Running on empty
In 'The Long Emergency,' author JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER envisions the end of the fossil-fuel era - and of life as we know it
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 events are propelling us. We are in for a rough ride through uncharted territory.
It has been hard for Americans – lost in dark raptures of nonstop infotainment, recreational shopping and compulsive motoring – to make sense of the gathering forces that will fundamentally alter the terms of everyday life in our technological society. I call this coming time the Long Emergency. 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 the necessities of modern life – not to mention all of its comforts and luxuries: central heating, air conditioning, cars, airplanes, electric lights, inexpensive clothing, recorded music, movies, hip-replacement surgery, national defense – you name it.
The few Americans who are even aware that there is a gathering global-energy predicament usually misunderstand the nature of the crisis. We don't have to run out of oil to start having severe problems with industrial civilization and its dependent systems. We only have to slip over the all-time production peak and begin a slide down the arc of steady depletion.
The term "global oil-production peak" means that a turning point will come when the world produces the most oil it will ever produce in a given year and, after that, yearly production will inexorably decline. It is usually represented graphically in a bell curve. The peak is the top of the curve, the halfway point of the world's all-time total endowment, meaning half the world's oil will be left.
That seems like a lot of oil, and it is, but there's a big catch: It's the half that is more difficult to extract, far more costly to get, of much poorer quality, and located mostly in places where the people hate us.
The United States passed its own oil peak – about 11 million barrels a day – in 1970, and since then production has dropped steadily. Today, we have to import about two-thirds of our oil, and the ratio will continue to worsen.
Now we are faced with the global oil-production peak. The best estimates of when this will actually happen have been somewhere between now and 2010. It will be a permanent energy crisis that will change everything about how we live.
To aggravate matters, American natural-gas production is also declining, at 5 percent a year, with the potential of much steeper declines ahead. Just about every power plant built after 1980 has to run on gas. Half the homes in America are heated with gas – and gas isn't easy to import.
The wonders of steady technological progress achieved through the reign of cheap oil have led many Americans to believe that anything we wish for hard enough will come true. But no combination of alternative fuels will allow us to run American life the way we have been used to running it.
The widely touted "hydrogen economy" is a particularly cruel hoax. We are not going to replace the U.S. automobile and truck fleet with vehicles run on fuel cells. For one thing, the current generation of fuel cells is largely designed to run on hydrogen obtained from natural gas.
The other way to get hydrogen in the quantities wished for would be electrolysis of water using power from hundreds of nuclear plants. Apart from the dim prospect of our building that many nuclear plants soon enough, there are also severe problems with hydrogen's nature as an element that present forbidding obstacles to its use as a replacement for oil and gas.
Solar-electric systems and wind turbines face enormous problems of scale. Coal is far less versatile than oil and gas, extant in less abundant supplies than many people assume and fraught with huge ecological drawbacks.
If we wish to keep the lights on in America after 2020, we may indeed have to resort to nuclear power. Under optimal conditions, it could take 10 years to get a new generation of nuclear power plants into operation, and the price may be beyond our means.
The upshot of all this is that we are entering a historical period of potentially great instability, turbulence and hardship. Obviously, geopolitical maneuvering around the world's richest energy regions has already led to war and promises more international military conflict.
Since the Middle East contains two-thirds of the world's remaining oil supplies, the U.S. has attempted desperately to stabilize the region by, in effect, opening a big police station in Iraq. The intent was not just to secure Iraq's oil but to modify and influence the behavior of Persian Gulf states. The results have been far from entirely positive, and our future prospects in that part of the world are not something we can feel altogether confident about.
And then there is the issue of China, which in 2004 became the world's second-greatest consumer of oil. If China wanted to, it could easily walk into some of these places – the Middle East, former Soviet republics in central Asia – and extend its hegemony by force. Is America prepared to contest for this oil in an Asian land war with the Chinese army? I doubt it.
Nor can the U.S. military occupy regions of the Eastern Hemisphere indefinitely, or hope to secure either the terrain or the oil infrastructure of one distant, unfriendly country after another. The U.S. could exhaust and bankrupt itself trying to do this.
Our national leaders are hardly uninformed about this predicament. In March, the Department of Energy released a report that officially acknowledges for the first time that peak oil is for real and states plainly: "The world has never faced a problem like this. Without massive mitigation more than a decade before the fact, the problem will be pervasive and will not be temporary."
Most of all, the Long Emergency will require us to make other arrangements for the way we live in the United States. We let our towns and cities rot away and replaced them with suburbia. We made the ongoing development of housing subdivisions, highway strips, fried-food shacks and shopping malls the basis of our economy, and when we have to stop making more of those things, the bottom will fall out.
The circumstances of the Long Emergency will require us to downscale and rescale virtually everything we do and how we do it, from the kind of communities we physically inhabit to the way we grow our food to the way we work and trade. Our lives will become profoundly and intensely local. Daily life will be far less about mobility and much more about staying where you are.
Anything organized on the large scale, whether government or a corporate business enterprise such as Wal-Mart, will wither as the cheap energy props that support bigness fall away.
Food production is going to be an enormous problem. As industrial agriculture fails because of a scarcity of oil- and gas-based inputs, we will have to grow more food closer to where we live and do it on a smaller scale. This raises difficult questions about the reallocation of land and the nature of work. Readjustment is apt to be disorderly and improvisational.
The way that commerce is currently organized in America will not survive. Tens of thousands of the common products we enjoy today are made out of oil. They will become increasingly scarce or unavailable. Commerce will have to be reorganized at the local scale. It will have to be based on moving merchandise shorter distances. It is almost certain to result in higher costs for the things we buy and far fewer choices.
The automobile will be a diminished presence in our lives. With gasoline in short supply, not to mention tax revenue, our roads will surely suffer. If we don't refurbish our rail system, then there may be no long-range travel or transport of goods at all a few decades from now. The commercial aviation industry is likely to vanish.
The successful regions in the 21st century will be the ones surrounded by viable farming hinterlands that can reconstitute locally sustainable economies on an armature of civic cohesion. Small towns and smaller cities have better prospects than the big cities, which will probably have to contract substantially. The process will be painful and tumultuous.
Some regions will do better than others. The Southwest will suffer in proportion to the degree that it prospered during the cheap-oil blowout of the late 20th century. Sun Belt states like Arizona and Nevada will become significantly depopulated, since the region will be short of water as well as gasoline and natural gas. Imagine Phoenix without cheap air conditioning.
I'm not optimistic about the Southeast, either. I think it will be subject to substantial levels of violence as the grievances of the formerly middle class boil over and collide with the delusions of Pentecostal Christian extremism. The latent encoded behavior of Southern culture includes an outsized notion of individualism and the belief that firearms ought to be used in the defense of it. This is a poor recipe for civic cohesion.
The Mountain States and Great Plains will face an array of problems, from poor farming potential to water shortages to population loss. The Pacific Northwest, New England and the Upper Midwest have somewhat better prospects. I regard them as less likely to fall into lawlessness, anarchy or despotism and more likely to salvage the bits and pieces of our best social traditions and keep them in operation at some level.
These are daunting and even dreadful prospects. The Long Emergency is going to be a tremendous trauma for the human race. 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.
If there is any positive side to stark changes coming our way, it may be in the benefits of close communal relations, of having to really work intimately (and physically) with our neighbors, to be part of an enterprise that really matters and to be fully engaged in meaningful social enactments instead of being merely entertained to avoid boredom.
Years from now, when we hear singing at all, we will hear ourselves, and we will sing with our whole hearts.