Peak Oil News: Down with catastrophism

Monday, January 09, 2006

Down with catastrophism


James Howard Kunstler's new book, The Long Emergency, depicts humans as parasites who might benefit from a mass die-off. Speak for yourself.

By Joe Kaplinsky

The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century,
by James Howard Kunstler, Atlantic Books, 2005.

As recently as a decade ago it was unusual to encounter books predicting the imminent collapse of civilisation and probable extinction of the human race. When they appeared they were outside the mainstream, specialist philosophy texts or on the extremist fringe of environmentalism. Today such works are common. The core elements of the litany are predictable: climate change, disease, terrorism, and an-out-of-control world economy. Other elements such as killer asteroids, nanotechnology or chemical pollution can be added according to taste.

James Howard Kunstler's The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century clearly fits the genre. While not neglecting any of the usual suspects, Kunstler builds his litany around the increasingly fashionable panic over oil depletion. The Long Emergency has received a warm welcome, featuring on the front covers of both the leftish British publication the New Statesman and Pat Buchanan's old-right American Conservative.

The picture of the future put forward in The Long Emergency is truly grim. The best-case scenario is a mass die-off followed by a forced move back to the land, complete with associated feudal relations. As the title implies, this is to be an ongoing state rather than a crisis to be overcome - a sentiment that the US critic Susan Sontag described as 'apocalypse from now on'. How bad will it be? 'The prospect will be so grim that some individuals and perhaps even groups (as in nations) may develop all the symptoms of suicidal depression.'

The successes of science and the Enlightenment present a conundrum for green pessimists. How to explain away the failed predictions of collapse from Malthus on, through to Paul Ehrlich and the Club of Rome in the 1970s?

First, Kunstler says that Malthus should not be interpreted too narrowly, in terms of rates of agricultural productivity. Conceding that Malthus may have got his facts wrong here, Kunstler wants to rehabilitate Malthus' larger point: a focus on mechanisms of social restraint as a counterpoint against the claims of Enlightenment optimists such as Godwin and Condorcet. Malthus 'deemed these claims untenable and thought it necessary to debunk them', notes Kunstler. In Malthus' day this meant re-enforcing the power of the church and family morality to hold back population growth among the poor. This emphasis on social restraints, Kunstler argues, is our best bet for warding off disaster.

Kunstler also puts forward a second explanation for the successful economic growth of the twentieth century: oil. 'Malthus was certainly correct, but cheap oil has skewed the equation over the past hundred years', he says. He claims that oil, and fossil fuels more broadly, have been responsible for the gains of the twentieth century, from agriculture to medicine to transport.

Furthermore, Kunstler claims that this was a one-shot deal. Having used up our oil he thinks we are about to descend back into Malthusianism - for which we are worse prepared, because we have invested so much economically and psychologically in a modern world that is unsustainable. Our past progress, he thinks, is only setting ourselves up for a fall. He calls suburbia and the motorcar the 'greatest misallocation of resources in history'.

The deeper theme of The Long Emergency is not oil so much as human powerlessness. The projection of all the products of human resourcefulness on to fossil fuels is only one example of this. Another example is disease. Kunstler relates the now standard warning about a flu pandemic, whose impact he says will be magnified by its coincidence with peak oil. But in telling the story of the 1918 outbreak it becomes clear that for Kunstler influenza becomes not just a threat but a moving force in human history. Apparently it was not people who were responsible for the outcome of the struggles for new societies in Russia and Germany - it was a virus.

Kunstler's discussion of emerging diseases is headed 'Nature Bites Back'. Such a notion endows Nature with intentions, interests, and intrinsic moral value. Yet without pausing to defend such implausible assumptions, Kunstler ploughs straight on: in 'response to unprecedented habitat destruction by humans and invasion of the wilderness, the Earth itself seems to be sending forth new and much more lethal diseases, as though it has a kind of protective immune system with antibody-like agents aimed with remarkable precision at the source of the problem: Homo Sapiens.'

Human beings are pushed to one side, as puppets or parasites, while nature is endowed with superhuman powers. It is this process which transforms any of the difficulties we face from problems to be solved into warnings of apocalypse to come.

The most striking example of the sense of powerlessness is as it applies to Kunstler himself. He has long argued against suburbia and the car, in favour of a 'New Urbanism'. In places it is perhaps possible to read The Long Emergency as a revenge fantasy. Embittered at his inability to convince others that they should change their ways, Kunstler takes refuge under the wing of Nature's avenging angel. He can be ignored (he attributes this to a psychological flaw in his detractors); the inhuman laws of nature cannot.

Apparently, those who will suffer most terribly in the long emergency are the US Republican states whose culture is built on violence and fundamentalist Christianity. Neighbourhoods with spacious housing ('McMansions') and 'poor street detailing', a particular insult to Kunstler, are singled out for destruction. Europeans, by contrast, may pull through in better shape. There is an uncanny alignment between the supposedly objective, inevitable laws of nature and Kunstler's prejudices. Perhaps the best summary of his views is found in the book's epigraph: 'I don't know if the Gods exist, but they sure act as if they do.'

Does Kunstler justify his pessimism? His central arguments about energy are flimsy. His concern with oil depletion is overblown. To the extent that the problem is real, it is political and economic, not geological. The International Energy Agency's (IEA's) recent assessment in the World Energy Outlook 2005 finds that the world has sufficient oil to carry on at its present rate of growth at least out until 2030 (although the agency believes that this would be unsustainable on other environmental grounds).

However, the IEA also lays out the ongoing lack of investment in oil infrastructure. In order to actually produce the oil, it projects the need for $17trillion of investment in energy over the period to 2030. While an almost unimaginable sum in other contexts, this is a plausible sum for the world's largest industry. At least as big a problem as raising the capital will be investing it in the Middle East - given that countries in the region have a one-sided relationship with the world economy and a spectrum of backward dictatorships.

Kunstler does not accept assessments, such as that of the IEA, that sufficient oil is available. But he does note the concentration of remaining resources in the Middle East. He thinks that the inevitable consequence is war: war for oil on the part of the Americans, as seen in Iraq, which mirrors the terrorist backlash by crazed Islamic fundamentalists.

Just as he has no confidence in our capacity to devise new technologies, so he seems to believe that there are no political or economic solutions to the problems of the Middle East. The region is effectively written off as populated by fanatics whose primary goal is terrorising the West.

Having attributed all the products of human ingenuity and resourcefulness to oil it's not surprising that Kunstler finds it hard to envision a future without it. In the long term, oil will become scarcer, and we will need alternatives. But in order to make the idea of technological solutions to the energy gap look ridiculous Kunstler spends more time discussing fanciful ideas, such as 'vacuum energy', than ideas whose principles are well understood, such as nuclear fusion.

The real challenges then, are threefold. First, it is necessary to mobilise large amounts of capital for investment. This will involve overcoming the short-termism and anti-industrialism that, though expressed differently, are shared by both industry and wider society. Second, in the case of oil, it will be important to create a more productive relationship between the Middle East and the rest of the world. Thirdly, there is a need for serious investment in research into new energy technologies.

Kunstler evidently believes that these challenges are not just difficult, but hopeless. His alternative is to reconcile ourselves to failure and begin preparing for the inevitable die-off.

Even if we succeeded in solving these energy challenges, Kunstler still thinks we would be in trouble. He attempts to prop up his arguments about energy with a lengthy discussion of entropy, which for Kunstler is the key to human history (entropy is a physical quantity which roughly speaking measures the tendency of energy to 'spread out'). He claims that the entropy produced by a high-energy society was responsible for everything from the 'now mythic disillusionment with civilisation that followed the [First World] war, the loss of faith in institutions, traditions and authorities', to Stalinism, the Holocaust and beyond.

The global economy, or perhaps even any economy based on monetary exchange, is apparently an 'hallucination'. Only a low-energy, local economy in which we are in touch with the land, claims Kunstler, can avoid the destructive effects of entropy.

It is true that our use of energy is producing an inevitable rise in entropy, in accordance with the second law of thermodynamics. But total entropy on the Earth is not increasing. Why? Because excess entropy is carried off by radiation into outer space. (And there is no fear space will fill up any time soon. Radiation from the Sun - not to mention countless other stars - has been dumping billions of times as much entropy as the Earth into space for billions of years.)

But even if entropy on Earth were increasing, Kunstler would still be wrong. Entropy has a precise definition within physics: it refers to the concentration or dispersal of energy at a molecular level. Kunstler's claims make use of a spurious connection between the idea of increasing entropy and 'disorder' in a more general sense, like social disorder. But entropy doesn't have any mystical qualities. It is a thermodynamic variable like any other. There is no more reason to connect a breakdown of civilisation with an increase in entropy than with, say, an increase in atmospheric pressure or the Earth's magnetic field. Kunstler's discussion of this topic is plain and simple pseudoscience.

His underlying argument about human powerlessness also cannot stand. In abolishing old problems, progress brings new problems. How could it not? The new problems can sometimes appear larger than the old, existing on a global scale. But this just arises from human society operating on a global scale, which carries with it the benefits of global cooperation, trade and travel. History shows that exchanging older problems for newer, sometimes greater, ones has been a good bargain.

The capacity to solve problems expands faster than the problems themselves. It is harder to defend a modern city - with skyscrapers, highways, and energy infrastructure - against a flood or an earthquake. But alongside the technologies that enabled us to build modern cities we have created solutions that make them resilient to natural disasters. That is why life is better in the more developed parts of the world.

While it is always possible that we will stumble at the next hurdle, science confirms that we have a good chance of flourishing in the future, too. The core of The Long Emergency is the anxiety that problems will outweigh solutions. It is summed up by Kunstler's complaint that by following the path of progress humanity is continually setting itself an exam. Alienated from progress he has no answers himself and fears we are relying on a few techno-geeks to come up with a fix. He is haunted by the question, what if we fail?

This question assumes overwhelming significance for Kunstler because he seems to believe we must fail. A more reasoned approach balances it against two other questions. What if we succeed? Everything worthwhile in human culture and civilisation has come from such successes. What if we do not try?


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