17 Aug 2007
A Review of ‘Escape from Suburbia’.
‘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.
There 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.