Shalini Kantayya: The Intersection of Ethics, the Environment, & Economics

Feb 2, 2017

"I think we as a movement have not done a good job of making climate change a kitchen-table issue, of making this an economic issue for working families, and that is what it is. This is about taking money from the 1 percent and putting it in the hands of the many," says filmmaker Shalini Kantayya.

STEPHANIE SY: Welcome to Ethics Matter. I'm Stephanie Sy.

We're talking about the intersection of ethics, the environment, and economics with filmmaker Shalini Kantayya. Her most recent documentary focuses on the potential of solar power to create economic opportunities for working-class Americans. That film, called Catching the Sun, is listed as a New York Times critics' pick.

Shalini, welcome. It is so nice to meet you.

SHALINI KANTAYYA: Thank you so much for having me.

STEPHANIE SY: You have described yourself as an "unlikely environmentalist." Talk about that.

SHALINI KANTAYYA: I always say a couple of things. The environment has been talked about as if it is something exterior to who we are; the environment is happening somewhere "over there." I think I consider myself a deep ecologist, which means I believe deeply in the interconnection of all things.

I came to this work not as an environmentalist but as someone who really cared about the underdog and really cared about the American dream. What I saw in cities like Richmond, California—where one of my films takes place—is that the American dream is being eroded by the legacy of fossil fuels. I really saw that we have the opportunity to both create a more sustainable future for our environment and at the same time uplift the dreams of working people across the world, and so that's what I'm committed to.

STEPHANIE SY: It is interesting because you come at the issue in Catching the Sun not necessarily from an environmentalist standpoint at all. It really comes down to these characters who are looking for work. What brought you to that approach?

SHALINI KANTAYYA: When I first visited Richmond, California, I was really moved by this old oil refinery town that the 20th-century industries have left, and left a community with high rates of asthma, cancer, and unemployment. I discovered this little gem of a program called the Solar Richmond program that was helping unemployed Americans try to retool for the industries of the future, for jobs in the solar industry.

I saw a glimmer of the kind of transformation that could happen in cities across the country, which is rebooting and retooling working Americans for jobs in the industries of the future. I could really see that renewable energy has the capacity to transform the lives of people all around the world. That inspired me to make this film called Catching the Sun and to meet some of the inspiring people who are leading that transition.

STEPHANIE SY: One of the reasons that there is an increasing demand for solar energy is that it is no longer this very expensive technology. It is a reality that there is a demand for workers who can install solar panels.

SHALINI KANTAYYA: Absolutely. I think what first inspired me was meeting a young character named Eddie, who is featured in my film. Here is a young man who did not have even entry-level work opportunities. I saw the light go on in his eyes when he made a radio play off of solar energy, and I saw him beam with pride as he explained to his neighbor how much money he would be saving as a result of the work that he had done. I could see firsthand the kind of transformation that is possible.

I learned a well-kept secret, that even today there are 200,000 workers in the solar industry. During the making of my film, the industry has almost doubled in size.

STEPHANIE SY: And that is just in the United States, where the industry is far smaller than it is in other countries, including Germany and China.

SHALINI KANTAYYA: Absolutely. That is because we haven't had consistent long-term policy.

Here already in so many states across the country solar energy is reaching grid parity with the dirty fossil fuel industry, which means that—

STEPHANIE SY: It costs the same amount to produce.

SHALINI KANTAYYA: Exactly. It costs the same amount or is cheaper. It all depends how you do the math. If we factor in the kind of pollution that the fossil fuel industry puts into the lungs of our kids and the amounts of asthma, cancer, and birth defects that are caused by the legacy of fossil fuels, that math would be even greater, and the push for the math and the economics behind solar energy would be even greater.

But even without that, solar energy is reaching grid parity. It has already reached grid parity in 80 countries across the world. You're seeing countries that never had a grid system in the first place leapfrog the grid and go directly to solar energy. The cost benefits are immense. We have to remember that this is a device that is renewable. The sun is free and shines all over the world. As we begin to harness that, it has almost zero marginal cost, which means there is almost no cost in the upkeep of this technology.

Leaving this massive existential crisis that we need to solve called climate change, renewable energy is about national competitiveness in the industries of the future and largely makes good economic sense all over the world.

STEPHANIE SY: Let's unpack some of what you said. You referred, for example, to the public health impacts of the fossil fuel industry. It seems like you make not just an economic case in this film, but you make a case for income inequality and how the fossil fuel industry has fueled that. There is a social justice aspect to that as well.

SHALINI KANTAYYA: Absolutely. It is something I wish were more widely discussed. The electrification of the United States was thought to be the biggest engineering achievement of the 20th century. Essentially we created these monopolies; and government created these entrenched interests. In essence, because of the amount of infrastructure it takes to dig dead things out of the ground, to burn them, to spin steam turbines, to ship it more than 100 miles from where you produce the energy is largely inefficient and requires a great deal of infrastructure.

That essentially has created a 1 percent in this country. The fossil fuel industry has consolidated wealth and power in the hands of a few. I think the big, sexy, provocative idea about solar energy, which I wish more people would understand, is that solar energy has the capacity to democratize and decentralize energy in a way that puts power both literally and figuratively in the hands of ordinary people.

If you pass the right policy—like in California, where they have net metering, which essentially means that instead of you paying the utility, the utility actually pays you when you put solar on your rooftop at really competitive rates. That's why technologies like solar are disrupting the fossil fuel industry and putting more money into the hands of the middle class.

STEPHANIE SY: I understand solar is still only about 1 percent of energy capacity in the United States. If you put wind in there, it gets up to 5-6 percent. About 5 percent of Americans have installed solar panels. So we're talking about still a relatively very small industry compared to the fossil fuel industry. Do you see that changing, or do you see that the lobbying efforts of the fossil fuel industry continue to influence policy in a way that further calcifies the existing system?

SHALINI KANTAYYA: Even with that small margin, the solar industry today employs more people than the coal industry. It is more job-intensive than the fossil fuel industry. They are infrastructure projects, which is the way that we create job growth. So even with these small margins of growth we're creating a massive amount of jobs in the solar industry.

Going back to your question, industries like solar have the fossil fuel industries shaking in their boots. They call it a "death spiral," because essentially it doesn't make sense anymore to make energy 400 miles away from where you're using it. The most efficient and cleanest way to make energy is where you use it.

I think we have the fight of our lives going on because people have consolidated wealth and power through fossil fuels.

STEPHANIE SY: Political power as well. How do you change that trend? Are market forces enough? In your film there is an expert who talks about how renewables are a trillion-dollar industry, potentially, and yet China is far and away crushing the United States when it comes to the development of solar energy and other renewable energies. How do you see that changing without political will?

SHALINI KANTAYYA: I think we have an industry that is running roughshod over our democracy. We have more lobbyists in the fossil fuel industry than we actually have members of Congress, and this is a problem. We see the way that has created a 1 percent. The hope that I have is that young people understand that this is about innovation; this is about national competitiveness in the industries of the future.

China, which is hardly synonymous with Greenpeace or doing things for the sake of the environment, has identified sustainable, renewable energy technologies as a key market that they want to be a leader in, not because of issues primarily of the environment but because they understand that this is what is going to grow their GDP in the next century. If we don't lead in the innovations and the technologies of the future, we risk falling behind economically.

STEPHANIE SY: In the film you actually profile a Chinese entrepreneur who has a dream of owning a solar energy farm on U.S. soil. What story did you want to tell through that character?

SHALINI KANTAYYA: Wally, a character in my film, is an extraordinary character. He is a Chinese solar entrepreneur who is opening a big solar plant in Texas. What I hope to show is this is what happens when we create smart, long-term policy that fuels leadership in the technologies of tomorrow. You see Wally, who wants to do good, who wants to have sustainable technologies, and wants to be a leader, but he also just wants to make a lot of money, and he is going to do that with solar energy.

While we are tied up having this food fight in our Congress, there is someone who already understands that—leaving climate change aside—this makes sense for the future, that this is how we become economically competitive in the next century. The faster that we make a transition to clean energy the more competitive our economy is going to become. China already realizes that. If we cede leadership to China, then we lose out economically and we lose out on jobs.

STEPHANIE SY: You also feature a character in your film who describes herself as a "social and political conservative," and yet she is at the forefront of trying to draw attention to the ravages of climate change. Why was this important for you? Was it directly addressing the political polarity in the United States around this issue?

SHALINI KANTAYYA: Yes, because science is not a liberal conspiracy—it actually exists—and to see that there are people on both sides of the aisle who really want to make this transition. Libertarians love solar energy because this is about putting power in the hands of ordinary people. This is about energy independence. This is about people having control, and actually about a free market for energy.

We don't have a free market for energy. For most of us, we get a utility bill, and whatever that utility is charging us we have no choice but to pay. So what Tea Party activists like Debbie Dooley—who has since become a friend—understand is that this is about creating a free market for energy and actually creating energy choice. So whether you are a left-wing liberal or a right-wing conservative Tea Party activist, solar energy is still a good idea.

STEPHANIE SY: How long was the process of making this film?

SHALINI KANTAYYA: It was too long, as any documentary filmmaker would say. It took me many years to tell this story. I didn't know anything about solar.

STEPHANIE SY: As you were making this film and talking to different people around the country, did you get a sense that—when we talked about solar energy in the late 1970s, it was this hippie movement that wasn't necessarily grounded in political realities—we're at a tipping point and really embracing this technology?

SHALINI KANTAYYA: Absolutely, of course. It was hippies that adapted this technology first in the 1970s when we had an energy crisis under Carter. But that is not the industry that is emerging right now. People are seeing that this is a viable technology that is essential to our competitiveness.

As I began to talk to people, what I realized is that solar energy is not just something that is good for the polar bears and for fighting climate change, but it's something immensely good for building a strong middle class in our country. When you pass strong policy, as California has done—and I am most excited about policies like net metering—what it means to a working class family that is struggling with huge energy bills is that solar is a technology that directly puts money back into their pockets.

STEPHANIE SY: That is a state initiative. A lot of people are talking about, with this new administration, the possibility of, for example, tax incentives to install solar energy panels, something like that. We don't know what the fate of regulation like that is.

You have a call to action at the end of your film, which is much more about citizens who want solar energy talking to their city council officials and local and state governments. Is that where the change is going to happen on renewable energy now?

SHALINI KANTAYYA: Absolutely. I think that we are almost at a tipping point.

The thing about energy—I think the most exciting thing—is that with the federal government missing in action, we still have a tremendous amount of potential to act on this issue. Like so many environmental issues, energy is a local issue. So with the federal government missing in action we can take this fight to city hall and to our local states. And the states have a tremendous amount—it's not just California; states like Maine, red states like Texas are moving toward major strides in the wind industry.

So people are realizing the economic potential. This isn't about red states and blue states. This is about smart states and dumb states, states that are stuck in fossil fuels and the entrenchment of a small 1 percent that is lobbying our government. It's about the special interests versus the public interest.

When you think about subsidies, what is a subsidy for? It's really for the public good. It's about us saying, "We care about clean air for our children." My family is from India. We have just seen dangerous amounts of air pollution in Delhi, where people are having to wear masks. We don't want to live in a world where our children have to wear masks before they can go outside.

STEPHANIE SY: Don't those health issues affect the most vulnerable, not just children, but also poorer areas in urban environments, certainly in this country and definitely in India and in China?

SHALINI KANTAYYA: Absolutely. While climate change affects everyone, it will go down on the backs of poor people, women, and vulnerable children all across the world.

At the same time, the exciting thing is this: Those same communities, like Richmond, which are on the frontlines paying the costs of fossil fuels, can be on the frontlines of this transition. So communities that have the highest rates of asthma, we can make those transitions.

The Rust Belt states, like Michigan, that led in manufacturing, can't go back to those 20th-century technologies. That's not where the jobs are anymore. Those jobs have gone overseas, or they've been outsourced to robots. They are not going to do this work. So we can lead, not just on climate change, but on income inequality, and we can start to put Americans back to work in the renewable energy technologies of the future.

STEPHANIE SY: Do you think that program in Richmond is enough, or do you think there needs to be a major federal job retraining program? There are some. Under the Department of Energy, for example, there was a training program started for veterans in how to install solar panels. Is that something that needs to happen at the federal level, again, to really address the systemic issue?

In other words, our entire economy is built on fossil fuels—the highway system, cars, everything. Is that the kind of change that is needed, or is incremental change going to make a difference?

SHALINI KANTAYYA: I am an artist, and so I believe the big leap we need to make is with human imagination. When my grandfather was born in 1910, there were a billion people on the planet. In the world that my children are going to inherit, there will be 8 billion of us on this planet. That is just over 100 years. We have never seen that kind of growth. It is unprecedented in human history. That growth of population has been made largely because of fossil fuels.

We have one planet, and our natural resources have not changed while we've grown exponentially as a human civilization. So we need to radically rethink how we live in the world. That means our energy system; that means the way that we use water—all of these things.

STEPHANIE SY: Does it require a huge green revolution that the Green Party talks about, a huge investment of tax dollars into green energy companies? Certainly, we saw that the Obama administration prioritized that and was criticized for it. Is that what we need, or again is it something that can be done incrementally on the local and state levels?

SHALINI KANTAYYA: My hope would be that we would have a visionary type of leadership in this country that would lead us into a renewable future. But I think we can still use the levers of policy to make this change.

What I see at the state level are two things that really work: One is a renewable energy portfolio, and that means that we say to our utilities that we intend to become 30 percent, 40 percent—California today runs off of 25 percent renewable energy, and they are now making the leap to run off of a third, 33 percent renewable energy, by 2020. If every state would do that, that would add up to the kind of massive change that we need in our systems.

We need to say to our utilities and signal to our business community that it is safe to invest in these technologies. This is our long-term plan. It is game over for this kind of pollution being dumped in our air without any taxes or without any kind of implications. These are companies that treat our air like an open sewer.

As Van Jones says in my film, "If you throw trash in the street, you're going to get a fine. But yet, we allow people to dump megatons of carbon into our air with no tax." In the absence of a carbon tax, a renewable energy portfolio is a signal to our business communities of what we need.

The other local policy that works is a net-metering policy, which is a really bad policy term.

STEPHANIE SY: Wonky word.

SHALINI KANTAYYA: It's a wonky word for a very sexy policy. When I heard about this policy, I was like, "Wait a minute. I can put solar on my house"—some companies are doing it for essentially no money down—"and instead of paying a utility, the utility can actually pay me." That is revolutionary. That is the democratization of our energy system. That is the redistribution of wealth in one of these large things, and it is happening state by state, local, city, where cities like Los Angeles are making big commitments. Some cities have pledged to go 100 percent renewable energy.

So this is the kind of policy change. It seems crazy that we're going to make a change in our federal government. Like so many Americans, we feel disempowered at the state level. But the incredible thing is that we can go to our city council, and maybe there are some people from our high school that we know, and maybe just by 50 people showing up at our city council, they're like, "What are all these people doing here?" and we can start to change, city by city, state by state. I believe this change is already happening across the country.

So many states have these policy targets of saying, "We are going to go 10 percent, we are going to go 20 percent, we are going to go 30 percent, and we are going to show our business community that we are ready to invest."

The other thing that I want to say that I think is really important is that we pride ourselves as a country on being innovators. This is where innovation has taken place. Yet, we've forgotten what it takes to be innovators. China already understands. You have to throw spaghetti on the wall.

STEPHANIE SY: Just to play devil's advocate a bit here, fracking was one of the great innovations of energy production in this country. It has been a game-changer. What is interesting about fracking is there was a Pew Research survey that showed that 65 percent of Americans would prefer we prioritize investing in developing renewable energy technologies versus some 27 percent who said to put it all into fossil fuel exploration.

Let's talk about another unsexy, wonky word that informed your first film, A Drop of Life, "prepaid water meters." I had not heard that term before. A Drop of Life deals with water scarcity. It is a heartbreaking portrayal of what would happen if a foreign corporation controlled fresh drinking water in an Indian village. Talk a little bit more about why you told that story.

SHALINI KANTAYYA: I think I watched Blade Runner too many times. The theme of A Drop of Life probably happened because of all those viewings of Blade Runner. I was like, "In the future, there are going to be sci-fi meters and you'll have to pay for water even before you receive it." Then I went to the People's World Water Forum, and I was shaken out of my seat that these water meters exist today.

I think the thing that I feel passionately about is that we are commodifying our future and not realizing how you do the math. Water is life. It is a human right, and so it must stay public. We must pass strict regulations to protect it, because we've seen what happens in American cities like Flint, where the only water available is private, where you have to pay for it. Then I read book called Blue Gold: The Fight to Stop the Corporate Theft of the World's Water by Maude Barlow. [Editor's note: See Barlow's Council talk about this book.] I saw a statistic that shook me out of my seat, which was that one-third to one-half of the world's population, an estimated 4 billion people, will not have sufficient access to clean drinking water by the year 2027, which is 10 years from now, just a decade from now.

Since the making of A Drop of Life, I began to talk about the fact that there are no borders on this crisis. Because oftentimes people see A Drop of Life and they understand that my family is from India, they say, "Oh, I'm so sorry that that's happening to you over there and in sub-Saharan Africa—in all of these countries in a galaxy far, far away."

What they don't realize is there are no borders on this crisis. Our water tables have been diminishing, partly because of climate change and over-pumping, for the last 50 years. Overnight we have seen these crises unfold where you have a chemical spill, and all of a sudden children at a high school say, "It's not safe for you to take a shower or drink the water from your tap." In those moments, what good is money?

We have to realize that our true wealth as a civilization is our natural resources. Too often we have seen in our politics the environment and economics be pitted against each other. My journey as an artist, and the people that I have met all around the world, is that that struggle is one and the same.

When your environment is diminished, when you can no longer drink your water, when there is no economic growth, we have to begin to change the way we do our math and realize that our biodiversity and our natural resources are the greatest economic resources we have in uplifting the lives of working people.

STEPHANIE SY: Both of your films are informed by economics in that way. Because of the scarcity of water in parts of the world, it has become an extremely hot commodity.

Going back to the plot of your film A Drop of Life, the idea is that what was once free—drinking water for this village through wells—suddenly becomes something that residents get a ration. They get a certain amount of that water every month, and when they run out of that water they have to swipe a card in a machine that gives them water. This is a poor village, and so people cannot pay for it.

Talk about what eventually happens as a result of people who now cannot get the water they need and they start drinking water that is contaminated.

SHALINI KANTAYYA: The story of A Drop of Life is based on a story that happened in Orange Farm, South Africa.

STEPHANIE SY: It's a real story?

SHALINI KANTAYYA: It is a real story. It is based on a real story, inspired by real events, that I have transplanted and put in India, which did not have water meters at the time. I created the film, and now it does.

Through a failed World Bank policy, they said, "We're going to give you a certain amount of liters per family," not realizing how many people are in a family. "You get free amounts of water until you have to pay for it." What happened is people couldn't pay for the water coming from the machine.

STEPHANIE SY: So once they were done with their ration and they needed more, because they didn't have enough—

SHALINI KANTAYYA: They went to a second source because they couldn't afford water from this private company. So residents went to a second source, and 5,000 people died of cholera.

Often when I show the film, there's a big debate about how much should we charge for water. This is something that we take for granted. My water turns up hot and cold. We never have to think about it.

We are living in an age where we can't take those rights for granted anymore. We have to fight and protect our water, and that means to me—and it is partly what led me to make Catching the Sun—is that I realized that if we care about water, we have to rethink the way we make and use energy.

STEPHANIE SY: What is scary is that you called water a "human right," and I think of it as a human need. It is something that people need to live. Especially if you're a mother of a young child, you need fresh, potable water. Yet it sounds like in the real world today people are being charged for the stuff that we take for granted here in the United States.

SHALINI KANTAYYA: And not only in sub-Saharan Africa or in the deserts of Western India. People are having to pay for water in California. Over-pumping in the Central Valley has not only essentially changed the gravitational pull of the planet.

STEPHANIE SY: They also have a drought, of course.

SHALINI KANTAYYA: They also have a historic drought. But also, there are people whose wells have run dry. Their property value goes overnight, and all of a sudden Americans—

Here is the thing that everyone missed. The governor declared a permanent state of emergency in California. For the first time in the United States of America, Americans were being asked to ration water. This has never happened before in our history, and we missed it. I couldn't understand why it wasn't on the front page of every newspaper. We were being asked to ration water.

It is happening in Detroit for very different reasons. Essentially, people were being charged, like in Katrina, for leaks of water, and they would come back to their homes and have these huge water bills that they couldn't pay. When they couldn't pay them, a company would come and cement over their connection to water.

STEPHANIE SY: They literally couldn't turn on their taps.

SHALINI KANTAYYA: Just miles from the greatest freshwater supply in the United States, you had people who didn't have access to water.

STEPHANIE SY: Again, this disproportionately affects people that are poor.

SHALINI KANTAYYA: It does, but not totally exclusively and not totally exclusively of color.

STEPHANIE SY: Certainly not in the California case, but certainly in the case of Flint or in Detroit.

SHALINI KANTAYYA: Absolutely. It happened in West Virginia, where you had that chemical spill. So you begin to see that none of us is immune to this crisis; none of us are invulnerable to this crisis.

But I see a tremendous amount of hope. I live in New York. Five years ago, fracking was the inevitable future of New York. We thought that the oil and gas lobby was too strong, too powerful, had too much money, and that fracking was the inevitable future of New York. People said, "No. We're going to go to Albany. We're going to put our bodies on the line because if we're not going to fight for our drinking water, what are we going to fight for?" Now we have a moratorium on fracking because we know it oftentimes happens thousands of feet below our drinking water.

The Halliburton loophole exempts them from federal oversight from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). That Halliburton loophole means that oil and gas companies don't need to tell us the kinds of chemicals that they're injecting thousands of feet between our aquifers. What that says is that citizen engagement is key.

STEPHANIE SY: I remember during the fracking protests there were also protests from people who wanted the jobs in their community that fracking brought. Again, there is that tension. They are not always mutually exclusive, bringing jobs and bringing sustainable energy. But you have those voices as well, and those are also voters.

SHALINI KANTAYYA: That's right. I think that we have not done a good job of making environmentalism what it should be, which is a working-class movement which is about workers having access to jobs in the industries of the future. I do believe that as we make this transition we can bring those workers with us, that the solar and wind industries are so job-intensive that we can start to make this transition.

Are there going to be some people who get left behind? When we went from the horse-and-buggy industry—when we stopped riding horses—to the car industry, were there some people who lost their jobs and got left behind? Yes, there were. But the greater good, this bigger movement, this movement toward innovation was greater.

I do believe that there are more jobs in the renewable industry in infrastructure jobs. If we injected the amount of money that the EPA says we need to do to update our water infrastructure system, there would be millions of jobs. We need to say as a public, "This is the direction we want to go in, and we are not going to leave people behind. We are going to give them jobs in the industries that promote our health as a civilization and that advance us in industries that are going to make us more competitive."

STEPHANIE SY: Is renewable energy also the more ethical alternative?

SHALINI KANTAYYA: I believe so. The vast majority of our scientists have a consensus about bringing down our carbon emissions. If you don't believe them, I don't know what to say.

STEPHANIE SY: We are not going to have that debate.

SHALINI KANTAYYA: Take for instance, I deeply believe in the American dream. My mother came to this country as an immigrant, and she has given her life to making sure that I had a better life. I believe that it is part of our duty to leave a ladder of opportunity for our children, to be able to look a child in the face and say, "I'm going to give you a better life than I had." To me, that better life includes leaving them a planet that is habitable, leaving them clean air, leaving them clean water, and leaving them a ladder of opportunity so that they can have a job that is dignified.

We have to think about what kind of jobs. When I saw Eddie—a character in my film—transformed, he didn't want a job at Chevron. He knew how dangerous that was. His father had gotten asthma from the same industry and died actually of lung cancer. I saw him beam with pride, and I realized it is not just about having a job; it's about having a job that has meaning; it's about having a job where you know you are meaningfully contributing to making a better life for your children. I believe we have the capacity to do that in this country, and what we need is the political will.

Let's not be confused. The political will is us. It is about everyday citizens saying, "We care about this, and this is what we value, and you are going to either do the people's bidding or we're going to take your seat from you in the next election." That is what it comes down to.

STEPHANIE SY: Both of these environmental films are very different than the seminal climate change documentary, which was Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth. [Editor's note: See Carnegie Council's discussion of the film.] A lot of people thought that film would be the tipping point for efforts to reduce global warming. Do you think it was? Because your filmmaking is very different, I think, in style.

SHALINI KANTAYYA: I am deeply grateful to Al Gore and to the movement that he represents, and my work as an artist and activist very much stands on his shoulders. So I feel deeply indebted to him for that work.

That being said, my measurement of effectiveness is always my mom, who is an immigrant mother from India. I try to tell her, "Mom, you can flip the switch." I try to explain climate change to her, and her eyes glaze over.

STEPHANIE SY: She sounds like my mom.

SHALINI KANTAYYA: But then I say to her, "Mom, you can put a solar panel on your house and save 70 bucks a month," and she says, "Oh."

So I think we as a movement have not done a good job of making climate change a kitchen-table issue, of making this an economic issue for working families, and that is what it is. This is about taking money from the 1 percent and putting it in the hands of the many. The more that we can appeal and tell the stories of working people like the ones in my films, I think the more that we will advance this movement, the more that we are able to make the argument, if not on science, then on economics. We are seeing that the numbers already make sense.

STEPHANIE SY: Who have these two films already impacted? I was reading that A Drop of Life has actually been screened in several countries in sub-Saharan Africa. But who have they reached? Do you feel like you are actually affecting policy and high-level conversations with these films?

SHALINI KANTAYYA: Absolutely, in a way that has been surprising to me. I never dreamed of the impact that I would have as a filmmaker. I just saw some grave injustices and felt like I had to do something.

One of the things that I'm proudest of is that A Drop of Life was brought to 40 villages across Africa and shown on a laptop where they talked over it, translating it live into local languages, and used it as a tool to talk about water privatization. I've gone to over a hundred college campuses across the country, a few of which have banned bottled water from their campuses.

STEPHANIE SY: Because bottled water is part of that privatization and commodification.

SHALINI KANTAYYA: It is part of that privatization, and a lot of people don't realize that bottled water isn't as highly regulated as our tap water. Much of bottled water is our tap water being packaged back to us.

STEPHANIE SY: And sold in bottles that are filling landfills.

SHALINI KANTAYYA: Filling landfills, and it takes as much water and as much petroleum to make as it is that you're drinking it. So if we care about water, the first thing we can do is abolish bottled water from our campuses and from our city governments. So that is happening, and that has been very heartening to me.

My film Catching the Sun was screened at the invitation of Secretary of State Kerry by a hundred mayors around the world to spark this conversation around renewable energy.

My hope is around youth and students because they already get this. I've seen the tremendous power that students and young people have to change their campuses and to transform their cities, and that is where my hope lies. I am an artist, and that is the only skill set I have. I am a little decent at cooking, but that's all.

STEPHANIE SY: I'd say you're a journalist, too. You use a lot of facts in your films.

SHALINI KANTAYYA: I use a lot of facts. Art-making and storytelling have been my most powerful tools. But I am a believer that we each have a garden patch where we can impact change. So each of us has to say, "This is my skill. This is what I have." So I really believe storytellers, journalists, and weird Indian girls who love sci-fi all have a role to play. Whether we be scientists, lobbyists, or in the legal field, we each have a profound impact to make change. It doesn't have to be thousands of people. It can be a small table of your friends getting together to impact change, and I believe that is just how transformation takes place.

STEPHANIE SY: I think that is a great note on which to end this conversation of Ethics Matter with Shalini Kantayyaa.

Thank you so much for speaking with us.

SHALINI KANTAYYA: Thanks so much for having me.

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