Judge Russell Engebretson, always on the lookout for a silver lining, figures the coming Dark Age will spell the end for cell phones and bill collectors.
We're running out, and we don't have a plan.
This documentary about the end of the fossil fuel age gives an ominous and poignant spin to the lyrics of an old gospel song: "Give me oil in my lamp, keep it burning, burning, burning."
The story behind A Crude Awakening—The Oil Crash is simple enough to outline: Modern industrial societies are utterly dependent on a never-ending supply of cheap oil and gas, but fossil fuel is a finite energy source, and we are perilously close to drawing down all known oil and gas reserves to the point that production can no longer meet demand. The directors, Basil Gelpke and Ray McCormack, interview several well-known individuals, most of them from the conservative side of the aisle, who bring dire tidings of the end of the era of cheap oil. A few of the interviewees include Colin Campbell (oil geologist), Roscoe Bartlett (Republican, Maryland U.S. representative), Matthew Simmons (energy investment banker), and David L. Goodstein (professor of physics at the California Institute of Technology). Each of the interviewees elaborates on different aspects of why they believe an oil crash is imminent and how it will play out in the near-term for the global economy and the future of human beings in general. The prognosis is not good.
The documentary examines ideas first formulated by geologist Marion King Hubbert (1903-1989), the father of peak oil theory. In a paper published in 1956 he concluded, after extensive studies of oil field capacities, that oil production would peak somewhere between the late 1960s to the early 1970s. His graph of oil discovery and production manifests itself as a steep rise with an equally steep fall. The peak, simply put, is in the familiar shape of a classical bell curve. Hubbert was initially denounced as a doomsayer and conspiracy theorist, but in 1970, as he predicted, oil production peaked. In 1975 the National Academy of Sciences admitted that their rosy scenario of a much later drop-off was wrong, and that Hubbert was correct after all. Since that time, the peak of oil production has been referred to as Hubbert's peak. The second peak, which overlaps the first, occurs when all the easily tapped fields are running low enough that production can no longer keep up with demand. In the end, the energy cost of pumping oil exceeds the energy value of what is being extracted. Projections for the second peak range from the turn of the 21st century to 2020—most hypothesize sometime between now and 2012.
Petroleum is energy dense, cheap, and transportable. A single gallon of gasoline contains the energy-equivalent of 500 hours of human labor. A single barrel of oil contains the equivalent energy of almost 25,000 hours of human labor. Even if alternate energy sources had not been put on the back burner for the last two decades, they would only provide a small fraction of the industrialized world's energy needs. There is no magic energy bullet that will replace fossil fuel. The documentary holds out little hope for an easy transition from a civilization built on high technology to a post-industrial society. The bad news does not end there.
Besides the ominous implications of Hubbert's peak, according to physicist David Goodstein, there is even worse news. As mentioned earlier, solar, wind power, geothermal, biomass, or any alternative energy source one cares to name is wholly inadequate to replace fossil fuel. Additionally, sea water fusion is still a dream; hydrogen cells are impractical to mass produce; natural gas is disappearing almost as fast as oil; coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel, would rapidly dwindle if burned as a substitute for gas and oil; there are no more big rivers to damn for hydroelectric; and nuclear power plants are fabulously expensive to build, dangerous, and take years to come online. Ironically, all of the alternatives require copious amounts of oil for research, development, and construction—at the very time in history that oil is becoming scarcer and more expensive.
The oil and gas industries tend to dismiss peak oil scenarios, but who really expects an objective view from Big Oil? Firstly, the theory of peak oil is inimical to the capitalist's assertion that endless growth equals progress and the good times will never end. Secondly, from a pure dollars-and-cents perspective, upper-echelon oil executives are rightly frightened by a theory that predicts a rapidly approaching catastrophe due to dried-up oil reserves. That kind of news gives shareholders the jitters, and it's bad for the bottom line. The argument put forward in A Crude Awakening, no matter how unsettling, is a much-needed retort to the standard big business line that oil reserves will easily last another century or longer.
As for the DVD, this is no run-of-the-mill independent documentary, and the transfer is on a par with the film's high production values. The widescreen anamorphic image is excellent. Colors are rich and dense, fairly popping off the screen in places (a good example is the opening scene with its hypnotic, almost abstract cinematography of darkly flowing oil glistening with prismatic light). The surround sound is clear and three-dimensional, and often active in the rear speakers. Phillip Glass had a hand in composing the soundtrack score. It's first class all the way.
Extras include a bonus chapter and four extended interviews. The interviews contain some overlapping material that is already present in the film, probably for the sake of continuity, but provide a more in-depth look into each interviewee's take on Hubbert's peak. I found David Goodstein's talk the most technically informative.
I've been reading about peak oil for around five years, and there are several good books on the possible fossil fuel crash (Richard Heinberg's The Party's Over is a fine place to begin one's education on this disturbing subject). However, there are very few films devoted to oil depletion. One of those films, The End of Suburbia, points an accusing finger at the culprits who encouraged our profligate use of oil and successfully destroyed mass transit and the development of alternate energy options—something I miss in A Crude Awakening, which scrupulously avoids political views that those of a more conservative bent might find contentious. Perhaps that's a good thing, since the documentary's basic theme has little to do with one political view versus another. Regardless of one's political outlook, if we assume we are nearing the end of petroleum-powered civilization, all of us are on a storm-tossed sea in a leaky boat.
Those folks who are already aware of the peak oil debate will find little new here, but this is an excellent introduction for the uninitiated. If nothing else, this film should spur some lively discussion as we blithely careen into the abyss. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
• Bonus Chapter: "Petrostates"
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