Film : End of the gas-powered suburbs
The ways in which the end of the oil age will change the kind of communities we live in is the subject of "The End of Suburbia: Oil Depletion and the Collapse of the American Dream." Sponsored by the Martha's Vineyard Agricultural Society and the Martha's Vineyard Film Society, this Canadian documentary will be shown Saturday, following a potluck dinner, at the West Tisbury Ag Hall.
Don't expect only doom-and-gloom hand-wringing. Director Gregory Greene relies on funky, often funny footage from the 1950s and 1960s to illustrate the suburban lifestyle that has dominated our communities since the end of World War II.
Most of us are all too aware of the impending oil depletion crisis that was less obvious in 2006 when "The End of Suburbia" was first released. More relevant today is the film's examination of how suburbs were marketed as part of a "happy-go-spending world" for young adults in a car-dependent world.
Suburbs first emerged in the 19th century as a way to escape industrialized cities and the pollution they spawned. Although they touted an idyllic, back-to-nature world, "The End of Suburbia" points out that suburbs actually combined the worst elements of both city and country life.
The 1950s and 1960s saw the wholesale demolition of traditional cities and rural communities, with strip malls and cookie-cutter tract houses replacing them. You may be surprised to learn that in the early 20th century, developers paid to have streetcar service extended to the suburbs. Then the Federal Highway Program turned the nation into a giant car park run by General Motors, Chrysler, and Ford.
"The End of Suburbia" lines up experts like James Howard Kunstler, author and advocate of the "New
Urbanism" movement, to explain how suburban development proved to be "the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world." But it also shows us the enthusiasm with which young adults wearing Bermuda shorts and pedal pushers - up to one-half of the nation's population - embraced their cul-de-sac subdivisions.
Some think the suburbs will turn into the 21st century's slums, as we run out of oil. With only four percent of the world's population, the U.S. continues to gulp down 25 percent of the world's oil.
Despite claims that our Island has already suburbanized itself, the good news for the Vineyard is that it has a handle on the problems outlined in this documentary. The slow food movement is blossoming, along with community agriculture and serious commitments to valid alternative energy sources like solar and wind power, rather than the bogus appeals of hydrogen and ethanol.
The return to small-scale community values, long a prime requisite for life on the Vineyard, is the potential silver lining in the impending oil depletion crisis. "The End of Suburbia" concentrates on the "New Urbanism," an idea hatched in the 1980s, as the solution to the end of the automobile age, bringing a quieter, more sustainable way of life. Islanders may be able to offer another model.
We are going to have to live more locally, be less car-dependent, pay attention to energy use and learn how to be neighbors again, says "The End of Suburbia." Martha's Vineyard has a head start over much of the country in these regards. Conversations generated by the screening of this film at the Ag Hall should contribute to a much-needed national dialogue on how to retool the American Dream.
"The End of Suburbia: Oil Depletion and the Collapse of the American Dream," Saturday, March 28, 8 pm, Martha's Vineyard Ag Hall, Panhandle Road, West Tisbury. Free admission. Potluck dinner open to all precedes the showing. Bring a dish for six.
Brooks Robards writes on films, books, and art for The Martha's Vineyard Times.