Saturday, 16 July 2005

The Beginning of Petrophobia!

Notes on The End of Suburbia by Greg Greene 

I’ve stumbled more or less by chance on this documentary shot in 2004. I’ve seen it several months ago, and I highly recommend it – I don’t think it’s available in languages other than English, but the DVD is region free, it plays everywhere.

The 78’ film is about the so-called ‘Peak Oil’ phenomenon. If you don’t know exactly what ‘Peak oil’ is, then browse these sites:, or look it up in the Wikipedia, whose relevant English article is in my view a good starting point to delve deep into the matter.   Google’s first pick ( ) is the website of an attorney-turned-peak oil-activist a little bit too derivative and too alarmist for my tastes. In a few words, Peak Oil refers to the theory that the global oil production will be reaching its maximum output in a few years, or even sooner, and then decline inexorably. The implications of this phenomenon for the western and especially the American way of life are potentially enormous. The documentary was evidently created on the wave produced by the 2003 USA and Canada blackouts, and the rise in oil price of the following months. It is even more relevant today, with oil prices hovering on the whereabouts of sixty dollars per barrel. The American Way of Life always struck me as a caricature of western civilization, overblown cities, overblown riches, overblown industries, overblown houses, overblown people, both physically and mentally. The introduction of ‘The End…’  with the history of the creation of the suburban sprawl where allegedly 50% of the American population currently resides is another confirmation of my idea. The development of public transportation, streetcars, buses, metros, even railways where systematically hampered, because of a few developers and big government fellows who saw an opportunity in driving middle class citizens out of the cities in newly constructed country houses, reachable only by car on newly constructed highways, which also lead to newly constructed malls. Public transportation is not viable in areas with a very low population density like the suburbs. The result: in 60 years after the end of WWII Americans consumes double the amount of resources of their European counterparts just to drive to work, to buy groceries and to heat their homes. Inner cities have been spoiled; larger and larger rural areas have been converted into soulless housings. The problem: all of this depends heavily on the availability of cheap fossil fuels, which are allegedly becoming scarcer and scarcer. Enter the experts: the juiciest part of the documentary is a series of interviews with several personalities who have written books on the subject. The documentary is in a nutshell a primer on peak oil. The interviewees are, with some possible exception, reputable personalities in their field. It doesn’t seem we’re dealing with plain quackery or conspiracy theorists here, that’s why I recommend the movie and got interested in the subject. James Howard Kunstler is a journalist turned writer – he speaks vehemently on the decline of American values and on the threats to globalised commerce posed by the impending energy crisis. Matthew Simmons is a renowned investment banker specialising in the energy industry – he has been warning the international community about the scarcity of fossil resources for a while. Colin Campbell is a retired American geologist living in Ireland who a few years ago has published an article in Scientific American about the real size of world oil reserves, finding that the generally accepted opinion that a peak is to be expected only a little before the middle of this century is probably wrong. Kenneth Deffeyes and Ali Samsam Bakhtiari are two other geologists who have come to the same conclusions. The latter works for the Iranian government, the former teaches at Princeton and has recently published a book on the perspective of energy production after peak oil.

Richard Heinberg could describe himself as a ‘cultural ecologist’, teaches at the not too terribly renowned but has written a number of very interesting books with some compelling views. He’s rather pessimistic about the chances of solving future energy problems, advocating even ‘some way of reducing world’s population’ [before it will violently reduce itself in Malthusian ways] The only real dubious character is Michael Ruppert, an ex cop turned journalist after a hiatus of many years. He links the current energy problems to the Bush-Cheney-Neocon policies and wars in the Middle East. So do all the others experts, but especially after having browsed ‘Crossing the Rubicon’, his book I think that his opinions should be taken with a grain of salt. What about hydrogen, bio diesel, nuclear power, solar energy and all the other tricks that according to the general media should save the world in the improbable case oil would run out? According to the experts there are serious limitations to every of these solutions. Changing our (especially theirs, that is, the Americans’) lifestyle would be much better, and some potentially very hard troubles lie ahead anyway. The limit of this documentary honesty lie in the fact that no opposite point of view (which of course exist, not everybody thinks doom is impending) is shown. Nevertheless, this a very, very good documentary, much better and less manipulatory than Michael Moore’s for instance. It’s not as fun as the other 2004 gem – Super Size Me – but probably even more nutritious food for thought.  

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