The End is Nigh
Review by David Ehrenfeld
The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century.
James Howard Kunstler. x + 307 pp. Atlantic Monthly Press, 2005. $23.
James Howard Kunstler begins The Long Emergency with the hope that "the American public will wake up from its sleepwalk and act to defend the project of civilization" while there is still time. "Throughout this book," he writes, "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." The reality that our society is currently refusing to face, Kunstler says, is that time is just about up for industrial civilization as we have known it.
Kunstler's thesis is straightforward: Malthus was right, but cheap oil has postponed the day of reckoning, creating a century-long "artificial bubble of plenitude" and generating a host of intractable problems partly or entirely related to our prolonged energy spending spree. These problems include serious damage to our agricultural infrastructure, global climate change and the reorganization of living places into unsustainable suburbs and cities. Now cheap oil is disappearing fast, leaving only the problems behind.
What sets The Long Emergency apart from numerous other books on this theme is its comprehensive sweep—its powerful integration of science, technology, economics, finance, international politics and social change—along with a fascinating attempt to peer into a chaotic future. And Kunstler is such a compelling, fast-paced and sometimes eloquent writer that the book is hard to put down.
Beginning with the story of Edwin L. Drake, who drilled the world's first oil well in northwestern Pennsylvania in August 1859, Kunstler takes us through the development of the global oil-based economy of the 20th and early 21st centuries. He carefully traces the origins of the idea, first proposed by geologist M. King Hubbert, that oil consumption by modern industrial society will draw down current and potential supplies in a predictable way. Hubbert's 1956 prediction of the date of "peak oil" production in the United States (which he put at sometime between 1966 and 1972) was strikingly accurate—the peak occurred in 1970. After Hubbert's death in 1989, the distinguished petroleum geologists Colin Campbell and Jean Laherr�re, Princeton geologist Kenneth Deffeyes, University of Colorado physicist Albert Bartlett and others adapted his model and applied it to global oil production, yielding a prediction that the global peak would occur between 2000 and 2010.
As pointed out by Richard A. Kerr and Robert F. Service in the July 1, 2005, issue of Science, petroleum geologists tend to accept this "pessimistic" prediction of the date when the global peak will be (or has been) reached, whereas "optimistic" dates farther in the future are being advanced primarily by resource economists. Kunstler sides with the geologists, and his fast-paced but detailed discussion of the economics of oil supports this position. In his chapter "Geopolitics and the Global Oil Peak," he comes to grips with a complex mix of elements: Middle Eastern and Islamic nationalism, terrorism, Chinese industrial growth and the overwhelming problems of Russia, the world's second-largest producer of oil. These are set against a backdrop of diminishing supply, as one country after another, including Saudi Arabia, passes its oil peak. Kunstler's explanations of why the Saudis can no longer control world oil prices (they lack the reserves to increase production much beyond what they are already pumping) and of the immense significance of that loss of control are particularly insightful. American politicians have not yet grasped this new reality.
The book's lengthy discussion of the alternatives to cheap oil that are so beloved by techno-optimists is straightforward and sobering. Kunstler gives all of the alternatives a critical but fair inquiry, from conventional energy sources such as coal and natural gas, through oil shales and tar sands, synthetic oil, renewable energy (including wind, solar and hydroelectric power and biomass), nuclear fission and nuclear fusion, hydrogen, thermal depolymerization (turning organic waste into oil), methane hydrates and even zero-point energy.
Most of these technologies founder on "the classic problem of energy economics: energy returned over energy invested (ERoEI). "The figure in the case of tar sands and oil shale is approximately three barrels of oil produced for every two barrels of oil-equivalent invested. In the case of ethanol produced from agribusiness corn or sugar cane, the ratio may be less than one. Some alternatives, such as methane hydrates, are dangerous to handle. Hydrogen is not a primary fuel: Its production requires considerable energy. Also, because of the low density of hydrogen gas, it must be stored and transported under high compression, or liquefied at very low temperatures, or combined with other compounds. Each of these options costs still more energy, and they introduce an assortment of complications and hazards into the delivery system. Although hydrogen will have its uses, Kunstler says, his verdict is unequivocal: "There is not going to be a 'hydrogen economy.'" Nor is he sanguine about such far-out schemes as a process for deriving zero-point energy from the dark matter of the universe; he reminds us that "A useful maxim in engineering states that when something sounds too good to be true, it generally is not true."
Kunstler's moderate treatment of nuclear power (fission) has angered some environmentalists. I think he makes a good case, however, that during the transition period to a post-petroleum economy, the United States, which produces much of its electricity from a rapidly declining supply of natural gas, will not be as well off as France, which gets 80 percent of its electric power from nuclear energy. Nevertheless, he does not see nuclear power as more than a short-term stopgap. Its ultimate limitations come first from safety issues with regard to plant operations and the disposal of waste fuel (although he points out that coal has cost far more lives than nuclear power, especially in the West). Second is the large amount of oil needed to mine and process nuclear fuel and to build and maintain nuclear plants. And the third, formidable objection Kunstler makes is that "Atomic fission is useful for producing electricity, but most of America's energy needs are for things that electricity can't do very well, if at all. For instance, you can't fly airplanes on electric power from nuclear reactors"—although, as he notes, the U.S. military has tried.
Kunstler describes a host of natural disasters that will interact with the energy crisis to cause social upheaval on a global scale. No country will be exempt, he says. Some of these disasters, such as climate change, are the direct result of our profligate use of cheap energy. Others, including the widespread shortage of fresh water, have been greatly augmented by the drain on resources brought about by the explosion of high-oil-input agriculture, industrialization and changes in living habits. All of those natural disasters, however, including the emergence of new infectious diseases and the re-emergence of old ones, will be much harder to cope with when cheap energy is no longer available. Our efforts will also be confounded by diminishing returns on technology and by "technological regress—the loss of information, ability, and confidence."
The Long Emergency is more than a list of disasters, present or impending. It is an attempt to understand how we got to where we are. Nearly 100 years of cheap oil have allowed us, even prompted us, to construct an economic and social system that depends utterly (often without our knowledge) on a continuous, never-failing energy subsidy. The system cannot stand on its own feet. It is unstable, lacking internal restraints and negative feedbacks, and most of all it undermines all stabilizing alternatives, such as diverse small businesses and local community support systems. Kunstler's understanding of history and economics helps him delineate this clearly.
My only complaint about the book is that it lacks an index, which is inexcusable for a text so crammed with names and facts. Kunstler's use of entropy as a synonym for social disorder may bother readers who prefer that the term be reserved for discussions of thermodynamics, but an accepted definition of the word is "inevitable and steady deterioration of a system or society."
One question that most readers of this review will ask is, When will the coming collapse occur? As Kunstler notes, Deffeyes—perhaps not entirely in jest—has predicted on National Public Radio that the global oil peak will occur on Thanksgiving Day, 2005, with "'an uncertainty factor of only three or four weeks on either side.'" But the closest thing to a hint of Kunstler's position on the subject is found in his remark in the last chapter that "The denizens of Bergen County, New Jersey, or Fairfield County, Connecticut, today may never believe how desperate their localities may become in 2025." He is probably wise to be vague. As the great biochemist Erwin Chargaff remarked in his 1978 autobiography, Heraclitean Fire, "On the whole, professional pessimists prove right at the end if one does not hold them too tightly to a time scale."
The last (and longest) chapter of The Long Emergency is also the most innovative and controversial one. Having made a powerful case that it is too late to avoid serious trauma, Kunstler speculates on what life will be like during the painful transition period, as cheap petroleum wanes. The question is well worth asking, if only to stimulate creative thinking about alternatives to a high-energy lifestyle. The book is not a survivalist tract, but Kunstler argues persuasively that life will be better in some geographic regions of the country than in others and better in some kinds of communities than in others. Factors such as the availability of water, the degree of dependence on automobiles and air-conditioning, the regional tolerance for violence and the persistence of strong communities lead him to conclude that the states of New England, the mid-Atlantic, and the upper Midwest that make up the "Old Union" of the Civil War period, along with the Pacific Northwest, will fare much better than the Southwest, the Rocky Mountain states and the Southeast.
Within each region, however, conditions will not be uniform. Kunstler, whose earlier book The Geography of Nowhere established him as heir presumptive to the intellectual legacy of Lewis Mumford, describes America's automobile-dependent suburbs as "the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world." It is the suburbs, he thinks, that will suffer the most during the coming energy crisis. (I concur, having taught the same message in field courses in suburban New Jersey for 30 years.) And cities, with their skyscrapers and total food dependence, will not, Kunstler claims, be far behind the suburbs in misery.
There is much more in the final chapter than I can do justice to in a review: The many topics discussed include, among others, the new economy and new commerce that will accompany the end of oil-dependent consumer culture (he predicts the demise of the chain stores and the rise of scavenging), possible political fragmentation of the nation, changes in education, the end of romantic childhood and changes in race relations. The picture he paints is incomplete—he doesn't say what will happen to health care, the arts or entertainment in the long emergency—but there is material enough to provoke scientists and laypeople alike into considering what lies ahead.
Kunstler, like George Orwell, understands that being honest about the past and present is the only way to prepare ourselves for an uncertain future. Civilization, he believes, will survive the end of cheap oil, but not without great loss. "How many ... familiar things in time may go?" he wonders. "What will abide in our collective memory?" Not all readers will accept his answers to these questions, but I think we must be grateful to him for showing us the need to ask them.
David Ehrenfeld is a professor of biology at Rutgers University. He was the founding editor of Conservation Biology and is the author of a number of books, including Swimming Lessons: Keeping Afloat in the Age of Technology (2002) and The Arrogance of Humanism (1978), both from Oxford University Press.