Transition Culture

An Evolving Exploration into the Head, Heart and Hands of Energy Descent

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17 Aug 2007

A Review of ‘Escape from Suburbia’.

es1‘The End of Suburbia’ changed my life. Before I saw it, I knew little or nothing about peak oil, since having seen it, like so many people, my life has never been the same. The film delivered it straight, addressing peak oil and our collective oil dependency like nothing prior to it had. It was informative, funny and chilling. It has been an extraordinary phenomenon, shown in community screenings around the world, and has arguably done more to promote the peak oil concept than any book yet produced on the subject. The sequel, ‘Escape from Suburbia’, has been keenly anticipated for some time now, and so it was with this sense of anticipation that I sat down to watch the DVD of the film last week. I have to say, I found it to be somewhat unsatisfying sequel, with mixed messages about responses to the peak oil crisis.

The film has lots of good things going for it. It is well made, has some excellent looks back at the US’s energy history (including Carter calling energy security “the moral equivalent of war”), and a brilliant animated Ronald Reagan tearing solar panels off the roof of the White House. The interviews with Heinberg and Kunstler add a new depth to those in the first film, and it again manages to convey the absurbity of North American living arrangements and its degree of oil dependency. The concept of perpetual growth is thoroughly disected. The story of the film in a nutshell is that it follows 4 people/couples through their having found out about peak oil and had their lives turned upside down by it, and follows their preparing to make changes in their lives, which mostly involve, as the film title suggests, leaving suburbia.

Weaving into their stories additional insights into peak oil and the need for action, alongside sections on the South Central Farm in LA and also a look at Willits in California, it tells the story of how peak oil is provoking people to change their lives. When it could all lapse into head-for-the-hills blind panic, there are some very good sections that explore the potential of rethinking suburbia and a couple of key people, most notably Guy Dauncey, pull it back, who argue that it is not about escaping from suburbia, but about reinventing it, reinhabiting it. He is, however, rather a lone voice in the wilderness.

es2There is something, at least from my outside-the-US perspective that troubles me about this film. My concern about the film began with the name. Is escaping from suburbia actually a practical collective response? Ought the title have been better as ‘Mending Suburbia’ or ‘Reinventing Suburbia’? I must state at the outset of this review that I am writing it from an English perspective. I have never visited the US, and so have no concept of the vast sprawling accident-waiting-to-happen that is suburban America. However, even so, I think the film has certain failings which, for me anyway, make it a disappointing follow-up to the original.

One of its weaknesses is the lack of a narrator. In the ‘End of Suburbia’ Barry Zwicker provided an excellent narration, keeping the story moving forward, and sustaining the dynamic pace of the film. Without him it does tend to flag in a couple of places, and I think loses the pace and energy of the first film, which cracked on at an almost heart-arresting pace. In my work educating people about peak oil, I see various stages people go through when they find out about it. Firstly there is disbelief, then shock and grief, then an acceptance and the beginning of looking for solutions, and then often a determination to action, but from a more measured place, not prompted by blind panic. While the End of Suburbia offered the first stage, the shock, this film is rather in the second stage, with lots of rather stunned and scared people planning their response to what they perceive as a catastrophe. The peak oil awareness group meetings in New York might look, to the outsider, almost cult-like, as a large group of people sit and panic together.

The problem with Escaping from Suburbia is the scaleability of it. While it may be fine for a few people to bale out of suburbia and move to rural farmsteads, that is not a universally replicable solution. The two stories it tells that go beyond this simplistic solution are South Central Farm and Willitts. The story of South Central is a very sad one: an urban farm providing access to land for food production for many poor and disadvantaged people, a haven of resilience within a profoundly unsustainable urban context, bulldozed to make way for new warehouses. The story is told with passion and anger, an insight into how far some of our ‘leaders’ are from really understanding this issue. The Willitts story is only touched on, and I would have liked to see a lot more. It is a mouthwatering taste of something that really, for me, should have underpinned the film, that is collective responses to peak oil rather than individual ones. I would have loved to learn more about their approach, the tools they use, the problems they have encountered and so on.

Instead, the film straddles awkwardly between two camps. There is the “oh my God, it’s all going down, let’s get out” approach, best captured in a very ill-looking Mike Ruppert’s comparing our response to peak oil to when the oxygen masks come down on a plane and we are told to put our own one on first rather than helping other people, and there is the “we can only do this together” perspective, best offered by Heinberg and Dauncey. While it might be argued that the film offers a snapshot of the diversity of responses to peak oil that have emerged since the first film, it may also leave the viewer feeling somewhat confused.

Peak oil is presented as the calamity that it may very likely turn out to be, but its potential as an opportunity is barely explored. What I had hoped this film would offer was an exhilarating invitation to embark on a journey, that it would enthuse and inspire people to begin the work of preparing for powerdown. ‘Escape from Suburbia’ really is about the second stage of peak oil awareness, that of beginning to look around for solutions, but my reading of the peak oil movement is that the cutting edge is really more where Willitts are at, the exploration of community scale responses, rather than the blind panic “let’s get out” scenarios. Where are all the Peak Oil resolution cities? Where are the authors of the Portland Peak Oil Report? Where are the guerilla gardeners and Food Not Lawns? Where is David Holmgren (who I regard as one of the key thinkers on all this)? The Relocalisation Network?

One of the problems is that the people explored in the film aren’t especially engaging, and their stories aren’t gone into in enough depth to enable you to really relate to their stories. I found myself, rather than sympathising, being really irritated by the couple leaving suburbia in Oregon and moving to Canada. They didn’t really have much to say beyond that they wanted out. The gay couple from New York were the most engaging, as one could really see how their world view had been reshaped, and their response was much more outreaching and compassionate, organising conferences and talks, reskilling, reaching out rather than immediately bailing out. As the ‘human angle’ the film built itself around, they were the only one of the 4 stories that I felt actually worked.

The End of Suburbia was a powerful tool for activists to show as a trigger for community responses to this crisis. I had hoped that this film would be a similarly powerful exploration of potential solutions, something one could show to fire up groups to begin planning for energy descent, one you could show back to back with the first film. Instead, given that the film straddles the two camps I described above, and that it doesn’t have a cohesive narrative, viewers will end up with no sense of clear purpose or direction, no new tools to use in designing responses, and will almost be left where the first film left them, with a rising sense of panic and no real idea what to do.

There is much about this film to recommend it. It has high production values, some excellent interviews, the first third cracks along at a pace with talking heads and insights into the peak oil issue, which build on and deepen the story of the first film. I suppose I am left wondering who I would show it to. What this film ought to have been (from my perspective anyway) was a practical response to the first. It ought to have communicated in the dynamic style of the first film the enormous opportunity of peak oil as well as the challenge. Peak oil could be the opportunity for a huge renaissance for agriculture, for community, for manufacturing, for biodiversity, but this doesn’t come through at all. It fails to provide the viewer with tools, with simple, memorable things that they can go off and do. It ought to have felt like a thrilling invitation to be a part of a historic transition, a call to adventure. Instead it offers such a mixed message that it fails to live up to its potential. If there is to be a third, the producers need to decide whether it is called “Running Screaming from Suburbia”, or “Mending Suburbia”. Which of the two perspectives they decide to focus on will determine whether or not they create the sequel that the first film so richly deserved, and which this film could have been but isn’t quite.

Comments are now closed on this site, please visit Rob Hopkins' blog at Transition Network to read new posts and take part in discussions.


17 Aug 8:06am

Blimy Rob, you do get up early in the morning!
Seriously though, what a shame that you found the film so disaapointing. We were looking forward to it being a more solution orientated version of End of Suburbia. Are there not any film makers out there willing to make the film you talked about, looking at community based solutions world wide or UK wide, not just in the US????

Andi Hazelwood
17 Aug 9:31am

Rob, thank you for that in depth review. I have been wanting to see Escape, but haven’t gotten that far yet. As far as a solutions film, I think “The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil” is it.

I would love to see a follow up to the Cuba DVD – a practical “how to” movie, from go to whoa. We urgently need something that will inspire us, not something to scare and confuse us.

Andi Hazelwood
Global Public Media

17 Aug 10:09am

Thanks for the comprehensive review. I watched crude awakening recently and was also thoroughly disappointed. As you previously described the ‘Peak Oil’ movement as a “big church” this also seems very true not only on the discussions of oil but on the responses. Unfortunately when you introduce people to the subject you almost immediately have to warn them about the wide range of opinions and hope that they do not shut off completely because of the ‘doom and gloom’ messages. The Cuban film is the best i have seen. Perhaps we’ll see a Transition Towns feature length documentary some day?

Mike Grenville
17 Aug 10:42pm

I have also seen Beyond Suburbia and have nothing to add to Rob’e detailed review above except to agree that it is dissapointing and seems unclear in its purpose. Certainly you should not plan to screen it without seeing it first.

There is another film which I have just seen which is very good called ‘How to save the world’. I’ll post a more detailed review later but in brief it is the tale of a New Zealand farmer who moves to India to promote bio-dynamics and traces the transformation of a number of farms there.

It poses the question ‘what does an environmentally sustainable food system capable of feeding everyone actually look like?’ It is a very positive film without some of the baggage that can be associated with Cuba. At 104 mins it is a little long and some of the travel tracking shots would have been better edited out but well worth watching.

17 Aug 11:40pm


I second that!

<< …the cutting edge is really more where Willitts are at, the exploration of community scale responses, rather than the blind panic “let’s get out” scenarios. Where are all the Peak Oil resolution cities? Where are the authors of the Portland Peak Oil Report? Where are the guerilla gardeners and Food Not Lawns? Where is David Holmgren (who I regard as one of the key thinkers on all this)? The Relocalisation Network?>>

A film covering these community scale initiatives would be a valuable contribution to the dialogue. I hope to see one like that in the future.

Stephen Watson
18 Aug 3:01pm

Thanks for such an in-depth review Rob. I’ll be saving the £££s for something else by the sound of it.

20 Aug 10:17pm

What about this one – The 11th Hour – just out in the US and attempting to look at the whole of the impact of consumerist culture on the environment. Reviews are generally positive and it appears to address the roots of the problems ie the way we think about the world and our place in it, as well as looking at designing solutions. It has Leo DiCaprio in it though!

23 Aug 1:50am

Well Rob, looks like we’re back to using ‘Curse of the Warerabbit’ again!

I found EFS helpful from the human story point of view as I have changed my career and life focus since learning about peak oil. As far as practical responses go, it would have been nice to see a few more sucessful community garden projects starting – not just getting pulled apart. Also seeing the way lower energy societies deal with things NOW (Poland has brilliant ‘community gardens’ that are just an excepted part of living for apartment dwellers).

For christmas I’ll be wishing for a Transition Towns ‘The Journey’ DVD and a fleshed out film version of Holmgren’s ‘Aussie St’ PPoint presentation of retro-fitting the suburbs for energy descent – brilliant.

Steve Wauk
23 Aug 12:24pm

Thanks very much for your balanced review and considered recommendations. I sure don’t need to waste any more money on trash, and we as a collective don’t need more survivalists or self righteous “I told you so” baboons.


23 Aug 8:19pm

Kunstler’s aesthetic distaste for Surburban American architectural style has limited the Peak Oil discussion of what is likely to occur in Suburbia. Jobs will disappear post peak so why move closer to the city that you used to work in? Suburbia will become the new city centre because that is where the workers and consumers already live; and that is where the land space to grow food is found; and that is where cottage industry/barter economy will make its comeback. Ironically, suburbia will be the place to which most escape when urban residents want food and shelter and when rural residents want collective security of a homeowners association/neighborhood watch.

Mike Grenville
23 Aug 8:26pm

Good point ‘gylangirl’. All those neat lawns could be transformed into growing food. A better film theme would be Transforming Suburbia’ or perhaps even ‘Transitioning Suburbia’!

23 Aug 8:36pm

Yeah: sheep on the former golf courses; hand pumped well water instead of city water; and nice cool basements for root cellars.

Mike Grenville
23 Aug 8:41pm

“sheep on the former golf courses” – now you’re talking revolution! yeah 😉

23 Aug 8:57pm

Not to mention

the sewage problems, the summer heat danger of unventilated concrete flats, the older infrastructure decay, and the fire hazards of the city.

the total isolation and lack of near support in the rural areas for medical and security emergencies.

Sharon Astyk
27 Aug 1:29pm

I agree with Gylangirl – Kunstler has had a disproportionate impact on the relationship we have to suburbia – and to cities. I admire Kunstler, and give him credit for putting the future all together well before most of the rest of us, but I think in many ways, he’s mistaken. I’ve argued before that in fact, suburbia may be what saves us – that is, the fact that much of the US’s best land is divided into small parcels is likely to create a natural landscape of small farms. The “front yard as public space” ecological history of the lawn (for those who are not Americans, the suburban front lawn is considered “semi-public” (you’ll almost never find half-naked people sunbathing there ;-)) – the blending of your lawn into your neighbor’s, and the right of your neighbors to whinge if your lawn gets too high because it impacts their lawns is a PITA in many ways, but it derives from an old sense of the front of one’s house as collective public space. There’s a good deal of potential there.

The question in the US will be whether people get to keep their houses, and who ends up living in suburbia. But the institution itself isn’t hopeless. In fact, the reality that you can’t walk to shops may be the best thing about suburbia, forcing the creation in those old garages, of actual cottage industries and businesses.

Good review, Rob. I thought it was frankly a poor movie.


30 Aug 2:47am

Sharon Astyk commenting here is a treat!

given the eviction history during the last Great Depression; and given the indebtedness of most ‘homeowners’ today: people will not get to keep their houses. If they are lucky, they may become tenants to their new landlords. But the houses will necessarily become more densely occupied with multiple tenants.

2 Sep 9:11pm

Is the Good Life (BBC 70’s sitcom based upon a couple who aim to be self sufficient in suburban England) really the solution for the oil crisis? What do we do with human waste, is it good manure?

Jason Cole
5 Sep 2:34am

gylangirl says:
Kunstler’s aesthetic distaste for Surburban American architectural style has limited the Peak Oil discussion of what is likely to occur in Suburbia.

I’ve just returned from a road trip of part of US/Canada, and saw for myself the urban sprawl of housing that Kunstler refers to as “Suburbia”, under construction near Toronto. It consists of square-miles of nothing but housing, necessitating the use of a car. It’s utterly horrendous and tasteless. I suspect that pockets of these estates will be changed into public amenities when the car becomes less of an option.

Jan Steinman
7 Sep 11:35am

Irritating escapee here, Rob!

I’m sorry you were disappointed by “Escape.” I was in some ways, as well, but I understand the magnitude of what Greg and Dara were trying to depict within their limited means — perhaps they overstepped their bounds.

I’m also sorry you found us “irritating” — or at least Greg’s treatment of our story. In defense, I must say that Greg and Dara took out personal loans and maxed their credit cards to get this film out. Yea, it would have been great if they had the travel budget of a reality TV show, but they have “day jobs” and couldn’t keep coming back for updates. I feel our story is more compelling than it could possibly be within the canvas and resources available to Greg. Again, perhaps he should have pared back, but you don’t get attention by making conservative films. Greg wants to influence the dialog on Peak Oil, not just do yet another “Oh my gawd, the sky is falling” movie.

“The problem with Escaping from Suburbia is the scaleability of it” Yes! Exactly! You get the point, even while decrying it!

And I’d bet Holmgren, whom you regard as a “key thinker” would agree that escaping isn’t for everyone. But David doesn’t live in suburbia, and I think he’d agree that escape must be the path for some people (perhaps many people), just as some people (like the film’s Kate Hollaway) will choose to stay and “escape” the concept, in-situ.

A quarter acre, with no trees and mostly inhabited by a 400 square meter structure and concrete drive, is going to require considerable Permaculture expertise, labour, and time to become a useful food source. Kunstler’s vision of suburbia as slum seems apropos here, with several families toiling away to pay the energy bills of a structure designed around contemporary energy systems, while eking out a meagre living trying to grow food on ground poised by decades of chemlawn treatments.

Prior to fossil fuel, fifteen families worked the land for every one in the city. Are we so arrogant that we think that may not happen again? Malthus didn’t see fossil fuel coming; but suburbia seems complacent in assuming another energy miracle will occur.

(Incidentally, we lobbied to get David Holmgren in the film when we spent three days with him in 2005, but travel budgets and day jobs didn’t allow the “film crew” — Greg — to spew CO2 and cross the continent to film such things.)

So to those of you who have responded to Rob’s review with, “I’ll save the money this time,” perhaps you already have the message, and don’t need the film. But I think that the great thing about this film is depicting alternatives. There are many ways to leave “suburbia” as a concept, and only some of them require a physical move. Greg has moved from “new urbanism is going to save us” (End of Suburbia) to the much more realistic “nothing is going to save us, but here’s some real things that real people are trying.”

So save your pennies if this is stuff you already know, or better yet, buy a copy or three for your unknowing friends and relatives. It’s a gentler, more hopeful story than other PO films out there.

25 Sep 5:11pm

I watched the film for a second time at the weekend. I think that Rob’s in depth review makes some valid points; however, there is an implicit assumption in his analysis that the purpose of the film is solely or mainly to promote re-localisation initiatives.

If the film was intended to show some of the positive responses to peak oil, shouldn’t it have looked at responses at all levels?

1 personal – it did do this with some success
2 community – it looked at Willets and at the CSA projects in Los Angeles and upstate New York
3 – national/regional – it didn’t cover this – it could have looked at what is beginning to happen in Portland, Oregan and Oakland, California
4 – international – it didn’t cover this either; it could have looked at some of the policy ideas out there, like contraction and convergence or the oil depletion protocol.

My main criticism is that it is too North America focussed. Even if most of the audience is from there, North Americans would (or should) be interested in and inspired by what is happening in the wider world. I think it would have been a more complete film if it had looked at, say, two examples of responses at each level; one from North American and one from elsewhere.

Of course, it would have been a challenge to keep the film under 90 minutes, had it tried to cover all this.

Finally, I don’t think the film’s title should be taken to mean a physical escape from suburbia. To me, it refers to escaping from the mentality of the typical suburbanite.

25 Sep 5:17pm

I forgot to add that there is a third film planned which will take a more global view. There’s an interview hosted by Jason Bradford on Global Public Media:

Deirdre Kent
9 Oct 3:30am

Well after reading all these comments it is clear it takes a lot of money, commitment and perserverance to make a film and thanks for that. I appreciated the review though as we had high expectations after the End of Suburbia. I saw David Holmgren recently in Nelson, New Zealand do a brilliant talk on Retrofitting the Suburbs, which gave me great hope.

And one film I saw recently and have now ordered my own copy is What a Way to Go whose website is

I found this profoundly moving, with a brilliant script and wise conclusions.