The End of Suburbia?

John ArmstrongFilm

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.