Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): A Crude Awakening: The Oil Crash

Thursday, October 30, 2008

A Crude Awakening: The Oil Crash

T. Boone Pickens, everyone's favorite takeover artist/swiftboater-turned-bipartisan energy guru (I thought he was just a harmless old geezer until I looked him up), likes to say that the energy crisis and the necessary solutions are issues of "national security, the economy, and the environment." There's a seed of optimism in this, the idea that by embracing clean and renewable energy we can kill three birds with one stone. A Crude Awakening, in sounding a dire warning about energy depletion and the coming blowback, largely ignores the national security and environmental aspects of the problem and foregoes a narrow focus on the economy to demonstrate instead how oil depletion would wreak havoc on our entire society, on every level. It's also anything but optimistic; in fact it's almost humorously dour when it comes time to answer the question, what next?

A Crude Awakening is informative and generally well-produced, though the decision to fade to and from a red screen is a transitional choice that is rough on the eyes. Otherwise, it's solid if relatively nondescript, relying on talking heads and plenty of b-roll (early footage of thriving oil fields, juxtaposed with the current ghost-town status of lonely derricks and dried-up sources). Like Maxed Out, it is apocalyptic in tone, but even more so: whereas Maxed Out threatens the U.S. economy with inevitable decline, A Crude Awakening prophesies an end to human society itself.

At one point, a chart is displayed showing the correspondence of civilization to the discovery of fossil fuels. Prior to that relatively recent discovery, the line of development is pretty inactive and the implication is that it will return to this underwhelming status following the depletion of nonrenewable resources. The idea of progress is so ingrained in most of us that it's startling to conceive of the possibility of decline: not just that our technology would ossify or become divorced from human development, but that it would actually disappear since oil and its byproducts are so vital in the functioning of technology in the first place. By the end of the movie, we're listening to an Amish man extol the virtues of horses and buggies, and no, the filmmakers don't seem to be joking.

But the film's pessimism ultimately feels over-the-top, if oddly refreshing given all the have-our-cake-and-eat-it-too triumphalism of alternative-energy gurus (that is, if you don't think about its dire implications too closely). One by one, alternative energy sources are considered and brusquely dismissed by the talking heads, especially by one young fellow who seems to delight in throwing cold water on every prospect for hope and a way out of our overreliance on oil. Solar? Too limited in its effect. Biofuel? Too many people would starve if we tried. Nuclear? Too much waste, takes too much effort to build. And so on... So what can we do? Cue the aforementioned horses and buggies.

This is a valuable documentary if you want to know more about the rise and fall of oil. Usually oil is tied almost exclusively to cars, but A Crude Awakening reminds us that just about every facet of our lives is touched by oil; the fuel and its synthetic offspring literally grease the wheels of our modern existence - think plastic, rubber, and electricity, as well as fuel and hence any form of long-distance transportation. A Crude Awakening also refers to the ever-growing world population (in part a result of the industrial boom facilitated by oil) and asks ominously what will happen as resources become more limited. At one point, it's even predicted that air travel will become a luxury in the future - something so exorbitantly expensive, based on the limit of the resources that fuel it, that only the rich will be able to afford it.

All in all, the prospects are rather depressing and, frankly, quite frightening. Since I cannot pretend to be an energy expert, or even an energy layman (not that I'm a credit or health expert either, but I'm on even shakier ground here as science was always my weakest subject), I direct you to the trusty IMDB boards for some reassurance that perhaps the film is overly drastic in its dismissal of alternative energy and its general air of doom and gloom. One ethan_hunt43 even has the perfect solution on hand:

Magnetic propulsion systems and the like have existed since the 50's. The keepers of this zero point renewable energy have shelved it purely through greed and profit of oil contracts. This technology was discovered by reverse engineering alien craft that has landed or crashed on Terra Firma for the last 50 years.
I say put T. Boone Pickens on it. If the aliens don't play ball, he can always swiftboat them, right?

1 comment:

Tony D'Ambra said...

While I am no fan of untrammelled capitalism, there is a role for free markets here. Scarcity and the imposition of carbon-trading will lead to a cost-shift to alternative energies as they become more competitive. But a degree of planning and market intervention will be required. The young doomsayer in the film was right on bio-fuels. The uncontrolled shift of arable land from food crops to biofuels has already precipitated a global shortage of staples such as rice and wheat.

Here in Australia E90 gasoline (10pct ethanol) is by govt fiat set at a 3 cents/liter discount to regular fuel, and the ethanol is sourced from sugar cane waste, that would otherwise be burnt. This is an example how markets and activist govts can work together. We are also set to introduce compulsory carbon trading by 2012, but it's effectiveness will depend on how the strong govt is in resisting free start-up credits and less-than ambitious carbon-reduction targets.