By Dan Neil
If Al Gore's documentary "An Inconvenient Truth" has a single message, it's that global warming is bad—very, very bad. Floods, droughts, famine, disease . . . a miasma of End Times calamity caused by the burning of fossil fuels.
Even at that, Gore is—at the risk of paraphrasing—a candy-assed optimist, according to James Howard Kunstler, author of "The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century."
Whereas Gore and other prophets of climate change believe we still have the time and means to avert the worst consequences of anthropogenic global warming—hybrid cars, solar panels!—Kunstler argues with hellish persuasion that we are basically toast. Why? The entire edifice of American civilization—from our mega-scale methods of food production to our great repositories of national wealth, that is, the equity invested in our sprawling suburbs—is propped up, trembling as if balanced on matchsticks, on cheap oil. And there is no substitute for cheap oil.
But wait, I say, when I get him on the phone at his house in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. What about plug-in electric vehicles and pure electric vehicles, not a few of which are, here in California, being charged by DIYers' solar panels? What about wind power, biomass or wave power? Kunstler emits a well-practiced harrumph.
"When confronted with these ideas, people generally go through . . . what was her name? . . . Kubler-Ross' stages of grief," Kunstler tells me. "You're still in the bargaining phase." Nothing, no deliverance of technology, he says, could possibly replace the cheap energy we get from oil, and even if it could we would have to surmount the "incredible passivity" of the American people narcotized by decades of abundant petroleum. Kunstler derides the belief that alternative energy will save us as Jiminy Cricket-like wishing upon a star.
When I ask him about the TerraPass program at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School (drivers pay a fee proportional to the size of their cars to offset their cars' carbon impact), he goes bananas. "What do I think? I think it's [colorful intensifier here] stupid!" he fairly shouts. "There's not going to be a [ditto] Wharton School!"
So, that would be a nay, then?
Kunstler, 57, has emerged as the most dire and articulate proponent of a school of thought known as Peak Oil, the idea that the world has or will soon reach maximum oil production, after which oil becomes scarcer and more expensive to extract. There's nothing theoretical about it. Like global warming, Peak Oil—a bell-curve description of oil reserves first outlined by geophysicist M. King Hubbert—is widely accepted by serious people. Discoveries of new oil topped out in 1964. The world consumes about 27 billion barrels of oil a year. At current pace, the world's estimated 1 trillion barrels of oil reserves will be gone within a few decades, but as a practical matter, extracting every drop from sources like Canadian oil shale would be impossible, since the effort would consume more energy than it produces.
"After peak," writes Kunstler, "all bets are off about civilization's future."
As gas prices in Southern California hover near the $4-per-gallon mark, Kunstler's book—recently released by Grove Press in paperback—seems a lot less fanciful than one would hope. What happens when gasoline reaches $10 or even $20 per gallon, as it almost certainly will, according to Kunstler? The social ecology of suburbia will collapse, and the nation's endless capillary networks of tract homes, with their lawyer foyers, pools and bonus rooms, will become vast ghettos inhabited by gas-less and immobile squatters. The food production system will likewise crumble, resulting in famine and death.
The collapse of industrial agriculture is just one of many ways that "peakniks"—adherents of Peak Oil—contend that these events will precipitate a die-off of humanity (though, in an unusually sanguine moment, Kunstler says he prefers the term "die down" because humanity will live on, despite its reduced circumstances). In the absence of any large-scale organizing feature—federal government itself being a manifestation of cheap oil—America will descend into neo-feudalism, where plowmen will be a lot more useful than IT directors. Put another way: It'll be Amish with guns.
I'm not convinced that the post-oil era will play out quite so apocalyptically. Yes, America wastes a lot of energy, which means it could conserve that energy before having to plow under the suburbs for farmland. Just for an example, the Department of Energy estimates that new full-spectrum LED lighting could reduce electrical consumption by about a third by 2025. With sufficient national will, America could convert to a nearly all-electric automotive fleet in a decade, putting our mobility onto a more sustainable, renewable footing.
But we've got some major infrastructural remodeling to do. Can we do it? Can we negotiate a soft landing? The first step, of course, is getting people to understand that, just like the once-derided case for global warming, Peak Oil is real, to see that train a'coming. Then to act decisively, resisting both a sense of futility and the urge toward anarchy.
It's a matter of hoping Al Gore is more right than Kunstler.