Whether or not you believe in peak oil, you probably have at least one picture in your mind of what a world running out of oil might look like. If you've seen the 1981 movie Mad Max 2: the Road Warrior, the vivid images are probably still easy to recall: small pockets of near-sanity ruled with an iron fist and besieged by brutal, marauding gangs, with unbalanced loners scavenging the desert around, and everyone fighting over the few remaining drops of precious oil
I don't know when it was that I realized that car culture was unsustainable, but in discussions of it my mind has come back again and again to those images. I alluded to them briefly in a recent post, and I've seen them mentioned in many discussions of sustainability and peak oil.
Interestingly, there aren't too many other ideas about what a post-oil world could look like (that don't posit some more powerful energy source). Can you think of any - that aren't obviously based on or inspired by The Road Warrior? Once the movie came along, it seems to have satisfied that need.
Tonight I got to wondering: where did this movie come from, and who, and why? I knew it was made in the interior of Australia, and that made sense because it's in desert areas like that that I've felt most strongly the fragility of human settlement.
I checked out the Wikipedia entry for Mad Max 2 and the other movies in the series, and discovered an essay by co-screenwriter James McCausland connecting it to the oil shocks of the 1970s, and specifically to the concept of peak oil. McCausland reports that he and George Miller "wrote the script based on the thesis that people would do almost anything to keep vehicles moving and the assumption that nations would not consider the huge costs of providing infrastructure for alternative energy until it was too late."
I don't remember exactly when I first saw The Road Warrior; I know it was on video, at someone else's house, and I was in my teens. I've always been uncomfortable with violence in movies, but if the movie has enough value I can get past that, and I did with this one. However, a few years later the Cinema Village showed the first Mad Max, and I actually walked out in the middle, when Max and his family are at the beach. But I didn't leave; I just hung out in the lobby and came back in for the final scene. Maybe the setting just wasn't far enough removed from present-day reality for me to stick it out through the violence.
The violence; I think that's one of the things that struck people about these movies. It made sense when the Wikipedia author mentioned that Miller had been an emergency room doctor before he wrote Mad Max, and that he incorporated a lot of what he saw and heard into the movie. Anyone who works in an emergency room sees a lot of carnage, and I think that comes through in the movies.
What doesn't quite seem realistic to me is the brutality. Now I know there's a lot of real brutality out in the world, and that it can emerge in many places, especially when society fails to function properly. But what just didn't add up for me in Mad Max was the pervasiveness of it. It's been a long time since I saw it, but if my memory is correct, many of the characters just seemed like brutality machines, who came into the movie brutal with no external explanation. I just think it's hard to keep so many people so brutal for so long. Yeah, people are nasty and ugly and vicious, but even the nastiest can be kind and tender and vulnerable sometimes.
Maybe Miller has seen a side of humanity that I haven't, and maybe he knows better than me. And certainly resource conflicts can get very brutal, as Jared Diamond explains, in places like Rwanda. But I still have hope that humanity can't get quite as bad as Mad Max suggests.
Regardless, if you read Collapse, you'll understand that the more prepared we are, the better chance we have of coasting to a soft landing and not descending into chaos, whether Rwanda-style or Mad Max-style. So if you think there's something to this peak oil stuff, time to get moving.