11 Films to See Before and After “Taking the Red Pill”: Cinematic Insight to Peak Oil

“There is no such thing as infinite growth on a finite plant.” I’m not sure who uttered the phrase first. I have heard the phrase many times since I got hip to the truth about peak oil. But, even before I “took the red pill” and decided to really come to terms with the fact that we live in world of diminishing resources, I knew intuitively that we could not continue down the path we were going. Even as a child I was a conservationist—turning off the water when I brushed my teeth, turning off lights when I left the room. As I got older I recycled, composted, sent money to various endangered animal protection agencies and rode my bike to work. I even had a backyard garden in a major city, I was way ahead of the curve. Or so I thought.


Movie #1: Collapse with Michael C. Ruppert, directed by Chris Smith, released in 2009

Collapse movie trailer

I will never forget the first time I saw Collapse. It is as vivid in my memory as the first time I ate wasabi. My partner rented it for us to watch on our third date. (If you have seen it, you know how funny that is.) Variety Magazine called Collapse, “An intellectual horror movie.” The film is an hour and a half of Michael C. Ruppert sitting in a smoky room talking about “conspiracy fact.” I had already been a victim of the housing bubble, losing my home in 2007. My co-workers and I were constantly getting emails about possible lay-offs. Food prices were going up. Gas prices were unprecedented. I didn’t think it could get much worse. Collapse made it very clear: it could get much worse and it would get much worse. And that wasn’t all. Michael C. Ruppert also maintained that there was no where to run and no where to hide. He was talking about a fiscal cliff long before 2012. I hadn’t, until then, thought about how much energy it took just to get resources transported. And just how much fuel it takes to produce our food. Michael C. Ruppert notes in the film that it takes nine calories of energy to produce one calorie of food in America. I was thunderstruck.


Movie #2: Food Inc. with Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser, directed by Robert Kenner, released in 2008

Food Inc. Trailer

I had seen the movie Food Inc. the year before seeing Collapse. In the movie Food Inc. Michael Pollan, author of the book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, notes, “The way we eat has changed more in the last 50 years than in the previous 10,000.” Our industrialized food system is completely unsustainable and completely unhealthy. Food Inc. goes into the ills of factory farming, monocropping, pesticides and GMOs. There is a scene in the film showing hundreds of shoulder-to-shoulder cows covered in flies standing in acres of their own feces. Our ability to eat this way, to eat processed, industrial food was a direct result of the oil boom of the last 100 years. Food Inc. made me start a vegetarian diet until I could find a resource for local, grass-fed, free-range beef. It was the film that made me want to have more than a backyard garden. I wanted to move to the country. I wanted to live on a farm.


Movies #3 and #4: End of Suburbia: Oil Depletion and the Collapse of the American Dream with Barrie Zwicker and James Howard Kunstler, directed by Gregory Greene, released in 2004; and Escape from Suburbia: Beyond the American Dream with Matthew Simmons and Richard Heinberg, directed by Gregory Greene, released in 2007.


Gregory Greene was so prophetic with his 2004 film that he had to release a second film three years later. In the 2004 film, James Howard Kunstler notes that, “America took all of its post-war wealth and invested it in a living arrangement that has no future.” The End of Suburbia outlines why suburban living, in its current manifestation, cannot be sustained. Escape From Suburbia is a follow-up production that goes deeper. Of course, since more than half of the world’s population lives in urban or suburban settings, these films can be unsettling. So much would have to change in order for urban centers to support current populations.


Movie #5: A Crude Awakening: The Oil Crash with Wade Adams and Abdul Samad Al-Awadi, directed by Gelpke et al, released in 2006


This documentary was ground-breaking in 2006 and was cutting edge six years ago at its release. Today, the film is still very worthwhile because of it’s in-depth analysis. This movie shows the viewer just how much will be affected as oil prices continue to sky rocket with oil becoming harder and harder to obtain.


Movie #6: Crude Impact with Thom Hartman and William Rees, directed by James Jandak Wood, released in 2006


This film, also released in 2006, takes a look at how our reliance on fossil fuels has impacted our environment. Many people studying peak oil in the early part of the 21st century believed that, by today, we would have reduced our energy consumption because there just wouldn’t be enough cheap oil. Today we are seeing an extension of reduced energy prices thanks to fracking and deep water drilling, but at what cost to our environment? Even if we could extend the consumption-lifestyle for a few more years, should we?


Movie #7: The 11th Hour with Leonardo DiCaprio and Kenny Ausubel, directed by Leila Conners and Nadia Conners, released in 2007

The 11th Hour Trailer

This movie provides a whole-systems view of limited resources. While I may not entirely agree with the message of the movie, the film has breath-taking cinematography and informative interviews. It’s a big-budget version among documentaries on a similar subject. What I like about this film is that it offers the same information from a different group of researchers and commentators. Many times, information about peak oil and limited resources comes from the same people and organizations. The 11th Hour provides similar views from different people. And let’s be honest: with Leonardo DiCaprio as the narrator of the film, this one has the potential to reach a broader audience of people who may not have otherwise been exposed to these issues.


Movie #8: The Crash Course by Chris Martinson, released in 2009, updated in 2012.


So you’ve sat through all the above films and you or someone in your family still thinks that peak oil and limited resources are a bunch of cockamamie. Or maybe you’re thinking that it just can’t be that bad or that dire. Or maybe you’re a facts-and-figures-person. Or maybe you really want to sit down with loved ones and show them, in no uncertain terms, what it is that you now know. Chris Martinson’s The Crash Course is that opportunity. And the best part is that it is free on the internet and can be watched in sections. After you and your family watch The Crash Course, you will be ready to flee to the hills, start a farm, build your self-sufficient doomstead and live happily ever after. I’m only half kidding.


Movies #9 and #10: The television series Jericho by Chbosy, Schaer and Steinberg with Skeet Ulrich and Lenny James, 2006-2008; and the British historical documentary series Tales From the Green Valley by Peter Sommer, released in 2005

Jericho Series Trailer (Fan Made)

Okay, these are not movies. Jericho isn’t even a documentary. But I couldn’t leave it out. After learning about peak oil and the many problems that we will surely face in our lifetime, I went through many stages of grief. One of the questions I kept asking myself is, “What is the world going to look like?” I needed to see something that I could engage in, something with people trying to live in a post-industrial world. I know that Jericho is a work of fiction but I was completely glued to it as though it were a crystal ball showing me my destined future. The show depicts a small town in Kansas after a bomb has gone off nearby. The town becomes isolated and the storyline follows the lives of the people and how they coped with very limited resources. If you have been trying to stomach the new series Revolution, give up and rent Jericho instead.


I’ve settled down a bit and have become more comfortable with the inevitability of a different way of life. Less than a year after watching Collapse, my partner and I left the city and moved to work on a organic farm in the Sierra Foothills. We have since moved to a rental and now work about two acres of property without the use of tractors or other gas-powered farm hands. This is probably why I enjoyed watching Tales from the Green Valley so much.

Tales From the Green Valley Trailer

Tales from the Green Valley “recreates everyday life on a small farm in Wales in the 1620s.” The creators of the series used historians to accurately recreate farm life in the early 1600s. The actors were committed to living for a year on the farm with no outside input and the series documents their trials and successes. Though the series depicts a pre-industrial world, it is inspiring to see people thriving without electricity and grocery stores.


But maybe you would like to see a real-life example of what a post peak-oil society looks like.


Movie #11: The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil with Bruce Cromer and Jorge Mario directed by Faith Morgan, released in 2006.

The Power of Community Trailer

The Cuban economy was heavily dependent on the Soviet Union for foreign aid. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Cuba’s economy suffered greatly. According to the film, “the nation lost half of its oil imports, and over 85 percent of its international trade economy.” Seemingly overnight, the island nation had to become almost totally self-sufficient. The first few years were hard. But the Cuban people came together, rebuilt and today the isolated nation thrives within the confines of their own limited resources.


Bonus suggestion: The pilot episode of television’s Portlandia, by Armisen, Brownstein and Krisel with Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein, 2011


Those who have done the peak-oil thing for a while will get a kick out of one of the sketches from this comedy. If you have been living on a farm, raising chickens, living self-sufficiently and making all the right choices, watch the first episode of Portladia. It’ll remind you not to take things so seriously and it’ll help you laugh at those who do.


A Movie for Children: WALL-E with Ben Burtt and Elissa Knight, directed by Andrew Stanton, released in 2008


How do you talk to your 5-year-old about a post-industrial world? Start with WALL-E. The movie shows us an uninhabitable future-earth where a robot spends his days piling the garbage left behind by the humans who have fled to a space ship to down milk shakes and watch a TV all day. In order to return to their home planet, the too-fat-to-walk humans have to learn to stand and be active and they have figure out how to grow plants.


I know what you’re thinking: “Wasn’t WALL-E a Disney movie?” Yes it was.