Which apocalypse is nigh?

I recently came across Gregory Greene’s (dir.) The End of Suburbia: Oil Depletion and the Collapse of the American Dream, 2004. The time of its release saw an American public becoming mobilised against the war in Iraq and, according to the doomsayers in the documentary, global oil production reaching the cusp of its peak. Perhaps the most chilling point of the documentary, watched with hind-sight, was the prediction of America’s economic collapse, drastic job losses and a recession (leading to a depression) in the global economy scheduled for, well, round-about now actually.

In the documentary, suburbia, powered by fossil fuels, and the domestic consumption that it facilitated, is identified as the engine and but also the expected victim of the 20th century boom-time. I’ll admit that for me, watching was a bit like preaching to the converted, but one thing stood out. The doom and gloom merchants predicted a progressive turning inward of society; they foresaw that an increasingly xenophobic, protectionist and militant/coercive society would vote for the neo-con bloc. This (we assume) is the opposite of what the American public has done in electing Barack Obama.

Toward the end of the doco. the New Urbanists step forward to define a possible future where we return to that small window of time when strong communities, housed in suburbs of medium density, were connected by light rail… the fact that their design also seems to return to this time (a lot of brick and columns, and even in the crowds on the street, a homogeneous Anglo community) creates pangs of discomfort. Perhaps more realistically James Howard Kunstler predicted that, with the decline of energy resources, people will just get on and do what they can, with what they’ve got; in other words adhoc patching and infill.

The important message from The End of Suburbia is not that oil will suddenly end, cause it wont, but that unless we, as architects, as individuals and as a society, work strongly toward maintaining the best aspects of 20th century affluence (such as being able to look after people and provide beautiful, interesting or at least safe, built environments) the future is going to be bleak.

Note: they never talked about developing a lower energy economy; perhaps re-fitting homes with solar hot water and insulation could free up energy for other (industrial) uses!?


4 responses to “Which apocalypse is nigh?”

  1. richard Avatar

    I agree that the best aspects of C20th affluence might include looking after people and producing interesting design – though interesting and safe design might of course be polar opposites. I’d like to think that a multi-cultural response might be part of that – in part to undermine the potential for homogeneous and protectionist xenophobic gated suburbs or their C21st alternative. Maybe the election of Obama does give some hope – but what are his policies re: design and suburbia?

  2. “Maybe the election of Obama does give some hope – but what are his policies re: design and suburbia?” — see below:

    Livability of Cities
    –Build More Livable and Sustainable Communities: Our communities will better serve all of their residents if we are able to leave our cars to walk, bicycle and access other transportation alternatives. President Obama will re-evaluate the transportation funding process to ensure that smart growth considerations are taken into account.
    –Control Superfund Sites and Data: Obama and Biden will restore the strength of the Superfund program by requiring polluters to pay for the cleanup of contaminated sites they created.
    –Use Innovative Measures to Dramatically Improve Efficiency of Buildings: Buildings account for nearly 40 percent of carbon emissions in the United States today and carbon emissions from buildings are expected to grow faster than emissions from other major parts of our economy. It is expected that 15 million new buildings will be constructed between today and 2015. President Obama and Vice President Biden will work with cities so that we make our new and existing buildings more efficient consumers of electricity.
    –Foster Healthy Communities: How a community is designed — including the layout of its roads, buildings and parks — has a huge impact on the health of its residents. For instance, nearly one-third of Americans live in neighborhoods without sidewalks and less than half of our country’s children have a playground within walking distance of their homes. President Obama introduced the Healthy Places Act to help local governments assess the health impact of new policies and projects, like highways or shopping centers.

  3. The passage of a substance from being a desirable fuel source, to being a useless and distasteful waste product of no great use is an interesting one to watch, especially from the side lines. Oil, eventually, will go the same way.

    The market drives the price, as always, and so there is vast amounts to be spent on the exploration side, and the exploitation side as well. There occurs a time in the cycle where the product is in a glut, and the price is down, but in time, as the product becomes more scarce, it becomes more desirable, and costly. And then the market doesn’t slacken off, it keeps at it, searching out every little last drop to maximise the profit, and there is a fierce battle to keep people faithful to that energy source – because once a new source has been found, people won’t go back to the old one. The new energy source is always better than the old one, and higher in embodied energy, and causes more damage to the environment too.

    We’ve seen this with more common energy sources: animal tallow candles, paraffin wax, whale oil, now petrol. If we really wanted to go back to a stable system of fuel, we should probably go back to using animal dung – very popular with a large proportion of the human population apparently, and there’s an almost guaranteed supply of fresh produce….

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