Sunday, August 23, 2009

Review: The End of Suburbia

The End of Suburbia is a documentary concerning itself with predicting the effects of the coming peak of oil production. It consists of interviews with leading peak oil educators including Richard Heinberg, Colin Campbell, Michael Rupert, and James Howard Kunstler. The movie paints a very dark story, and calls on America to relocalize into walkable urban centers rather than continue the folly of suburban sprawl. Additionally it calls for relocalization of our economy, a reversal of globalization, ending the "3000 mile ceasar salad", and other practices which result from abundant cheap energy supplies.

The core of the story is Peak oil, which is the theoretical construct studied by some scientists which predicts production from oil fields as they age. What's been observed over decades of oil production is that once the easy oil is pumped out of a field it is harder and harder and harder to extract the oil. The United States went past its peak of oil production in 1971 and its thought that the world went past its peak of oil production a year or three ago.

Economics 101 "supply and demand" theory says that a commodity with rising demand and decreasing supply will see an increasing price. Right? The history of oil usage is an ever increasing rate of use. That is, except for a short period in the late 70's to early 80's, immediately after the oil crises of the 1970's (and the Carter Administration years). The last few years have seen a wide range of fuel prices leaving us with gasoline cost far higher than recent history. The higher price hasn't been adequately explained to us. It's my belief that the root cause is production peak issues as predicted by the peak oil theory.

This is the sort of problem that The End of Surburbia asks the viewer to ponder. The movie doesn't dwell on questioning whether the peak oil theory is right or wrong. Clearly the people behind this movie assume that it is a correct theory, and their job is to put viewers through a thinking process about the folly of suburbia, the vast amounts of energy wasted to fund the suburban lifestyle, the vast amounts of energy wasted in globalization, and to ponder how we might survive through the coming crisis spawned by less energy availability.

The issue with suburbia itself is the low population density and the unwalkable nature of modern suburbs. Low population density means mass transit is an uneconomic unprofitable business which cannot survive (in most cases). Part of the reason for this is a concerted effort by General Motors, Firestone and Standard Oil to destroy mass transit (street car) systems all over the country replacing them with cars on rubber tires fueled by gasoline.

A byproduct of unwalkable cities is that we as a people have gotten out of the habit of casual exercise. We can't walk to the store, we can't walk to work, etc, instead we drive everywhere. Lack of casual exercise is a likely culprit in obesity.

The "3000 mile ceasar salad" is a way of describing a key flaw in globalization. Globalization is about shipping goods all over the world to serve a global search for the lowest price. The "3000 mile ceasar salad" is when globalization means the ingredients for your ceasar salad at lunch are shipped from 3000 (or more) miles away. An example of globalization is availability of fresh fruit in grocery stores all year long even when the fruit is out of season. This is enabled by cheap shipping costs in turn enabled by cheap abundant energy (fossil oil) supplies. If fuel costs continue rising it will make global-wide shipping expensive, making it unprofitable to ship ceasar salad ingredients across the world.

These are the things discussed in The End of Suburbia. It is an excellent movie, very informative, and for some it was a life-changing experience to watch.