David M Edwards, “Sprawling from Grace, Driven to Madness” (2008)
Stumbled across this very pertinent documentary on the consequences of Western societies’ dependence on cars as the dominant form of transport for most people on cities, life-styles, economies, public health and even government policies, in particular foreign policies. “Sprawling from Grace, Driven to Madness” was made at a time when Peak Oil warnings – the concern that global oil production would soon hit its maximum and thereafter decline as major oil fields in Saudi Arabia and Mexico were depleted – were attracting much attention and a significant part of the film revolves around the effects that long-term oil production decline and the depletion of other fossil fuels such as natural gas and coal will have on societies and government energy policies. Although the film was made mainly for an American audience, it has relevance for Australian audiences, most of whom live in cities and their sprawling suburbs along the south-eastern Australian coast, and people in other countries living in flat cities also spreading out far and wide from their urban cores so much so that the idea of commuters spending up to 2 or more hours in their cars travelling from home to work each day is common.
The film divides conveniently into two parts thanks to an off-screen Kate Bush warbling “Hello Earth” over a CGI animation of the planet right in the middle of the documentary: a really whimsical moment in an otherwise po-faced feature. The first half of the film concerns itself with the problems that over-reliance on the car poses for American people and the economy: having been touted by advertising as a symbol of freedom, independence, individuality, adventure and exploration, the car comes to enslave Americans in their mobility and life-styles. Commuting to the city for work and other reasons takes up ever greater amounts of time in people’s lives and exposes them to more air pollution which endangers their health. Traffic engineers trying to solve traffic jam problems by adding extra lanes or building more freeways quickly find that drivers adjust their behaviours to the technological fix with the result that there is more traffic on the roads and the old bottleneck problems return on a greater, more intense scale. There are economic costs as well: as the road infrastructure ages, the cost of maintaining roads and bridges in a time when US government debt levels are already high becomes a headache; but ignoring the problem and allowing roads and bridges to deteriorate will result in major disasters like bridge and road collapses that claim people’s lives. At the same time, growing middle classes in China and India desire to emulate the Western life-style which includes driving cars.
The dependence on cars and the depletion of once reliable oil fields such as al-Ghawar in Saudi Arabia and Canterell in Mexico start to influence US energy policy and foreign policy as well, with the result that the US is now intervening in (and interfering with) many areas around the world known to have large oil and gas fields: Libya, southern Sudan, the Adriatic Sea off the coast of Albania and western Africa come to mind. Many if not most people around the world suspect the real reason for the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 was due to greed for that country’s oil; ditto for Libya which has Africa’s largest oil-fields. (I rather think that the two countries not belonging to the Bank for International Settlements was the main reason they had to be punished.) So it could be said that over-reliance on cars for transport is literally killing other people in other lands.
The second half of the film emphasises how American society can be weaned away from oil with the use of renewable energy sources and rethinking the design of urban communities: the rethink might include mixing residential, commercial and industrial functions in the same neighbourhoods so that these areas can acquire their own distinctive and attractive characteristics; greater density in housing which itself will be mixed, catering for individuals and households in varied stages of their life-cycles; and privileging public transport above private forms of transport.
Structure is straightforward with a mix of 1950s advertisements, cityscape shots, excerpts from the movie “Mad Max” and interviews with city government officials, energy consultants and commentators such as James Kunstler who has written books on issues about suburbia and residential land use. The film is strong, determined and straight to the point early on but as it ploughs through its second half, momentum drains away and the documentary becomes a boring series of endless talking heads and pretty scenes of light rail and families enjoying leisure activities in public parks in cities that have adopted solutions approved of by the film-makers. The music in the film’s second half becomes ever more hopeful and uplifting to a point where it starts to grate on the ear.
Fixing cities so that they are less petrol-dependent sounds so easy according to “Sprawling from Grace …” but the truth is there are vested interests that may want to keep cities the way they are; developers and corporations may influence and/or bribe city government officials to ignore the public interest and favour the people lining politicians’ pockets. The film fails to consider the power corporations may have over city and suburban planning. Corporations may also block government efforts to develop alternative sources of energy in often ingenious ways: for example, they may buy up the alternative-energy competitors, strip them of their assets and use them as tax shelters; again, the film fails to mention that there could be problems in achieving a desired state where society relies on multiple sources of energy rather than just the one.
In all, this is not a bad documentary but it’s also not the really great, hard-hitting gutsy film it could have been.