The End of Suburbia

Gregory Greene’s important and timely documentary, The End of Suburbia (IMDB), which played last night at the DC Environmental Film Festival, opens with an epigraph from James Howard Kuntsler, author of The Long Emergency and Geography of Nowhere: “We’re literally stuck up a cul-de-sac in a cement SUV without a fill-up.” Kuntsler has been documenting for some time the long-term effects of suburbanization in contributing to what President Bush has belatedly described as our “addiction to oil.” Greene’s documentary compiles the research of Kunstler and other researchers, many of whom participated in a “Peak Oil” conference in 2003, where these researchers began discussing strategies for dealing with the imminent crisis in oil production. While Greene’s documentary is unsettling, it also offers strategies for alleviating the worst consequences of the end of an economy and culture based on oil, one best represented by the uniquely American version of suburbia.

To Greene’s credit, The End of Suburbia, if anything, underplays the stereotypical loathing of suburbia, noting instead the degree to which suburbia has been entangled with contemporary versions of the American Dream. Instead, Greene uses clips from In the Suburbs, a 1957 promotional piece commissioned by Redbook and available from the Prelinger Archives to gently mock suburbia while showing the link between suburbia and the American Dream to be an ideological one (the clips from In the Suburbs in fact provide some much needed kitschy humor). In the Q&A afterwards, Greene cautioned the audience against seeing “suburbia” as a universal concept, noting that in Canada, and more particularly in France, the suburbs have a much different cultural resonance than they do in the United States, where they are associated primarily with white flight and white picket fences.

More crucially, The End of Suburbia offers a wealth of evidence that the we are nearing the World Oil Peak, the moment when global demand for oil begins to outstrip supply, which will happen in the very near future, if it hasn’t already happened (especially given increased demand in India and China). As Suburbia painstakingly illustrates, the consequences of inaction–or worse, deepening our dependency–are tremendous. Consumers have already faced significant increases in energy prices and, in Maryland at least, a gallon of unleaded gasoline continues to hover around $2.60, which may soon seem like a bargain, and from there, the film asks some pointed questions. Notably, how will the end of oil affect our ability to ship products inexpensively from overseas (or even across the US, for that matter)? To what extent will the end of reliance on fossil fuels demand that we forsake McMansions for a return to city centers? One policy maker even speculates that multiple families may be forced to share these mansions in the distant future, while others predict that American subdivisions may become the slums of the future. It’s a relatively bleak portrait, and Greene wisely accompanies these dour predictions with a touch of humor that prevents things from seeming entirely too bleak.

The End of Suburbia also offers some alternatives that might not prevent what Kunstler has called “the long emergency,” but might make it a bit more manageable. Among other alternatives, the film espouses “the new urbanism,” which focuses on producing more sustainable communities and a greater emphasis on localism, the subject of Greene’s follow-up documentary. I had a chance to chat for a few minutes with Greene after the screening about the upcoming film, and it sounds as if the new documentary will complement The End of Suburbia quite nicely.

Update: I had problems publishing this entry earlier. Checking to see if those problems have been resolved. If you feel compelled to comment on this review, just leave the comments in another entry until I figure out what’s happening.

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