Peak Oil Flicks

Up in the Air (2009)


Meet Ryan Bingham. Portrayed by George Clooney, Ryan is a “termination specialist,” a well-compensated corporate hatchet man who travels the U.S. doing the dirty work for companies: firing their redundant employees. Using the neutral, bland language of corporate manuals, self-help pamphlets and greeting cards, he delivers his grim message, then moves on to the next shuttered business or office park in another city. While the people he terminates face pain and dislocation, Ryan --like the film’s opening montage featuring a plane’s-eye view of random cities far below the clouds -- is simply above it all.

For the downsizing industry, the current economy provides lots of business opportunities. As Ryan’s boss exults, “Retailers are down 20 percent. The auto industry is in the dump. The housing market doesn’t have a heartbeat. It’s one of the worst times on record for America. This is our moment.” With businesses shedding thousands of employees, his company deploys 23 “terminators” on the road 280 days a year, and Ryan is one of his top operatives.

The hermetic cocoon of an airport hotel, with its recycled air; the climate-controlled, perpetually illuminated hotel spaces; relationships structured by commercial exchanges and no personal commitments –this is Ryan’s world, and he loves it. His cardinal achievement is the almost 10 million air miles he has accumulated. Seated next to a pilot onboard who asks, “Where do you live?” Ryan truthfully replies, “Here.”

 “To know me is to fly with me,” Ryan affirms in a voiceover. ”Make no mistake, life is movement.” This is the lifestyle that suits Ryan, but it hides a looming reality: a lifestyle totally enabled by oil and electricity and, most of all, cheap airplane travel is about to meet a rude shock.

When Up in the Airwas released in 2009, the first inklings of the durability of the financial crisis were becoming apparent. This realization meant especially bad portents for businesses whose existence depends on mobility and long-distance travel or shipping by air.

At the start of the commercial aviation age, air travel was both a rarity and a luxury. Only the well to do could indulge in domestic travel, not to mention international flights. The advent of business travel in the 1950s became the foundation of a huge airline expansion, feeding the growth of allied industries – car rentals, hotels, and food services --all of them energy-intensive.

When deregulation hit the airlines industry in the 1980s, small, upstart airlines flourished, while airlines pioneers like Pan Am, cratered under the competition. Ticket prices plummeted, with companies outbidding each other on promotions and specials in a frenzy of price-cutting.  With such bargains expanding travel ability to more Americans, sky miles soared from 205 million in 1975 to 638 million in 2000. (This bonanza wasn’t limited to the U.S. Rock-bottom air travel prices proliferated in Europe for much of the last decade, despite the continent’s extensive train system. It became common for Britons, for example, to board discount planes for weekends trips to Slovenia or Turkey.)

The cheapness of air travel was illusory. In five years –from 2003 to 2008 – super-refined jet fuel prices increased from 13% of airline business operating cost to 40%. Ever-expanding passenger fees for checked bags, in-flight meals, and popular routes have not been able to offset the cost of the prodigious fuel consumption required to keep big planes aloft. The fortunes of many marginal or undercapitalized air fleets look increasingly tenuous at today’s fuel prices. (The gases that jets emit linger in the upper atmosphere, producing a heat trapping effect.  The impact on  global warming is about  2.7 times that of carbon dioxide alone, according to the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change).

 If fuel prices increase to $8 a gallon, the effects on the airlines industry and the economy in general will be dramatic. As described by Forbesmagazine journalist Christopher Steiner in $20 Per Gallon:

     With $8 gasoline, the American domestic network will contract to 50%
     of its current size… There will no longer be twenty-five flights from
     Chicago to Cleveland a day. There will be two... Technologies such as
     videophones and satellite teleconferencing will further hasten the
     death of the short-hop business trip. Planes burn an inordinate amount
     of fuel just getting up to cruising altitude, so shorter flights cost more per
     mile. Regional jets, those of the thirty-seat variety, will disappear. Few
     people will pay $750 for a 200 mile flight, so major air service between
     cities in the same regions will cease.

These are the very forces threatening Ryan’s –and our – restless mobility. His boss recalls the company’s “road warrior” team to the head office to announce the latest cost-cutting technology. In the near future, the termination specialists will begin carrying out their tasks from headquarters by using computer hook-ups. Those who don’t comply with the new regime risk being terminated themselves. “Don’t blame me,” he responds to Ryan’s protests. “Blame fuel costs. Blame the insurance premiums. Blame technology.”

To many Americans, the “friendly skies” –the freedom and ability to roam -- is a cherished part of our national narrative that we haven’t even started to revise in light of looming new circumstances. We resist the idea of limits.  I believe the resistance stems from the apprehension that our lives will become circumscribed and impoverished, compared to the idealized “standard of living” we have been led to expect.

Yet if nature itself is imposing the limits in the form of resource depletion, what is the effective way to respond? How will this shape our choices on a personal level? “When it costs $1000, at least, to cross the country by plane, more than business meetings will be affected,” Steiner writes. “Distant relatives will be, in essence, more distant. Right now, it’s easy for young people and families to move wherever their careers or fancies take them…It won’t be so simple in the future. Moving to the other side of the country will mean staying on the other side of the country… In this way, the future of high-cost air travel will lead to more people sticking to the regions whence they came.”

A running joke in the film underscores this point. Ryan’s sister, still living in the midwestern town where they grew up, keeps tabs on him as best she can, bugging him to come to her daughter’s pending wedding. “You’re awfully isolated out there,” she warns him, and makes a request: the future newlyweds, being short on funds to finance a honeymoon trip, ask Ryan to photograph a cardboard cutout of the two of them posed in front of the travel destination backdrops through which Ryan regularly transits. He grudgingly acquiesces to having the cutout forwarded. When it arrives, though, he finds that his niece and fiancé’s oversized images literally won’t “fit” into his streamlined luggage and life; he has to drag his family connections around like a burden. But as the film unfolds, we sense that the very things he has avoided – familial ties and a true home – might be the key to his spiritual salvation.

The motif of “loyalty” emerges subtly throughout the movie, glimpsed in fleeting posters or airport billboards, and in Ryan’s wallet full of customer “loyalty” cards. But loyalty flourishes with continuity, groundedness, fidelity – to people and to place.

In the movie’s final scene Ryan Bingham stands immobilized, gazing up at the gigantic arrival and destination board. He faces a decision. He can return to living in a sky that seems to offer no limits. Or he can redesign his life, making a commitment to find meaning  --within a different, smaller range of choices-- on terra firma. Can he? Can we?


And furthermore….
Here are some other sources that relate to “Up in the Air” and that you might want to read. Check back periodically for updates!
Up in the Air, a novel by Walter Kirn
$20 Per Gallon: How the Inevitable Rise in the Price of Gasoline Will Change Our Lives for the Better, by Christopher Steiner
“Love Miles,” in Heat: How to Stop the Planet From Burning, by George Monbiot