued together. It’s the stuff of our democracy.


The European-style 'cap and trade' provisions on emissions will fuel only failure and should be replaced by a carbon tax.

By Todd Darling
June 25, 2009

George W. Bush fought global warming policy all the way to the Supreme Court. And he lost. Despite this judicial rebuke, he opposed climate-change legislation to the end. Now, with President Obama, White House views on global warming finally are in line with scientific data. But this doesn't mean that politics can't still trump science.

Congressional response to the climate crisis has taken shape in the Waxman-Markey American Clean Energy and Security Act. The bill has a lot to like. It sets efficiency standards, encourages alternative energy and establishes emissions ceilings on vehicles, industries and power companies by 2020.

However, key provisions of Waxman-Markey resemble earlier European efforts, and Europe's experience raises serious questions about the ability of this legislation to adequately cut emissions or fund green solutions.

The Waxman-Markey bill proposes a market-based "carbon trading" plan that mirrors a European system initiated in 2005. This plan requires polluters to obtain government-issued "carbon credits," which then allow them to pollute above the agreed-on limit.

Think of these pollution credits like a golf handicap. You'd like to shoot 72 on 18 holes, but you rack up 108 on your score card. So just as the hapless golfer would use his handicap to cover the 36-stroke deficit, polluters would use pollution credits to cover their extra emissions. What if a polluter doesn't have 36 credits? Then it must buy them on the open market or pay a penalty. The penalties are expensive, and so the polluter is motivated to find either a solution or more credits.

In theory, money generated by this "carbon market" will jump-start investment in clean technology.

In a recent conference call to climate activists, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Beverly Hills) stated that his bill's carbon-trading plan "is based on work by the USCAP." USCAP, or the United States Climate Action Partnership, is a coalition of environmental groups, including the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Nature Conservancy and a couple dozen A-list corporations, including General Electric; Duke Energy; oil companies Shell, ConocoPhillips and BP America; chemical companies DuPont and Dow; as well as numerous utilities.

USCAP's carbon-trading plan, which became part of the Waxman-Markey plan, shares key details of the European system -- most importantly, it gives 85% of the pollution credits to the biggest polluters for free.

The European experience shows the critical weakness of this plan. In Europe, the distribution of free pollution credits to industries failed to establish a strong carbon market. In turn, the weak market in carbon credits failed to generate the money needed to fund new technology. And because there was a glut of free credits, polluters that went over the emissions limit could buy the necessary credits cheaply. So important states, such as Britain, continue to exceed the pollution limits.

Faced with disappointing results, Europe began auctioning off more of the credits in 2006. But the damage was done. The arrival of the recession caused the "carbon price" to plummet further. Critics point at companies that cut back their production 20% -- and therefore pollute 20% less because of the recession -- and now sell their unused pollution credits to prop up their bottom line. Money that was supposed to be generated from pollution credits to fund clean technology goes elsewhere.

The complex European trading scheme, started with free pollution credits, has not produced dramatic cuts in pollution or dramatic developments in technology or a robust market in carbon credits. The Financial Times of London was blunt: "Carbon markets leave much room for unverifiable manipulation. [Carbon] taxes are better, partly because they are less vulnerable to such improprieties."

Unfortunately, global warming and its solutions are complicated, but we have very little time for mistakes.

A recent scientific report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns that a 2-degree Celsius warming of our atmosphere has a 90% chance of undoing the conditions on Earth that allowed and supported the development of human civilization.

Scientists from Oxford University, using this report, calculate that we can avoid this potentially catastrophic 2-degree warming if we limit our emissions between 2000 and 2050 to 1 trillion metric tons of carbon. They note that we've already burned 25% of that limit since 2000.

In response to criticism of the Waxman-Markey bill, the NRDC's Dan Lashof told National Public Radio's Warren Olney: "This is the best bill that can actually get through committee." Other supporters of the bill frequently cite Bismarck's line: "Politics is the art of the possible."

But which "possible" do they see? The 2007 corporate gauge of the best possible deal? Or the 2009 update of broad populist sentiment that favors coherent action over special interests?

Controlling pollution will require incentives. But does that mean giving away 85% of the credits for free, possibly setting up yet another questionable Wall Street "market"?

We need this bill to pass, but in a strengthened form: Put the emissions cap in line with the trillion-ton limit, cut back the freebies to fund innovation and green jobs and protect poor families from utility rate spikes.

In the face of clear scientific warnings, we have broad popular support for climate legislation. Don't let Congress waste this crisis on a historic miscalculation of what is possible. Talk to your representatives this week.

DR: Do you think that people really think of rules and regulations as irritants or is it just that we keep being told to think that way over and over again?

TD: There is no question that there has been a political mantra amongst the deregulation folks who keep repeating:

“Get the government off our backs! Get the government off our backs! Get the government off our backs!”

But the fact of the matter is that the backs that they really want these rules off of, is the corporate backs. They just want to misplace the responsibility off of big corporation and on to individuals. That is the essential move. It is a relocation of responsibility or risk.

There has been a concerted effort to make people think that these rules are something extraneous or foreign to their own interests.

DR: When I finished watching the film I had this feeling of “What can I do? How can I do something about this?” Was that the intention that you had for viewers?

TD: Do I want people to feel like they should do something? Sure.

What I found making this film is that I could literally go into any community, driving across the United States and find an instance where some rule had been changed and I could drive to the end of the road and I could find somebody who was effected by the change of that rule and that things were going down hill as a result.

You don’t have to look far to find the effects of deregulation. They are in everybody’s back yard right now because of this massive effort that has been made in the last couple of decades. In the case of you in New York, you know about the aftermath of 9/11. That’s dust in everybody’s back yard in lower Manhattan. Along the gulf coast in Louisiana, everybody’s got the effects of massive petroleum installations. The farmers in the Mid-West and in the Mountain West have got to deal with the oil exploration that is ripping out their land and ruining their water.

In any region, in any neighborhood, you can find something. It doesn’t have to be a cute warm fuzzy creature on the Arctic Tundra, not that those things aren’t important but the environment and regulation are there to protect the health of the environment and they have an impact wherever you live.

DR: What would need to happen for you to feel like the film did its job?

TD: People getting involved locally in their own environmental issues would be a sign of success. Increased awareness of just how powerful the visible corporate hand is in American politics would be another. We really have to address this issue. This is the most corrosive thing to our democracy going right now. It really does not make any difference how positive, or how much goodwill is out there if it can be undone by massive amounts of money.

Right now in The House, they are debating The Clean Air Initiative to clean up the environment, especially regarding global warming gases – CO2. It’s a very complicated problem and it’s going to have a very complicated solution. They are assessing it on the trading. It’s really an arcane bit of economics but essentially there were meetings ahead of the writing of this bill in which the biggest polluting corporations in America sat in a room with a few environmentalists and came up with what was acceptable to them. It is a weaker bill as a result of this. Carbon trading is going to be all about carbon credit and they are giving away 85% of the credits to polluting industries for free! They are not going to auction them off. They are giving tem to them for free! How are you going to start a carbon trading market if you’ve given something away to the biggest polluters? I can’t even begin to understand that.

The film has got much smaller and more concrete examples of this.

If people are able to link the local environmental issues that face them with how the rules got made, the role of big corporations distorting the rule making process, that would be a success. That is what I am looking for. I am trying to move public consciousness about this issue.

DR: Would it be an extension of that logic to suggest that if people could make the connection between their situation and the importance of their vote, the film would have done its job? I mean look at what Karl Rove and George Bush were willing to do in southern Oregon for the votes in that small community. We are so far removed from the idea that we can make a difference in the voting booth. Maybe if people could just connect the dots...

TD: One little vote can make a huge difference. It’s exactly what you are saying - those votes in a few precincts in southern Oregon were the difference in re-electing a U.S. Senator. Those votes in a few critical precincts in Michigan and Wisconsin, as a result of fooling with the snowmobile installations, were critical.

DR: I noticed that you finished making the film in 2008. Was that late 2008?

TD: We got the film into the film festival in 2008 and kept tinkering with in the first few months of 2008. The cut that you took a look at was done mid 2008.

DR: In your estimation, between the time that you finished the film and today, are we moving as a country in the right direction, in terms of undoing some of this deregulation?

TD: The situation with the new Administration is very hopeful.

For the first time in my life we have somebody in the White House who is both smart and honest and capable. It is a very hopeful moment. A lot of people in Congress are inclined to follow his lead. However, one guy can only do so much and it is a very fluid situation. How far Obama can go with his allies in Congress and how much good they can do is pretty much dependent on us, and it is dependent on us in the following way:

We will give him running room by clamoring to do the right thing. If we say

“No. The new Clean Air Bill has to be more equitable. We can not just give away the store to the biggest polluters.”

That gives him the ability to ask for changes. If we ask him not to give so much away to big corporations when writing the financial rules that are going to redo Wall Street, that gives him more room.

In the best case scenario, what Obama is able to do is directly dependent upon our demanding positive change. If we don’t demand it, he will not be able to deliver it because he will be hemmed in by huge corporate interests that are going to give money to his opponent and will knock him down. He needs to rely on us. It is up to us.

DR: What do you hope the film will ultimately accomplish?

TD: I am hoping the film gets wide distribution. When it comes to a theater near you, get up and go see it. When it comes on T.V., watch it.

I do think that if people are able to watch the film, and it throws a switch and they are able to view the world differently, that would be a good thing.

Walking sown the street in New York, people don’t really think of themselves as out in nature or as part of the environment, when in fact we are all part of nature. There is just no getting out of it.

These environmental rules for health and safety affect everybody everywhere. I would like to see a sense of justice brought to the environmental movement. I think it’s really important. The broad population has to embrace the environment as an important issue. The worst environmental problems are in minority neighborhoods. We need to understand that the environmental issue is not a White issue - polite people serving tea and hoping to save the seals. And at the same time, the old guard environmental organizations have got to get off the dime and embrace issues of social justice or they’re just being hypocrites.

DR: One of the things that I appreciate about the film is that it articulates environmental issues as urgent; more than a luxury item that I can afford to contemplate later on down the road after more important things have been dealt with. That is how I have related to environmental issues. I mean after all, there’s healthcare and all of these other issues that I have been mistaken in thinking, are more relevant to me and my family.

A Snowmobile for George made the environment a matter of life and death for me. That is what I appreciate most about this film.

TD: Good. Great. Wonderful. That is exactly what I was going for.

DR: Yeah. This is my problem now. This is now my problem.

A hundred years from now, what do you want to be remembered for?

TD: I would like to be remembered as a guy who was able to make a wise crack in the face of bad things happening.

When George Bush changed the rule about the two stroke snow mobile I thought it was just so flagrantly idiotic but then I thought:

“He’s the President. Let’s just take him at his word. Let’s just rev the engine up and go. Let’s make something of a joke of it and follow this thing through to the logically absurd end and see where that goes.”

It wound up bringing us to some very serious matters.

Thanks Todd!

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