Tuesday, November 17, 2009

When Technology Fails, Don't Panic

A Movie Review of Collapse

It was Friday the 13th, but I felt luck would be on my side. Everything was perfectly prepared for my viewing of Collapse at the Sunset 5 in West Hollywood at 7:30pm and the Q&A with Mike Ruppert after the show. Full tank of gas, list of questions written (just in case one or more were answered prior to my asking), microcassette recorder with a fresh battery to record the Q&A session and my copy of Ruppert's latest book, A Presidential Energy Policy, keeping my fingers crossed that I might get an autograph.

Yes, I knew what to expect as far as the content of the movie was concerned. Being a resident of L.A., common sense should have told me that my hopes to leave downtown at 5:45pm and reach West Hollywood so that I had enough time to eat dinner without wolfing it down would be dashed to hell. As I hit the onramp for the 101 North, the veritable tidal wave of red brake lights prompted an inner voice in my head to say, "This is Friday Night Gridlock. Be happy if you catch the opening credits". The irony was not lost on me that rush hour might prevent me from seeing a movie about how our overconsumption of finite resources through an economic infrastructure predicated on infinite growth would lead to a collapse of this paradigm. Reaching the Sunset 5 at 6:40pm, I had to wonder if Americans would one day be nostalgic for the days when it took 55 minutes to travel 8.38 miles.

Needless to say, I caught the opening credits and everything else. My high hopes were not disappointed: on an artistic level this is the best documentary on Peak Oil I've seen yet. Stylistically, what director Chris Smith has done is given this film, and by extension its subject matter, the sense of immediacy that it deserves. Title cards announcing what subject area would be focused on were in stark black and white. The score is one of the most evocative I've heard in any movie this year; mysterious and dark, moody and foreboding. What really sets this film apart from the rest is its editing. The first sustained cut to a completely black screen is jarring. My reactions jumped from, "Is this intentional-Did the projector malfunction-Did the electricity go out-Are we witnessing Collapse for real?" Experiencing this along with scenes where we see the cinematographer slate in front of the camera all help give this film the sense of "This is happening NOW. Pay attention! Collapse could occur at any moment".

As an adaptation of the book A Presidential Energy Policy, Smith does a marvelous job of keeping the nearly 90 minute interview focused within that framework. We get the explanation of Peak Oil (oil production follows a bell curve, peak is the halfway point where decline becomes permanent), geopolitical factors (Saudi offshore drilling, NEPDG), petroleum over-dependence (food production, pharmaceuticals), worthless alternatives (ethanol, clean coal), and worthwhile alternatives (localization). What keeps it from being an academic exercise is the personality of Michael Ruppert. In spite of the grim subject matter, there is an irrepressible spirit illuminating the map of this terrain. He can be very funny (the pregnant pause before the punchline that, "ethanol is......a joke" is almost professional comic timing), very passionate (the defense of his life's work being too important to "walk away" in spite of the adversity ranging from death threats to office sabotage is especially moving) and very straightforward (those who panic during the collapse, i.e. run to the hills, will probably be the first to perish).

Above all, he has a gift for taking complex subjects like economics and geopolitics and breaking them down into simple but vivid explanations that anyone can grasp. By the time he's done detailing the basics of fiat currency, fractional reserve banking and compound interest, you know in the moment before he says it that this system equates to a large scale pyramid scheme. But there is a clear emotional component that comes with this comprehension: anger. Probably the loudest positive reaction from the audience came when after detailing what the National Energy Policy Development Group headed by Dick Cheney in 2001 prior to September 11 went through to keep their records secret, including an ex parte duck-hunting trip with non-recused Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, Ruppert hypothesizes exactly what an enraged American public would do to Cheney and company if the truth behind those records came out. Let's just say there was a 'throaty' approval from the viewing public at my screening.

My only quibble with the film is that I wish Smith had used more clips from Ruppert's lectures in 2005 to illustrate his veracity. There are clips shown from Denial Stops Here that highlight his economic predictions in a general manner. But there were far more specific predictions, such as the fall of General Motors, as well as how the economic collapse would be tied into oil prices peaking. As Ruppert put it in one lecture in my former hometown of Ashland, Oregon at the Rogue Valley Metaphysical Library, "I have seen a completely new term creep into the lexicon around Peak Oil and it just came out of the blue: it's called Demand Destruction. How do you destroy demand for oil? (listens to audience response) No. You collapse the economy. People who are out of work, unemployed and starving don't drive cars, they don't take vacations, they don't borrow money, they don't buy second cars, they don't fly on airplanes! Demand Destruction." Perhaps better selection of lecture clips might have helped avoid some confusion over whether Ruppert answered Smith's question, "What about human ingenuity?" Some critics felt he didn't answer that question. I felt the response was quite clear ("No amount of technology, no amount of human ingenuity can overturn the laws of physics and the laws of the universe."), but it's possible my understanding is enhanced within the context of Ruppert positing a so-called best-case techno-scenario to illustrate how human ingenuity cannot overcome how vast our over-reliance on fossil fuels for the variety of needs industrial society requires for growth: "So let's assume tomorrow that we had a whole new source of energy: cold fusion. Which would solve all the world's prob- well, it wouldn't solve the fertilizer problem, it wouldn't solve the pesticide problem, or the plastic problem..."

Bottom line: our infinite growth paradigm is not sustainable within our finite sphere. This is one of the book's most salient points and it is to Smith's credit that he allows Ruppert to drive that point home vividly in the movie. It is a scary point because of its revolutionary nature, but by the end of the film we understand that the end of the paradigm is not a death sentence for humanity. It is an opportunity for humanity to reevaluate what is truly important, what we value most deeply. The revolution we face is a revolution of thought, where we face a transformation that will affect every aspect of our lives. To drive that point home, Ruppert mentions that every major religion will have to address this and evolve if they are going to remain relevant to humanity. Which part of humanity survives the paradigm shift is dependent on how receptive we are to this civilization-altering switch. Ruppert analogizes this on a societal level to the sinking of the Titanic: there are those frozen with fear, those proactive enough to get lifeboats ready and those so deep in denial they go back to the bar for a drink. But Ruppert also analogizes this on a personal level with the story of the 100th Monkey: an island of monkeys were provided by scientists with sweet potatoes dropped in the sand. One monkey discovers washing the potato removes the sandy taste. One by one, from friends to family, the washing is taught until by the time the 100th monkey learns, the washing behavior instantly spreads to all monkeys everywhere. By the end of the movie, whether you agree him or not, I don't see how you can't admire Ruppert for his tenacity, emotional openness and concern for humanity in his quest for his own 100th monkey.

The lights came up at the end of the credits. Nobody moved. Moments later, Michael Ruppert came down the aisle and stood in front of a microphone, greeted by rousing applause. During his 30 minute Q&A session, he was engaging, funny, receptive toward all questions positive and negative, and at the end I must commend him for doing a wonderful job of crowd control so that the next group could see their screening. He also had two pieces positive news: 1. His rent was paid through December, (the movie mentioned he was having trouble paying his rent) 2. The book would be re-released as Confronting Collapse and would be published by Chelsea Green Publishing hopefully in December. I was one of the first people to ask a question. Since one of the questions I wanted to ask had already been answered by him within the film, (Q: What should be done about the Federal Reserve? A: The Fed will go bankrupt.) I had this question prepared that I asked:

My question concerns two recent events: your economic warning last month of a run on the dollar and the senior IEA whistleblowers who told The Guardian the IEA has been fudging their numbers under US influence; that Peak is NOW not in the future. I'm wondering if you think there will be mainstream media confirmation of Peak Oil orchestrated to coincide with the dollar run to give the Financial Elite a pretext for profiting off our Great Depression again, or will Official Denial continue past the peak when the lights are going out as long as there is a publicly acceptable boogeyman or scapegoat?

This is where technology failed me. I had my microcassette recorder on record with a new battery, but perhaps since this piece of equipment is a relic from the Clinton administration, Ruppert's response sounds like it is recorded underwater. From memory, he didn't answer directly but addressed the question from the perspective of how the mainstream media has shifted their focus on the film from the message to the man. The mainstream media is trying to make it look like he is the only one out there spreading the message of Peak Oil when that just isn't the case. He mentioned those who supported him, Jenna Orkin and Stan Goff. He mentioned his correct prediction record as being at an .800 average. The point, I believe, is that Official Denial will continue even if the truth is spelled out in bold caps. So ignore the drinkers at the bar and find a lifeboat!

My overwhelming impression of the crowd that night was an atmosphere of positive connection. It was wonderful to reach out and share with complete strangers after the show. One of the more interesting crowd reactions was when in response to a question, Ruppert mentioned two politicians he considers his friends, Ron Paul and Cynthia McKinney. It seemed like half the crowd cheered when he said Ron Paul and the other half cheered when he said Cynthia McKinney, yet the good vibes made the crowd seem united in Green-Libertarian (Ruppertarian?) solidarity. When the Q&A session was over, I was fortunate enough to shake Mike Ruppert's hand and he was gracious enough to autograph my copy of A Presidential Energy Policy, now a "collector's item". I couldn't leave the theater completely, viewers were gathered outside sharing their thoughts and feelings. One of the viewers I met was someone who posts on Mike Ruppert's blog http://mikeruppert.blogspot.com/ as Oregon Survivor who traveled from Oregon to see this screening. It was invigorating sharing our thoughts, opinions and experiences. He and his wife are good people and I wish them both the best.

But as soon as I got to the parking garage, technology failed me again. Apparently I stayed parked beyond my validated time and owed $4.50. No biggie as far as L.A. rates go. The problem is that there was no security guard at the gate and the machine couldn't read my credit card. It took another 10 minutes to find a gate with a security guard who would accept cash. I turned out of the parking lot onto another sea of red brake lights on Sunset Boulevard. Checking my rearview mirror, I was startled to find my vision completely blocked by my unlocked trunk. The inner voice in my head, with reassuring familiarity, said, "Don't panic". I pulled out into the flat center median, stopped, put the emergency lights on, got out, shut the trunk and as I got back in the car, noticed my seat belt was wrapped around a lever near my feet that opens the trunk. Unwrapping the seat belt, I rolled my eyes and breathed a sigh of relief.

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