As oil ceases to be cheap and reserves start to deplete, we will be left with an enormous surplus population that the earth will not support
James Howard Kunstler
Somehow we have persuaded ourselves that fossil fuels will never run out. But they will, and much sooner than we think. In an extract from his chilling new book, James Howard Kunstler describes the long emergency that lies before us
Carl Jung famously remarked that "people cannot stand too much reality". What follows 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.
Our war against militant Islamic fundamentalism is only one element among an array of events already under way that will alter our relations with the rest of the world, and compel us to live differently at home whether we like it or not. 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 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 defences, you name it - owe their origins or continued existence in one way or another to cheap fossil fuels. Even our nuclear power plants ultimately depend on cheap oil and gas for the procedures of construction, maintenance, and extracting and processing nuclear fuels.
The blandishments of cheap oil and gas were so seductive, and induced such transports of mesmerising 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 to believe that anything we wish for hard enough can come true. These days, even people who ought to know better are wishing ardently that a smooth, seamless transition from fossil fuels to their putative replacements - hydrogen, solar power, whatever - lies just a few years ahead. This is a dangerous fantasy. The true best-case scenario may be that it will take decades to develop some of these technologies - 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 rate, scale and manner that the world currently consumes them.
What is generally not comprehended is that the developed world will begin to suffer long before the oil and gas actually run out. The western way of life - which is now virtually synonymous with suburbia - can run only 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 equally around the world. They tend to be concentrated in places where the native peoples don't like the west, places physically very remote, places where we exercise little control.
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 likely to grind on for decades. They will only aggravate a situation that, in and of itself, could bring down civilisations. The extent of suffering in the west will certainly depend on how tenaciously we attempt to cling to obsolete habits, customs and assumptions - for instance, how fiercely we decide to fight to maintain suburban lifestyles which simply cannot be rational-ised any longer.
It has been estimated that the world population stood at one billion around the early 1800s, which was roughly when industrialisation began to gain traction. It has been inferred from this that a billion people is about the limit that the planet Earth can support when it is run on a non-industrial basis. The world population is now past six and a half billion, having more than doubled since my childhood in the 1950s. The mid-20th century was a time of rising anxiety over the "population explosion". The marvellous technolo-gical victory over food shortages, including the "green revolution" in crop yields, accelerated the already robust leap in world population that had begun with modernity. Dramatic improvements in sanitation and medicine extended lives. Industry sopped up expanding populations and reassigned them from rural lands to work in the burgeoning cities. The perceived ability of the world to accommodate these newcomers and latecomers in a wholly new disposition of social and economic arran-gements seemed to be the final nail in the coffin of Thomas Robert Malthus, the much-abused author of An Essay on the Principle of Population, as it Affects the Future Improvement of Society (1798).
Malthus (1766-1834), an English country clergyman, has been the whipping boy of idealists and techno-optimists for 200 years. His famous essay proposed that human population, if unconstrained, would grow exponentially while food supplies grew only arithmetically, and that therefore population growth faced strict and inevitable natural limits. I would argue that Malthus was correct, but that cheap oil has skewed the equation over the past hundred years while the human race has enjoyed an unprecedented orgy of non-renewable condensed solar energy accumulated over aeons of prehistory. The "green revolution" in crop yields was minimally about scientific innovation in crop genetics and mostly about dumping huge amounts of fertilisers and pesticides made out of fossil fuels on to crops, as well as employing irrigation at a fantastic scale, made possible by abundant oil and gas. The cheap-oil age created an artificial bubble of plenitude for a period not much longer than a human lifetime, a century. Within that comfortable bubble the idea took hold that only grouches, spoilsports and godless maniacs considered population hypergrowth a problem, and that it was indecent even to raise the issue. I hazard to assert that as oil ceases to be cheap and world reserves move towards depletion, we will suddenly be left with an enormous surplus population that the ecology of Planet Earth will not support. No political programme of birth control will avail. The people are already here.
The so-called global economy was not a permanent institution, as some seem to believe, but a set of transient circumstances peculiar to a certain time: the Indian summer of the fossil fuel era. What primarily made it possible was a world-scaled oil market allocation system able to operate in an extraordinary sustained period of relative world peace. Cheap oil, available everywhere, along with ubiquitous machines for making other machines, neutralised many former comparative advantages, especially of geography, while creating new ones - hyper-cheap labour, for instance. It no longer mattered where a nation was situated, or whether it had any prior experience with manu- facturing. Cheap oil brought electricity to distant parts of the world where ancient traditional societies had previously depended on renewables such as wood and dung, mainly for cooking. Factories could be started up in countries such as Sri Lanka and Malaysia, where swollen populations provided trainable workers willing to labour for much less than those in the United States or Europe. Products then moved around the globe in a highly rationalised system, not unlike the oil allocation system, using immense vessels, automated port facilities, and truck-scaled shipping containers at a minuscule cost-per-unit of whatever was made and transported. Shirts or coffee-makers manufactured 12,000 miles away could be shipped to Wal-Marts all over America and sold cheaply.
The ability to globalise industrial manufacturing this way stimulated a worldwide movement to relax trade barriers that had existed previously to fortify earlier comparative advantages, which were now deemed obsolete. The idea was that a rising tide of increased world trade would lift all boats. The period (roughly 1980-2001) during which international treaties relaxing trade barriers were made - the General Agreements on Tariffs and Trade (Gatt) - coincided with a steep and persistent drop in world oil and gas prices which occurred precisely because the oil crises of the 1970s had stimulated so much frantic drilling and extraction that a 20-year oil glut ensued. The glut, in turn, allowed world leaders to forget that the globalism they were engineering depended wholly on non-renewable fossil fuels and the fragile political arrangements which allowed their distribution. The silly idea took hold in the west that the 1970s oil crises had been fake emergencies, and that oil was now super-abundant. This was a misunderstanding of the fact that the North Sea and Alaskan North Slope oilfields had temporarily saved the industrial west when they became operative in the early 1980s, postponing the fossil fuel depletion towards which the world has been inexorably moving.
Meanwhile, among economists and government figures, globalism developed the sexy glow of an intellectual fad. Globalism allowed them to believe that burgeoning wealth in the developed countries, and the spread of industrial activity to formerly primitive regions, was based on the potency of their own ideas and policies rather than on cheap oil. Margaret Thatcher's apparent success in turning around Britain's sclerotic economy was an advertisement for these policies, which included a heavy dose of privatisation and deregulation. What globalism overlooked, however, was that Thatcher's success in reviving Britain coincided with a fantastic new revenue stream from North Sea oil, as quaint old Britannia became energy-self-sufficient and a net energy-exporting nation for the first time since the heyday of coal. Then, when Ronald Reagan became US president in 1981, globalism infected America. Reagan's "supply-side" economic advisers sold a set of fiscal ideas that neatly fitted with the new notions about free trade and deregulation: chiefly that hugely reducing taxes would result in greater revenues as the greater aggregate of business activity generated a greater aggregate of taxes, even at lower rates. (What it actually generated was a huge government deficit.)
Globalism as we have known it is in the process of ending. Its demise will coincide with the end of the cheap-oil age. For better or worse, many of the circumstances we associate with globalism will be reversed. Markets will close as political turbulence and military mischief interrupt trade relations. Societies will turn increasingly to import replacement for economic survival. The cost of transport will no longer be negligible in a post-cheap-oil age. Many of our agricultural products will have to be produced closer to home, and probably by more intensive hand labour as oil and natural-gas supplies become increasingly unstable. The world will stop shrinking and become larger again. Virtually all the economic relationships among persons, nations and institutions, things that we have taken for granted, will radically change. Life will become intensely and increasingly local.
Much of the west finds itself nearing the end of the cheap-oil age having invested its wealth in a living arrangement - suburban sprawl - that has no future. When media commentators cast about struggling to explain what is happening economically, they uniformly overlook the colossal misinvestment that suburbia represents - a prodigious, unparalleled misallocation of resources. This is quite apart from its social, spiritual and ecological deficiencies as an everyday environment. We constructed an armature for daily living that simply won't work without liberal supplies of cheap oil, and very soon we will be without both the oil needed to run it and the wealth needed to replace it. Nor are we likely to come up with a miraculous energy replacement for oil that will allow us to run all this everyday infrastructure even remotely the same way.
The tragic truth is that much of suburbia is unreformable. It does not lend itself to being retrofitted in the kind of smaller-scaled, more finely grained, walkable environments that we will need to carry on daily life in the coming age of greatly reduced motoring. Nor is a Jolly Green Giant going to pick up the millions of suburban houses on their half-acre plots on cul-de-sac streets and set them back down closer together to make more civic environments. Instead, this suburban real estate, including the chipboard and vinyl McHouses, the strip malls, the office parks and all the other components, will enter a phase of rapid and cruel devaluation. Many suburban subdivisions will become the slums of the future.
As the suburbs disintegrate, we will be lucky if we can reconstitute our existing towns and cities brick by brick and street by street, painfully by hand. Our bigger cities will be in trouble, and some of them may not remain habitable - especially if the natural-gas supply problem proves to be as dire as it now appears and the electric power generation that depends on it becomes erratic. Skyscrapers will prove to be more experimental than we had come to think. In general, we will probably have to return to a settlement pattern of towns and small cities surrounded by intensively cultivated agricultural hinterlands. When that happens, we will be a far less affluent society and the amount, scale and increment of new building will seem very modest by current standards. We will have access to far fewer, if any, modular building systems. Construction will be much more dependent on traditional masonry, carpentry and other journeyman skills. Increasingly our building and zoning laws will be ignored. If we return to a human scale of building, there is a good chance that our new urban quarters will be more humane and beautiful. The automobile era proved that people easily tolerated ugly, utilitarian buildings and horrible streetscapes as long as they had the compensation of being able to escape quickly in cars appointed with the finest digital stereo sound, air-conditioning and cup holders for iced beverages. This will change radically. There will be far less motoring. The future will be much more about staying where you are than travelling incessantly from place to place.
We are about to enter an era of tremendous trauma for the human race. It is likely to entail political turbulence every bit as extreme as the economic conditions that prompt it. We will not believe that this is happening to us, that 200 years of modernity can be brought to its knees by a worldwide power shortage. The prospect will be so grim that many individuals, and even whole countries, may become suicidally depressed. The survivors will have to cultivate a religion of hope - that is, a deep and comprehensive belief that humanity is worth carrying on.
If it happens that the human race doesn't make it, then the fact that we were here once will not be altered: that once upon a time we peopled this astonishing blue planet, and wondered intelligently at everything about it and the other things that lived here with us on it; that we celebrated the beauty of it in music, art, architecture, literature and dance; that there were times when we approached something godlike in our abilities and aspirations. We emerged out of depthless mystery, and back into mystery we returned; and, in the end, the mystery is all there is.
This is an edited extract from The Long Emergency: surviving the converging catastrophes of the 21st century, published on 5 August by Atlantic Books