As important as environmental documentaries are, it’s difficult not to tire of watching the ‘go green or risk oblivion’ narrative play out again and again. So when I read the synopsis of Seeking the Current, I was a bit apprehensive. But Nicolas Boisclair and Alexis de Gheldere’s documentary is far from routine as it manages to inject an immediacy and a localness into the renewable energy debate and reconfigures the perception of wind and solar power in Quebec.
Seeking the Current (the English version of the original french title, Chercher le Courant) uses the Romaine River dam project as its launching point for a discussion of the hydroelectric industry in Quebec. Quebeckers generate much of their electricity—abnormally high due to the prevalence of electric heat in the province—from dams within the province. Once a symbol of independence for the post-Quiet Revolution generation, Hydro Quebec has become somewhat of a pariah for environmental groups due to the ecosystems it has destroyed through damming projects.
Though it is among the cleaner methods of generating electricity, hydro has an alarmingly large environmental footprint, which manifests abruptly and continues to affect wildlife for decades. Rivers that once supported a gamut of Canadian wildlife—caribou and bears as well as all types of river fish—become artificial lakes foreign and useless to local species, which have known only river life.
And the environmental effects are more lasting than it seems. It is common for soil to build up mercury deposits over centuries, though the poisonous element is spread so thin it rarely affects the ecosystem. But when lowlands are flooded by a dam, this mercury is released into the water en masse, pushing water toxicity far over safe limits. Fish capable of surviving in the lake become poisonous to consume, not only for humans but for endemic fauna.
Considering the Quebec government’s commitment to hydroelectric power, there is an immense amount of wildlife at risk of displacement or death in the province. To highlight what stands to be lost, Seeking the Current follows a group of environmentalists as they paddle the Romaine River. The film deftly captures the striking beauty and purity of the rugged landscape, where stories-high rock shelfs stand alongside pebbled beaches, and where the site of a black bear or a moose is a regular occurrence.
This film could stand on its concept and its imagery well, but it is elevated beyond a lament for nature by doing what many similar films fail to do: presenting an alternative. Seeking the Current makes a strong case for a switch to wind, solar, and geothermal power, which have paltry environmental footprints compared to hydro. The filmmakers achieve this partly through interviews, but it is the intelligent use of facts and figures that really buttress their position.
Quebec is a world leader when it comes to the potential for both solar and wind power, and the figures associated with this are shocking. Were Quebec’s wind power potentially to be fully reached, it could produce almost one hundred times more energy than if it fully developed its hydroelectric potential. This would give it the ability to power all of the USA and Canada three times over, without burning fuel, damming rivers, or destroying inordinate amounts of wildlife.
The province is also on par with Barcelona for solar power potential (measured in luminosity), though the Spanish city is miles ahead of Quebec in terms of implementation. Were solar panels a requirement for large buildings, as they are in Barcelona, many complexes would produce enough electricity to heat their own water, run their appliances, and some could even export electricity back into the grid. These figures make an incredibly strong case for alternatives to hydroelectric power, and when coupled with the relative lack of environmental damage, it is inconceivable that they remain untapped.
It is already far too late for the Romaine river—construction began in 2009—and development of Quebec’s hydroelectric infrastructure continues. But Seeking the Current is about long term thinking, and the Petit-Mécatina River is the next pristine ecosystem the film says is at risk of being drowned in its own water. Is Quebec’s wealth, as Robert Bourassa said, wasted as it flows away? Or is Quebec shortsighted in its energy strategy, as Boisclair and Ghedere argue?
The filmmakers argue that Quebec’s wealth—and Canada’s for that matter—is better defined by a river’s magisterial beauty than by its exploitable power. While watching five canoes float peacefully into a foggy morning during one scene, it is hard to argue with them.