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Mini review: A Crude Awakening: The Oil Crash

A Crude Awakening: The Oil Crash (official site)
83-minutes documentary directed by Basil Gelpke and Ray McCormack

A Crude Awakening is a high quality documentary that does a good job of telling the peak oil story, including the geo-political implications. The DVD has about an hour of bonus interviews for the hard-core peak oil junkie. The emphasis is on the U.S.

George Palathingal at the Sydney Morning Herald gave it a glowing review:

If you like a good documentary you will have noticed, in recent times, that an alarming number have some disturbing things to say about the state of the Earth. Worse still, they all seem to come backed up with thorough research and convincing data amounting to the same message: the human race is in trouble, and life will soon never be the same.

So, as we still reel from Al Gore hammering home the inconvenient truth about global warming, here come two European filmmakers enlightening us about our planet's dwindling oil reserves and just about every repercussion of this you may think of - from the many ways we depend on the black stuff and its by-products to its connections with politics and war.

A Crude Awakening is a bitter pill of a documentary that Basil Gelpke and Ray McCormack gamely pretend to sugar-coat (as Gore did his). There are cute retro TV ads and bits of animation, plus lots of eye-catching glimpses of the iconic imagery associated with oil, its producers and its consumption: those giant steel "dinosaurs" across the American landscape, sand dunes in the Middle East, seemingly endless shots of busy motorways and fuel-guzzling planes taking off ... you get the idea. But the filmmakers aren't kidding anyone, and they know it. They've an abundance of information to get across.

...This isn't just a film for tree-hugging greenies; it's one everyone should see.
(More at the original).

A 90-minutes documentary is too short to do more than scratch the surface of the subject. Wisely, the film does not attempt to be authoritative, but instead suggests the complexities of the issues by quoting differing viewpoints.

Unfortunately, the documentary misses two critical subjects: global warming and "What we can do". Global warming is intimately connected with peak oil, and yet it receives only a few brief mentions from the talking heads. The lack of attention may be understandable considering that the connection between the two has only been emphasized in the past few months.

Secondly, the documentary does not put forward any strategy for dealing with the problem. The speakers rightfully dash any hopes of magic solutions from fusion, hydrogen and biomass. However, renewables are cavalierly dismissed as being unable to make more than a minor contribution. Conservation and efficiency are barely mentioned at all. David Goodstein of Cal Tech talks up the future of photovoltaics, but all-in-all the picture looks glum. The logo for the film does not help much either - it's a gas hose tied in a hangman's noose.

I was disappointed that the film omitted reasonable responses to peak oil, but nonetheless found time to broach the subject of die-off. We're left with a binary view of the future: business-as-usual or massive depopulation.

Historically this is nonsense. During wartime, many countries have reduced their energy usage. After the fall of the Soviet Union, both Cuba and North Korea cut oil use drastically. So, as peak oil develops, energy usage can and will be cut.

The question is how we will do it - wisely (conservation, efficiency, the Oil Depletion Protocol) or foolishly (wars or pursuing will-o-the-wisp energy sources prompted by special interests).

A multitude of efforts are underway. Amory Lovins and others have been preaching energy efficiency for decades. Cutting waste will not be difficult considering the bloated energy usage of industrialized countries. Deeper, more structural approaches are represented by relocalization, New Urbanism and sustainable food. Mr. Gloom 'n' Doom himself, James Howard Kunstler, wrote "a set of reasonable responses to a new set of circumstances". There are things people can do at the individual, community and national levels. It just takes looking around and seeing things afresh.

I'd still recommend the film, but if I were organizing a program, I'd pair it with presentations that balanced out its grimness. Otherwise viewers are apt to be left feeling helpless and despairing.

Perhaps the team that brought us Crude Awakening will complete the picture they started with a sequel, Part Two: The Sleepers Awake.

Editorial Notes: Bart Anderson is co-editor of Energy Bulletin. He previously worked as a journalist, high school teacher and technical writer for Hewlett-Packard. UPDATE: Another review was just posted at DVD Talk UPDATE: Another review at HopeDance by Shawna Galassi. Sounds like we've been channeling each other:
The film ends with experts discrediting windmills, hydrogen, and ethanol as viable alternatives, yet no solutions are given in their stead. In the future, one expert says, only the extremely wealthy will be able to afford air travel and automobiles. European countries that evolved before the automobile will have an easier time adapting than the U.S., where cities and suburbs were designed around car usage. Unfortunately, no clear picture is given of just what the future of our country looks like without cheap and plentiful gas. But clearly it would behoove us to start pumping air into those bicycle tires now and stop tooling around town in ten-mile-to-the-gallon vehicles designed for families of eight.
UPDATE (June 18) Reader Tony writes: Good review, overall, but I worry about some of your comments because, even though this may not be your intention, they give the impression that there are "easy" answers. Just conserve and become more efficient. Peak oil is just the tip of the iceberg (though, admittedly, a large tip) because it represents the cavalier way we've used up the earth's finite resources. The way our societies and economies are structured now means that conservation and efficiency will just delay the worst effects of resource depletion. However, conservation and efficiency will also have enormous consequences for western economies, since so much economic activity depends on our wasteful ways. If we get past those effects, we're down to highly efficient economies that still require growth, which takes growth in the use of resources. So we will still face a catastrophe. There is only one reasonable response to peak resources and that is SUSTAINABILITY. Becoming sustainable has such far reaching consequences (a very different society from what we have now) that even those who see great problems, with resource depletion, can't quite bring themselves to contemplate the only response. You're right, there is a lot we can do but very few people are contemplating the things we absolutely must do to have a viable long term sustainable society. BA: Thank you, Tony, I agree that the problem admits of no easy fix. The point I was trying to make is that one starts from where one is, taking one step at a time. Why couldn't the documentary have given a few hints about what can be done right now? Not to mention the deeper problem of sustainability. It's frustrating because documentaries like "Crude Awakening" are such effective means of communication. It's as if our social imagination has atrophied. We find it hard to imagine anything other than our current social arrangements or catastrophe. One dreams of a movie version of "Ecotopia."

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