A View of Earth: PBS Offers “Operators’ Manual”

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Review by Debbie Van Der Hyde

What if there was a mobile app to help us understand our planet? A guide to tell us how to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and increase our use of renewable energy? PBS has answered this need with Earth: The Operators’ Manual—a visually stimulating and informative one-hour program on how science can help us respond to climate change and move toward clean, green energy solutions.

Released to coincide with the celebration of Earth Month 2011, this timeless program traverses the planet from the ice floes of Antarctica to the hot springs of New Zealand to study how the earth operates, why the earth is warming, and what we can do through energy innovations. The program is available for viewing online as well as in DVD and book forms.

Earth: The Operators’ Manual is hosted by Dr. Richard Alley, a geologist at Pennsylvania State University. Alley is a professor you would have liked to have in college. He explains science in straightforward terms and understandable graphics. Watching the program can help you feel like the CFL bulb in your brain is brighter.

The program begins by exploring the interrelationship between humans and energy, including our reliance on coal, oil, and natural gas. As the earth’s population grows and more people in emerging countries such as China, Brazil, and Africa gain access to electricity, the demand for energy will spike. Alley shows how fossil fuels cannot fulfill this need, since they take millions of years to make—and we are burning them up over a few hundred years.

This brings us to the problem of carbon dioxide.

In the second section, the program shows how CO2 affects the earth’s atmosphere—and the ripple effects being seen today in rapidly melting glaciers and rising sea levels. Alley takes a fascinating tangent to explain the patterns of the earth’s past ice ages and how 400,000-year-old air bubbles trapped in ice cores can be analyzed to understand climate history. According to Alley, the amount and type of carbon in the atmosphere today clearly indicates that the source is burning fossil fuels.

Turning toward solutions, the third part of the program looks at the actions the US military—the nation’s biggest consumer of fossil fuels—is taking to maintain operations, reduce costs, and save lives using renewable energy resources. For instance, different branches of the military are field testing portable solar-powered units, LED lights, hybrid engines, electric motors, and biofuels.

Thousands of miles away, energy innovations also are happening in the world’s fastest-growing nation: China. Today, the country is working on sustainable energy solutions, such as wind and solar, while also building clean coal factories and carbon sequestration plants until more renewable options are widely available.

The remainder of the program makes the case for renewables and continues with breathtaking scenery from the Algodones Dunes of Arizona to the wind-friendly section of the United States stretching from Texas to the Canadian border. Alley outlines a US renewable energy portfolio that reduces fossil fuels to a mere 13 percent by including solar, hydropower, ethanol from sugar cane or agricultural waste, geothermal, onshore and offshore wind turbines, and next-generation nuclear. The program also encourages energy efficiency, saying America could reduce demand for energy by as much as one-third by the year 2030 through energy-efficient measures. Efforts include retrofitting or building LEED-certified buildings, or driving hybrid or electric vehicles.

The program ends on an optimistic note, with Alley acknowledging “many feasible paths to a sustainable energy future” using today’s technologies and future innovations. In all, Earth: The Operators’ Manual is an inspiring view of how we can use science and collaboration to help our planet run smoothly for future generations.

To engage viewers further, PBS created an accompanying Web site with answers to frequently asked questions about climate change, an interactive test on sustainable energy solutions and additional resources. The site also provides a number of tips to help people reduce their personal energy use, including the WattzOn ENERGY GAUGE.

For those who still prefer something to read, Alley’s companion book is available in hardcover or as an eBook. The book gives more detail on the topics introduced in the PBS program, using Alley’s same approachable style mixed with scientific and technical evidence.


Debbie Van Der Hyde is an experienced freelance writer with a strong interest in sustainability, clean energy, and the green economy.

© 2011 SCGH, LLC. All rights reserved.


  1. Crystal Bird September 23, 2011
  2. Vianca October 21, 2011

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