'The Long Emergency' predicts dire future
By Daniel Hecht
James Kunstler's "The Long Emergency" is something like required reading among peak oil activists, and it's a great primer for those not yet familiar with peak oil's full ramifications. But I know of no other book so deeply, consistently pessimistic; it's a vision of a future that resembles Hieronymus Bosch's nightmarish depictions of the apocalypse. Or maybe the movie Road Warrior.
But the scope of Kunstler's inquiry and his scholarship make it uncomfortably plausible.
The book begins with an excellent history of our discovery, use of, and eventual over-reliance on fossil fuels, primarily oil. The sheer quantity of energy that humankind was suddenly able to access, and the changes it wrought, cannot be adequately conceived by those of us who have lived our lifetimes amidst its benefits.
The first well was drilled into a surface seep in Pennsylvania in 1859. With the coal, water and horse-powered industrial revolution already ramping up, the new energy source was quickly exploited to power new machines of all kinds. The U.S.-led world production for over a century, an era Kunstler describes as the "cheap oil fiesta." The party's about to end in "a tremendous trauma for the human race."
Oil's pervasive influence on every aspect of our way of life proceeded in chains of causality that Kunstler deftly portrays. With automobile mass production starting in 1918, Americans gained a great way to travel and transport goods. Cars required better roads, so extensive highway building commenced. Shorter travel times resulted in a mass migration of city dwellers into nearby rural areas where they could enjoy a simulacrum of "country living." Enormous housing tracts arose around urban centers, and a sprawling retailing infrastructure grew up to supply them. Above all else, the suburban way of life was born of, and demanded, oil.
Peak oil was first proposed in 1956 by M. King Hubbert, a geologist and chief researcher for Shell Oil. He inventoried all known U.S. oil deposits, plotted consumption rates, and came up with "Hubbert's Curve" — a graph that predicted the highest possible rate of extraction, arriving about when our total in-ground oil supply was half used up.
His projections proved correct. U.S. production peaked in 1970 and has been falling ever since.
But just then Middle Eastern production capacity came into its most robust phase. The U.S. bought whatever was needed to fuel our ever more oil-thirsty lifestyles.
Then another generation of oil scientists used Hubbert's methods to look at global production, predicting a peak between 2000 and 2010. Most now say global oil peaked in 2007: We've used half the world's oil; we're already on the "bumpy plateau" at the top, the down slope just ahead.
Kunstler posits the fate of nations in an era of competition for oil and the collapse of oil-dependent social and economic systems. It will be especially hard in the U.S. Those suburbs are too spread out, while our skyscrapered urban centers are too dense, viable only thanks to oil-guzzling infrastructure. Our economy is based on cheaply transporting huge quantities of goods from around the globe.
Oil shortages will profoundly affect the availability of food and water. The "food bubble" of the last 50 years resulted only from having lots of oil to run agricultural equipment, make fertilizers, pump water from underground for huge irrigation systems, and power the trucks and refrigeration systems that deliver edibles to our tables. The past century of food abundance resulted in huge population increases, leaving us with too many people to survive on the carrying capacity of a world short on oil.
Kunstler's cascade of effects continues on through famines, epidemics, social unrest and wars — all exacerbated by global warming.
One casualty will be what Kunstler calls our "hallucinatory" economy, epitomized by the stock market. The hugely complex financial instruments and trading schemes that now govern our economy have divorced real value from perceived or potential value. The financial sector, now an "industry" in its own right, runs money shell games and pyramid schemes that work only if we maintain faith in perpetual economic growth. A psychological product of the oil fiesta, that faith won't survive, and the markets it supports won't either.
Kunstler doesn't offer much in the way of solutions. Renewable energy won't save us; he methodically explains the limitations of each energy technology and source, rejecting the idea that they can replace any significant part of the lost oil bonanza.
Instead, we'll need to ratchet down our material expectations and live in austerity. We will need to produce essential goods locally, close to where we'll use them. We'll live in smaller, walkable cities surrounded not by malls but by farms. We'll all do more manual labor.
It would be easier to dismiss Kunstler's darker speculations if he hadn't proven surprisingly prescient. For example, in expounding on the "hallucinatory economy" and the downfall of suburbia, he wrote about the housing boom and described sub-prime lending practices in detail, warning of economic disaster.
Kunstler wrote the book in 2004-05, three years before the sub-prime and housing bubble burst, with ramifications still unfolding. One has to wonder just how much more he's gotten right.
Daniel Hecht is a novelist and executive director of Vermont Environmental Consortium. For more information on any Green Grapevine topic, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.