Sunday, June 29, 2014

The End of Suburbia

I use this film, The End of Suburbia, to start students' understanding of cars, urban sprawl, media, and mass consumerism, and I segue into plastics, another petroleum-based product. If there's no petroleum for cars, we won't have any to make plastics either.

After reading Armed Madhouse by Greg Palast I actually question the peak oil theory. But even if we've got oodles of oil, it's being restricted in a way that's far beyond our control. No matter what, we've got to find ways to live without it. This film helps students understand how it all got so out-of-control.

The End of Suburbia: Oil Depletion and the Collapse of the American Dream
(Gregory Greene, 2004, 78 min.)

The Thinkers:
James Howard Kunstler – The Geography of Nowhere (blog –
Peter Calthorpe, Urban Designer – Sustainable Communities
Michael Klare, Prof at Hampshire College – Resource Wars
Richard Heinbert, Journalist – The Party’s Over
Matthew Simmons, CEO of Simmons Co. International, “insider” perspective
Michael C. Ruppert – From the Wilderness
Julian Darley, Environmental Philosopher –
Colin Campbell – The Coming Oil Crisis
Kenneth Deffeyes – Peak Oil: Hubbert’s Peak
Ali Samsam Bakhtiari – The Journal of the Iranian Petroleum Institute
Steve Andrews – Running on Empty

The U.S. makes up 4% of the population of the world, and uses 25% of its oil

“If a path to the better there be, it begins with a full look at the worst.” – Hardy

Benefits of Suburbia:

Space Affordability Convenience Family-centered Upward mobility
It’s the American Dream; but it’s not sustainable.

Suburbia is the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world.

Suburbia is the dream of country living for the masses far from the city filled with
Pollution, noise, effluence, stenches, factories, vulgar worker culture…

1880s/1890s – like a manor in a park – best of city and country living
1910s – streetcar suburb
1920s mass motoring – automobile suburbs – cheap oil
depression and war – oil is cheaper than drinking water
1946-1950 – Veterans Energy Housing Program (post WWII American Dream)
- 5 million homes built in suburbs; everybody’s middle class now
- false promise; cartoon country living
- no connection with the country (river, forests, fields) just manufactured lawns
- no amenities of town – worst of city and country living
- destruction of cities; and big plans for cars

Car dependency

- GM destroyed rail-cars to sell gas powered buses and cars and make highways
- No suburbs if not for cheap oil to fuel cars

August 14, 2003 – power outage – “It’s a red light, but we didn’t get it!” - Simmons
“We have to grow electricity or we can’t grow our economy.”

*** We are at or near peak oil production worldwide – we will still have oil produced for a while, but it will decrease each year, and increase dramatically in price. We can no longer afford our lifestyles – our cars, home heating, air conditioning, etc. The gap between what we want and what we can have will grow, and this will cause multiple problems in the world. ***

** Dr. M. King Hubber, renowned geologist, predicted this problem in 1956. Why didn’t we listen?? Why didn’t we take precautions??

Predicted Consequences – worst case:
- What if US and China go to war over oil?
- No more trucks available to deliver food, so we’ll all starve.
- Decreased economic activity, recessions, then a never ending depression.
- Violence around filling stations.
- Government lies about why oil is so expensive; more dishonest wars.
- Tremendous struggle to maintain entitlements to suburbia.
- Electing maniacs who promise they can maintain our lifestyles.
- Scramble to get out of suburbia.
- Expect a war for the remainder of our lifetimes. The US must not allow any other country to take over oil reserves.
- Suburbs will be the slums of the future with crops growing on front lawns.

Predicted Consequences – pro-active community involvement:
- Dramatic change in individual lifestyles.
- Everything we do must be made smaller and more local. We must grow food closer to towns.
- Need more independent farming (no more fertilizers or pesticides available).
- New Urbanism – return to traditional communities; re-learning principles of town planning, classic grid development, and high-density at cores.
- Live locally (work, school, food production…), become less car-dependent, and pay attention to how you use energy.

** Will we listen now?? Will anyone take precautions? When the KCI rules were about to change, I warned students to find a place to sit and claim it as their own territory before everybody’s fighting for a place. But nobody moved out of the halls until forced.

- The media’s silent because there’s no up-side
- The media is irresponsible, but we all have a short attention span; we can drag our attention from sports, entertainment, etc.
- Reality is bad for business.

Benefits of the Oil Crisis:
- better neighbours
- local energy formations (solar, wind…)
- a healthier environment

Quick Facts About Petroleum and Related Products

Fossil Fuels – non-renewable natural resources from the ground that can be burned to create energy; they contain hydrocarbons, so burning causes lots of pollution and global warming. Three main types – coal, petroleum, and natural gas.

Coal is a solid fossil fuel extracted from the ground by underground mining or open-pit mining; it’s disappearing (but not that fast), and it pollutes, creating global warming; it’s heated to make electricity, and can be converted to liquid fuel like gasoline and diesel fuel. It creates more pollution than the following two forms of fuel.

Petroleum / Crude Oil / Naphtha / Black Gold – it’s a liquid fossil fuel taken from the ground with pumps. This is what has hit peak production and will be increasing in price dramatically. It’s the raw material for solvents, fertilizers, pesticides, and plastics. Different products come directly from the separation of petroleum based on boiling points (fractional distillation) including methane, propane, gasoline, jet fuel, kerosene, diesel, paraffin wax, asphalt, and oil. Soon none of these products will be affordable.

Natural Gas – is a gaseous fossil fuel (different from gasoline) that’s mainly methane. It’s piped directly from the oil fields or swamps to your house for heating and cooking. It’s also on a quick decline along with petroleum.

Hydrogen Fuel – Usable as a fuel, but it’s produced from another energy source such as natural gas (48%), oil (30%), or coal (18%). We can’t create hydrogen fuel without the use of fossil fuels. Furthermore, we can’t make hydrogen cars without using massive amounts of fossil fuels. “It’s the public’s delusion to alleviate their fear - a very rational fear because there is no plan B.”

Alternatives – non-fossil fuel energy sources:

Bio-diesel – It’s fuel from vegetable oils or animal fats. It creates far less pollution than fossil fuels. However, it takes more energy to make ethanol than to use it. The production and land use may not justify the product.

Nuclear – very expensive, pollutes as it sits in the ground, radioactive spills and accidents are disastrous immediately and for many generations to come.

Wind Turbines – need a lot of space, and are currently very expensive.

Solar Power – it’s expensive to install initially, but will pay itself off quickly as fuel prices rise, and as the solar power market increases providing more products locally manufactured. The sun hits a photovoltaic cell which creates electricity. It can be used immediately, or stored in batteries for later use. Passive solar systems can be used to heat water for household use, and to heat homes by heating thermal masses (e.g. slabs of stone). It can manage all the needs of a very careful electricity user. Our desires must still be kept in check.

An incomplete list of types of plastic: Can we live without it?
1. Cellulose (1866)
Film, clothes, ping pong balls, fake ivory, combs, jewelry, old billiard balls
(highly flammable)
2. Rayon (1891)
modified cellulose, “man-made silk”, cellophone
3. Bakelite (1907)
Radios, televisions, clocks, jewelry, lamps, new billiard balls, buttons, electrical
insulators, added to wood metals for strengthening
4. Nylon (1920s) - polyamide
clothes, packaging
5. PVC (1920s) – poly vinyl chloride
records, food wrap, surgical gloves, vinyl siding, window blinds, piping, blister
packaging, credit cards, auto instrument panels, paints, rain coats, shrink wrap,
toys, upholstery, I.V. tubing, medical supplies
6. Saran (1933) – poly vinylidene chloride
protection of military equipment, food wrap
7. Teflon (1938)
non-stick pans
8. Polyethylene (PETE/HDPE) (1933)
Pop bottles, water bottles, packaging, film, toys, communication equipment
9. Silly Putty (1949)
10. Polystyrene (1950s)
Styrofoam, plastic silverware, egg cartons, fast food packaging, plastic model kits, video cassettes, televisions
11. Velcro (1957)
reusable closure
12. Polypropylene (PP)
Yogurt/margarine containers, prostheses, carpets car bumpers, medicine bottles car seats, caulking, toys, fridge interiors
13. Polyurethanes
Mattresses, cushions, transportation, furniture, insulation, ski boots, toys
14. Unsaturated Polyesters
Lacquers, varnishes, paints
15. Epoxes
Glues, electrical wiring coating, helecopter blades
16. Acrylics
Lighting fixtures, auto parts
17. Resins - Printing inks
18. Latexes - Carpets, paints
19. Urea-formaldehyde - Insulation, laminates
20. Synthetic rubber - Neoprene, fuel hoses, machinery, rocket ships, swim goggles
21. Fiberglass

Cross-posted from Project Earth Blog, August 4, 2009

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