Arts & Events

FILM REVIEW: To the Ends of the Earth Foresees a World Beyond Oil and Coal

Reviewed by Gar Smith
Thursday May 04, 2017 - 01:36:00 PM

San Francisco's Roxie Theater, May 10, 7pm. Film screening and panel discussion.

Filmmaker David Lavallee's documentary To The Ends of the Earth begins with playwright Arthur Miller's sobering observation: "An era is said to end when its basic illusions are exhausted." One of our basic illusions is that cheap oil will always be available. Prepare to be exhausted.




To the Ends of the Earth official TRAILER from David Lavallee on Vimeo


For many, the filmmaker's call to "decarbonize" our economy and society will cover familiar ground. Richard Heinberg, founder of the Santa Rosa-based Post Carbon Institute, has been penning fossil fuel Jeremiads for years. (At last count, his "Museletter" blog-posts have hit 299.) 

In Donald Trump, we now have an Oval Office dweller who not only calls climate change a "hoax" but believes that digging coal and sucking oil are activities that have a future. Fortunately, The Ends of the Earth gives us the voice of Emma Thompson to carry us through a recap of energy history and a critique of how our reliance on cheap energy poisoned the planet and now threatens to collapse civilization as we have come to know it. 

The Coal, Hard Facts 

Some stark factoids: Today, 85% of our power comes from hydrocarbons—oil, coal, natural gas. The average US family of four consumes 100 barrels of oil a year. The energy in a gallon of gas offers the equivalent of 490 hours of human labor. It takes seven calories of fossil fuel energy to produce a single calorie of food. (Of course, this depends on what food you're talking about and how far it has traveled.) 

The globalized world runs on cheap fossil energy—by some estimates 32 billion barrels a year. It is cheap oil and mechanization that has made our economic growth—unprecedented in human history—possible. But we're running out of oil. Back in 1956, Shell geoscientist M. K. Hubbard predicted that U.S. oil discoveries would peak sometime between 1965 and 1970. He was right. The USA's "peak oil" moment came in 1970. 

An earlier "peak oil" event struck in the 19th century, an era during which tens of thousands of whalers risked (and oftimes lost) their lives hunting whales to secure the oil needed to keep lamps lit in streets and homes. 

Ironically, with today's coal and oil reserves in serious decline, whales are once again at risk. With nearly 90 billion barrels of untapped oil believed to lie below Arctic waters, oil company ships are testing the seabeds with seismic guns. The noise from sonic testing (after a nuclear blast, the second loudest human-made sound) can deafen, kill, and disturb sea creatures over a range of 3,000 km. Whales, dolphins, porpoises and narwhales are all at risk. 

Energy Spikes and the Pursuit of "Extreme Energy" 

It's a bit of a bother to hear Emma Thompson blame Iraq's toppled president Saddam Hussein for the 2003 spike in oil prices. "The actions of a rogue dictator sent the price of oil skywards," she tells us, "but as Baghdad burns, Calgary booms. The Age of Extreme Energy is born." 

The Calgary reference relates to Canada's decision to commercialize its oil-rich tar sands deposits—"the largest second largest oil deposit in the world." The declaration was confirmation that the age of cheap, seemingly plentiful carbon-based energy was over. The world had begun its descent down the Energy Pyramid. Instead of free-flowing oil from wells, it was time to start turning bitumen into synthetic crude. 

This was a costly and unparalleled engineering challenge. It requires two tons of excavated earth to scavenge a single barrel of bitumen. Separating the bitumen from the sand and soil required vast amounts of energy—from coal and natural gas. The question remains: is it really worth it? 


There is a standard called the Energy Return on Investment (EROI), which determines "what you get back for what you put in." Currently, it takes the energy in one barrel of oil to extract 20 barrels of oil. When it comes to mining Canada's tar sands, however, the energy in one barrel of oil only recovers five barrels of new oil. 

Heinberg points out the last time the world was working with such a low EROI was back when humanity was engaged in agricultural economies—long before the Industrial Revolution. We're talking horse-drawn carts and plows operated by oxen. 

Powering civilization at current levels of expectation (electric lights, cars, computers) requires an EROI of 1:15. But we are no longer anywhere close to seeing these kinds of returns and the situation will only worsen in the years ahead. 

Beware Big Energy's "Clean Energy" Gambit 

The film introduces us to Eoin Madden, a mining company clone who snaps and becomes an environmental lawyer. Madden takes us on a visit to Site C, a highly promoted "clean energy" project that involves building a hydropower dam on British Colombia's Peace River. 

It turns out 60% of the dam's output would be expropriated by the existing Canadian fossil fuels industry to provide power for new fracking wells—an extremely energy-intensive and polluting alternative. 

Currently more than half of BC's oil and gas is burned to support the tar sands industry, which winds up releasing global warming plumes of methane gas. Because fracking also requires vast amounts of water, the dam is opposed by the local Native peoples. Showing long pipelines snaking across the landscape, Lavallée cites a chilling Dene Prophecy: "Great Black Snakes will come across Turtle Island, destroying the waters and lands." 

Native Lands Fracked; Native Peoples F--ked 

Lavellée takes us to the lands of the Fort Nelson First Nation where 95% of territory has been claimed for fracking. The developers promised 600 jobs but said nothing about chemicals that would poison the water including carcinogenic hydrochloric acid. And the jobs? Only five permanent positions were created. 

Fracking is a costly, cumbersome and dirty process. Production looks good at first but most wells are exhausted after only a few years. 

The film's speakers underscore the troublesome fact that the oil industry (like the Pentagon, like the US Treasury) is in denial. Big Oil increasingly is burning more oil than it is producing. The endgame is clear but the oil-mongers appear incapable of stopping. Because they are "energy companies" they MUST continue to dig, drill, frack—even as the treadmill they are on is visibly fraying and preparing to crack and fly apart. 

Coal and oil profits are now small-to-none. Heinberg mentions that some desperate companies have had to borrow money to pay off their stockholders. A series of accidents, spills and explosions define an industry that now pursues increasingly dangerous projects for decreasingly justifiable results. 

The Net Energy Cliff 

Even with oil still left in the ground, the film reveals, the acute energy demands of global economies soon will exceed the available energy resources and our high-energy civilization will begin to collapse. 

In September 2008, oil hit a historic high ($147 per barrel). That was followed by an economic crash and recession. Ten of the past eleven major recessions immediately followed a dramatic spike in the price of oil. 

Our economic/social systems are based on faulty energy assumptions and bogus financial factors. It's not just the threat of climate change and pollution: the financial system itself is fatally flawed, bankrupt, and unsustainable. The basic myth is that our heedless, hyper-indulgent economy can continue to grow—in fact, MUST continue to grow—forever. But as environmental critics have been repeating for decades: "You can't have endless growth on a finite planet." 


Lavellée begins to offer solutions in the 60th minute of this 80-minute doc. 

Don't be comforted by the familiar arguments that Improved technology and innovation will assure our survival and perpetuation of the "growth paradigm," Lavellé cautions. A century ago, Britain realized it was starting to run out of cheap coal. The response was a call for better machinery and improved efficiency. But the result was that the "more efficient" British Empire wound up burning even more coal, not less. (Trump needs to hear this message.) 

The film cites the Jevons Paradox, based on a 19th century essay on "The Coal Question" written by W. Stanley Jevons. Jevons observed that a growth economy would, by its very nature, always consume more energy than it did before—up until the point that the whole enterprise collapses. 

Instead of pursuing ever more complexity, the film proposes taking the path of "a great simplification"— localized, self-reliant, sustainable, post-carbon communities with lower expectations, slower travel, and near-zero consumption. 

The Ends of the Earth ends on a high note with a review of "Blockadia" protests that are successfully turning back plans for tar sands, pipelines and ocean drilling platforms. As one U.S. protestor in the streets of Paris for the historic Climate Summit says: Social protests are needed to do what politicians are failing to do. 

Does it work? Well, according to one expert, the delays caused by Blockadia pipeline activism have cost industries an estimated $19 billion since 2011. 

And that's a good note to end on. 

Following the screening, there will be a panel discussion with Ash Lauth of the Centre for Biological Diversity and Gar Smith, Editor Emeritus of Earth Island Journal, moderated by Media Alliance executive director Tracy Rosenberg. 

Space is limited so buy your tickets today.