Tuesday, August 03, 2004

It's the End of the World As We Know It

A simple fact of life is that any system based on the use of nonrenewable resources is unsustainable. Despite all the warnings that we are headed for an ecological and environmental perfect storm, many Americans are oblivious to the flashing red light on the earth’s fuel gauge. Many feel the “American way of life” is an entitlement that operates outside the laws of nature. At the Earth Summit in 1992, George H.W. Bush forcefully declared, "The American way of life is not negotiable." That way of life requires a highly disproportionate use of the world's nonrenewable resources. While only containing 4% of the world population, the United States consumes 25% of the world’s oil. The centerpiece of that way of life is suburbia. And massive amounts of nonrenewable fuels are required to maintain the project of suburbia.

The suburban lifestyle is considered by many Americans to be an accepted and normal way of life. But this gluttonous, sprawling, and energy-intensive way of life is simply not sustainable. Few people are aware of how their lives are dependent on cheap and abundant energy. Are these Americans in for a rude awakening? In a fascinating new documentary, The End of Suburbia – Oil Depletion and the Collapse of the American Dream, the central question is this: Does the suburban way of life have a future? The answer is a resounding no.

The film opens with the quote, “If a path to the better there be, it begins with a full look at the worst.” You’d think from that opening we’re in for a very depressing flick. Not so. Despite the serious subject matter the documentary is actually quite engaging and entertaining. Not only is it informative for those already familiar with the issues but it’s also quite accessible and enlightening for the uninitiated. It serves as great introduction and a real eye-opener for people who are largely unfamiliar with the topic of energy depletion and the impact it will have on their lives and communities.

The End of Suburbia marshals an impressive array of evidence that the growing energy demands of the “American dream” in suburbia will eclipse our planet’s ability to provide it. The suburban way of life will soon become economically and ecologically impossible to maintain. We will see the inevitable collapse of the suburban lifestyle and the end of the American Dream. And it will happen within our lifetimes.

How bad will it get? Put it this way. We are looking at the mother of all downsizings. ...

Kunstler calls the project of suburbia “the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world” and says “America has squandered its wealth in a living arrangement that has no future.” You immediately get the idea he’s not exactly a fan of suburbia. How and why did this happen? The End of Suburbia outlines the seemingly rational and logical impulse behind the project of suburbia, tracing the beginnings to the late 19th century when it was originally envisioned as an antidote to city life and an escape from the hideous aspects of industrialism. Modern suburbia traces its beginnings to just after World War II when the suburban project took off with a massive housing boom and the increasing dominance of the automotive industry. This car-centered suburban project ended up being the template for the massive development of the second half of the 20th century. That project was wrapped up, packaged, and sold to the American public as “The American Dream.”

The End of Suburbia points out that the rise of the suburbs was made possible by abundant and cheap oil. It allowed for the creation of a system of habitation where millions of people can live many miles away from where they work and where they shop for food and necessities. And there is no other form of living that requires more energy in order to function than suburbia. But the voracious and expanding energy needs of our industrial society, our insane consumer culture, and the affluent suburban lifestyles are brushing up against the disturbing reality of finite energy resources.

The biggest impact will be felt by those who currently live in the sprawling suburbs of North America. The end of cheap oil will signal the end of their way of life. Frankly, many of the things we take for granted will come to an end. The End of Suburbia makes clear that the effects of energy depletion go way beyond paying more at the pump. It will literally get down to the question of how you will feed yourself and your family.

Meanwhile today, oil futures closed over $44 a barrel for the first time and analysts at Deutsche Bank warned that oil could reach $100 a barrel.


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