The End of Suburbia


One of our recent [Netflix][] rentals was [The End of Suburbia][]. I’ve been reading quite a bit on [urban planning][] lately, especially [New Urbanism][], and somewhere along my journey I found a pointer to this movie. I’ll hopefully write about New Urbanism later, but for this post I want to focus on the movie and my family’s reaction to it.

[The End of Suburbia]:
(Homepage for “The End of Suburbia: Oil Depletion and the Collapse of The American Dream”)
[urban planning]:
(Wikipedia article on town and city planning)
[New Urbanism]:
(Wikipedia article on the New Urbanism movement)

If you haven’t seen the movie, [The End of Suburbia article][] at [Wikipedia][] has a concise synopsis, but I really recommend that you watch it. There’s an [abridged version of The End of Suburbia on YouTube][EoS on YouTube] if you don’t want to rent/buy it.

The movie is primarily concerned with [Peak Oil][]. Hubbert’s theory posits that once half of the global oil has been extracted, production will have peaked and enter an inexorable decline. Many geologists believe that Peak Oil will occur within the next five years, and some believe it is/has already happened. Meanwhile, demand for oil will continue to increase. Plug these two trends into the law of supply and demand, and you can immediately deduce what will happen to the price of oil. (And you thought $3.00 for a gallon of gasoline was expensive…)

One of the hardest things for the kids to grasp was the difference between “running out of oil” versus “oil is going to get much more expensive”. It didn’t seem like a very subtle difference to me, but I finally realized that what they were hearing was “running out of *cheap* oil”. We ended up going over this same ground several times, but they finally understood: we’ll still have oil, gasoline, plastics, etc., but they’ll be a *lot* more expensive than they are now.

The subtitle of the movie is, “Oil Depletion and the Collapse of The American Dream”, i.e. owning a home in the suburbs. Many people are completely oblivious to the suburban lifestyle’s dependence on cheap oil. In an interview segment of the movie James Kunstler asks, given a drastic (like 10x) increase in fuel costs, “What kind of job am I going to have in 10 years?” My family discussed this question at length. I think my wife and I both have pretty stable prospects, and we live less than 5 miles from work, so I think we’ll be alright. My children obviously don’t work yet, but they spent some time thinking about what sorts of jobs would (and wouldn’t) be available, such as:

– Air travel probably won’t be nearly as widespread as it is nowadays. This industry will likely contract due to higher fuel prices, which will cause fewer people to travel, which will cause further contraction in the industry.
– Long-distance trucking will probably cease. Some transportation will shift to rail, which is much more fuel efficient. In other cases, the increasing cost of transporting goods will probably lead to more localized production.
– Food production will be drastically altered. “Factory farming” isn’t economical given major increases in the cost of fertilizer and fuel for farm equipment. Farming will probably be more localized, seasonal, smaller in scale, and shift from input-intensive (e.g. fertilizer, herbicides, pesticides) to more organic methods.

My wife and kids initially thought the movie was pretty gloomy, but I was actually optimistic–people were going to have to start *living in their communities*. No more driving 10 miles to a “big box” store every week: if you need groceries, ride your bike or walk to the neighborhood grocery store. More people will probably be using mass transit, which should presumably lead to increased service. My wife had an epiphany: “Wouldn’t it be cool to see [light rail][new light rail vehicles] running down the main streets, instead of multiple lanes of traffic?” I see a lot of good things that could happen, if we take advantage of the opportunity.

After watching the movie and talking about it at length, I went back and listened to the commentary track. There was a lot of good stuff in there! A quote from the commentary track that I found particularly enlightening:

I just find it sad that it’s easier to tell the American public that they’ll have to sacrifice their sons and daughters and relatives than it is to tell them that they’re gonna have to sacrifice their SUV’s and their 5,000-square foot homes.

At one point, the commentary track mentions Matthew R. Simmons’ [13 Points of Light][]. I had a bit of trouble finding that, (partly because they originally said “*12* points of light” in the commentary), so I put the link here. The title of the paper gave me the impression that it was a plan of some sort, but actually the “13 points” are merely the data that will allow an accurate assessment of the oil and/or gas remaining in a given oil field. This gets back to a point that Simmons makes in the movie alleging that OPEC members may be fudging the estimates of their oil reserves.

This is a movie that I think everybody should see, if for no other reason than to get people thinking about how their lives will change post-Peak Oil. Everybody knows that petroleum is a limited resource, but very few people seem to acknowledge *how* limited it is. It’d be much better if people could plan for the end of cheap oil, rather than react to it after the fact.

[The End of Suburbia article]:
(Wikipedia article on “The End of Suburbia”)
[EoS on YouTube]:
[Peak Oil]:
[new light rail vehicles]:
[13 Points of Light]:
(Matthew R. Simmons’ essay, “Thirteen Points of Light”)

About Jim Vanderveen

I'm a bit of a Renaissance man, with far too many hobbies for my free time! But more important than any hobby is my family. My proudest accomplishment has been raising some great kids! And somehow convincing my wife to put up with me since 1988. ;)
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2 Responses to The End of Suburbia

  1. Barb says:

    Didn’t we get this one from the Library?

  2. Jim says:

    Oops! You’re right, we did get this from the Arden-Dimick library.

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