It's the End of the World as We Know It
EDITOR'S NOTE: Following is a review of the documentary film "The End of Suburbia: Oil Depletion and the Collapse of the American Dream" (The Electric Wallpaper Co., c/o VisionTV, 80 Bond Street, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, M5B 1X2, web site: endofsuburbia.com), 87 minute DVD, $27.75 US/$34.50 Canadian
The suburban lifestyle is considered by many Americans to be an accepted and normal way of life. But this gluttonous, sprawling, and energy-intensive way of life is simply not sustainable. Few people are aware of how their lives are dependent on cheap and abundant energy. Are these Americans in for a rude awakening? In a fascinating new documentary, "The End of Suburbia: Oil Depletion and the Collapse of the American Dream," the central question is this: Does the suburban way of life have a future? The answer is a resounding no.
The film opens with the quote, "If a path to the better there be, it begins with a full look at the worst." You'd think from that opening we're in for a very depressing flick. Not so. Despite the serious subject matter, the documentary is actually quite engaging and entertaining. Not only is it informative for those already familiar with the issues but it's also quite accessible and enlightening for the uninitiated. It serves as great introduction and a real eye-opener for people who are largely unfamiliar with the topic of energy depletion and the impact it will have on their lives and communities.
"The End of Suburbia" marshals an impressive array of evidence that the growing energy demands of the "American dream" in suburbia will eclipse our planet's ability to provide it. The suburban way of life will soon become economically and ecologically impossible to maintain. We will see the inevitable collapse of the suburban lifestyle and the end of the American Dream. And it will happen within our lifetimes.
How bad will it get? Put it this way. We are looking at the mother of all downsizings.
For those who are familiar with the issues of peak oil and resource depletion, the usual suspects are here. They include Richard Heinberg, Michael Klare, Matthew Simmons, Michael C. Ruppert, Julian Darley, Dr. Colin Campbell, and Kenneth Deffeyes, among others. All of these individuals provide valuable information and insights concerning the coming energy crisis and the impact it will have on the lives of people on the North American continent.
But the standout star of the film is author and critic of contemporary culture, James Howard Kunstler. The sometimes humorous and always entertaining presence of Kunstler is prominent throughout the documentary--and for good reason. He grabs your attention. He explains in refreshingly blunt, easy-to-comprehend language that suburbia is screwed. His undiluted, tell-it-like-it-is style is a potent mix of George Carlin humor and wit wrapped around an incisive Chomsky-like comprehension and understanding. With Kunstler you get an intellectually penetrating person armed with a functioning bullshit detector wrapped up in an intensely candid New York attitude. Kunstler has a blog on the web he calls "The Clusterfuck Nation Chronicles" (kunstler.com). Need I say more?
Kunstler calls the project of suburbia "the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world" and says "America has squandered its wealth in a living arrangement that has no future." You immediately get the idea he's not exactly a fan of suburbia. How and why did this happen?
"The End of Suburbia" outlines the seemingly rational and logical impulse behind the project of suburbia, tracing the beginnings to the late 19th century when it was originally envisioned as an antidote to city life and an escape from the hideous aspects of industrialism. Modern suburbia traces its beginnings to just after World War II when the suburban project took off with a massive housing boom and the increasing dominance of the automotive industry. This car-centered suburban project ended up being the template for the massive development of the second half of the 20th century. That project was wrapped up, packaged, and sold to the American public as "The American Dream."
"The End of Suburbia" points out that the rise of the suburbs was made possible by abundant and cheap oil. It allowed for the creation of a system of habitation where millions of people can live many miles away from where they work and where they shop for food and necessities. And there is no other form of living that requires more energy in order to function than suburbia. But the voracious and expanding energy needs of our industrial society, our insane consumer culture, and the affluent suburban lifestyles are brushing up against the disturbing reality of finite energy resources.
The biggest impact will be felt by those who currently live in the sprawling suburbs of North America. The end of cheap oil will signal the end of their way of life. Frankly, many of the things we take for granted will come to an end. "The End of Suburbia" makes clear that the effects of energy depletion go way beyond paying more at the pump. It will literally get down to the question of how you will feed yourself and your family.
Although the documentary mostly avoids the gloom and doom of some peak oil theorists, it does occasionally touch on some of the darker aspects of fossil fuel depletion, notably how it will impact food production. The film briefly looks at the energy-intensive process needed to bring food to supermarkets. Our modern industrial agriculture relies heavily on petroleum for pesticides and natural gas for fertilizer, not to mention the energy used in planting, growing, harvesting, irrigating, packaging, processing and transporting the food. It stands to reason that if suburbia is going to collapse, it also means this centralized model of agriculture will collapse too.
"The End of Suburbia" shows how the suburban way of life has become normalized and reveals the enormous effort currently put forth to maintain it. On a foreign policy level, it means continued aggressive attempts to secure access to the remaining reserves of oil on the planet in order to prop up and maintain the increasingly dysfunctional and obscene suburban lifestyle. But "The End of Suburbia" makes it crystal clear that suburban living has very poor prospects for the future. Any attempt to maintain it will be futile. There will eventually be a great scramble to get out of the suburbs as the global oil crisis deepens and the property values of suburban homes plummet. Kunstler asserts that the suburbs will become "the slums of the future."
What about alternative sources of energy? "The End of Suburbia" points out that no combination of alternative fuels can run and maintain our current system as it is now.
What about hydrogen, you ask? The film does a great job of shooting down the hysterical applause for hydrogen. The idea of a hydrogen economy is mostly fantasy. Hydrogen is not a form of energy. It is a form of energy storage. It takes more energy to make hydrogen than you actually get from hydrogen. Same with ethanol. It is a net energy loser. It takes more gasoline to create and fertilize the corn and convert it to alcohol than you get from burning it. When you look at all the conceivable alternatives the conclusion is there is no combination of any alternatives that will allow us to continue consuming the way we do.
What is in our future? The consensus is the suburbs will surely not survive the end of cheap oil and natural gas. In other words, the massive downscaling of America--voluntary or involuntary--will be the trend of the future. We are in for some profound changes in the 21st century. The imminent collapse of industrial civilization means we'll have to organize human communities in a much different fashion from the completely unsustainable, highly-centralized, earth-destroying, globalized system we have now. There will need to be a move to much smaller, human-scale, localized and decentralized systems that can sustain themselves within their own landbase. Industrial civilization and suburban living relies on cheap sources of energy to continue to grow and expand. That era is coming to an end. One of the most important tasks right now is to prepare for a very different way of life.
While "The End of Suburbia" doesn't provide any easy answers, it does provide a much-needed look at the reality of the situation many in North America will be facing in the coming years. For that reason, "The End of Suburbia" is one of the most important must-see documentaries of the year.
Thomas Wheeler is a contributing editor to Alternative Press Review (altpr.org), where this story was first published. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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This story was published on August 3, 2004.