Peak Oil News: Sleepwalking into the Future

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Sleepwalking into the Future

Pulse of the Twin Cities

Excerpted from “The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century,” by James Howard Kunstler.

Carl Jung, one of the fathers of psychology, famously remarked that “people cannot stand too much reality.” What you’re about to read may challenge your assumptions about the kind of world we live in, and especially the kind of world into which time and events are propelling us. We are in for a rough ride through uncharted territory.

It has been very hard for Americans—lost in dark raptures of non-stop infotainment, recreational shopping and compulsive motoring—to make sense of the forces gathering that will fundamentally alter the terms of everyday life in technological society. Even after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, that collapsed the twin towers of the World Trade Center and sliced through the Pentagon, America is still sleepwalking into the future. We have walked out of our burning house and we are now headed off the edge of a cliff. Beyond that cliff is an abyss of economic and political disorder on a scale that no one has ever seen before. I call this coming time the Long Emergency.

What follows is a harsh view of the decades ahead and what will happen in the United States. Throughout this book I will concern myself with what I believe is happening, what will happen, or what is likely to happen, not what I hope or wish will happen. This is an important distinction. It is my view, for instance, that in the decades to come the national government will prove to be so impotent and ineffective in managing the enormous vicissitudes we face that the United States may not survive as a nation in any meaningful sense, but rather devolve into a set of autonomous regions. I do not welcome a crack-up of our nation but I think it is a plausible outcome that we ought to be prepared to face. I have published several books critical of the suburban living arrangement, which I regard as deeply pernicious to our society. While I believe we will be better off living differently, I don’t welcome the tremendous personal hardship that will result as the infrastructure of that life loses its value and utility. I predict that we are entering an era of titanic international military strife over resources, but I certainly don’t relish the prospect of war.

If I hope for anything in this book, it is that the American public will wake up from its sleepwalk and act to defend the project of civilization. Even in the face of epochal discontinuity, there is a lot we can do to assure the refashioning of daily life around authentic local communities based on balanced local economies, purposeful activity, and a culture of ideas consistent with reality. It is imperative for citizens to be able to imagine a hopeful future, especially in times of maximum stress and change. I will spell out these strategies later in this book.

Our war against militant Islamic fundamentalism is only one element among an array of events already underway that will alter our relations with the rest of the world, and compel us to live differently at home—sooner rather than later—whether we like it or not. What’s more, these world-altering forces, events and changes will interact synergistically, mutually amplifying each other to accelerate and exacerbate the emergence of meta-problems. Americans are woefully unprepared for the Long Emergency.

Your Reality Check is in the Mail

Above all, and most immediately, we face the end of the cheap fossil fuel era. It is no exaggeration to state that reliable supplies of cheap oil and natural gas underlie everything we identify as a benefit of modern life. All of the necessities, comforts, luxuries and miracles of our time—central heating, air conditioning, cars, airplanes, electric lighting, cheap clothing, recorded music, movies, supermarkets, power tools, hip-replacement surgery, the national defense, you name it—owe their origins or continued existence in one way or another to cheap fossil fuel. Even our nuclear power plants ultimately depend on cheap oil and gas for all the procedures of construction, maintenance, and for the extracting and processing of the nuclear fuels. The blandishments of cheap oil and gas were so seductive, and induced such transports of mesmerizing contentment, that we ceased paying attention to the essential nature of these miraculous gifts from the earth: that they exist in finite, non-renewable supplies, unevenly distributed around the world. To aggravate matters, the wonders of steady technological progress under the reign of oil have tricked us into a kind of “Jiminy Cricket Syndrome,” leading many Americans to believe that anything we wish for hard enough can come true. These days, even people who ought to know better in our culture are wishing ardently that a smooth, seamless transition from fossil fuels to their putative replacements—hydrogen, solar, whatever—lies just a few years ahead. I will try to demonstrate that this is a dangerous fantasy. The true best-case scenario may be that some of these technologies will take decades to develop—meaning that we can expect an extremely turbulent interval between the end of cheap oil and whatever comes next. A more likely scenario is that new fuels and technologies may never replace fossil fuels at the scale, rate and manner that the world currently consumes them.

What is generally not comprehended about this predicament is that the developed world will begin to suffer long before the oil and gas actually runs out. The American way of life—which is now virtually synonymous with suburbia—can only run on reliable supplies of dependably cheap oil and gas. Even mild-to-moderate deviations in either price or supply will crush our economy and make the logistics of daily life impossible. Fossil fuel reserves are not scattered equitably around the world. They tend to be concentrated in places where the native peoples don’t like the West in general or America in particular, places physically very remote or places where we realistically can exercise little control (even if we wish to). For reasons I will spell out, we can be certain that the price and supplies of fossil fuels will suffer oscillations and disruptions in the period ahead that I am calling the Long Emergency.

The decline of fossil fuels is certain to ignite chronic strife between nations contesting the remaining supplies. These resource wars have already begun. There will be more of them. They are very likely to grind on and on for decades. They will only aggravate a situation which, in and of itself, could bring down civilizations. The extent of suffering in our country will certainly depend on how tenaciously we attempt to cling to obsolete habits, customs, and assumptions, for instance, how fiercely Americans decide to fight to maintain suburban life-ways that simply cannot be rationalized any longer.

The public discussion of this issue has been amazingly lame in the face of America’s post-9-11 exposure to the new global realities. As of this writing, nobody in the upper echelon of the federal government has even ventured to state that we face fossil fuel depletion by mid-century and severe market disruptions long before that. The subject is too fraught with scary implications for our collective national behavior, most particularly the not-incidental fact that our economy these days is hopelessly tied to the creation and servicing of suburban sprawl.

Within the context of this feeble public discussion over our energy future, some wildly differing positions stand out. One faction of so-called “cornucopians” asserts that mankind’s demonstrated technical ingenuity will overcome the facts of geology. (This would seem to be the default point-of-view of the majority of Americans, when they reflect on these issues at all.) Some cornucopians believe that oil is not fossilized, liquefied organic matter but rather a naturally occurring mineral substance that exists in endless abundance at the earth’s deep interior like the creamy nougat center of a bonbon. Most of the public simply can’t entertain the possibility that industrial civilization will not be rescued by technological innovation. Well, the human saga has indeed been amazing. We have overcome tremendous obstacles. Our late 20th-century experience has been especially rich in technologic achievement (though their insidious diminishing returns are far less apparent). How could a nation who put men on the moon feel anything but a nearly God-like confidence in their ability to overcome difficulties?

The computer I am sitting in front of would surely have been regarded as an astounding magical wonder by someone from an earlier period of American history, say Benjamin Franklin, who helped advance the early understanding of electricity. The sequence of discoveries and developments since 1780 that made computers possible is incredibly long and complex and includes concepts that we may take for granted, starting with 110-volt alternating house current that is always available. But what would Ben Franklin have made of video? Or software? Or broadband? Or plastic? By extension, one would have to admit the possibility that scientific marvels await in the future that would be difficult for people of our time to imagine. Mankind may indeed come up with some fantastic method for running civilization on seawater, or molecular organic nano-machines, or harnessing the dark matter of the universe. But I’d argue that such miracles may lie on the far shore of the Long Emergency, or may never happen at all. It is possible that the fossil fuel efflorescence was a one-shot deal for the human race.

A coherent, if extremely severe, view along these lines, and in opposition to the cornucopians, is embodied by the “die-off” crowd. They believe that the carrying capacity of the planet has already exceeded overshoot and that we have entered an apocalyptic age presaging the imminent extinction of the human race. They lend zero credence to the cornucopian belief in mankind’s godlike ingenuity at overcoming problems. They espouse an economics of net entropy. They view the end of oil as the end of everything. Their worldview is terminal and tragic.

The view I offer places me somewhere in between these two camps, but probably a few degrees off center and closer to the die-off crowd. I believe that we face a dire and unprecedented period of difficulty in the 21st century, but that mankind will survive and continue further into the future—though not without taking some severe losses in the meantime, in population, in life expectancies, in standards of living, in the retention of knowledge and technology, and in decent behavior. I believe we will see a dramatic die-back but not die-off. It seems to me that the pattern of human existence involves long cycles of expansion and contraction, success and failure, light and darkness, brilliance and stupidity, and that it is grandiose to assert that our time is so special as to be the end of all cycles (though it would also be consistent with the narcissism of Baby Boomer intellectuals to imagine ourselves to be so special). So I have to leave room for the possibility that we humans will manage to carry on, even if we must go through this dark passage to do it. We’ve been there before.


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