President George W. Bush recently scolded Americans for being "addicted to oil." But most American citizens no longer believe that Bush invaded Iraq because of its weapons of mass destruction, or that he toppled Saddam Hussein's regime because he was linked to the 9/11 and other Islamic terrorists or to free the Iraqis to vote in democratic elections. In a word, the war is about oil. Now comes the documentary movie The End of Suburbia: Oil Depletion and the Collapse of The American Dream. The movie's title alone can seem to justify Bush's Iraq misadventure. But it doesn't.
Let me digress. In 1951, while attending the sixth grade at P.S. 166 in Astoria, Long Island City, Queens, our science teacher taught us how coal and petroleum had been produced from prehistoric plants and animals far beneath the earth's surface under high pressure during millions of years. She darkly pointed out that because the natural process of producing coal and petroleum can happen on earth only once, whatever is underground must last us forever. When asked how long the oil would last, she replied, "Another 75 to 100 years." Coal will last a few years longer.
At the time, 75 to 100 years seemed impossibly far into the distant future. But according to the new documentary movie directed by Gregory Greene, my P.S. 166 teacher's estimate may have been optimistic by nearly a factor of two. With six billion plus people now on earth burning fossil fuels at increasing rates, we've already passed the World Oil Peak -- the maximum possible rate of refining crude petroleum world wide no matter what. Now comes the inevitable decline of fossil fuels as argued by scientists and policy makers in the movie.
The often humorous documentary tends to avoid the heavy doom and gloom of the World Oil Peak theorists, but it sometimes touches on the darker aspects of fossil fuel depletion: specifically, how it impacts on food production. Modern industrial agriculture relies heavily on petroleum for pesticides and natural gas for fertilizer, and also for the energy used in planting, growing, harvesting, irrigating, packaging, processing, and transporting the food. The movie fleetingly visits the energy-intensive process involved in bringing food to supermarkets.
Astoria was in crowded New York City. The suburbs were mythical places far out on Long Island or similarly far north of Manhattan in places with names like Yonkers and Hastings-on-Hudson. But in 1951 it was promised that if we studied hard and worked hard, we could one day get a good job and even buy a house in those mythical places. The official American Dream had become a life in the suburbs, but you needed your own gas-guzzling car to get there, to get around there, and to get back.
Ever since World War II ended, Americans have poured lots of their increasing wealth into suburbia. The 'burbs promised a lot more space than urban living; they were believed to be best places for raising kids and for family life in general -- plus they offered a better chance than cities for upward social and financial mobility. But as suburban sprawl has exploded during the past 50 years, the suburban lifestyle has become embedded in the American consciousness. The "soccer mom" is a suburbia invention and now part of American popular culture. By contrast, I used to play "unsupervised" stickball with my urban friends in a public park down by the East River. We never worried about an overambitious parent harassing us for striking out. There were only us kids and the beat cop munching on his donut.
Those familiar with World Oil Peak theories and fossil fuel depletion will encounter the usual enfants terribles in this movie. They include Richard Heinberg, Michael Klare, Matthew Simmons, Michael C. Ruppert, Julian Darley, Dr. Colin Campbell, and Kenneth Deffeyes, plus a few others. They each provide valuable information and insights about the coming/present energy crisis and the impact it will be/is having on the lives of people in North America.
The End of Suburbia tells us, the suburban way of life is now considered "normal." It also shows the enormous effort needed to maintain this lifestyle. But Kunstler tells us that the suburbs will become "the slums of the future." Nevertheless, national foreign policies must continue to aggressively nail down access to the remaining reserves of oil on earth for propping up and maintaining this energy intensive lifestyle. Then the movie clearly emphasizes that suburban living has very poor prospects for the future. All attempts to maintain it will be futile.
Clearly, George W. Bush and his accomplices are prepared to fight bloody wars for control of the world's remaining oil reserves to prop up and maintain the suburban lifestyle. The war in Iraq is obvious evidence of that. Not surprisingly, 60 percent of the world's known reserves are clustered around the Persian Gulf. And Bush and his cohorts are socio-pathologically prepared to decimate the North Slope of Alaska -- our future generations be damned -- for what amounts to a drop in the bucket of the worldwide oil reserves.
Commenting on suburbia, author Richard Heinberg says in the movie, "It's in everybody's interest to maintain the façade that this way of life is normal . . . and we should continue buying and consuming like there is no tomorrow." The issue of energy resource depletion is being ignored by the mainstream media because, as Heinberg puts it, "there's no upside for them. If they decide to tell the people of North America that in fact we are running out of the very resources that fuel economic growth, does that make anybody's stock price go up, except for a few tiny niche companies that make solar panels and wind turbines?"
Basically, director Greene asks this in the movie: As energy prices continue to skyrocket, how will the populations in suburbia react to the collapse of their dreams? Are today's suburbs destined to become the slums of tomorrow, as Kunstler and his cohorts predict? What can be done now by individuals and the government to avoid The End of Suburbia?
Fortunately, the movie does not depress us as it delivers its bad news. Greene's presentation style, with moments of comic relief based on presenting absurd views (all too prevalent in Washington these days), lightens what otherwise could have been a depressing, preachy movie. But this sugarcoated bitter pill is very entertaining, and thus it slips its dire predictions into our psyches before we know it. When the movie ends, we feel well entertained and, frankly, very good about the movie -- but we shouldn't.