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The Collapse of Civilization, Part 6

Peak Oil at the Movies

A Crude Awakening. The Oil Crash. Weíre Running Out, and We Donít Have a Plan. Directed and produced by Basil Gelpke, Ray McCormack, co-directed by Reto Caduff. 85 minutes plus interviews. Web site: http://www.oilcrashmovie.com/

Crude Impact. Itís worse than you think . . . but itís not too late. Produced, directed and written by James Jandak Wood; co-producers Joanne Jandak Wood and Joanne Shen. 98 minutes plus interviews. Web site: http://www.crudeimpact.com/

What A Way to Go. Life at the end of empire. Produced by Sally Erickson, written and directed by T. S. Bennett. 123 minutes plus trailers and deleted scene. Web site: http://www.whatawaytogomovie.com/.

Hey everybody, break out the popcorn! We now have three more excellent films on or related to peak oil. All of them are entertaining and informative. Itís surely a sign that we have a "growth industry" on our hands, that with no particular provocation, peak oil activists now have not only some very good books, but three high-quality movie-length documentaries. I havenít heard of any of these actually appearing in movie houses in Denver, but they are certainly up to the quality of the documentary-as-advocacy standards of your typical Michael Moore flick, if not with quite the humor that Moore (or the less-well-known Randy Olson) often injects into his pieces. And they are all available on DVD at a reasonable price (see above for ordering information).

So what are they about, what do they cover, and which one should I see? If you are already into "peak oil," then the answer to the last question is easy -- you should see all three of them, and you probably will. Even if you donít have the spare change to buy the DVDs, and even if they donít appear in theaters near you anytime soon, eventually some of your peak oil friends are going to get one and theyíll be happy to loan them to you. Regular readers of "Peak Oil News" or "The Oil Drum" are not going to have any breathtaking new insights. But you WILL see how your fellow peak oil activists are running with this issue, and we need to openly and constructively examine what theyíre doing.

The rest of us will get important new perspectives and information. So the question becomes narrower: for those new to peak oil, the question is "which one is best or most informative?" For peak oil activists, it is "which one should I show to others or urge them to see -- which makes the best effort at advocacy?"

We can say a couple of things at the outset. The first two are broadly similar in their discussion of peak oil, but What a Way to Go really is different, broadening out to consider other topics such as overpopulation, global warming, and mass extinction of species.

All of them share several things in common. They are all intelligently made and entertaining, without losing sight of the goal to inform. They all make use of black-and-white film clips from 50 years ago (or even earlier) to illustrate their points about the early history of oil. They all have interesting sound tracks that try to put you "in the mood" for peak oil, if there is such a thing! They all feature interviews with various experts that youíve probably heard of before if youíre familiar with peak oil -- Richard Heinberg, Matt Simmons, and others, though they mix and match different kinds of experts in different ways, so that none of the three really covers the same material.

They also all share some minor weaknesses. They are all just a bit too long and seem to drag a bit. They are all a bit depressing, and two of the three do not offer a clear way out or even a plan of action. The third, to its credit, does offer a plan, though it is at a pretty high level. So the first question is -- how much of "weíre in big trouble," repeated for more than an hour in various ways with an unnerving sound track, can you take?

But in defense of these films, I would say the following. Even for those who are familiar with "peak oil," it is hard to know what to cut. Itís all true, and in fact the point of them is that there is no obvious plan of action. The subject is depressing exactly because there is no "solution" in the sense that most people think of it. Itís alarming because the public needs to be alarmed. It needs to avoid easy answers because there are no easy answers. As Steve Andrews says, we shouldnít talk about "solutions" at all, since that really implies that a quick application of some alternative technology -- plug-in hybrid electric cars, solar PV, and compact fluorescents, maybe -- will send Western civilization on its merry way again.

Probably, someone with some editing know-how could probably edit at least the first two down to 40 to 50 minutes, or even half an hour, a sort of made-for-TV edition, because in a movie of this sort you are not trying to cram as much information as possible in, so much as pique interest in the subject. So my challenge to no one in particular is -- this is all great, but can you cut it down to what you need to know in 30 minutes to get people started?

A Crude Awakening -- mainstream "peak oil"

The foregoing may lead you to think that these films are pretty much the same thing done three times, but that isnít the case. These three overlap much less than youíd think. If you just want to know about what Iíd call "mainstream" peak oil theories, then A Crude Awakening is probably your ticket.

There are several endearing things about A Crude Awakening. At 85 minutes, it is the shortest of the three, and it wastes no time in getting to the implications of peak oil -- we use oil in everything. Then, it takes us through a quick history of oil, from the boom-to-bust cycle of many centers of oil, to the evidence that weíre facing declining supplies in the face of increasing demand, and a quick and sobering look at efforts either to get more supplies or find alternatives, and some brief suggestions as to how we might experience life after the peak.

So if you are just interested in peak oil per se, then I would recommend A Crude Awakening. In fact, it is a minor weakness of the other two precisely that they do not examine peak oil in depth.

Crude Impact -- the issues we are facing because of peak oil

But of course we want more than just peak oil, we want to know the long range impacts. Crude Impact, for my money, actually has the strongest beginning of the three. For the first half hour of Crude Impact, I sat mesmerized. Here, at last, was the definitive take on peak oil. But as it goes on and on, although everything it says is true, the impact begins to diminish somewhat; you begin to feel a bit numb. Its virtue is that it takes the argument in a bit different direction: it does not evaluate the impact in terms of a straight-line inventory of the products and problems created by oil and its depletion. Rather, it looks at the issues produced by and connected to oil. It probes not just deeper, but in different directions, than A Crude Awakening.

The very first heavy topic it raises is the connection between energy and population increase, and it then launches into a discussion of our addiction to materialism. Later, it devotes an entire section to the media -- which is not so much either a cause or an effect of oil production, as a serious complicating factor in dealing with these effects. In between it covers much of the same material on oil, foreign policy, Hubbertís peak, and coming economic problems.

Also -- alone of all three of these! -- Crude Impact made a stab at coming up with recommendations for dealing with peak oil. They summarize their program as reducing population, cutting energy use, local organic agriculture, and activism. I agree with these points and am a bit surprised that the others didnít even really try to be this specific. So if you are looking for broader implications of peak oil than just "we have a big problem" then I would suggest Crude Impact.

What a Way to Go -- maybe industrial civilization is the problem

The third film, What a Way to Go, is in a different category altogether. It is the longest and most ambitious of these three. Peak oil is definitely covered, but from the perspective of What a Way to Go, peak oil is the symptom, not the cause, of our problems. The message is: the American way of life is not sustainable; that means that it canít be sustained; itís coming to an end. It identifies the other symptoms as climate change, mass species extinction, and global warming. While the first two films take a shot at examining our oil addiction, What a Way to Go takes its aim at industrial civilization itself -- our lifestyle addiction, cultural addiction, and the stories and cultural blinders that accompanied our speciesí rise and now threatens to destroy us and the earth along with it.

It is the heaviest and most philosophical of the three, and the most difficult to assess. It introduces such innovative authors as Daniel Quinn (Ishmael) and Derrick Jensen (Endgame). The advice at the beginning of the film is: "This documentary is long and dense. Donít try to understand and integrate it all the first time through." Good advice: I have seen it completely twice and I am still noticing different things about it as I go through it a third time.

Unlike the other two films, it adopts a psychological style by appealing directly to our feelings as a way to understand and explore reality. The film opens with a scene from what the producer describes as one of his persistent daydreams: he is going through a drive-through hamburger place when in the distance there is a bright flash of a nuclear attack. This psychological premonition of a catastrophic disaster is the backdrop for the discussion of all the problems with the environment that humanity is now experiencing.

But we are not in a "New Age" realm of just attuning ourselves to our inner stories. The film stresses the danger of false inner stories, and the need for looking beyond these stories at objective reality. The film then launches into a quick discussion of peak oil, global warming, mass extinction, and population overshoot. But it is the battle between true and false feelings or "inner stories," not true and false theories, that sets the overall tone for What a Way to Go. Itís probably a tactical mistake to even try to get this into theaters, because you probably do need to see it more than once.

By appealing to our feelings as we approach the subject, What a Way to Go tries to deal with the real problems in facing peak oil, which are more emotional than factual. This is an important and innovative approach. However, it is also a bit on the depressing side. Not only does What a Way to Go give us two hours of mega-doom, amplified to the max, there is (as the film calls it) "no happy chapter." There is no section where they say, "well, the problems are great, but they can be overcome if we just do these things." However, after having announced that they are not going to give us a happy chapter, the film-makers then proceed to give us something which certainly feels like it -- an exhortation to write this happy chapter ourselves. We are left at the end staring out to sea, listening to an up-beat song "Letís build a boat," and imagining ways to re-invent civilization from the ground up.


The lack of specific recommendations is the biggest problem with all three films. Crude Awakening largely ignores it, Crude Impact offers a high-level approach, and What a Way to Go glories in the lack of a solution. There is another DVD, The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil which in my humble opinion is an idealistic, but positive approach to dealing with the problems created by peak oil. Itís not quite as flashy as the three reviewed here, but they are clearly headed in the right direction.

However, this is not just a problem with these films. It is a problem with reality. One film cannot really convey the optimal approach, because, well, no one knows what the optimal approach is. We have some clues.  Thus it is inevitable that any introduction to the subject, at this stage, will be a bit vague and a bit depressing. 

The first step is to get peopleís attention; by doing this we can (a) get them to understand some of the basics, and (b) recruit more minds to work on these pressing problems. The problem of peak oil is really too big for any one person to cope with, because the various approaches all interact with each other and because some pieces of the picture simply havenít been adequately studied by anyone.

From an aesthetic point of view, all of these films are excellent. My one aesthetic complaint, addressed to all of them, is that someone needs to get a shorter presentation designed just to get peopleís attention, that we could show in public to people not already integrated into the community of people concerned with peak oil. I think that getting someone not already acquainted with peak oil to sit through two hours of doom and gloom will be a hard sell -- how about 30 - 60 minutes of doom and gloom, or better yet, 30 - 60 minutes with a bit of humor? We need the same general approach to peak oil that Randy Olson provides for the "evolution versus intelligent design" issue (see http://www.flockofdodos.com/). 

(Hey, anybody know how we can rope Randy Olson into this movement?  Some people from Denver Energy Awareness tried this about a year ago, but without success.)

These are all excellent films, and all are available on DVD now. They have all made a positive contribution to our understanding of peak oil and the associated issues. Letís do what we can to support independent documentaries and the rapid spread of information on this subject, which is of vital importance to the future of the planet and the human race.

Addendum -- A Few Minor Quibbles

What follows is a bit to detailed to really include in a review proper, but to prove Iím paying attention, I will now raise three minor quibbles I have.  To be fair I have included one quibble for each film.

With A Crude Awakening, one of the experts being interviewed is Fahlid Chalabi (evidently a cousin of Ahmed Chalabi, the one-time favorite of many neo-conservatives to be the leader of Iraq). What exactly is Chalabi doing here? If you look at the full interview of Chalabi, which the Crude Awakening DVD gives you as an "extra," he says a number of strange things. He says that the huge hikes in reserves estimates in the Middle East in the 1980's and 1990's, widely considered to be political, are based on geological reality. (He makes an exception in the case of the United Arab Emirates where it really was political). He says that the recovery factor for oil is only 25-30% in the Middle East, 60% in the North Sea, and higher than that in the United States. There are Iraqi reserves which are being kept secret, the high Saudi reserve estimate is genuine, and more.

All of this is contrary to what most peak oil activists and even some of those interviewed for A Crude Awakening are saying. This would be all right if Chalabi was being introduced as a sort of foil for Matt Simmons, to give the "other side" and allow some sort of debate to emerge. But this doesnít happen; Chalabiís comments are just edited down so that he appears to be supporting the case for an early peak for oil production. Whatís going on here? This isnít a major flaw, but inquiring minds want to know.

One of the strong points of Crude Impact is that it explicitly talks about solutions, and one of the solutions is local and organic agriculture. Great! I agree. However, nothing is said about eating lower on the food chain (translation: vegetarian or vegan). If youíre going to talk about sustainable agriculture, it is impossible to ignore eating low on the food chain -- this is more important than either local or organic.

No matter what kind of agriculture youíre talking about, the energy (and other) costs of producing food are multiplied by 5, 10, or even more as you move up the food chain. When energy is cheap, this doesnít matter so much, but it will matter after peak oil sets in. And when you figure in other issues such as soil erosion, overgrazing, land use, deforestation, and groundwater depletion, the case becomes overwhelming.

Meat is only possible on the American scale because of tremendous agricultural surpluses we produce which can then be used to raise animals.  Even with plenty of fossil fuels, agricultural surpluses have been diminishing because of other natural resource constraints (shortage of land and water, mostly). Per capita food production has been declining since the 1980's, and even absolute food production seems to have reached a plateau. With the collapse of energy supplies, these food surpluses will probably go away altogether. We are looking at eating low on the food chain, and that means using the "V-word." The attempt to create anything remotely resembling the contemporary American diet via "local" and "organic" is just as illusory as running the world automobile fleet on corn ethanol.

And speaking of agriculture, this brings me to my third quibble: in What a Way to Go, Daniel Quinn attacks what he calls "totalitarian agriculture." By this, he doesnít mean pesticides, chemicals, or artificial fertilizers, but evidently just agriculture at all. Is the origin of all our environmental problems ultimately to be found in agriculture?

I have two problems with this. In the first place, if weíre looking for an origin for our environmental problems in prehistory, Iíd cite hunting rather than agriculture. Hunting had devastating effects in prehistory, albeit over a period of many thousands of years. The spread of humans and their hunting habits is well correlated with a whole spate of extinctions that occurred in prehistory, including that of the mammoth, the saber-toothed tiger, and many others.

In the second place, the origin of agriculture was a response to the fact that even in prehistory -- with only about 3 million humans on the planet -- the earth could not sustain that level of human population given hunting and gathering. (See The Food Crisis in Prehistory, by Mark Cohen, 1977). That is why agriculture happened, out of necessity, not a drive for more leisure time (which is actually less in agricultural societies than in hunter-gatherer societies). So to sustainably support humans on hunting and gathering, we would have to go back to a maximum population of probably maybe about 1 million. Uh, that would eliminate over 99.9% of the present population of 6.5 billion. Even the "letís build a boat" mentality at the end of What a Way to Go would seem to be incredibly optimistic.

Sure, there might be some future for humanity outside of agriculture, but it is hard to see what I am going to be able to contribute to such a future if only about 1 or 2 persons out of every 10,000 will ever be on the boat that weíre building. My guess is that a mostly or entirely vegan and organic agriculture could sustainably support 1/2 to 1 billion people and leave plenty of room left over for the rest of life. Daniel Quinn is an important and innovative thinker, and he may be right, but if he is, itís not clear why weíre bothering with making films at all.

These quibbles, however, should not detract from the excellent nature of all of these films, and I hope that all of the producers, directors, and helpers will give us more.

Keith Akers

December 9, 2007

Related articles on "The Collapse of Civilization":

Part 1: Collapse -- Coming Soon to a Civilization Near You!
A review of books by Jared Diamond, J. R. McNeill, and Joseph Tainter, on the collapse of civilizations and the current state of our own.

Part 2: Reviews of Better Off and The Long Emergency
Reviews of two books by James Kunstler and Eric Brende which offer alternative visions of possible futures.

Part 3: Is Peak Oil Here?, reviews of books by Ken Deffeys and Matt Simmons on peak oil.

Part 4: Five More Good Books on the Collapse of Civilization!  Reviews of books by Jeremy Legget, Lindsey Grant, Ronald Wright, John Howe, and Julian Darley. 

Part 5: Decline and Fall, a review of Are We Rome?

Part 6: Peak Oil at the Movies, a review of A Crude Awakening, Crude Impact, and What a Way to Go