Friday, March 05, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Collapse (2009)

Forget Orphan, Pandorum or Zombieland, the Chris Smith documentary Collapse is one scary-as-hell movie. Basically, it's a talking-head documentary about the end of the modern world. And it features one riveting speaker at center stage: a man named Michael Ruppert.

Some critics and journalists uncharitably term Ruppert a conspiracy theorist and others have labeled him an alarmist. Yet there's one thing you absolutely can't dispute after watching this film. The man is absolutely spell-binding; electric.

When Ruppert expresses himself, he does so with such great confidence, such incredible intelligence, you virtually hang on every syllable. He's profound and he's compelling, but, of course, what we really want to know is this: is he also right? Is he predicting the shape of things to come?

Over an 82-minute span, this former Los Angeles Police officer and self-described "cartographer" -- who maps how the world really works, not the way we think it works -- describes in excruciating detail why the end is nigh not just for America, but for the entire industrialized world.

For human civilization itself.

The lynch-pin, of course, is Peak Oil. Oil is the very commodity that allows for the production of plastic, that enables modern farming, that helps us build electric plants and nuclear reactors, and more. Take oil out of the human equation, and suddenly everything from the food distribution chain to commuting to your day-job is right out the window. Goodbye Wal-Mart. So long, Target.

What's worse, according to Ruppert, is that the world has no realistic Plan B. There's no back-up paradigm to keep society solvent, secure and productive once oil runs out. Ruppert also alleges that the CIA has known about Peak Oil since the 1970s, and that Dick Cheney's secret energy task force in 2001 concerned this very topic; how to secure the oil fields of Iraq in what is, essentially, a resource war end-game.

In riveting fashion, Ruppert escorts the audience right through every detail of the Peak Oil scenario, explaining why A.N.W.R. drilling, Arctic Drilling and even new Iraq pipelines are -- at absolute best -- momentary solutions to the crisis. Furthermore, Ruppert dismisses Ethanol, electric cars and other "alternatives" with withering but indisputable logic. Without oil, you can't make tires, he reminds us, so what the hell are electric cars going to ride on? Finally, Ruppert does hold out some sliver of hope for solar and wind power.

Late in Collapse, Ruppert mentions Elizabeth Kubler-Ross's five stages of grief, and notes that the modern world is now firmly ensconced in the stage between denial and anger. And that more anger is on its way, as more of us realize a paradigm of "infinite growth" is contrary to the very laws of physics.

To boil down "infinite growth," what Ruppert is saying here is that our economy isn't going to get better...not so long as money and oil are finite commodities. What he's saying is that we're in for more wars to control the last drops of oil. What he's saying is that our way of life is unsustainable.

And if you watch Collapse, you'll see a man who is absolutely anguished over what he believes. Ruppert's beliefs have made him Public Enemy Number #1 to many in rigid ideological circles (think Cheney), a pariah to others, and just a nutcase to the masses. Given this, Ruppert seems to have made no recent emotional attachments to other human beings, though he loves his dog, taking long walks on the beach, and rock'n'roll music.

Collapse concerns global apocalypse, but in some meta-fashion, it's actually about Michael Ruppert's personal apocalypse. What he knows -- or what he thinks he knows -- keeps him isolated, alienated and marginalized. And he will absolutely not compromise his beliefs. No matter what. He likens himself to a German citizen in Hitler's Third Reich; one who could see, ultimately, Hitler's destination and the pain and trauma it would cause the world. If Ruppert were living in that time and place, he would never put down his beliefs and go along with Group Happy Think. And he feels the same way today: he's not about to stop conveying his message of collapse when there's the chance -- even a slim chance -- that he will be heard by someone who can come along and change things.

"We're trapped by old ideas," Ruppert states at one point (and I may be paraphrasing a little). He insists we need a President like Thomas Jefferson who will spark a revolution. Not a violent, physical, bloody revolution but one of fresh ideas, of new thoughts. We need to tear down the conceits we have blindly accepted for decades and start again, he says, with the concepts of balance and sustainability replacing dead ideologies like socialism, communism and -- yes -- capitalism. As Ruppert points out, all of those systems of belief are predicated on the idea of infinite growth.

Throughout Collapse, Michael Ruppert makes his case in a compelling manner, and one bordering on arrogance. When questioned repeatedly about "human ingenuity," he never really answers. Isn't it possible to *think* our way out of this brewing crisis? He doesn't seem to think so, but the movie suggests that Ruppert is as trapped in his old ideas as are the people he so vociferously criticizes. He has -- for good reason, no doubt -- lost hope. He sees only a coming "suicide" of the human race on the horizon.

I agree with Ruppert on the facts (about Peak Oil, about the love of money being the root of all evil, and on the need for a new renaissance in human thought), yet throughout the film I couldn't completely buy into his doomsday interpretations.

Here's why: human beings remain adaptable and inventive. Oil has brought us great riches in the last 120 years, but it wasn't "oil" that imagined X-Rays, CAT scans or MRIs. It wasn't oil that mapped the human genome in less than twenty years. It wasn't oil that conceived the cure for Polio, or invented the Internet. Resources are limited here on Earth, it's true, but the human mind's capacity to grow, evolve and seek new knowledge is infinite. There are probably a million minds in America today working on the problem of Peak Oil, and also considering realistic energy alternatives.

Necessity is the mother of invention, and the great sweep of human history has always been towards improving the human condition. I don't believe we're going to sacrifice everything we hold dear because oil runs out. We will transition (a term Ruppert also uses) -- and there will be some tough times -- but I believe we will endure, and ultimately prosper. That's why my favorite part of Collapse involves Ruppert's stirring lecture on two countries that have been forced to transition: North Korea and Cuba. In North Korea, Ruppert tells us, there was starvation and death after the collapse of the Soviet Union, primarily because it was a top-down, centralized country. In Cuba by contrast, the government liberated and encouraged the people, telling them to take local ownership of their own survival and food-growing facilities. That's actually what happened, with a sort of mini-boom of organic gardening taking hold across the nation.

So yes, ninety-nine percent of all life forms that have ever evolved on Earth have suffered extinction.

But again, alone among these life-forms, man boasts the capacity to re-build the world to his liking; and even seek resources beyond the limits of the Earth. Our understanding of our universe is growing at a rapid pace; perhaps even a rapid enough pace to out-march dangers like over-population and Peak Oil.

Ruppert would no doubt call me a Pollyanna (or at the very least ask me what energy source will power our rockets when oil runs out...) but, as Collapse makes plain, for this man the sky has already fallen. The film neither endorses nor rejects Ruppert's view of things, but instead paints a picture of a man who could be a modern Cassandra...or who may have trapped himself in a purgatory of his own depressing construction.

As citizens of planet Earth, we should deal with cold, hard facts -- yes. But we should also realize that no single doomsday outcome is pre-ordained. To quote a famous science fiction franchise, there's no fate but what we make. And even though we're silly, argumentative creatures, we've accomplished amazing things during our ascent. We've touched the stars.

A thousand years ago, there are many people who would have said such an accomplishment was against the laws of physics too. But we did it, and we're still here. How did we do it? Creativity, imagination, team-work, a sense of belief in ourselves, in our community. Michael Ruppert understands these elements are important, but he is so alone in his own life, it appears, that perhaps he doesn't give these variables the weight they deserve when calculating catastrophe.

See this movie and decide for yourself.


  1. I've heard of this documentary, and its sobering argument. I'm very much with your conclusions however, John. One side of me notes that we've risen to this point in of our development and spread across the globe because we have the intelligence and creativity, paired with an absolute ruthlessness with other species that has little equal, to make things work our way. For good and worst. Still, looking at my children growing up before my eyes, the other side remembers what the outworlder said to Mark Shermin in Starman:

    Shall I tell you what I find beautiful about you? You are at your very best when things are worst.

    I still find that true. Thanks, John.

  2. I've recently watched this film myself; drawn to it like a moth to the flame of similar "peak oil" and "post apocalyptic" prophecies. The fact is, I saw Damnation Alley at the drive-in when I was about 8 years old, and I love this crap.

    My $.02 on this topic is that as a society we've grown too far away from each other, and too far away from the earth. We don't know our neighbors, and we don't know where our food or clothes come from. I live next door to a school that my kids go to that has over 800 students in K-4, yet, when I drive around my area, I'm unlikely to see more than 1 or 2 kids playing outside. What the hell has happened? Where is everyone?

    I don't believe that the collapse of the modern world will result in the "Road Warrior" or "The Postman" type of civilization depicted by Hollywood. I do think we're in for a rude awakening, though. I think there will be some lawlessness, famine, starvation; around the world and here in the U.S. We already have it in places, and where it exists, it will be much worse.

    If anyone is interested in more about the peak oil phenomenon, I recommend reading "Twilight in the Desert". Also a fantastic documentary about the unsustainable world we live in today "THE END OF SUBURBIA: Oil Depletion and the Collapse of The American Dream".

    Some people's world WILL come to end when they are forced to meet their neighbors, and grow some of their own food; go outside and perform some manual labor to help keep society alive. I, personally, look forward to it.