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Humbug Square - Leaving suburbia, entering hell

Peak oil crisis will turn OTP subdivisions into slums

A few weeks before the 1996 Olympics, I gave a tour of the northern suburbs to a German reporter who wanted to understand where all our traffic came from.

We drove out I-75 to I-575 in Cherokee County and then into one of those gigantic new subdivisions full of big houses on cul de sacs.

We got to the highest point in the neighborhood and saw before us a shocking tableau - hundreds upon hundreds of new houses being built on hills that sprawled out to the horizon. The reporter was dumbfounded.

"Is this real?" she asked.

She thought it was a movie set, a Potemkin village put up as sort of a prank. She couldn't comprehend the scale of what we were doing to ourselves in metropolitan Atlanta.

I assured her the scene was real and explained that each cul de sac was like a spring feeding a stream with cars. The streams feed rivers that feed the freeways, forming a traffic jam from Ball Ground to Buckhead that's so obviously unsustainable, so clearly insane that it approaches science fiction.

Yet this is our reality. In metro Atlanta, we've built the fastest-spreading community in the history of the world on a foundation of cheap oil. This is the lifestyle that Vice President Cheney says is non-negotiable. This is the culture that has spawned the sanctimonious and shortsighted Republicans who now lead us and want more of the same.

Last week, I felt like my German reporter friend as I watched the documentary End of Suburbia: Oil Depletion and the Collapse of the American Dream.

It's based on the peak oil theory that we're fast approaching the point where the world has slurped up half its oil. Once the oil is halfway gone, it becomes much harder and more expensive to recover. At the same time, China is clamoring for more oil and Americans are merrily buying Hummers and McMansions, shaking our fists at the rest of the world.

After the peak, the costs of oil and natural gas will explode upward.

And then, as author James Howard Kunstler points out in the movie, we'll enter a "political, economic and social shit storm."

I watched the movie last week as the price of oil reached an all-time high. I paid $31.36 for a tank of gas. Republicans won a vote to drill for oil in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge — as if it would make any difference — and attacked funding for Amtrak. I also read "Running on Empty," a Salon.com article suggesting that the peak oil theory is no longer a fringe horror story spun around campfires by geologists and New Urbanists. Now, the money boys are telling it.

The same energy industry analysts who triggered alarms about the Enron fraud are now estimating when each of the world's biggest energy companies will peak in its ability to produce oil and gas, the article said.

The analysts from John S. Herold Inc. predict that 2008 will mark the peak for Exxon Mobil, ConocoPhillips, BP and Royal Dutch/Shell Group. Herold expects ChevronTexaco Group to peak in 2009.

That is right around the corner. In fact, some people think oil probably has peaked already. One of them is Kenneth Deffeyes, a petroleum geologist, author, and emeritus professor at Princeton, who ticks off in the movie what we can expect as a result:

Loss of $7 trillion in the U.S. stock market.

Loss of 2 million jobs.

Disappearance of the middle class.I know this flies in the face of the happy delirium in Congress about drilling in the Alaskan wilderness. But the Arctic drilling is only going to cough up about one year's supply of oil for America, which burns 7 billion barrels a year.

Drilling for oil in ANWR is like an alcoholic taking over the last liquor store in a town that's going dry. He gets to drink all he wants - until the store runs dry. And then he's just another drunk with no booze and a stupendous hangover.

That hangover is going to be pure hell. It will feel like an ambush. The experts in the movie predict the trucking industry will become increasingly dysfunctional and the oil-based agricultural industry will crumble.

We can't turn to trains right away because our train system "would embarrass Bulgaria." Globalization will end. We'll have to live locally and buy local crops. We won't worry about driving to the mall; we'll worry about how to feed our kids.

We'll downscale everything we do. Small-town living would be ideal - if only the small-town commercial infrastructure hadn't been destroyed by Wal-Mart.

Around here, we already see thousands of people moving into the city to escape the traffic sickness in the suburbs.

But after oil peaks, darkness will descend on the suburbs. Built around the car and cheap oil, they'll become the slums of tomorrow. Multiple families may move into McMansions - like the Muscovite mansions in Dr. Zhivago - and grow crops in the front yards. Violence will erupt at gas stations as oil addicts claw for their next fix.

Suburban housewives will exchange sex for gas and be called "Soccer Ho's." Ha, ha. That's not in the movie. I made it up!

The movie does say that alternative energy sources won't produce nearly enough power to replace oil.

Suburbanites, who'll continue to have the political clout, will go to any extreme to preserve their lifestyle. They'll blame everyone in sight. They'll elect "maniacs" who promise to let them keep their McMansions and fight over the table scraps of oil.

Wait. This is sounding familiar.

The movie points out how President Bush's neoconservatives have planned to create a global empire that requires control of the oil in the Middle East, which has 60 percent of the recoverable oil in the world. Arguing that the Iraq War is not about oil is like saying the New Testament is not about Jesus.We'll bring back the draft. We'll enter a period of "infinite war," sacrificing the lives of thousands more young Americans on the altar of oil.

Dissent would be crushed, if there were any. And for now, the media won't touch the dark truths of the peak oil story because they have to suck up to suburbanites to make money. Their job is to comfort the comfortable.

Just look at the AJC, which now has two poets of the suburbs on its editorial pages to kiss outside-the-Perimeter ass - Mike King and Lyin' Jim Wooten.

"Reality is bad for business," author Richard Heinberg says in the movie. "What's good for business is fantasy."

Long after the oil is gone, Heinberg says, people will look back at us and say, "My God, who were these people? How could they be so stupid?"

Politicians as well as the media are dodging this monster problem because they don't want to tell oil addicts they're running out of their drug. Democrats are almost as clueless as Republicans.

"America has a problem bigger than Social Security, or the price of prescription drugs, or gay marriage," Kunstler says on his blog. "America is heading into a situation in which it will no longer have an economy."

Ever-optimistic Senior Editor Doug Monroe says you can rent End of Suburbia from Netflix or buy it from www.endofsurbia.com. You can reach him at doug.monroe@creativeloafing.com.??