No More 3,000-Mile Caesar Salads
“The End of Suburbia” makes the case that Peak Oil is imminent if not already here. What next?
If you love movies, you’ve probably noticed how many more new films are releasing each weekend, compared to a few years ago. Whether available for download or blazing on a multiplex screen, the amount of product out there competing for viewers guarantees you’ll miss something of value. For instance, I’d never heard of “The End of Suburbia.” Prodded by a flyer announcing a screening at the library, I went to You Tube hoping to see a trailer, and got the happy surprise of the entire 52-minute movie instead.
You know those composite movie clips during the Oscar show that’s meant to celebrate some film genre, or an aging actor’s career? If I were to produce the clip, the aging star might be my own country. The United States in Full Dress: Burgeoning cities and manufacturing circa 1890-1910. The Twenties before the Crash, and our role in the European and Pacific Theaters during World War II; the growth of middle class prosperity in the 50’s and 60’s, perhaps Reagan’s gauzy “Morning in America” ad campaign during the 1980 election cycle. A nod to Bill Clinton’s tenure to round out the 20th century, and then right on through the stained-glass patriotism of the past eight years.
After viewing “The End of Suburbia” though, I can’t shake the image of the twins in the hallway scene in “The Shining.” You know them—the identically creepy blue dressed girls, Peak Oil and Global Warming: “Hello, Danny. Come play with us. Come play forever, and ever..."
Yikes. We The People are like Danny, running and roiling from forces we can’t get our arms around, or control. “The End of Suburbia,” by Canadian Gregory Greene, makes a case for Peak Oil as the gremlin that is undermining North America’s future. The film was made in 2004, well before $4 a gallon gas, and we’ve started seeing the attendant problems peak will bring--$140-a-barrel oil, sell offs, over stuffed car lots, over stuffed stores and subsequent layoffs, foreclosure, higher food bills, food riots overseas. There is still no national energy policy, and this is the tip of the iceberg.
Depending on whom you ask, we are either headed for a dark age, or at least an age with, as writer and cultural commentator Jim Kunstler puts it in the film, “a lot of darkness in it.” In “The End of Suburbia” he states flatly that the suburban living model is “the biggest misallocation of resources in the history of the world. America took all it’s post war wealth, and invested it in a lifestyle that has no future.”
We’ve heard it a million times; we’re just 5% of world population, yet we use half the world’s oil. Half of us live in suburbia, a template that worked decades ago when we had our own oil. But, production peaked here in 1970, and now we’re stuck competing with China and India for the 70% of import we use today. (Meanwhile, the Washington Post reported July 28 that SUV sales are up 43% in China over last year. Consumers “don’t want to be penalized for coming late to the party,” describing one driver blaring disco out of his Hummer.)
But back to the US: our lives here depend on cheap fuel, and cheap fuel is no more. Think for a moment about this. Literally everything in modern life is tied to fossil fuels: Transportation, food and consumer goods supply lines, fertilizers for our crops, plastics, fast food delivery, highway maintenance, transcontinental trucking, the airline industry, postal delivery, and on and on. Can you think of anything you buy or use in a day that isn’t tied to oil production?
You pay for utilities, you buy produce: do you try to buy locally grown, if available? Does your child take a bus to school? How far is work, or your dentist’s office? When you buy clothes or shoes, where do they come from? Even if you’re determined to buy local, or at least buy American, when was the last time you could quickly find what you were looking for? Are there amenities within walking distance, does your neighborhood even have sidewalks? What will all this mean for society as oil production depletes?
The film opens with clips of fun loving, 50’s and 60’s era shoppers, wheeling their carts through the grocery, weaving fin-tailed cars through the parking lot, and then, as if to punctuate the joy of it all, the clip cuts to people screaming excitedly on amusement park rides. It’s a “happy-go-lucky spending world.”
The suburbs started out as country living for the masses. Remember, the rapid industrialization of cities was new for society, and it created a whole new array of problems. People wanted to get away from overcrowded streets and firetrap factories. With the rise of car culture and cheap oil, the suburban exodus seemed like a good plan; early prototypes had streetcars and light rail to provide mass transit for instance--until they were cleared to make way for highways.
But, Kunstler point out, the promised country life was really “a cartoon.” You didn’t have real country life, and you didn’t have the offerings of the cities. “What you ended up with was a six-lane highway.” A cartoon? Certainly jokes and films about life in the suburbs are as entrenched as death and taxes in America.
The film moves on to the more recent past with the huge blackout that affected much of the Northeast and parts of the Midwest in August 2003, and this is where it gets ugly. Matt Simmons is the Chairman of Simmons & Co. International in Houston, the largest energy investment bank in the world. Mr. Simmons appears easygoing and affable, yet his news isn’t good. Future growth is not possible with our lifestyle, because you can’t grow an economy without a corresponding up tick in electrical/energy use. “(The blackout) wasn’t a yellow light, it was flashing red, and people still didn’t get it. To me, the question wasn’t the event, it was how did we let it get to this point in the first place.”
Meanwhile, Kunstler, who wrote “The Long Emergency” in 2005, expounds on the potential horrors down the road: interrupted supply lines to China for cheap goods, too-expensive-to-fix interstates. We have “a railway system that the Bulgarians would be ashamed of…how will we get people and goods around? Where will they be made? The Wal-Marts of North America have destroyed local and regional networks of interdependency, and that’s all going to have to be rebuilt.”
“Suburbia has very poor prospects. But it’s become so normal…there will be a struggle to maintain the entitlements of it, long after the world has made it clear that you can’t go on living that way.” He also believes that there could be tremendous political pressure, even upheaval, as the road becomes bumpier.
Flash forward to recent days, to Boone Pickens and his Texas wind-farming project.
Mr. Oil steps up with a viable proposal to help end foreign dependence. His government apparently can’t or won’t do it. He’s personally bankrolled the project’s groundwork. It’s a beginning. Surely, with sustained efforts like this, we’ll find a way through this mess?
To some extent, but alas, no quick answers, according to our experts, or more accurately, there is no energy combination that will allow planet Earth to run as we’ve become accustomed to. The issue isn’t that there aren’t viable alternatives, but rather, that the alternatives won’t be operable on the scale and at the cost that oil has been. There will still be some oil, but it won’t be readily available or easily refined. Natural gas production is also depleting, according to Matt Simmons. Boone’s idea to power vehicles with natural gas draws a nay from energy experts for that reason, though they agree in concept with wind farming to produce electricity.
So, what now? Assuming we do cobble together a patchwork of fuels and civilization continues, what might the future look like? Back to Kunstler: “Everything will have to downscale--education, sports, work. How will people get to work, what kind of work will there be?” Living arrangements will become denser, as in European cities. We need to revive the idea that the town or the city can be a great place. Everyone hates strip malls, so why not reconstruct the arterial roads that serve them for foot traffic, for high-density live/work space?
The idea of living smaller takes mental preparation. Start paying attention to energy costs, as Matt Simmons says, to the way you use or waste energy. It’s been cheap for too long, and in the future we may see energy sources close to home. Survival will happen at a local level.
Still, there’s doubt about when/has Peak occurred. Even an expert like Simmons says that hitting Peak will be like looking out a rearview mirror—we can’t really know until afterward, but his numbers show we’re there. “If Saudi Arabia has peaked, the world has peaked.” Just in case we need another kick in the pants to face reality, the New York Times provided one in this morning’s business section (July 29).
Page 4’s story touts the expansion of Middle East airlines. Airbus has handed over a new A380 jet to Sheik Ahmed bin Saeed al-Maktoum, Chairman of Emirates. “There is no sign of a crises there,” says Tom Enders, Airbus Chairman. “These airlines are on a very impressive growth path.” Sheik Ahmed has signed a letter of intent for 60 more airbuses. “The size of our order mirrors the rise of the Middle East and it’s emergence as a new focal point of global aviation,” says James Hogan, CEO of Etihad, an airline based in the region that just ordered 100 of the A380’s, a plane that flies farther on less fuel. Airline(s) in the region have ordered 700 new planes, at a cost of $140 billion. Oil price and supply is not mentioned in this story; in fact, the word “oil” appears just once in the introductory sentences to highlight the rest of the world’s problems. All is rosy here.
Adjacent to this story is a sidebar of how Ryanair, Europe’s biggest low frills carrier, had shares drop 25% on the Nasdaq, due in no small part to the price of fuel. “Oil prices almost doubled in the first quarter,” said Chairman Michael O’Leary. “Fuel represents almost half our operating costs.” So, business tanks in Europe and North America as it booms in the Emirates, and fuel isn’t part of the equation? Which is it then: That there’s more oil than we’ve been led to believe, or is someone misinformed, or just going for broke?
Here’s at least one place to start panning for truth. Go to Simmons and Co. International’s website, then click on “Matthew R. Simmons.” You’ll find a menu of his latest presentations regarding peak oil, and the potential he sees in our oceans and in space to harvest energy--solar energy doesn’t come from a roof after all. We can win WWIII, but only if the public is made aware of how serious the energy problem is, and it’s very serious.
We can’t rely on our media for the important work; they’ve failed too often. Spread the word yourself. Visit the links. Inform yourself, pass on a link to friends. Buy local, put the pressure on your local leaders and utilities to adapt, now. If enough people push, a movement will begin. There’s no time to waste.