Movie Review: End of Suburbia

Going to a movie is something I rarely do — public life doesn’t leave too many nights free and frankly I’d rather spend time with the family or a good book than risk most Hollywood fare. But last Wednesday I went to a screening of End of Surburbia put on by a newly formed group of concerned citizens billing themselves as Peak Oil Portland. I’ve got to say, the film veered perilously close to being a horror flick — complete with approaching, seemingly invincible monster that will destroy life as we know it.

Given that the American lifestyle is so dependent on massive consumption of energy, any talk of reducing energy use engenders accusations from the pro-business camp of being “anti-growth” and “anti-prosperity.” The film’s thesis that the reduction in energy will be involuntary and drastic, and will cause widespread economic disruption if not collapse. No wonder some in the audience began to wail about the threat to their retirement funds and quality of life. I wonder how it will be received by those that repeat endlessly the mantra that “quality of life begins with a job” as a magic incantation against regulation and taxation?

With stars like urban critic James Kunstler and oil investor Matthew Simmons, End of Suburbia will be hard to ignore. Events like the 2003 failure of the east coast power grid and recent dramatic reduction of oil reserve forecasts by Shell Oil as well as the Saudis add evidence to the claim that we are really going to burn up all the natural gas and oil. (We are not in Kansas anymore, Toto. In the real world resources are limited.)

Of course, way before that happens, world demand for energy combined with declining or more expensively extracted supplies will cause large and unending price hikes. Our country is very vulnerable to any disruption in our energy sources. We import most of our energy (80% of oil, 50% of natural gas) and consume much more per person than other industrialized nations. End of Suburbia details in excruciating detail the profligate nature of suburban development, going beyond the energy issue into a general critique of sprawl and promotion of more urban development as a partial response to the coming energy crisis. Will smart growth and new urbanism be enough? What do we do with the hundreds of square miles of suburbs if gas prices climb to $5-10 a gallon?

Kunstler’s dark vision sees the suburbs as future slums for those without the bucks to buy a place in town where they can live without a car. He goes farther to point out that today’s comfortable middle class won’t just be car-less but may not have jobs at all as today’s economy requires huge inputs of oil to operate. In this he is seconded by the capitalist Simmons. Sustainable, locally self-reliant economies will become necessary, not a utopian indulgence in the future these two foresee. The greedy myopia of Measure 37, encouraging conversion of prime farm, orchard and forestland into vacation homes and subdivisions, is exposed as suicidal when imported food will once again be made a luxury by increased costs of shipping goods around the world and it is prohibitively expensive to commute by car.

What can we do here? The good news is that much of what we are doing is helping reduce our dependence on fossil fuel: light rail, farmers markets, bike lanes, insulating houses, keeping tight urban growth boundaries, building housing in city centers. But, if the problem is as great as laid out in End of Suburbia there is much more we need to do.

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