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It's the End of the World as We Know It

A review of The End of Suburbia - Oil Depletion and the Collapse of the American Dream (The Electric Wallpaper Co., c/o VisionTV, 80 Bond Street, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, M5B 1X2, web site: www.endofsuburbia.com) 87 minute DVD, $27.75 US / $34.50 Canadian
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 4% 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 this gluttonous, sprawling, and energy-intensive way of life is simply not sustainable. Few people are aware of how their lives are dependent on cheap and abundant energy. Are these Americans 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.

The film opens with the quote, "If a path to the better there be, it begins with a full look at the worst." You'd think from that opening we're in for a very depressing flick. Not so. 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 but 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 are 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. His undiluted, tell-it-like-it-is style is a potent mix of George Carlin humor and wit wrapped around an incisive Chomsky-like comprehension and understanding. With Kunstler you get an intellectually penetrating person armed with a functioning bullshit detector wrapped up in an intensely candid New York attitude. Kunstler has a blog on the web he calls "The Clusterfuck Nation Chronicles" (www.kunstler.com). Need I say more?

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 antidote 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 the creation of a system of habitation where millions of people can live many miles away from where they work and where they shop for food and necessities. And there is no other form of living that requires more energy in order to function than suburbia. But the voracious and expanding energy needs of our industrial society, our insane consumer culture, and the 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 cheap oil will

signal the end of their way of life. Frankly, many of the things we take for granted will come to an end. The End of Suburbia makes clear that the effects of energy depletion go way beyond paying more at the pump. It will literally get 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. It stands to reason that if suburbia is going to collapse, it also means this centralized model of agriculture will collapse too.

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 the increasingly dysfunctional and obscene suburban lifestyle. But The End of Suburbia makes it crystal clear that suburban living has very poor prospects for the future. Any attempt to maintain it will be futile. There will eventually be a great scramble to get out of the suburbs as the global oil crisis deepens and the property values of suburban homes plummet. 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. When you look at all the conceivable alternatives the conclusion is 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 is the suburbs will surely not survive the end of cheap oil and natural gas. In other words, the massive downscaling of America - voluntary or involuntary - will be the trend of the future. We are in for some profound changes in the 21st century. The imminent collapse 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. Industrial civilization and suburban living relies on cheap sources of energy to continue to grow and expand. That era is coming to an end. One of the most important tasks right now is to prepare for a very different way of life.

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.


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Thomas Wheeler is a contributing editor to Alternative Press Review He can be reached at  thomasdwheeler@comcast.net.

homepage: homepage: http://www.lefthook.org/Reviews/Wheeler083004.html

and i feel fine.... NOT!!! 30.Aug.2004 15:56

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sell your car and ride a bike... 30.Aug.2004 16:08

Rebecca

and use public transportation and you will feel much better. you could save thousands of dollars a year, not have to drive through dangerous traffic and generally chill out while talking to neat people on public transportation. Thousands have already made the switch. YOU CAN TOO!

Long time 30.Aug.2004 16:30

shirly

A century is a long time.
100 years.
When the time comes for change, humans will make changes.
When we really need new energy sources, humans will create the technology to make the changes and the world will be a much better place.
A giant crash program by the Chinese, Japanese, Europeans and America to develop new sources of energy will be coming soon and the world will shift away from depence on oil and the threats from the Middle East.

keep on dreaming shirly 30.Aug.2004 17:13

Rebecca

Do a google for Peak Oil... the peak is now...not 100 years. The time is now and we are not prepared. The present war on the world is because we are not sustainable. the system grew large based on consumption of stuff and lots of crappy food. Resources are becoming scarce. Please do read about Peak Oil.

Re: sell your car and ride a bike 30.Aug.2004 17:27

Anon E. Mouse

"Bike, and use public transportation and you will feel much better. you could save thousands of dollars a year, not have to drive through dangerous traffic"

I totally agree with your sentiment and in fact I've started riding my bike to work... however, I sure do feel a lot less safe on a bike in 'dangerous traffic' than I did in my car. I've talked to several folks who were encouraged to start biking to work during this summer of high gas prices and many of them have gone back to their cars because they just didn't feel safe in the heavy car traffic on their bike. I can't blame them too much, though if this article is correct it may not be long before the cars on the road will be in the minority.

If we could get enough people biking to work it would solve 3 of the biggest problems currently facing the US:
1) our dependence on foreign oil
2) the obesity crisis
3) pollution/climate warming

Maybe to encourage more people to ride, we need to designate certain roads as being 'carless' so people would feel safer.

to get more people on bikes... free their paths of cars 30.Aug.2004 18:25

daily rider

in Eugene, there are designated bike routes every few blocks crisscrossing the city. Some one-way roads have double yellow lines near the left side of the curb, allowing bike riders to travel in both directions. Bike paths on busier roads are clearly striped and well traveled. The result is that bicyclists have a wide variety of avenues available.

Even more importantly, all major thoroughfares, such as Franklin, W 11th, 105 freeway, Amazon Parkway, I-5, etc. have bike/pedestrian paths which roughly parallel them, allowing riders to go anywhere a car can go within city limits, while staying almost completely away from automobile traffic, and the associated dangers of impact and pollution. These bike paths are what really make full-time cycling in Eugene practical, and must be seen to be believed. There are Portland-area equivalents, such as the excellent Springwater Corridor, the I-84 path & I-205 paths, and the Columbia River paths (on both sides of the river). The trail system in Vancouver, WA leads from east-central to Hazel Dell, and is also comparable in access.

The scale of sprawl in Portland and Vancouver, and the density of existing development in the core of the cities, make it difficult to place enough dedicated paths to make cycling access to any neighborhood as easy as it is in Eugene. Closing streets to cars would be a wonderful step. Placing barriers on the sides of the street to allow only one car through (for residents) would discourage through vehicle traffic, and allow bikes to pass in both directions.

Well, Intersection Repair folks? How bout it? Seems we could get some blocks in SE anyway to agree to that sort of plan.....

we need more bikes and less cars, not more "bike paths" 30.Aug.2004 20:15

recovered car addict

I'm not against "bike paths," or dedicated use bike trails, for novice or pleasure riders. However, they are NOT a replacement for adequate facilities and access to the rest of the road network, and appropriate law enforcement against motorists who do not respect the rights of other road users.

The problem with "bike paths" (as opposed to "bike routes," which are merely roadways where cyclists are given accommodation by means of widened shoulders, designation on bike maps, etc) is that they strongly encourage motorists in the mistaken and dangerous delusion that bikes don't belong on roads, but only on specially designated facilities set aside for them -- a sort of "bicycle ghetto." Although novice cyclists may welcome bike paths, and discount the problem represented by "ghettoization," those of us who have completely kicked the auto habit and get around everywhere by bike have run into this problem.

In my explorations by road of the Pacific coast, some of the most hostile places anywhere were those with heavily promoted "bike paths." Two that especially come to mind: Monterey, California, and Eugene, Oregon.

The problem is that both motorists and novice cyclists usually don't understand that arterial roads are often the only logical choice for cyclists who use bikes for transportation the way most motorists use cars. Arterials are useful to cyclists for the same reasons they are useful to motorists: they are clearly marked on all maps, unlike "bike paths," which may only be known to people who live in an area or have acquired special bike maps; they are uninterrupted by frequent stop signs and cross traffic (which is where most accidents occur), and are thus much more efficient and safer routes between widely separated destinations. They are reliably maintained and kept free of clutter and hazards than "bike paths."

Perhaps novice riders will be encouraged to try riding more if there are more bike paths. However, those of us who already ride all the time would be best served by more assiduous efforts to keep the whole road network safe and accessible to our use.

what about hemp? 30.Aug.2004 20:34

ganja man

So, hydrogen is all hype. Yet, I hear rumors of a hydrogen-infrastructure within the states. I also hear that this will never happen. What about BIODIESEL? oh, and good ole hemp? I've heard of Woody Harrelson drivin' around in some van powered by the weed...any thoughts?

Peak Oil Is A Myth 30.Aug.2004 21:16

anon

Physics can calculate, not reliably, but even with a wide margin for error, about 4 trillion barrels of fossil fuel left on Earth. The problem is, it is not in the light, sweet, and energy rich crude form the entire refinery infrastructure is based around.

This where the Bush Family's close ties to the Saudi royals comes into play. The Bushs have vigorously opposed any alternative energy source--even technology to increase the efficiency with which heavy oils or tar sands can be converted. The reason is that the Bushs were paid off to do so, but they've weakened America. The latest war in Iraq in because Saddam retaliated against Bush for giving the green light to invade Kuwait, then used that invasion as an excuse to make a vulgar display of military might. Saddam started buying oil in Euro dollars instead of US dollars, and playing games with oil price stability. In short, he was thumbing his nose at GHW Bush (the mob boss) and that could not be tolerated.

The other force at work was the Likud Party's radical Zionist agenda, which called for the subjugation of the Islamic Middle East, so Israel could occupy Palestine, buitld the Third Temple of Soloman, and God would sort out "his own" among the victims of the coming world war.

Peak Oil only exists in so far as the Conservative American parties have ensured that the entire petroleum and auto industry (which is 20% of GDP) remain dependent on light, sweet crude.

"ensured the entire petroleum and auto industry dependent on light sweet crude." 30.Aug.2004 21:52

nona

hmmm. . . .

it's not just the "Conservative American parties" (whatever the FUCK that's supposed to mean) who've allowed this oil dependency to continue -

and it's NOT just America who's dependent: China, for example, is the fastest-growing petroleum importer.

Peak Oil is NOT simply an "American" problem, it affects ALL oil-dependent industrialized nations and economies - especially those nations trying valiantly to follow U.S. down the Golden SUV Road.

who's the mythologist? 30.Aug.2004 22:41

oregoner

There was a lot of talk about alternative fossil fuels back in the 70s. Lots of money was poured into researching technologies for extracting stuff like gas hydrates, tar sands and oil shales, etc. Truth be told, it never got very far, because it soon became evident that it would never be economical to develop any of these things until all the readily available sweet light crude was exhausted. And once it is, none of these alternatives will be nearly as cheap or abundant as it was. Think about it like a cherry tree: first you pick the cherries closest at hand. Eventually, you look for the cherries that are harder to get to. Maybe you get your friends to give you a leg up. Eventually, maybe you rent a cherry picker for the day to get the cherries at the very top. But, as the cherries get harder and harder to get to, require more and more labor and r&d to pick, your cost to retrieve them goes up and up. If you're in the business of selling the cherries, you'll have to charge more and more for them just to make the same profit.

The cost of oil per barrel has behaved the same way: If we look at the actual cost to extract the oil, and not the price, which is subject to all kinds of political factors, it's been getting more and more expensive. The best way to measure this while controlling for these extraneous factors is to look at the net energy balance in a barrel of oil. This net balance used to be something like 40 to 1 back in the middle of the last century. Now it's down to only 3 or 4 to one today. Once it's down to 1 to 1, there will be no point in pumping it, no matter what the political factors. This is only a matter of time, because, no matter what position you take on the origins of oil, whether you think it's primarily organically derived from ancient plant life, or comes about through and inorganic process in the earth's crust, the fact of the matter is we are using it up far faster than it's getting produced.

The only fossil fuel that is relatively abundant and will retain an economically viable net energy balance after extraction is coal. But coal is horrendously polluting, and its extraction causes devastation to the landscape. Coal is what oil will be replaced with when it runs out in the next few years, but not without massive repercussions, both environmental and economic (for one thing, until an alternative infrastructure is devised that can run on coal, we will be stuck with huge economic disruptions due to the shortage of oil and the abundance of all that machinery that relies on it, especially for transport).

Are energy shortages are contrived? 31.Aug.2004 04:54

reader

If one believes the manipulative owners of the energy sources then we are soon to be served up other shortages. What will it be? Water, food, land, security....terrorism? The command and control structure of the global thieves, remove autonomy and control from the rightful owners of resources so they can contrive shortages and control supply. This gives them enormous power over people and their governments. I believe the energy shortages will be exposed for what it always has been: a globalist command and control scam.

As for the debate, "is peak oil a myth?", many reasoned and well informed have expressed their doubts as to the veracity of the science concerning alternative energy and peak oil. So that debate is circular.

peak oil is real. the only real question is, "is it imminent?" 31.Aug.2004 07:58

oregoner

Peak oil is as real as can be. As I say, there's only a limited amount of oil, and the energetic cost of retrieving it has gone steadily up, despite every new technological breakthrough. At some point, the energetic cost will meet the energy density. Somewhere in between, the "halfway point," is the peak, the point where global production can go up no further, triggering spiralling prices in the face of increasing demand.

The only real question is "when?" There's hardly any point really debating it, because everyone can come up with different numbers based on different data, and there's lots of uncertainty about the input data. No one wants anyone else to have a complete idea of their own reserves.

I don't see the media overly hyping this one for political reasons. If anything, it's the biggest story of modern times, and it gets just a smidgin of attention. If there's anyone who should have little or no interest in pursuing this story, it's the oil industry and their current representatives in the executive branch. Were people to fully realize the implications of this, how long would it be before they demanded radical measures to stop the oil companies from holding everyone else over a barrel? Crash courses in energy efficiency, public transit, even price controls and nationalization of supplies would be the order of the day. Much better that a full and honest discussion of such an impending scenario never take place. And accordingly, you don't hear a peep from industry or the executive branch about it. They're none too bashful talking in advance about things that interest them, like starting new wars. If they were interested in getting people to think about peak oil, we certainly would have heard about it from them by now.

Nothin' but good times ahead 31.Aug.2004 08:36

Hal E. Burton

A lot of truth in most all of these statements.

There was a lot of research in the 70s; but the shortages then were more due to the oil cartel manipulating the supply. When they loosened supply, the research fell to the wayside (sadly).

The Luftwaffe flew on gasified coal, so it is an alternate source for energy -- Byrd even had a demo plant paid for with Fed dollars. The Department of Energy has info about Nazi hydrogenation of coal as well as the demo plant.

"Reader" you are correct -- there are corporate movements to privatize water in many countries already underway. (What's the deal with Chiapas, for example. . .?) Both things can be true; the supply can be manipulated and it can be running out. See Mother Jones magazine:  http://www.motherjones.com/news/feature/2002/11/ma_144_01.html

among other articles they've done on the topic.

That the evangelicals have "another" reason for meddling in the middle east is down-right frightening.

Finally, as to cycling, some of the dedicated bike paths are so poorly maintained that I think they're worse than the roads. Some of the roads are so fast and full of cars that they scare me, too. (And I've ridden down the California coast twice and to Yosemite and Sequoia, too -- thousands and thousands of miles, friends. . .). Usually, I can find a road that runs about the same route that is through a neighborhood or a block over on a quieter street. Don't just persist in the same route you'd drive -- there's almost certainly an alternate that it better for biking.

...bike paths... response to recovered car addict... 31.Aug.2004 09:02

daily rider

Sure, bike paths ghettoize bikes. But would you really rather dodge inconsiderate automobiles while breathing their fumes, though? If the path gets you from point A to point B, what's the problem?

The paths in Eugene are very well maintained these days, for what it's worth... and if you choose to ride on the streets, as is often convenient for the reasons you've stated, you'll find multitudes of quiet back streets where people don't drive crazy like they do on the main drags. You'll also find tons and tons of bikes. Everyday cyclist visibility is high here. Drivers have learned to notice them because they're everywhere.

Although there are yahoos around town in trucks and cars, they seem mostly out-of-towners. The people who actually live here, from what I've seen, have a high level of awareness for and respect of bikes in bike lanes and on the road in general. I've only once in a year had to dodge an idiot turning right across my lane, and that was almost certainly a university visitor (brainless SUV driver, natch). In Portland and Vancouver, I've seen motorists get downright homicidal (no shit) when faced with bikes on "their" streets.

So, while I hear and appreciate your points, I must respectfully disagree on certain of them. Where do you live now that is so much better for cycling? Seriously, I'd love to know... I'd think of moving there!

Peak oil myth, you can only hope that's true 31.Aug.2004 09:08

MK

I have been following coverage of this issue for months. When I started I had the hope it was a myth. Countless reputable sources have convinced me we have a monster problem ahead.

Peak oil does NOT mean oil is going away. Folks often get confused about this and think because we have trillions of barrels left, and tar sands, and shale oil, that we don't need to worry.

The real issue is we are likely to soon (too soon) run out of the very _cheap_ energy provided by the pumping of crude petroleum. No other energy source is as cheap and versatile - not even close. Other fuels will eventually be developed and be marketed. None can possibly ever sustain our present wasteful way of life in the comforts to which we are accustomed.

The assumption is the market and technology will respond with a solution. This often works, but it is not a certainty. There is a market for cures for obesity, cancer, AIDS, and the common cold, but these problems persist.

The cherry tree metaphor is a good one. Here is one I like:

Imagine that you love pistachio nuts and are given a room filled 5 feet deep with them. But you must eat them in the room and must leave the shells. When will you have eaten them all? Never. Because as it becomes increasingly difficult to find nuts amidst the shells, the cost of the nuts, in time and effort, will become too high. You will seek a substitute -- pistachios from a store, or another snack.

-----------

I have links and many months of peak oil news items achived at  http://peakoil.blogspot.com


We Have Alternatives - We Don't Take Them Seriously 31.Aug.2004 12:43

Stratton

Many other cities around the world have (including places like Venice) have made their centers auto and truck free, with some exceptions for various kinds of public transportation. Portland could do that, too. Imagine being able to walk and bike downtown without the fumes, noise, and danger of being struck.

The time is long overdue to offer some kind of reward to those who use public transportation and alternative transportation a majority (if not all) of the time. Or car pool consistently. Conversely, excess vehicles and "toys" like boats, snowmobiles, jet skies, and travel trailers, should be heavily taxed. I don't care if one of them happens to be an SUV bought for "business" purposes. What kind of business do you need a Hummer for, unless you're running a limousine service?

Tell 200 million North Americans they are going to have to scale back... 07.Oct.2004 10:22

Barry

then run like hell before you get lynched.