So you've bought a nice little place in the suburbs, and now you can hop in your Hummer and commute into the city to work. What's more, school and Wal-Mart are just a few minutes' drive away. Well, according to the documentary The End of Suburbia: Oil Depletion and the Collapse of the American Dream, you'd better gas up and take a road trip while you can, because the Earth's fuel gauge is creeping toward empty and we're going nowhere fast.
The film is a dismal-minded examination of the looming end of our society's relationship with oil. Although it's been a long time coming, it looks to be a bad breakup: The experts lined up by filmmaker Gregory Greene advance the message that America is in denial, having refused to prepare for a world without the nonrenewable resource.
The End of Suburbia begins by tracing the roots of our country's fossil-fuel-guzzling ways back to the industrial revolution. Fun-to-watch 1950s filmstrips highlight the exodus of half the population from dirty, industrialized cities to American dreamland cul-de-sacs, where they were lured by promises of country living and two-car garages. As the movie shows, these suburbs were born during a time when oil was cheap and plentiful and people were increasing their reliance on cars, highways and trucking lines for everyday living. But it couldn't last.
Now, the United States has 200 million out of the 600 million cars in circulation worldwide, and gorges on 25 percent of the planet's oil though accounting for only 4 percent of the global population. "We tried to warn you," smirk the experts consulted for the film. Media critic Barrie Zwicker presides over the roster of doomsayers, which also includes investment-bank CEO Matthew Simmons, journalist Richard Heinberg and a group of international geologists.
Author James Howard Kunstler is the best of the bunch, delivering a knockout punch of reality laced with dark humor. As we near the end of peak oil production in the next six years, he predicts, each barrel of the stuff will literally cost more than the last. The resulting scarcity will kill the suburbs, increase the prices of food and goods and cause a series of wars over the 60 percent of oil that remains recoverable in the Persian Gulf sort of a Mad Max-meets-Iraq scenario, Kunstler says. Such gloom-and-doom humor is prevalent in the film. Director Greene almost takes glee in pointing out how dire our situation is and why alternative sources of energy won't work. And if oil is on its way out, so is normal life as we know it.
The experts use this alarming reality as an opportunity to sell the so-called New Urbanism. That philosophy states that, to prevent us from going the way of our beloved dino-fossils, our only chance is to adapt to walkable neighborhoods with localized energy production. The sharing of this strategy is probably the only good news in Greene's otherwise bleak film, which hammers home the idea that we are oil-addicted junkies long overdue to go cold turkey. Suck it up while you can and buy a good pair of walking shoes.