Saturday, May 26, 2007

End of Suburbia

I recently watched the documentary End of Suburbia and, inspired by Thermochronic's comments on gasoline prices, I figured it was a good time to post my thoughts about the film.

This documentary is essentially about Peak Oil, which is the notion that we are very close to producing half of the Earth's oil reserves (if we haven't already). What this means is that once we hit that peak, production will decline. Couple this decline in supply with an increase in demand over the next half-century and we have a recipe for global disaster...so say the most adamant peak oil theorists.

I'm not going to spend time on this post discussing peak oil as such. If you don't know much about peak oil, it behooves you to learn a bit about it before watching End of Suburbia. There are differing viewpoints from petroleum geologists as well as economists regarding the validity of global oil production being described by a bell curve, but let's save that for another time. So, for the rest of this post, i'm going to focus on the film.

This film discusses the theory, evidence, and implications of peak oil within the context of the American suburbs. This is what I like about this film. The information and commentary regarding this issue are woven into a narrative about the origin, rise, and predicted demise of the suburban landscape. Instead of a boring encyclopedic presentation of what peak oil is and what it means, the creators of End of Suburbia asks a key question: Is suburban living sustainable? The subtitle of the film is Oil Depletion and the Collapse of the American Dream so you can probably guess what they think the prospects are.

The American suburbs evolved from the combination of post-WWII prosperity and the rise of the affordable automobile. That is, everyone can have a car. Why? Because cars are relatively cheap? That's part of it for sure, but more important in this equation -- cheap and abundant fuel to run the cars. They do a great job in the film of emphasizing the underlying issue of peak oil: it's not about running out of oil in an absolute sense...it's about running out of cheap oil. It is an economic as well as geologic issue.


So, fast forward from the prosperous and enthusiastically pro-capitalism 1950s to the turn of the century. We now have a situation where many people drive over 100 miles a day to commute from their unnecessarily large (and poorly constructed) home in the suburbs to their place of work and back. The original suburbs of the 1950s/1960s feel like the inner city compared to these 'exurbs' that are far out on the fringes of a metropolitan area, the so-called suburban sprawl. These areas are designed around the automobile. This is the only way to get around. You know these places...we all do, that's where you can find Target, Chili's, Best Buy, and all the other mega-stores. Try being a pedestrian in this environment and you certainly risk your life.

So, now as Americans are feeling the effects of more expensive fuel it is getting more difficult to sustain this lifestyle. The film does a great job of painting a rather bleek picture of the future of this kind of life. Like most documentaries, End of Suburbia includes a combination of narration that presents the information and interview clips with various people for additional information and commentary.

The last part of End of Suburbia takes a turn from the thesis of a doomed civilization to more optimistic thoughts. They discuss the ideas of people returning to urban settings, sometimes referred to as 'new urbanism', where most of what residents need for everyday life is within walking distance (or at least a much shorter trip on public transportation or car). The filmmakers also touch on the idea of buying locally grown and produced goods to cut down on the ridiculous distances the stuff we buy and consume is transported (why do I need an apple from New Zealand in California?).

Personally, I loved this film. I was raised in American suburbia and didn't think about what it actually was and how it was set up until recently...that is what I knew. For me, these kinds of films (or books, essays, websites, etc.) are important for my own education and awareness.

Call me a pessimist, but I tend to think that it takes significant events to produce significant change. Will we need to experience a Great Depression II to collectively change our ways? I hope it doesn't come to that, but I fear it will. The best-case scenario in my opinion would be continued high fuel prices to wake the public up to the realities of our energy situation. I have set up my own lifestyle to anticipate the future higher gasoline prices (i.e, buying a high-MPG car, having only one car for two of us, taking the commuter train as much as possible, living in a neighborhood where we can walk to the market, taking the bus when we can, etc.).

Check out the trailer to End of Suburbia and then rent it.


5 comments:

Thermochronic said...

Nice post, I used to complain about Bay Area public transit but man, it is light years ahead of the "system" out here. Seattle and the Bay Area spoiled me. Now I have to go update my NetFlix queue!

"Ain't From Around Here" said...

As a new homeowner I have to say your post hit home. In buying our first house it was a struggle. I always wanted to live out where you can see all the stars, go wanter in some nearby woods, a few hills and streams to check out, etc. But the reality was we didn't want a commute of more than 3 miles, which in most places doesn't qualify as a commute. We did look at some places up to 10 miles out of town and the construction was TOTALLY crappy! So we are in a post-WWII bomb-proof house 1.5 miles from our work, and <2 mi from pretty much all the goods and services we could need. I say gas should cost $10/gallon and our society -and our environment- would benefit from it. Really cheap gas just cloaks the true costs of the "mainstream lifestyles" that have evolved over the last few decades. But now that all these exburbs are built what will become of them in the future?

A side note- China is becoming very car centric, however the one saving point is that it needs all the arable land it has to feed its population. There is sprawl, but the cities are still the heart of the action. Maybe that will keep China from being the big drain on oil as has been proposed.

Brian said...

"I say gas should cost $10/gallon and our society -and our environment- would benefit from it."

I agree...but I think the important part of this is to let the supply and demand dynamics be responsible. As prices rise, and people start pissin' and moaning that they need the government to do something, then you could turn around and say "hey wait, I thought y'all said the free market was the path to prosperity? And now you're crying for socialism?".

I'm being a tad sarcastic, of course...but ya know what I mean.

That being said, it doesn't mean gov't plays no role at all. They can certainly help by enacting and enforcing higher fuel economy standards, for example. But, I think Joe and Jane Public, when they see the price at the pump, want their gov't to magically make the number smaller. Sorry.

Chris said...

Brian,

New Zealand apples are for sale because the seasons are flipped in the Southern Hemisphere. When Winter here it is Summer there, etc. Chances are your New Zealand apples were on sale in the spring here when it would be fall there. Fall is normally when apples are ready for harvest.

Brian said...

good point....i guess it should be re-stated then -- do we need produce that is out of season?