The third film in my weekend Netflix film festival was "The End of Suburbia", a 2004 documentary by Canadian filmmaker Gregory Greene that describes the energy costs of our current infatuation with living on cul-de-sac streets in single family detached homes, and details the ways in which that infatuation is unsustainable in the long (and increasingly, even the short) term.
The film draws very heavily on the work of James Howard Kunstler, who wrote two great books on the subject of suburban living, The Geography of Nowhere (1993) and Home From Nowhere (1996), and who appears as the central interviewee in the discussion in the film itself. The "Nowhere" books focused about as much on the social impact of suburban living and the soulless and artificial nature of tract housing as on the energy impacts of spreading ourselves out all over the countryside, but that mixed focus doesn't stop them from having been prophetic about the energy drain when they were written 15 years ago (and Kunstler makes mention of the other downsides to suburban development in the movie as well).
Kunstler has been something of a Cassandra about the impact of US suburban development patterns on the coming energy crisis for a long time now (his "Clusterfuck Nation" blog has been a regular source of pointed commentary about the useless fiddling and posturing of both Republicans and Democrats on this issue for years), and the film is a provocative and interesting summary of much of what Kunstler and several others have been saying on the subject. The film paints a very stark picture, but one not entirely without hope in it. That distinguishes it from Kunstler's writings themselves, which have tended to take his (likely accurate) predictions of serious crisis, and make them so severe as to render the reader paralyzed with fear and depression.
There are other voices in the film, including urban planner Peter Calthorpe, energy investment banker Matthew Simmons, and a series of fairly dilligent analysts of the energy markets, all of whom make the case that we are going to see increasing energy costs for some time, and that those costs will break us if we don't take fairly drastic steps to mitigate them in short order.
The gist of the film is that suburban living, big box stores, industrial farming, widespread and profligate travel, globalized trading, and other forms of wasteful energy spending are all dependent on an energy price that is gone forwever, because the petroleum needs of the planet are now growing at a terrific rate, and the production of oil around the world has peaked, which means by definition that hydrocarbon energy will be increasingly expensive as the oil gets progressively harder to come by. It argues that we will not only have to find other sources of energy to power our economy, but that we will have to reorganize our society so that it no longer relies on an infinite supply of ridiculously cheap energy. Among other things, that means the end of suburbia, which combines several of the most profligate uses of energy in human history into an incredibly dangerous mix that underpins a good deal of our economy.
There is a good deal of discussion of the phenomenon of "Peak Oil", which was first predicted by a geologist named M. King Hubbert in 1956 (he said oil production in the US would peak in the 1970's - he was right - and world production would peak in the 1990s - he was about ten years early, in no small part because of the oil shocks of the '70's reduced demand for a short time). Hubbert was a respected geologist when he started making these predictions (senior geologist with Shell Oil, fellow of the National Academy of Sciences, and respected member of the Geological Society of America who later became its president), but making them damaged his career. Over time, he has proven to be right, and has gotten increasing recognition as such. The concept of Peak Oil was slowly gaining currency in 2004, and has grown in the intervening four years since the film was released from being perceived as the crackpot imaginings of a small group of ostensibly panicky paranoids to an increasingly recognized real phenomenon (see this article in Britain's The Independent newspaper for a more up-to-date look at the state of the analysis).
The film takes a brief tour of a movement of architects and urban planners that has been quietly trying to dream up alternative arrangements for more densely populated development and more efficient energy usage for the last twenty years. This movement is known as the "New Urbanism", and it's received a lot of ridicule as being entirely too precious and artificial over the years, but it deserves another look, because it's the only alternative to suburban living that has any hope of preserving our environment and our communities in the face of this shift in energy costs.
The film is sobering, but it deals with a topic that we've been waiting too long to deal with already (we've known this problem was coming for thirty years, and we're still dealing with politicians and oil company apologists who continue to whistle past this particular graveyard in hopes that the problem will somehow magically disappear). It's a good primer on both Peak Oil and the suburban development patterns in the US that make it so dangerous for us, and it's high time we got on with trying to save ourselves from the consequences of this mess, because it's already going to cost us a fortune, and if we wait much longer, it may cost us everything we cherish about our society, including our lives, if we wait long enough.
I should have watched this documentary four years ago, but it was still worth watching last weekend. If you haven't seen it yet, watch it. If you have, show it to someone who hasn't. When you're done watching, call your senator, your congressman, your city council, and anyone else who will listen. This is going to be ugly already, and the longer we wait, the uglier it's going to get. Kunstler finishes off the film with a telling quote (and one that is reminiscent of Al Gore's quoting of Winston Churchill in "An Inconvenient Truth" about entering "an age of consequences"):
“Irony was the ethos of the late 20th century. But as we move into the 21st century, we’re going to discover that irony is a luxury we can’t afford any more. This stuff isn’t just funny. Our lives are going to depend on whether we have an environment that’s worth living in, and that can actually support the project of civilization. We’re not going to be able to just sit back and make fun of it any more, and enjoy it ironically. That part of our history is over. It’s time to get serious.”