Last semester, one of my sociology professors showed us a documentary called The End of Suburbia: Oil Depletion and the Collapse of The American Dream. It’s a Canadian documentary that was released in 2004 and it even won a few awards.
One of the main topics this documentary addresses is the “peak oil” phenomenon. According to many geoscientists, geologists and other members of the scientific community, oil production has a peak. After this peak, production should drop as the oil becomes harder to extract and refine. Some think that we have already peaked, others think that production is currently peaking. Recently, there have also been some people in the financial industry who are saying that the peak oil problem has been solved because of shale gas and lowered demand for oil. With all these conflicting opinions, it’s so hard to get a clear picture of what is really going on. I think that we will continue producing at this “peak rate” for another twenty to thirty years before we start seeing a decline in oil production, but I’m probably wrong. One thing is certain, oil is a limited resource and we will eventually run out.
The other subject that this documentary examines is the concept of suburbia. Suburbia is something that exists all around the world, but this documentary focuses on our North American suburbs.
I grew up in suburbia and I came to love all the perks and comforts that suburban living has to offer. Suburbia was the backdrop to my fondest childhood memories. I enjoyed riding my bike around my quiet neighborhood and playing with my friends at the park was always loads of fun. However, this documentary clearly has a more critical perspective on suburbia.
Originally, suburbia was supposed to be a form of country living in proximity to the city. The first suburban communities in the U.S. were just small towns located just outside of the city center and many of them were connected to the downtown core with light rail transit ways. They were very similar to any other rural town. The little shops created a small town atmosphere and I assume that some of these suburbs even had their own municipal councils. They must have been great places to live in, but only the upper middle class could afford the homes in these quaint communities.
The concept of suburbia quickly morphed into something far different from country living. Over the years, urban sprawl has created vast suburbs. Instead of local shops, the suburbs we know today have large malls full of box stores. Highways connect our suburbs to the city center instead of railways and the modern suburb doesn’t have the same sense of community that the original suburbs had. According to the documentary, “suburban life” and everything that comes with it has been packaged and sold in bulk to many Americans and Canadians. And this package, which is simply of a mockery or a satire of what the original suburbs used to be like, is financed by the petroleum industry and their cheap oil.
The film also tries to make us understand that everything in our lives revolves around fossil fuels. For example, natural gas powers our heating systems and it is also used to create electricity; our crops are sprayed with petroleum-based pesticides and most of the products you buy are transported on ships or planes that consume fossil fuels. A lot of synthetic and plastic materials are petroleum-based as well. Even hydroelectric power plants need oil to keep the turbines spinning.
When fossil fuel production declines, the experts featured in the documentary predict that there will be many wars and they think that we will fall into a permanent economic depression. In the most extreme cases, suburbs could turn into ghettos where people are forced to grow crops in their backyards to survive. Some even believe that a lot of our products we use on a daily basis would need to be made locally since it would become too expensive to transport goods.
The documentary definitely uses fear and pessimism to get our attention, but it also looks at some ways to help us deal with an eventual decline in fossil fuel production. New Urbanism is an alternative that was discussed a lot in this film. It’s a great way to be less dependent on fossil fuels and many experts in the documentary think that it is one of the better options that is currently available to us at this point in time. Walkable and sustainable communities with local jobs and businesses definitely seems like an interesting idea to me. With this new form of urban planning, suburbs could even be redesigned and transformed into more sustainable community oriented towns. Moreover, New Urbanism and environmentalism are closely linked. I believe this design movement can also be coupled with minimalism and simple living.
With a decline in oil production, or even with the occurrence of more economic crises around the world, I see society transitioning to simpler lifestyles, oriented toward community. Recycling, consuming less, enjoying simple pleasures and building strong bonds with other members of the community are principles that relate to minimalism. I think most minimalists would embrace projects and plans that would involve New Urbanism. Again, I don’t think that we will see any major changes soon, but it would definitely be interesting to have guidelines and principles such as “living with less” get incorporated into our public policies in the context of a remodeling of our society due to a decline in oil production in the distant, but possibly not so distant future.