Bill Totten's Weblog

Thursday, August 25, 2005

The End of Suburbia

Oil Depletion and the Collapse of the American Dream

The Electric Wallpaper Company, c/o VisionTV, 80 Bond Street, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, M5B 1X2, 87 minute DVD, web site:, US$27.75 / C$34.50

Reviewed by Thomas Wheeler

Alternative Press Review (Spring 2005 issue)

A simple fact of life is that any system based on the use of nonrenewable resources is unsustainable. Despite all the warnings that we are headed for an ecological and environmental perfect storm, many Americans are oblivious to the flashing red light on the earth's fuel gauge. Many feel the "American way of life" is an entitlement that operates outside the laws of nature. At the Earth Summit in 1992, George H W Bush forcefully declared, "The American way of life is not negotiable". That way of life requires a highly disproportionate use of the world's nonrenewable resources. While only containing four percent of the world population, the United States consumes 25% of the world's oil. The centerpiece of that way of life is suburbia. And massive amounts of nonrenewable fuels are required to maintain the project of suburbia.

The suburban lifestyle is considered by many Americans to be an accepted and normal way of life. But is this sprawling and energy-intensive lifestyle sustainable? Few people are aware of how their lives are dependent on cheap and abundant energy. It suggests many Americans may be 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.

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; 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 may be 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.

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 alternative 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 a lifestyle where millions of people can live many miles away from where they work and where they shop for food and necessities. But the voracious and expanding energy needs of our industrial society with its ever-expanding consumer culture and increasingly 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 Suburbia also makes clear that the effects of energy depletion go way beyond paying more at the pump. It will come 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.

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 this lifestyle. But the film makes it crystal clear that suburban living has very poor prospects for the future. Any attempt to maintain it will be futile. 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. The documentary explores the potential alternatives and comes to the conclusion 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 from the experts in The End of Suburbia is the suburbs will not survive the end of cheap and easily accessible oil and natural gas. The massive downscaling of America - voluntary or involuntary - will be the trend of the future.

Kunstler argues we can expect to see "globalization" to reverse itself in the 21st century and he says one of the most important tasks will be to prepare for a very different way of life. The imminent decline 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.

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.

Bill Totten


Post a Comment

<< Home