When the Oil Pan's Empty . . . Bye-bye Conspicuous Consumption
By Paul K. Haeder
The fix is in for the extractors, who envision -- each and every one of them standing proudly on their third 6,000-square-foot homes and plucky yachts -- a world that believes two barrels of oil expended to extract one dirty, rotten barrel is sustainable.
With our 1.5 party system mucking up anything sustainable (.5 being a few Republicans and Democrats who can think abstractly and without the 1.0’s Christian Scientology War Party determining energy policy based on a six-month long view and a cornucopian view that the earth has unlimited energy and food for, oh, let’s be conservative and say another 6 billion people), the Bush-Pelosi Mister Rogers Neighborhood is one where global warming, climate change and wasted billions of greenbacks and a trillion here and there will see the world getting ever so closer to the abbreviated version of The Long Emergency.
The July 28, 2005 House vote, 275 to 156, marked the beginning of the long slide into chaos created by the billions in tax incentives for the Exxons of the world to go off and play at drilling for unlikely deposits of oil hundreds of fathoms underneath the polluted deep sea.
They’ve greased the skids for the next nuclear age. They’ve put humanity’s eggs all in the basket of radioactive waste that has half-lives of tens of millions of years, and pushed for those lung-sapping coal-fired plants that add that useful element, mercury, to our minimum daily requirement.
Monopolistic private utility barons (the Public Utility Holding Company Act just having been recently repealed) and Goebbels-style propaganda that says price per gallon of regular will actually go down with Bush’s prayers -- these are also harbingers of doom from July 28’s vote.
Could any one of those 275 pimps have read just one book that was published this year that might have shed some mean cornea-sucking Abu Ghraib light on the historical rationale for their numskull approach to the tipping point? Could anyone of them have asked a few essential questions before voting for a Tiger in Every Tank and One Tank (Abhrams M1, that is) in Every Neighborhood?
Here are the essential questions left unasked:
* Why are we up a shit creek without a paddle now that Iraq, Central Asia, parts of Africa, South America, the Caspian, and Canada are in the sights of great consumer cultures and collectives like China, Japan, EU, and the United States that need to fuel our economic growth engines?
* Could it be 100 years of plentiful cheap oil that pushed the industrial nations to girdle the life out of any possibility of a complete and highly efficient and sustainable mass transit system centered around sane agricultural practices and smaller cities living within their carrying capacities?
* Maybe it’s the post-World War II governments allowing developers to run roughshod over this country with their bulldozers, paved parking lots, and crappy single-use zoning laws?
* Or maybe the psychodynamics behind our national character to stymie stringent energy conservation is actually inbred through our own conquest of tribal land and our imperialistic bent?
* Maybe another perpetrator of this impending collapse could be the one-two punch artist of the automakers cum lobbied politicians selling our national ideology for more than 50 years into embracing a car culture that has turned our central cities into virtual bombed-out shells and sucked the life out of our small farms through spreading the cancer of suburbia?
* How about more than six decades of collusion of First World fossil fuel consuming countries subjugating for more than decades struggling countries who have been battered by despotic leaders, thugs, princes, what have you, all of whom have been nestled pungently in the back pockets of western resource extracting monopolies and their government sponsors?
* Billions of dollars of national treasuries squandered and ripped off for that precious black gold? Social injustice bred like syphilis by the great spiritual fornicator, corporatization?
In the end, though, the long emergency we are about to face -- that the world will be facing with varying degrees of cataclysm -- mostly comes down to the rich and powerful nations’ addiction to oil and our pimping this addiction to the rest of the world in a multitude of manifestations.
For Americans, the dramatic transformation about to hit our streets, in 20 or 30 years, will be a process of decay so extreme that our current national way of life, that is, just our national corpus -- freeways, jets, Las Vegas and Phoenix and Atlanta, suburbs and gated communities, Wal-Mart and Home Depots and fast food, and all the other leisure class crap this country sells on a daily basis -- will be very much morphed into something entirely different from what our brethren can grasp. How about this image: A drippy, acne-drenched ex-steroid shooting athlete looking for ways to pin up the male-boobs and some method of bringing back the shrunken testes while looking at the glossies of those long-gone hard body days when every Friday was electrolysis day. Is that the analogy of America to come?
“The gigantic smear of suburbia that runs almost without interruption from north Boston through Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Baltimore, Washington, and northern Virginia is not going to be a happy place,” writes James Howard Kunstler, in his 2005 book, The Long Emergency. “It will be subject to the most extreme loss of utility and equity value.”
The taproot holding up Kunstler’s snapping and desiccating tree of life is the idea that the world’s evolutionary process has in fact been derailed for a mere a hundred years due to cheap oil. The long emergency we are about to face ties into the era of no more cheap oil.
The fallout and blowback and tipping points all associated with this end of cheap oil era will be a panoply of problems, from violent insurrections by people wondering how their way of life disappeared, to disease, onward to contracting cities, despotic religious factionalism, denuded infrastructure and castrated governments, large and small.
Virtually everything in this society -- and Europe’s and Japan’s and China’s -- is predicated on that cheap oil and abundant natural gas. Of course, the geologists and myriad of other specialists studying energy and oil, those who have been for years writing and spieling about how the oil and natural gas supplies worldwide have peeked, they can see energy shortages coming.
Kunstler is one of those, and he has been a commentator on America’s road to nowhere where we have decimated our cities and our culture through The Geography of Nowhere. Wendell Berry, Gary Snyder, Kunstler, and poets like Stafford, and so many more, including philosophers and guys like Paul Ehrlich, from this epoch to those before oil but certainly many at the edge of industrial pillage, have articulately decried this barbaric drive to consume and to incinerate the natural ecologies in order to support more and more people.
For Kunstler in this most recent book, the lynchpin is oil -- cheap and abundant oil, and how our decline is tied to oil’s decline and its more precarious existence in countries that hate America, or the fact that it will cost so much more in terms of energy output and environmental pollution to get to it underground.
Some see oil’s half-life, or peak, having already hit around 2001. Some purport it will “hit” peak next year, the latest by 2010. For Kunstler, the timeframe argument is useless.
“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 form the earth: that they exist in finite, nonrenewable supplies, unevenly distributed around the world,” Kunstler writes.
Natural gas, according to Kunstler and others he cites in the book, hit its peak 30 years ago. And, when one considers that more than one-third of homes in the US are heated with natural gas, and electricity-generating plants suck it up like Slurpees in Phoenix, the future looks bleak for those living in extremely cold climates.
And as well for those in the hot places, like the Southwest and Southeast. Electricity runs the air conditioning, and that electricity comes through mostly gasoline and natural gas fired plants. Brownouts and blackouts will render millions of people helpless when the lights go out in Houston, Atlanta or Tucson in mid-July.
“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.”
In his book, Kunstler delves into some brilliantly clear and easy-to-grasp historical passages showing exactly how the world has ended up in this current position of “Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-first Century” (the subtitle to The Long Emergency). He tackles the collective conscience (or unconscious) of how the Western world has believed an oil-dependent economy was the only and infinite path to follow. He looks at this long emergency as a human saga.
And for the large minority of Americans who can’t think abstractly (40 percent) or that majority who think they have a personal angel watching over them (65 percent), how Kunstler parlays those connections between sprawl and cars and depleted oil and the out-of-scale consumption and our mythology of exceptionalism will be stupefying yet understandable.
“I believe we will see a dramatic die-back, but not a 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).”
Kunstler grapples with the hubris of those professing salvation in the form of a hydrogen cell retrofit economy (hundreds of millions of gas-driving cars and vehicles will be retrofitted by a genie: it’s not efficient; hydrogen needs electricity to charge; it’s not practical for how we do our energy consumption). Solar, synthetic, bio-fuel, coal, nuclear, wind, and all sorts of other so-called alternatives are covered by Kunstler in reasoned and graspable prose.
The Long Emergency is one of those books that should be required reading for anyone who somehow missed the boat on what exactly are the laws of thermodynamics, exponential economic growth formulas, population explosion theories, biological footprints, carrying capacities and all those ideas supporting “the end of nature” (as in Bill McKibben’s famous book). Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring might also be required reading.
In the end, Kunstler brings American -- and other civilizations -- to that point when the conflict for protecting our car and suburban life is fully engaged. It’s not with glee that we see the Wal-Marts of the world and wasteful high rises in big cities collapsing because the emergency will take down portions of the world -- and not just economies -- and the ensuing struggle will be ugly, violent, disease-ridden, and exploitive.
The focal point of this book, though, is Kunstler’s meta-language which is braying that call to end sprawl, to make local connections, to redistribute the value of food, and to steady ourselves for population contraction on a monumental scale.
“Malthus was certainly correct, but cheap oil has skewed the equation over the past hundred years while the human race enjoyed an unprecedented orgy of nonrenewable condensed solar energy accumulated over eons of prehistory,” Kunstler writes. The green revolution, as Kunstler and others like Lester Brown point out, was built upon large inputs of fossil fuels -- fertilizers, pesticides, irrigation and land areas on a scale only manageable by internal combustion monsters.
“The cheap oil age created an artificial bubble of plenitude for a period not much longer than a human lifetime, a hundred years. . . . So, I hazard to assert that as oil ceases to be cheap and the world reserves arc toward depletion, we will indeed suddenly be left with an enormous surplus population -- with apologies to both Charles Dickens and Jonathan Swift -- that the ecology of earth will not support.”
In the end, the reader must look to The Long Emergency as a call to action. Action premised by survival of the self. Governments and corporations won’t be there to help. Apocalyptic end-timers might be gathering up more converts, but they can only help if they adhere to some Amish model of farming and subsistence living. And then expect children to work in fields, not go to school and study computer game programming.
Kunstler in the end is playing a lament on his road-weary harmonica. His 58 years on earth and his writing career were propped up by the cheap oil world, he is well aware of that. While Kunstler does give some exit strategy, it is clear that the impending collision of forces -- including a world smogged-over with more coal-fired industries, more nuclear generating plants and their toxic dumps from hell, and a much more labor-intensive existence for the survivors -- just might take us closer to the brink quicker.
And yet the lesson is simple -- we should have stayed local, should have stayed within our means, should have stayed connected to our communities, should have distributed wealth more equitably, and just simply lived sustainably, not economically.
Now, we face ferreting out and moving to American towns and villages where food production is done by craftspeople on a real human scale. And that means doing more manual labor just to survive the long emergency.
But as Wendell Berry, himself a small acreage farmer in Kentucky, has pointed out, we have become a country that has shied away from work: “The prejudice begins in the idea that work is bad, and that manual work outdoors is the worst work of all. The superstition is that since all work is bad, all ‘labor-saving’ is good. The insanity is to rationalize the industrial pillage of the natural world and to heap scorn upon the land-using cultures on which human society depends for its life. The industrialization of agriculture has replaced working people with machines and chemicals.”
And so the machines will not self-replicate, there will no nano-heart replacements, and chemicals will not save humanity, and the bio-engineered crops with wither. All that scarred earth will need strong backs and hands to bring it back to growth. Much of the earth will be ravaged by the lag time reality of all that human exploitation of trapped solar energy.
And yet, finally, Kunstler hasn’t even scratched the surface of the human- and ecology-threatening conditions inherent in global climate change that has largely been induced by the great human fossil fuel experiment.
It’s not going to be a fun ride into a house of horrors. And the emergency could be 50 years, or last a thousand, but some people’s hunch is that the Olduvai theory will play itself out much sooner than later.
Hocus-pocus schemes like “ultra deep sea drilling” the continental shelf and giveaways to mean creampuffs like Tom “Corncob” DeLay-MTBE promulgated by Bush-Cheney and delivered with Democratic and Republican bow ties attached, this all makes a mockery of every single dollar ever invested in educating scientists for more than a half century, scientists trained to fight ignorance and corporate prostitution to understand the whole, big picture.
Paul K. Haeder is a writer and teacher living now in Spokane, Washington. As part of Spokane Falls Community College’s “Sustainability on Our Campus” committee, he is spearheading a sustainability week in October. James Howard Kunstler will be speaking at SFCC, Whitworth and Gonzaga universities as part of the week-long event titled, “The Long Emergency: One Earth, Colliding Futures.” Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.