Review of "End of Suburbia"

by David S. Lawyer, June 2004
More articles by David Lawyer

This video is of public benefit by presenting facts and opinions about the coming decline in oil production and its possible negative impact on suburbia. With less oil, it will not be feasible to live in suburbia and commute long distances to work. Likely true, but suppose one lives in suburbia and also is able to work and shop nearby in the same suburbia? This video ignores this solution and other environmentally favorable aspects of suburbia, like having enough land in suburbia to grow food in your backyard. Towards the end of the video, it becomes alarmist in nature and likely overplays the possible downfall of suburbia.

It correctly points out that there are no satisfactory alternative fuels. Hydrogen is an form of energy storage (and not a very efficient way to store energy) and not a source of energy. Ethanol is a loser since it takes more energy to produce than it returns.

It correctly notes that what is now called "light rail" was mainly responsible for the rise of suburbia. But at the same time, the false claim is made about General Motors killing off the electric "light rail" lines.

It shows a container ship and railroad freight train and implies that long distance transportation of freight is not viable as oil production declines in the future. It fails to add that ships can, if necessary, be powered by sails, and that rail freight could be powered by coal-generated electricity if railroads were electrified.

It also implies that our railroad system is very backwards by stating that it's a "railroad system Bulgaria would be ashamed of" while showing a freight train. But if it's so backward, why does rail in the US haul more freight (in ton-mi) than trucks? In Western Europe, as contrast to the US, rail freight has significantly declined and trucks now haul several times the volume hauled by rail. This in spite of subsidies to rail freight in Europe. It's true that our rail freight system has serious defects, but Europe's is even worse off. In Russia during the Soviet era, the railroad system was in many ways better than the US but it too has suffered decline since then. Thus one may claim that the US rail freight system is now the best in the world in spite of all the things wrong with it (which might take a whole book to adequately describe).

A bell shaped curve is shown for oil production. Yet the actual curve for petroleum production from the US is not exactly bell shaped but it wasn't shown. The actual US curve rises rapidly, but after the peak in about 1970 it declines much more slowly than it rose. Two reasons contributing to this slow decline is the exploitation of undersea oil and the growth of natural gas liquids obtained from natural gas. But this curve should have been presented since it's less alarmist and it's an actual fact, not speculation like the curve in the video was.

Is the video too alarmist? Yes and No. It ignores other major problems the US faces such as water depletion and a foreign debt growing by over a half-trillion dollars a year, etc. See the book "Running on Empty" by Peter Peterson. Thus, burgeoning debt (of government, corporations, and individuals) may be even less sustainable than suburbia but oil depletion is one of the causes of such debt. So when the oil and energy problem is combined with other problems, the future looks pretty glum unless we change course. So the alarmist message is likely valid but not just for the reasons shown in the video.

In spite of its errors and shortcomings, it's very convincing that we are indeed facing a future of declining oil production and need to do something to prepare for this eventuality. But revising the video to explain the complex situation better would make it significnatly longer.

Statistics sources: USA freight: Statistical Abstract of the US. Europe freight: See "Panorama of Transport" (an annual) by Eurostat (of the European Commission, part of the European Union, EU). Luxembourg, 2003.