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'The End of Suburbia'

After peak oil comes what fresh hell?

By Dorothy Woodend 4 Apr 2008 |

Dorothy Woodend writes about film for The Tyee every other Friday.

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Gonna wash that house right out of our hair?

When I had to go pick up a screening copy of The End of Suburbia, I decided I should use my own two feet. I put on my running shoes and ran a mile or so. But on the way back, I gave in, got on a bus, and sagged into the seat.

"This is a great deal easier," I thought as the bus roared down the road, the sudden increase in speed almost intoxicating.

Humans always seem to have to learn things the hard way. Maybe we're just an exceptionally stubborn species, but more likely we're simply slow on the uptake.

There has been a faint chorus of people warning about the end of oil since the 1970s. These days the chorus is getting a bit louder but most folk are still watching the approaching calamity like an enormous tidal wave far off on the horizon. "Look at that . . . It's pretty big, hey? Hmmm, getting closer now. Yep . . . Umm . . . oh SHIT!"

It probably won't be until an actual physical toll has been enacted that things will change significantly. But as the demand for oil continues to increase, and the easy to find oil is used up, the prices of everything, most especially food, will also increase. Possibly exponentially. It becomes, as peak oil theorist James Kunstler has aptly termed it, The Long Emergency.

Poking at peak oil

But, in the meantime, a group of Vancouver thinkers, activists, and ordinary folk have decided to get organized and actually do something. The screening of Gregory Greene's documentary The End of Suburbia serves as the opening volley from a brand new organization called The Vancouver Peak Oil Executive (VPOE). The VPOE is dedicated to working towards the relocalization of Metro Vancouver. This is not simply the 100-mile diet for everyone, but a means for Vancouver to support itself when oil prices skyrocket upwards.

As a film, The End of Suburbia is a blunt instrument. It hits you over the head with talking heads and huge amounts of info. But what it lacks in style, The End of Suburbia makes up in prescience.

The film was released in 2004, when oil was still a mere $38 per barrel. With the price currently hovering around $110, the film seems almost quaint in light of the recent market meltdowns, credit crises and other alliterative issues. But many of the ideas that the documentaries initially broached have only become increasingly pressing in recent years. The grim reality of the situation has resulted in oil executives stating openly that there is indeed a problem.

In his book The Long Emergency, James Kunstler took a long look at the state of his nation and said something's got to give. Mr. Kunstler's ideas comprise a good portion of the The End of Suburbia, and he's a very convincing speaker, quick with a quip to sum up the current state of what he calls Clusterfuck Nation. His description of suburbia is apt: "We're literally stuck up a cul-de-sac in a cement SUV without a fill-up." But the end of the American dream won't come easily. There is simply too much invested in maintaining this way of life. Even as the choices continue to dwindle for average Americans, people will fight to maintain a way of life they feel entitled to have.

Remember the dream?

It all began with gloriously good intentions. In the post-war boom of the 1950s, freedom from oppressive smelly industrial cities was packaged up and sold to millions of Americans, who bought the cartoon-version of country living, little pink houses, with a square of lawn in front and a barbecue in the back. Massive developments were built, all supported by vast arterial networks of roads and highways. The systematic dismantling of trains and streetcars and the easy, cheap availability of oil created a world that was made for cars.

All of this leading, we now see, down the road to hell or to what Kunstler himself acidly describes in his book The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America's Man-Made Landscape. Namely, the ". . . depressing, brutal, ugly, unhealthy, and spiritually degrading -- the jive-plastic commuter tract home wastelands, the Potemkin village shopping plazas with their vast parking lagoons, the Lego-block hotel complexes, the 'gourmet mansardic' junk-food joints, the Orwellian office 'parks' featuring buildings sheathed in the same reflective glass as the sunglasses worn by chain gang security guards, the particle-board garden apartments rising up in every city with their clusters of discount merchandise marts, the whole destructive, wasteful, toxic, agoraphobia-inducing spectacle that politicians proudly call growth."

(And, if you think that sounds bad, you should hear what he has to say to about Vancouver.)

The entire vast teetering edifice of suburban culture was predicated on an abundance of cheap energy, which for a time was in ample supply. But as many of the people interviewed in the film point out, every party has to end sometime. The tricky part in any debate, although there really isn't much debate left, is to differentiate from the clamor of competing voices, who has a good idea, and who doesn't. Especially since, even among the peak oil pundits, there is a great deal of dissension. A case in point is Joseph Romm's recent article in Salon which started a firestorm of argument on the Internet.

Alarmist, loud and clear

One of the most reasoned voices in The End of Suburbia belongs to Matt Simmons, chairman and CEO of Simmons & Company, who offers up a lucid and thorough explanation of the blackout that turned off the lights in Toronto and most of the eastern seaboard in the summer of 2003. With regards to the coming peak oil crisis, Simmons's book Twilight in the Desert is well-worth reading.

My entire family is obsessed with James Kunstler at the moment. Conversations often begin with "Well, Kunstler says this . . . blah blah blah." Or, "According to Kunstler . . . yadda, yadda." Others in the journalistic profession see the fine Mr. Kunstler following in the long established tradition of American demagoguery.

But this isn't actually a bad thing. He blows his wheels off occasionally, but usually in an entertaining fashion. To his credit, Kunstler admits that his own job might not be very useful in the future. No more book tours, no more mass paperbacks. He predicts he might eventually start a local newspaper. His most recent book, World Made by Hand, posits a more hopeful version of scaled down future. Thinking how much might possibly change, it's very easy to fall into fantasy land, either idyllic or not.

The thing that stops me in my tracks is the sheer scale of the transformation needed. We have evolved so far beyond the human scale, not only in transportation, agriculture, architecture and just above everything else, that the idea of going back to what we can create by hand fairly boggles the mind. It's akin to returning to walking after you've been on a jet airplane.

Lapping at our ankles

After I watched the film, I walked to Safeway to get stuff for breakfast, and found myself standing transfixed in the cereal aisle, staring at a box of Special K that cost almost nine dollars. A box of cereal reaching perilously close to double digits in price? "When did this happen?" I wanted to ask somebody. The distant rumblings of food riots in faraway places, and the doubling of the price of rice reported this week by the New York Times, all came flooding in.

Maybe this was it, the actual first damp touch of the tidal wave.

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