The End of Suburbia: Oil Depletion and the Collapse of the American Dream, for many younger people and those who predict a very gloomy future for America, is a virtual iconic documentary by now. It has been shown on a regular basis on the film-festival circuit and is an aggressive, in-your-face, examination of the development of suburban life in post-World War II America and where it has brought us as a culture. Eos_front
Suburbia brought with it sprawl and large yards and spread out home. There was, and is, much good and bad about this development. How has this impacted lifestyle? (How has it impacted the church, which to me is a more important question?) I knew little about this much ballyhooed independent film but decided to watch it last evening. It is directed by Gregory Greene, a Canadian. He is a kind of Michael Moore without the zaniness and style.

As you can readily see from the title the general thesis of the film is that we are running out of oil and gas. We reached our peak for production in the 1970s and we have been going downhill since. No one knows just how much petroleum and natural gas there really is in the earth but all agree that it is a non-renewable energy source. This in itself makes this documentary compelling though the scare tactics and political agenda are anything but balanced.

Fact: we all know that fossil fuels are limited. We also know that the largest source of remaining fossil fuel is in the Middle East. Some think this to be the real reason that we fight there as we do. (Like all such political theories there is enough truth in this to create an important story that we ought to be discussing with civility at least and not simply blaming on Bush as the devil incarnate. Every America president, to varying degrees, has pursued similar ends about oil in the Middle East and thus all share in the issue to varying degrees.)

The End of Suburbia explains how hydrogen and ethanol, two sources of energy that we are currently seeking to expand, simply cannot keep up with the world’s power demands. Wind
Fact: It takes more energy to create hydrogen than we will ever get back from the hydrogen we created. This is then a truly bad market idea that will fail in the long run unless something about this technology changes fast.

This 2004 movie predicts skyrocketing prices for gasoline, and did so before our current prices and problems at the pump. It also pictures a time when natural gas for heating and cooling will become seriously problematic. In addition the North American power grid, and its recent problems which led to several blackouts, will only increase. Fact: We do have an important energy crisis on our hands and the film gets this right!

The problem is that the film is meant to scare us into action and thus ends up becoming a cornucopia of doomsday scenarios. If the writers and producer have an agenda it is clearly one in which the suburbs will become a vast wasteland while we are all forced to rediscover real community (even “utopia” if some statements are to be believed).

Critic Dorothy Woodend calls the film “a blunt instrument. It hits you over the head with talking heads and huge amounts of info. But what it lacks in style, The End of Suburbia makes up in prescience.” This is a good way to put it.

To suggest that this documentary takes an extreme view of the energy crisis is a vast understatement. The impending decline of oil production is a reality that we must face, sooner than later I hope. To listen to many politicians we still act as if we can survive the problems we face with a minimal change in lifestyle and spending habits. This dream is going to end at some point; it is only matter of when and how. Both Congress and the President, whoever they are when this happens, and it is happening already at the pump and in our natural gas prices, will get much of the blame.

The movie suggests apocalyptic scenarios of mass chaos when we run out of fuel. I have my doubts about this scenario though I suppose in a society where morality has broken down this is one theory that could be proven true. Higher prices and real shortages will finally force us to act, one way or another.

Will suburbia become the new slums, as this film suggests? I think not. Strategic planners and ordinary people will find a way to change things. But change we must. Can gasoline prices go higher? Yes, much higher. This is not an oil industry conspiracy and “fat cats” are not the real problem either. We are a “blame” based culture and thus we need to blame someone so most of us want to blame big oil for our present problems. The future will clearly include some pain for us all. Maybe it will galvanize us in positive ways. The movie only allows a glimmer of this hopeful side to shine through while it persists in its attacks on the neo-cons as the real problem. The film also pictures these massive problems happening in the next few years. Released in 2004, and shown in art theaters and Unitarian churches because of the ideology behind the film, the speakers suggest that the years 2008-2010 will be the first wave in which we begin to feel the pain. To some extent they are proven right but this is the part feels rather unconvincing to me since their predictions are only partly right.

I found myself becoming more deeply aware of the real problems we face in this country with regard to energy and energy consumption as I watched. The energy crisis, in itself, is not a liberal or conservative issue ideologically. It is a real fact. Interestingly, as I was walking into the Cannon Office Building of Congress on Wednesday of this week I talked to a man from Pennsylvania who wants to run for the House in 2010, if he can secure the money needed. He is an optometrist and had a good grasp of some basic issues. The one we spoke about directly was energy. He had an intriguing solution and it is one that I would love to see put on the table by Congress. He used NASA as his model and said we do not need a federal energy czar or a new cabinet post but rather an agency with the freedom and incentive like we gave to NASA under the Kennedy Administration in 1961. We need to get the best and brightest Americans on this Energy Administration team and say to them: "Solve this problem in the next ten years." If we could land on the moon in ten years we can solve the energy crisis. The answers will likely be numerous and they will require all of us to sacrifice and understand better the real problems before us.

So far, every candidate for the presidency is talking about this problem as if they are virtually clueless about how to actually present real solutions. Until the American people know that there is a deep and serious problem I doubt our leaders will take seriously the solving of it. We have been talking about this since the 1970s and we have really done very little. One thing this “scare” documentary does is slam you in the gut with the facts, even if the guys doing the talking are at times silly and banal. There is a real problem here and most of us don’t care. Thus our leaders aren’t doing much about it. This does not bode well for the future.

If you decide to watch the DVD you have an option to see it without the “R” rated language or with it. Beware that the authors are given to offensive language in making their points. You will, I think, see a strong bias here but you will also be inevitably pushed to see something is truly amiss. In the immortal words of the real-life story: “Houston, we have a problem!” I will be listening for political candidates to talk about this issue with intelligence in the coming months. I wish Christians  would get involved too because this will create a real-life ministry context that we have better we planning for if we care about our neighborhoods and the people who live around us and worship with us. The mega-church, as we know it, may also be radically altered by this energy crisis. To my mind that would  not be the worst thing to happen to the Church in America.

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  1. Barry April 11, 2008 at 1:20 pm

    Some very insightful comments here John. However, I take exception with one:
    “The movie suggests apocalyptic scenarios of mass chaos when we run out of fuel.”
    I can think of many instances where viewers of the documentary have expressed this, and I wonder where they get the idea that we are suggesting “apocalyptic scenarios”. I recall images of empty parking lots, unsold homes, and decay, but I’m wondering what is apocalyptic about that. Could it be more likely that viewers are projecting their own fears of the future on what we are telling them?
    Barry Silverthorn

  2. John H. Armstrong April 11, 2008 at 5:02 pm

    I am pleased you found this blog and took the time to comment. I think you make a fair point. The term apocalyptic is my own and may be how I think some Christians would see it since they are too enamored with apocalyptic imagery to begin with. So I may well have reacted unfairly. It was the images of a suburban wasteland that provoked my sense of this as you noted in your gracious rebuttal.
    At the end of the day I think the film is important to see. I pray we will get serious about alternative energy before the worst befalls us. To my mind this is so obvious as to not need any defense but your video shocks in a way that probably masses of people need to be shocked.
    I would say that serious Christians should live in such a way that they do not become reactionary and the tendency will be for some conservatives to simply react against your film when they should at least give it a chance to make your central point.

  3. Gregory Greene April 11, 2008 at 8:00 pm

    hi john,
    i enjoyed reading your blog on our film, and i appreciate your insights and comments. both barry and i use “google alerts” so we are notified whenever there is anything posted on the net with our film’s title, and we try as often as time permits to engage in dialogue with bloggers.
    many of your concerns have been raised by audiences i have spoken with over the four years since we released the film, and so we decided to continue the discussion of urbanism in the age of peak oil with a trilogy. our new film ESCAPE From SUBURBIA examines the growing peak oil movement, and the final film will focus on urban solutions not only in north america, but india and china as-well. please take a look at some of our ESCAPE From SUBURBIA clips on youtube, and visit our site at
    best regards from toronto!
    greg greene
    writer | director

  4. Emil April 11, 2008 at 8:26 pm

    I have not seen the DVD. I am not an environmentalist who thinks that humans ought to give way to animals. BUT for a long time it has been clear to me that we use too much energy resources; neither political party is willing to touch the question in a realistic, effective manner.

  5. James Sherer April 19, 2008 at 12:04 pm

    It is difficult during this time to not feel the world is changing for suburbanites and the current difficulties of energy prices are going to cause chaos and collapse of suburbia as we know it. However hearing you (John) about looking deeper and studying beyond the “sound bite” leads me to understand the energy crises as opportunity rather than doomsday. I lived through the early seventies and any historian will tell you the way Americans got out of the last gasoline crises was personal choice to alter their consumption habits by buying clunky, poorly manufactured smaller automobiles and individuals revitalizing old oil wells and drilling new holes into places like Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado, Utah and Wyoming; which changed history from a predicted disaster for America to a disaster for the Oil Cartel. So, when I hear predictions by predictors I am a little skeptical. What has been said today was said before. What I am more tuned to is how people adapt and change when they are forced to and solve their own problems because they have to. I live in California which has an enormous budget deficit. We are also, speculating here, the biggest consumers of SUV’s and gasoline, the state more concerned about social activism for the less fortunate. How long before politicians and citizens of California decide rather than sending all their “Petro dollars” to other places they decide to sell the rights to drilling off the coast of California for huge “profit” to solve several problems in one. In the end the money will be the motivator. It is also the wave of the future for electric cars or hybrids to populate the landscape here in California. The thing about electric cars is no one I know will speak about where the electricity will come from to power the millions of cars plugged in every night for recharging. We cannot meet current consumption now, what will happen then? Well of course if people consume these cars (computers, electric gadgets, cellular phones) then the power plants will be built. Why because the consumer says so. If the consumer wants their electric vehicle clean, then so be it and the power plants will be nuclear and if the consumer does not care then it will be coal fired plants in places like Nevada, Wyoming, Utah, Nebraska… Probably the nuclear plants will be built there also. How ironic is it that the coasts which are so energy hungry will become so dependent on the middle states to maintain their way of life. Obviously I digress. The truth be told the environmentalists activist, policy maker, legislator, scientist, movie maker who lament about consumerism, suburbia and the impact humans have on the environment are not driving old Pintos and Vegas, they are driving the latest technologically advanced autos (They may be driving the dreaded SUV because they are concerned about their families safety and being in a traffic accident. The prospect of being in an aluminum car surrounded by batteries driving to Lake Tahoe with hulking SUV’s all around them scares them like the rest of us.), they ride the most technically sophisticated bicycles, they wear the latest fashions and they are answering their cell phone and blogging on their computer like the rest of us. Oh, and they live in suburbia, they send their children to suburban schools… because they to want to feel safe in their homes and communities and they want their children safe at school and want a better education than urban schools. They are consumers and they no more will go backwards than the rest of us. The R.I.P. for the suburbs has not been written yet and is foolishly predicted.

  6. James Sherer April 19, 2008 at 12:49 pm

    I forgot to address another part of the movie title. “The American Dream” Reading from the “Suburban Christian” the author talks about how this idea of suburbia came about from developers after World War II developing the idea of communities with affordable homes for families. Suburbia is not the American dream. I surmise the “American Dream” is owning a piece of land encompassed within the boarders of the United States. This concept goes back to homesteading, settlers, colonists. They wanted their part of America. It was never about the house on the property, it was about the land. No one cared if you lived in a sod house, log cabin, tent or barn. In suburbia we are regulated into living in three or four models, with three or four trim plans per model and three or four color schemes. These choices are handed us by developers who are not about the land or about the “American Dream” but about the love of money. The local governments have joined in with the developers (Love of money in the form of property taxes.) as saying this is the “America Dream.” No it is not, let me knock down my current trashy home and build something of quality, of my liking, style and personality. Oh, boy how many regulations, laws and policies are there with how many fines and jail time for being so arrogant as to assume this is my property.

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