Saturday, September 13, 2008

Gas price hikes, peak oil, and the two relevant documentaries


Note: this post concerns two films by Gregory Greene, now available on DVD:

The End of Suburbia: Oil Depletion and the Collapse of the American Dream (2004)

Escape from Suburbia: Beyond the American Dream (2007)

“The American way of life is non negotiable.”—Dick Cheney

“We're literally stuck up a cul-de-sac in a cement SUV without a fill-up.”—Jim Kunstler

Since I’m much more used to writing snarky reviews about movies, I’ve been debating whether or not to discuss Gregory Greene’s two peak oil documentaries for awhile, but the arrival of Hurricane Ike in Texas just had dramatic effects on the gas supply and price here in South Carolina. Earlier today, I went out to fill up my Hyundai and found Young’s gas station down the street with little yellow bags on the pumps: they were sold out. No gas. I drove further into town, and found the price of gas had increased dramatically at other stations. The Shell sign indicated $4.49 for regular, while another station down the road said $4.79. Apparently, drivers made a run on the pumps yesterday, maxing out stations throughout the Carolinas. What’s going on?

Web definition of peak oil: “The point at which half of global oil reserves have been used, at which point scarcity will gradually increase and prices rise....” Some say this peak won’t happen for another 30 years. Others say it has already happened, but we won’t know until afterwards.

In a time of climate change, overpopulation, war, and crisis fatigue, one may find it difficult to get concerned about peak oil, but it’s the major issue that fails to get enough media attention, in part because it is bad for business. Even now, I just looked through a Barnes and Noble and could not find one book on the topic. Most of the advertisements one sees on TV assume the opposite line of thinking—buy an SUV! Recently, as gas prices have risen, many SUV and truck owners have been trying to trade in their vehicles for smaller, more gas-efficient cars, but here in the south I still see people grumpily filling up their monster vehicles. One of my co-workers spends $60 on her SUV every two days to fund her one hour commute to work.

One can boil down the peak oil dilemma to a set of questions:

1. What would you do if gas suddenly costs 10$ a gallon? $20? $30? $40 a gallon within the next few years?

2. What would you do if the price of food rose at the same pace?

3. Would you move closer to work? What would you do if you lost your job?

4. How would you manage if your house had no electricity for long periods of time?

5. Would you live in denial? Would you blame the oil companies? Would you assume that alternative fuels such as wind and hydrogen would take care of things?

Humorously, Greene’s first and harder-hitting documentary The End of Suburbia was released in 2004, so in that film the pundits talk about gas rising to just above $2. His second, Escape from Suburbia takes a slightly more upbeat tone as it considers possible solutions. The latter film features various peak oil activists trying out farm life or community gardens, but both films make clear that our current way of life is unsustainable.

Overall, Greene’s documentaries are decent, but not especially innovative. They include ironic 1950s footage of happy people living in brand new suburbs, or tooling around on the highways of the future. The movies tend to shy away from the darker possibilities of what will happen to our way of life when we go round the bell curve of oil and find ourselves on the downward slope, when no one can afford gas or oil anymore. Richard Heinberg, a frequent speaker in the documentaries, predicts in his book The Party’s Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies that the upcoming century will include “impending famine, disease, economic collapse, despotism, and resource wars.”

Whether or not that happens depends on whether we change our mindset about cheap oil. Someone in Escape from Suburbia points out that “Comfort erodes the brain,” and people are just too distracted and complacent to focus on the issue. The films make clear that we should stop imagining that economic growth is our God-given right, and we need to get over the blind assumption that low-price gas is “non negotiable,” because the reality of supply and demand cares little for any American sense of entitlement. Something to consider the next time you arrive at a gas station to find those yellow bags covering the pumps.

For more information, check out Peak Oil News.

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