energy film peak oil sustainability

Film review: Crude Impact

Rotating pumpjacks at sunset, freeway traffic in time lapse – aha, it must be an oil documentary. While I’ve always been a fan of the feature length documentary, peak oil has been particularly well served, with A Crude Awakening, Crude Impact, The Oil Factor, and The End of Suburbia all rolling out within a couple of years of each other. It’s easy to forget which one you’re watching, but let me address Crude Impact in its own right.

Crude Impact is a broad look at the role of oil in our civilization, and the dangers we face as oil begins to run low. The scope of investigation is commendable, addressing oil conflict, the environment, and effects on developing countries, as well as the consequences for suburban lifestyles.

There are sections on Ecuador, and Texaco’s sub-standard practices that have left whole communities with terrible health problems and a polluted rainforest. The film tells Ken Saro Wiwa’s story, of how the Nigerian activist was eliminated to ease Shell’s oil extraction operations. The oppressive Saudi Arabian regime comes up, with Michael Klare observing that the US props up “fourteenth century monarchs like the ones we fought a war against in 1776.”

In other words, rather than predict and lament a future oil tragedy, Crude Impact acknowledges that oil has already wreaked havoc with the planet and its people. Peak oil itself doesn’t appear as a problem until later in the film. Even if peak oil was still decades away, there are plenty of reasons here to break our dependency.  “People in this country depend on oil” says one of the commentators. “We should understand where it comes from and the price that is paid.”

By way of commentators, Crude Impact has some familiar faces in the aforementioned Michael Klare, Richard Heinberg, and Matthew Simmons, but its good to hear some other voices too, in Kavita Ramdas of the Global Fund for Women, and Ecuadorian tribal chief Santiago Kawarim.

The film mentions a number of problems. Population is one of them, since the boom of the last century has only been possible through the increased yields of mechanised agriculture. This presents us with a potential food crisis as oil prices rise, and we had a little foretaste of that in 2008. We currently use 10 calories worth of fossil fuels to produce one calorie of food. “For any other species,” says Heinberg, “this would spell extinction.”

By way of solutions to problems like these, the film gives only a brief summary. See ‘The Power of Community – How Cuba survived peak oil’ for a longer exploration. Here, the makers of Crude Impact encourage us to eat seasonal food, change to energy saving light bulbs, and find our political voice. I was actually a little stunned – they mentioned the lightbulbs, and how changing just one would be equivalent to a million cars off the roads, or whatever it was. But this is a film about oil, why aren’t they talking about cars off the roads directly? Lightbulbs and oil use are only vaguely related. There could have been a whole section here on new urbanism, public transport, cycling, any of those things, but light bulbs? That would come very low on my list of responses to peak oil.

Still, if you haven’t started thinking about peak oil and what you’re going to do about it, I’d recommend Crude Impact as a useful starting point. Just don’t stop there.

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