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The End of Suburbia as we know it


Though it didn’t receive widespread release in theaters, The End of Suburbia—a Canadian documentary from writer/director Gregory Greene— was likely the most important documentary of 2004 (and yes, that includes Fahrenheit 9/11). Now available on DVD, the doc will get a screening at the O’Shaughnessy Center in Whitefish at 6 p.m. on Friday, May 27, with a discussion to follow. What exactly would possess Whitefish’s Peter Myers, who will host the screening, to put up his own money to rent out the O’Shaughnessy to screen an obscure documentary?

“I get in my car and go to the gas station all the time to fill up,” Myers says. “I see this world I’m living in as reality, but realities can change and shift very quickly. Think if you were in Nazi Germany. You’re sitting around with your Jewish friends. One of them says that you’re all going to be killed. You’d look at that friend and say, ‘You’re crazy. They’re not going to kill us.’ I’m sure that happened many times. It’s hard to grasp that our world may change so drastically, so quickly, but these things happen. History shows it.”

Just a moment: How did we make it from a screening at the O’Shaughnessy Center to a global shift so taxing on the imagination that one has to reach back to the Holocaust for an analogy?

The answer is The End of Suburbia—a documentary on the world’s soon-to-be-shrinking supply of available oil, and how increasingly expensive oil will fundamentally alter the American way of life by making the suburban American dream logistically impossible. It may sound like the stuff of mad-hatter apocalyptic prophets with signboards around their necks in Times Square, but the thesis of this essay film is an alarmingly coherent and logical argument for a foundational shift in American society.

In a nutshell, here’s how it works, according to the oil and society experts in the film: There’s only so much oil on the planet. Globally, Earth’s supply of oil that can be extracted with economic feasibility will peak within a decade, if it hasn’t peaked already. After the peak, oil will be harder to come by no matter how much effort is put into extracting it (see the U.S. oil-production peak of the early ’70s for precedent). Oil will become so expensive that long commutes from suburban homes to work or to buy groceries and other goods will no longer be a viable alternative. Other fossil fuels will become more expensive, putting a strain on home heating. The economy needs electricity to grow, and electricity relies on fossil fuels. Therefore, a recession—if not an all-out depression—is likely. Because most fertilizers are petroleum-based and because truck transportation is a vital component of America’s current food system, people will have to rebuild local agriculture—and local economies in general. There may be violence as people struggle over the table scraps of the 20th century’s fossil fuels.

In other words, the end of cheap oil will lead to what one of the film’s primary interviewees calls “a political, economic and social shitstorm.”

Ah, but wait. Alternative energy sources to the rescue…right? That would be the predictable ending to a documentary focusing on America’s love affair with oil consumption. However, The End of Suburbia takes us to a much darker place: No combination of alternative sources, from solar to wind to ethanol to hydrogen, will be able to pick up oil’s slack in time to loosen the noose around energy-guzzling suburbia’s neck, the film argues. Such sources may be developed over time, some experts say, but we would have had to start a long time ago in order to effect anything resembling a smooth transition. Ultimately, the film presents two escape hatches: “New urbanism” (i.e. city living over suburban living) and/or the much-dreaded dramatic consumption cutback.

The End of Suburbia rests its case on the word of experts, probably to its detriment. It’s only natural to wonder, “Why should I believe all these white guys in ties who say the sky will soon be falling?” That said, their case is strengthened by the fact that, with varying degrees of severity, the experts all appear to be saying the same thing, from Howard Kunstler, author of such “unapproved for cocktail party” reading as The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America’s Man-Made Landscape to Matthew Simmons, president and CEO of the world’s largest energy investment bank and advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney’s 2001 Energy Task Force.

The documentary follows some interesting—if not fully developed—tangents, such as the war in Iraq in the context of oil shortages and Cheney & Co.’s world-domination scheme, the Project for a New American Century, and why discussion of limited oil is all but absent from the mainstream media. The End of Suburbia may bite off a bit more than it can chew, but considering the breadth of the topic, it actually maintains an admirable level of focus.

Essentially, it’s a film that could change lives. In fact, it’s already changed one for sure: Myers, the host of the Whitefish screening, is developing plans for an energy-independent house.

“I’ve always been a technocrat, and I still believe that technology will step in and save the day,” Myers says. “But I don’t know if that will be true soon enough for this next little dip that we’re going to be taking…Every single thought that I have is different” after seeing the film, he says.

The End of Suburbia plays at the O’Shaughnessy Center in Whitefish at 6 PM Friday, May 27, with discussion to follow.

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