Robert Redford's Sundance Channel plunged into environmental programming in a big way in April, 2007. Since then, most Tuesday nights, beginning at 9 p.m., the Sundance Channel airs a block of environmental programming consisting of a reoccurring 30-minute program followed by a feature-length documentary. The first television series to air in the 30-minute slot was the 13-episode first season of Big Ideas for a Small Planet. The series was renewed in 2008 and is currently airing in the same time slot.
Big Ideas for a Small Planet is unabashedly optimistic. Each episode focuses on a particular aspect of American daily life, and highlights businesses, designers, and activists focused on reducing environmental harms through individual consumer actions. The series presumes an audience that is convinced of the need for change. Accordingly, little time is spent outlining the problem or the consequences of the status quo, and this serves to keep the mood positive and the discourse action-oriented.
Watching the first season episodes back to back, one can see the program evolve for the better in its style. From the very beginning, the show avoided the use of a narrator or host by relying on the selective editing of the interviewees, along with intertitles and on-screen blurbs to move the episodes along. Also from beginning, the series was produced to appeal to a wide audience from teens on up, but it gets better at doing this as the first season progresses. The first few episodes, especially the first, go overboard with camera work and editing that relies on posing the interviewees in various cute and quirky ways and remixing the interviews so that nobody speaks for more than a few seconds before switching to somebody else. As the season progresses, the editors dial back on the quick cuts and cute poses, allowing interviewees to seem a bit more natural and to voice fuller, albeit abbreviated, ideas.
The series primarily focuses on change through the marketplace, not the political process. It avoids calling for austerity or suggesting that American consumers will have to dramatically alter any behavior or even that consumers will have to be prepared to pay more. For example, the first episode promotes using bio-fuels to power trucks and passenger cars, and even race cars. The episode suggests that bio-fuels will allow Americans to continue present driving habits. It glosses over the associated environmental and ethical problems associated with ethanol, and does not even hint that the American car culture may ultimately be unsustainable no matter where the fuel is derived from. Pointing this out is not intended as a negative criticism of the series, only a description of the kind of environmentalism that is being promoted here which is no doubt more appealing to a wider group of viewers than a reoccurring show warning of impending environmental calamity that can only be averted through a dramatic reordering of the American way of life would be.
Many of the segments feel like extended green advertisements for the featured businesses. For example, the office furniture company Herman Miller is prominently and positively featured at length in the episode Furnish. While it's clear that the Lexus car manufacturer, which is featured in the episode Drive, is a paid sponsor, it's unclear how many of these other manufacturers have endorsement deals with the Sundance Channel, especially since the commercials that would have run between segments are naturally missing from the DVD presentation. There's nothing necessarily nefarious about the enthusiastic promotion of any of the companies featured on the series, but it would none-the-less be interesting to know what financial arrangements, if any, they have with the Sundance Channel.
The interviewees for each episode are a mix of business professionals, academics, and activists. Most of the business professionals appear in only one episode to promote a specific product or business model, while most of the academics and some of the activists appear in several episodes. The interviewees as a whole are interesting, and the interviews are engaging even if extremely abbreviated.
Episode 1: Fuel. This episode promotes automotive bio-fuels with segments on a truck that runs on vegetable oil; a small business in California that connects bio-diesel car buyers and sellers; and the test of an ethanol racing car at the Daytona speedway.
Episode 2: Build. A small California architectural firm works with clients to build environmentally-friendly pre-fab single-family modern homes; a designer discusses concepts for housing that incorporates living trees; and environmentally-conscious ideas are used to rehabilitate and construct low-income condos and apartments in New York City.
Episode 3: Cities. A real-estate developer in Portland, Oregon helps turn a waterfront commercial site into a sustainable mixed-use community; an energy company tests submergible power turbines in New York City's East River; and, activists covertly create urban gardens in blighted communities in the dead of night.
Episode 4: Wear. Clothing designer Linda Loudermilk creates runway fashions out of eco-friendly fabrics; the sportswear manufacturer Patagonia recycles used materials into clothing; and, an innovative designer and entrepreneur promotes the alteration of old clothing.
Episode 5: Eat. A gourmet chef shows off his new restaurant made with earth-friendly materials and featuring a rooftop vegetable garden; a burger restaurant uses sustainable meat and produce from farms within 100 miles; and a young entrepreneur turns bio-matter waste into nutrient-rich soil with the help of a few million worms.
Episode 6: Drive. The Silicon Valley carmaker, Tesla Motors, debuts an electric sports car that it hopes to bring into production soon; an entrepreneur demonstrates a brightly-colored short-range electric commuter car; and a high-school team works on their electric vehicle prior to competition in a variety of road rallies.
Episode 7: Furnish. The office furniture company Herman Miller explains its goal of making all new products 100% sustainable; and, a small furniture design company uses leftover scrap wood to create recycled furniture.
Episode 8: Create. A photographer documents the biodiversity and indigenous cultures of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge; an artist weaves together audiotape to make clothing, upholstery and boating sails; and a green architect creates a house from a retired Boeing 747 airplane.
Episode 9: Kids. This episode looks at how a new generation is learning about ecology as it profiles young activists who have saved portions of the Costa Rican rainforest and created an outreach program to focus community attention on plastic problems and solutions for waterways.
Episode 10: Paper or Plastic. This episode introduces innovators who are working to make intelligent, eco-friendly design a reality. They include a world-renowned architect, designer and ecological innovator who's guiding the United States Postal Service to eliminate toxins in its packaging.
Episode 11: Sports. This episode features three people seeking to make sporting greener: the creator of racing bikes made from bamboo; a champion skier who is raising awareness about the declining snow pack; and, the distributor of skateboards made from bio-friendly materials.
Episode 12: Work. This episode visits a brewing company with a dedication to the environment and to creating an ideal working space; watches as an analyst audits a Bay Area company to show how it can reduce its environmental impact; and, suggests a vision for the office of the future.
Episode 13: Play. An evangelical Christian preacher inspires environmental concern with an interfaith coalition dedicated to greening places of worship; and a woman from the Appalachians uses her faith to galvanize local communities in a battle against mining companies that level mountains.
This review is based on a pair of screener discs. The actual consumer release may vary from the specs provided here. Approximately seven and a half minutes is missing from episode one on the screener. While this oversight will likely not occur on the final release, consumers are cautioned to check that the final release is complete.
The image quality on this release is lower than expected. The 1.85:1 image is letterboxed and there is noticeable aliasing. The image looks no better, and perhaps worse, than that of ordinary digital cable.
The 2.0 stereo audio mix is slightly muddy at times, but is generally adequate though never outstanding. There are no optional subtitles provided.
There are 13 "webisodes", one for each corresponding regular episode. These segments vary between one and three minutes in length and feature excerpts that were not included in the corresponding episodes.
Big Ideas for a Small Planet is a glossy, enthusiastic television documentary series that promotes environmentally-friendly change through individual consumer choices. The 13 half-hour episodes in season one are suitable for all ages and should appeal to teens and above. The episodes may gloss over the scope of the problems and suggest answers that are easier in concept than in practice, but overall the message is both good and entertaining. While the quality of the DVD release may be less than stellar, Big Ideas for a Small Planet: Season One is recommended.