The end of suburbia

Will the end of this...spell an end to this?

When Canadian director Greg Greene first met film producer
Barry Silverthorn, he thought Silverthorn was, quite frankly, "a
crock." The producer approached Greene for an assignment in
May last year: to go to Paris and film the annual conference of the
Association for the Study of Peak Oil, an international
organisation of oil experts devoted to studying when the world's
oil supply is going to run out.

To Greene, the notion of oil running out was completely 
anathema. "I'd been indoctrinated - I read at least one
newspaper every day and I'd heard nothing about oil depletion or
this imminent crisis." Still, a job's a job, so he got on a plane and
headed to Europe, a couple of tomes on the subject of oil in his
hand luggage. It was while doing some background reading
during the flight that Greene first started to really understand
what all these people in Paris were getting so worked up about.
"It sounds flaky but the idea of peak oil is a real paradigm shift.
What these people were saying is that there's a way of looking at
oil: in any given oil field or region or country, you find oil, you find
more and more, and at a certain point you peak - you're
extracting as much as you possible can - and at some point you
enter the decline point of the curve."

The "decline point of a curve", to the inexpert ear, sounds like a
somewhat gentle kind of a phenomenon. So there may be an
easing off of oil, but we're not talking 'collapse' or 'crash' here,
are we? In fact, that's precisely what many oil experts are talking
about, as they gloomily forecast the point at which demand
overtakes supply, prices spiral upwards, and the global
social and economic fallout spells recession, war and
starvation. Just the kind of prediction that Greene would have
previously dismissed as the alarmism of a bunch of crocks -
except that now he was on their side.

A year on, Greene has put his money where his mouth is, with a
new documentary, The End of Suburbia, produced by Silverthorn.
In it, they are predominantly concerned with putting forward the
argument that the end of oil may directly lead to the end of one of
the most fundamental facets of American society: suburban life.
The argument goes that since the suburbs are built, paved and
fuelled with cheap oil - and on the false promise that that cheap
oil will continue indefinitely - the peak of oil production will
mean that suburbia will soon become an unaffordable, unviable
way of life.

It's easy enough for Greene to admit cheerfully his previous
ignorance of the decline in oil - he knows he's not alone. As
Silverthorn points out, public attention to the issue has been
distinctly patchy. "The big thing that's confused me for the last
couple of years is the whole issue of the media and why we
haven't heard the story. It was very hard to get started on
this documentary because you keep questioning yourself. Am I
the only one?"

This year, however, one can perhaps see the beginnings of a
mainstream media interest in looking at issues of energy.
National Geographic ran a cover story on the end of oil in May,
while an acclaimed new book on the subject, Paul Roberts' The
End of Oil, was published the same month. And even the box
office hit The Day After Tomorrow has unexpectedly brought the
related issue of global warming to a mass audience. It's a
classic case of the public finally catching on to what the experts
have been trying to tell us for years.

You don't have to go too far to find one of the world's foremost
experts on oil. Dr. Colin Campbell, founder of ASPO, is right here
in Ireland, living in Ballydehob. Having made a career out of
working in oil - including working as a geologist for Oxford
University, Texaco and BP, and as a consultant for Statoil, Shell,
Mobil and Esso - Campbell is now convinced that we're fast
approaching the peak of oil production, a view he put
forward in his 1997 book The Coming Oil Crisis, and again as a
speaker on The End of Suburbia. "We've moved beyond asking if
there's a peak to asking how big it is, how soon it is, and what
we might do about it. It's no longer the words of some crank in
the wilderness. It's becoming - and has to become - very topical."

The world is now reaching the end of the first half of the age of
oil, says Campbell, pointing out that while demand is set to rise
and rise - not only because we industrialised nations are
continuing to use more and more, but because of the rapid rise
in energy demands posited by developing nations
such as China and India - availability is on the wane.

If this is the dawning of the second half of the age of oil, he
explains, then the first half started 150 years ago with the
glorious discovery of oil wells, and mankind's gleeful glugging
down of the black gold ever since. "This cheap oil has stimulated
industry, transport, trade, agriculture, and the whole thing
allowed the world's population to rise six-fold during the
last 150 years. In the second half of this age of oil, everything that
depends on this cheap supply of energy is going to decline with

"As of today, no better substitute is on the horizon - there are
substitutes but they don't come close to matching the cheap,
easy, concentrated energy that's contained in oil. You face a
domesday picture that is unprecedented. Never before in the
history of mankind has something like this happened - so what
happens when it hits is difficult to predict."

As one of the world's main perpetrators of large-scale
gas-guzzling, it is no surprising that much of the debate on peak
oil - when, how bad, and what then? - is being carried out in
America. Paul Roberts is a Washington-based writer whose new
book, The End of Oil, posits two main scenarios of what is going
to happen once the world faces up to the reality of the coming oil

On the one hand, he argues, if the US continues to do nothing to
prepare for the coming crisis, serious political upheaval could be
the result. "The longer we wait, the more likely we are to run into
a disruption which will send prices up and may send
governments scurrying to compete for oil. We already see
competition between Japan and China for Russia's oil, and we
can imagine similar competitions between all the superpowers.
The longer we wait, the more likely that when there is a
disruption we'll have to act quickly and probably unwisely."

In a situation where the US is already basing much of its foreign
policy on the need to secure access to oil - few would disagree
with Roberts' assertion that "people can put two and two together
and realise that our interest in Iraq has something to do with the
fact that the Middle East has a major stockpile of oil" - the idea of
an ever-more-oil-hungry world competing for ever-scarcer energy
resources is pretty alarming.

Alarm, of course, is the worst possible reaction, sending stock
markets into turmoil and, as Roberts points out, causing world
leaders to act unwisely for short term solutions. But panicking in
the future, he argues, can be averted, if only we have the wisdom
to start acting now to look at alternatives. Crucially, we need to
turn our attention to research and development, investing both
our time and the energy that we can now obtain
relatively easily, before it's too late.

"If energy prices remain moderately high, and this gradually and
incrementally forces the economy into a more efficient stance,
which is long term but relatively smooth and not disruptive, we
can imagine finding ourselves, in twenty years time, in a smarter
energy economy that's more efficient and cleaner and less
dependent on places like the Middle East.  We'll have more
efficient cars, and more efficient houses and office buildings,
which is crucial. This isn't the final place for the energyeconomy,
but we can reduce demand so that when we do finally get those
new technologies, whatever they are - maybe it's hydrogen,
maybe it's clean coal, who knows? - we aren't asking it to carry
this huge demand. And that's critical, because most people
believe that whatever the new technologies are, they won't have
the power capacity that fossil fuels have."

Economist Richard Douthwaite, another world energy expert
residing in rural Ireland, agrees that time is of the essence when
it comes to looking at the alternatives to oil and gas. One might
expect him, as an economist, to couch his arguments in terms of
dollars and euros, but it is a measure of just how critical he sees
the issue of energy that he prefers to speak in terms ofunits of
energy, not money.

"At the moment, energy prices are high, but there is still
perhaps the capability of supplying more energy from fossil
sources. In a few years' time, it's going to be absolutely
impossible to get more energy, so energy, rather than money, is
going to be the limiting factor. At the moment, people with
access to money decide what's going to be done, but in the
future, no matter how much more money goes into circulation,
that will just bid up the price of energy, and it will be the people
who have the energy that have the power to decide what
happens and where."

Developing alternative sources of energy is in itself an activity
that requires serious amounts of energy, and so it becomes
ever-more essential that we invest in it while we still can - and
that we keep an eye on the returns we are getting for the energy
put in. While potential solutions continue to be researched every
day, the success of any of them will inevitably turn on just how
much energy they can produce for the amount put
in - and the figures aren't always as promising as the theories. In
his introduction to a book on the subject, Before the Wells Run
Dry, which he has edited, Douthwaite cites the example of a
scheme in Minnesota to run transport on alcohol produced from
grain: a cheaper solution, perhaps, but one which overlooks the
fact that it takes 70% more energy to produce the alcohol that the
alcohol actually contains. One of the most promising
breakthroughs in renewable energy in the last decade has been
that of hydrogen, with serious development going into
hydrogen-fuelled cars. Again, however, experts warn that it is not
the magic quick fix we're looking for: there's the matter of
expense, for one thing, and the question of where the hydrogen
is going to come from in the first place - it equires electricity to be
produced. Magic quick fixes, indeed, are thin on the ground, and
the development of renewables is going to take time, money and

"Essentially there's competition for the remaining oil and gas
between our regular uses - generating electricity, using it in
vehicles, and so on - and the energy that is going to be required
to switch to renewables," says Richard Douthwaite. "Building
wind turbines and tidal lagoon barrages and that sort of thing all
takes energy. We're also going to have to adjust our
systems to lower energy use. So the investments we're making
in things like road systems at the moment, based on the private
car, and ideas of expanding airports , are totally crazy. They're a
wasted investment, based on the assumption that there will be
increasing amounts of energy in the future so that more planes
can fly and more cars can be used, which is just not going
to be possible."

If the opportunity is not allowed to slip by, Douthwaite believes,
and proper investment is made in renewable energy, Ireland
could in fact find itself in a relatively strong position, by
comparison with other countries.
Besides the as-yet unrealised potential of wave, tidal and solar
energy, he holds out considerable hope for wind power, a
powerful, if intermittent, energy source. With storage or grid
connection, or a combination of the two,
he says, wind power could potential provide fifteen times what
we need - if only sufficient investment is put into developing it.
"But the government don't believe there's an imminent energy
crisis - it requires so much rethinking about every aspect of
government policy."

David Taylor of Sustainable Energy Ireland agrees that the
prospect for wind power in Ireland are promising .He also points
out that Europe is far ahead of America in regard to the
development of renewable energy: by the year 2030, it is
projected that 32% of Europe's electricity generation will come
from renewable sources, while the figure for the US is
ten percent less. But while the deployment of renewable energy
may address the issue of declining supply, production costs
mean that consuming energy is still unavoidably set to start
getting increasingly expensive.

While no-one will be looking forward to their electricity bill getting
bigger and bigger, or the petrol pump clocking up the euros at an
ever faster rate, the picture does not have to be all doom and
gloom. Taylor believes, for example, that rising energy prices are
going to force the issue of creating more efficient forms of

"In terms of cars, this means smaller and more efficient cars for
urban use, a greater reliance on collective transport, and also
other modes of transport such as walking and cycling. And I think
as we shift towards alternative more traditional forms of
transport we'll see even greater pressure for higher
environmental standards in cities - such as cyclists
demanding cleaner air - and as a result of that, I think we'll see
the kind of trend you're seeing in California, where they're
heading for zeroemissions."

For the moment, however, Irish society is hugely reliant on the
private car - and in spite of developments like Luas, the general
trend is that we're becoming even more so. Taylor points out that
the patterns of urbandevelopment being carried out in Ireland at
the moment are not conducive tosustainabiliy in the long run - a
point linked to the scenario Greg Greene presents in The End of
Suburbia. While The End of Suburbia focuses on the
situation in North America, looking particularly at the
phenomenon of the huge car-dependent suburbs built in the
1950s, Ireland at present doesn't have quite the same level of
sprawl. And yet the point is perhaps even more
salient for us, for while the north American suburbs are already
in place, we're still in the middle of building ours. Just this week,
economist Colm McCarthy, writing in the Irish Banking Review,
warned of the effects of proceeding along current lines of
development. "It is time to accept that Dublin, unfortunately, now
resembles a US sunbelt city, irreversibly car-dependent, and that
the sprawl which has already occurred severely limits the
potential of rail-based public transport solutions."

David Taylor advises that those choosing to locate in the
suburbs would do well to think about what will happen if fuel
prices start rising dramatically, as is predicted. "When it comes
to deciding where to live, build in the cost of commuting. The
cost of running a car from a satellite location into Dublin needs
to be compared against the extra cost of locating in Dublin, and
that's a choice people have to make. There are trade-offs
there that people aren't perhaps thinking about explicitly."

Greg Greene agrees. "The more we prepare for higher gas
prices which are undoubtedly coming, the better. We need to
decrease our dependence on our cars - and I say that as a car
driver and someone who loves my car. I"m very
dependent on driving, so I'm not speaking from a high tower: I
have to change too...We're all invested in this way of life and
none of us want it to change. But it's going to change and we
have to recognise that."

The End of Suburbia screens at Cultivate (15-19 Essex St. West,
Temple Bar) at 1.30 today as part of the Cultivate Movement and
Mobility Day, which includes an exhibition of new transport
alternatives and an open discussion, at 4.00 pm, on the future of

Roberta Gray
Lifestyle Editor, i Magazine

The Sunday Tribune
15 Lower Baggot St, Dublin 2
Phone 6314308