Petroleum Energy and American Suburbia

This article was published by Newsletter, issue #15, .

We're literally stuck up a cul-de-sac in a cement SUV without a fill-up.
-James Howard Kunstler, 2003

This warning is given in an eye-opening documentary, "The End of Suburbia: Oil Depletion and the Collapse of the American Dream", which considers the uniquely American phenomenon of suburbia, and how this artificial construct is completely dependent upon a steady flow of oil and natural gas. The film was written and directed by Gregory Greene, and features a cast of top energy analysts and authors. They present a convincing case that the cheap hydrocarbon energy that we Americans take for granted — and take from other countries by threat of force — has reached the point of maximum production. Consequently, we have reached the plateau of Peak Oil, and from this point forward, oil and natural gas will become increasingly expensive to extract, refine, and distribute. At the same time, global demand for those same energy supplies is rising, partly as a result of China and India pushing towards large-scale industrialization and increased use of internal combustion technology.

The documentary outlines the development of suburbia in the United States, employing unintentionally absurd film clips, particularly from the 1950s, when the future prospects of the American Dream seemed rosiest. These video clips show smiling and materialistic couples with their children, filling their fuel-inefficient station wagons with endless supplies of furniture and other trappings needed to accessorize their new homes out in the 'burbs. It is evident that they are delighted by the promise of space, affordability, and upward mobility. Suburbia was — and for many still is — seen as a surefire antidote to a harsh life in the dirty industrial cities. So many have bought into this dream, that now one half of the U.S. population lives in the suburbs. It is embedded in the American consciousness as a birthright, a guaranteed component of our modern lifestyle.

But with typical shortsightedness, we Americans failed to consider just how sustainable these far-flung "bedroom communities" really are, and how long they can last when it becomes prohibitively expensive to have workers spend two hours per day sitting in traffic, burning irreplaceable fuel, just to get to their workplaces. In essence, the documentary argues that the American suburbs are the greatest misallocation of resources in human history, and completely dependent upon cheap oil that is clearly finite, and now in decline, as one country after another announces that they have reached or passed their own production peaks. Only Saudi Arabia has not yet declared a production plateau. But their desperate attempts during 2005 to rent offshore jack-up rigs at triple the normal rates, reveals far more than their inflated reserve statistics.

Today's American suburban families may be assuming that the consumption party will last forever, but it clearly cannot. With an astonishing negative savings rate, and credit cards maxed out, the majority of middle and lower class Americans nowadays are in no position to pay higher gasoline and heating oil bills year after year — especially as these people compete more directly with their counterparts in China and India, which now have our manufacturing jobs. What will happen to this gluttonous American lifestyle as we slide down the painful slope of irreversible petroleum depletion?

From a psychological standpoint, are we ready to accept that suburbia will end in our lifetimes? What will this do to the social fabric of America? How far will Americans go to try to maintain this way of life? Even more worrisome to foreign countries with significant remaining oil, how far will American politicians go to promise and ensure that we the voters will never feel the pain of a post-hydrocarbon world? Just ask the former leaders of Afghanistan or Iraq.

There is huge resistance to tell voters that we will have to change. The American media is largely quiet, apparently because there is no upside for them to report that the commercial excesses will end. We must confront the fact that our society is addicted to oil, and that we are already fighting over smaller oil sites worldwide. Afghanistan and Iraq were only the first in a series of wars by the U.S. empire. Experts are now warning of "infinite war" over dwindling resources, and the return of the U.S. military draft. In fact, current leaders in the White House have predicted war for the rest of our lifetimes. We can only hope that those same leaders will have the courage and foresight to get America off the petroleum life-support system, and onto a diverse and more sustainable mix of alternative energy sources. But this will require a national energy policy far wiser than our present one of maintaining military bases in over 100 foreign countries.

Copyright © 2006 Michael J. Ross. All rights reserved.
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