Sometimes the older films gain increasing relevance as time passes. I last watched End of Suburbia in about 2005 when the combination of archive footage selling suburbia to the new middle classes in the USA with the talking heads of today’s environmental experts gave a powerful message about the market failure that is the US (and many other places around the world) suburb.
Its increasing relevance was brought home to me in a recent rewatch on DVD which coincided with the news that a number of global car companies are thinking of buying local car club company City Car Club. End of Suburbia describes how General Motors, Standard Oil and Firestone Tyres were convicted of conspiring to buy up and close down the light rail companies that had created a series of walkable suburbs around the major US cities. I recall the film Who Killed the Electric Car which told a similar story about the early electric car innovators being bought and closed by the big car companies.
The possibility of assigning evil motives to car companies buying car clubs is easy to see. Buy them up and close them down because this successful example of collaborative consumption is bound to undermine car sales. It wouldn’t be the first time something like this had happened although ironically both previous examples now, in deep retrospect, look like ignorant and evil decisions at best, massive market failure at worst.
End of Suburbia fairly deliberately seeks to shock suburban America out of its unseeing acceleration down the suburban cul de sac. It does a good job of explaining that Peak Oil doesn’t mean running out but does mean higher prices. Where it struggles though is to posit some of the potential innovations (including incremental lifestyle changes, renewable energy and energy efficiency) that might mitigate the shock. Instead it highlights the possibility of continuous war and increasing and deepening recessions.
The message may turn out to be correct but if it isn’t the accusation of crying wolf will inevitably be made and the longer we go without suburban society collapsing the more the naysayers will gloat, particularly as the dates forecast are passed, even if they are ultimately proven wrong.
Our understanding of the issues has progressed since this film was made in 2004 but it still is prescient about issues like the reliance on natural gas in the US (a good introduction to the film Gasland).
One of the keys is the politics of adjustment. The behemoths of the old fossil fuel economy have substantially more political influence (mainly paid for) than the new green tech economy. The film makes this point well including an accusation against Walmart of destroying local supply networks which is topical in the UK as anti Tesco riots occur in Bristol.
How we will judge films like End of Suburbia is kind of the theme of the film Age of Stupid set in the 2050s. It would be nice to think they will turn out to have been way too aggressive in their warnings and that we will innovate our way to a smooth adjustment to the low carbon economy. If that is the case we may never know if their message helped or hindered. If they turn out to be right we will truly be in trouble.
Whatever the result the need for action is clear in this film.