Peak Oil News: The Long Emergency - James Howard Kunstler

Monday, April 24, 2006

The Long Emergency - James Howard Kunstler


By John N. Cooper

This book, "The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the 21st Century" by James Howard Kunstler [Atlantic Monthly Press (2005) ISBN 0-87113-888-3] is depressing. Nonetheless it should be in the background of every thinking, questioning, concerned citizen of the 21st century.

The principal themes are several: Virtually everything in our present economy requires, is made from or is based on gas or oil, from agriculture through transportation. Fluid fossil fuels - natural gas and oil - and their derivatives are past their prime in availability. As both their scarcity and worldwide demand increase, they will price themselves out of utility for all but the most wealthy individuals, corporations or nations. Alternative energy sources will NOT substitute adequately. Consequently, civil society will HAVE to reconstitute itself, becoming more local, more self-reliant at every level of organization. Ultimately humanity will have to do without essentially all the gas- and petroleum-derived amenities presently taken for granted. It is an important and sobering exercise to step through everything in everyday middle-class American life that currently is derived from, or dependent upon, cheap fluid fossil fuels.

This book is essentially a walk through the history, economics and social consequences of humanity's dependence on, and depletion of, a resource that was, and is, absolutely non-renewable on the scale of hundreds of millions of years. We, the developed world, have allowed ourselves to become addicted to a limited stash; the withdrawal phase will be very difficult at best.

There are at present no general ready replacements for fluid fossil fuels. Each of the well-known, oft-mentioned possibilities - nuclear, wind, solar, hydroelectric, etc. - may do a little to soften the landing but overall not at the scale required to sustain present levels of industrialization. Massive attempts to upgrade any or all of the alternatives would cost so much of the remaining oil and gas reserves as to make those a poor use of an increasingly scarce commodity. It is time to readjust and reconfigure.

The chapter titles are indicative: Sleepwalking into the Future; Modernity and the Fossil Fuels Dilemma; Geopolitics and the Global Oil Peak; Beyond Oil: Why Alternative Fuels Won't Rescue Us; Nature Bites Back; Running on Fumes: the Hallucinated Economy; and Living in the Long Emergency. Significantly, the geographical focus, initially worldwide, narrows to residents the continental US at the book's conclusion. But the rest of the world cannot be ignored; oil and gas depletion are planetary.

The subtitle - Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the 21st Century - is a misnomer. The book is descriptive, and predictive, with very little that is prescriptive. Little advice concerning surviving is proffered. Rather Kunstler foretells the differing difficulties persons living in the various regions of the US will experience as we transition from an economy and politics based on oil and gas to one dependent on a more renewable or less quantitatively limited energy basis. Without cheap oil and gas, far more of what we need will have to be provided by individual effort. Far more of our daily effort will be devoted to acquiring warmth, food and shelter.

Much of what we experience today will be unable to maintain itself: corporations, cities, suburban sprawl, mega-structures in general. Kunstler's model of the impending future is something between that of the Amish today and the early years of the twentieth century before extensive motorized transport. Muscle power, human or animal, will significantly replace motorized or mechanical. Cities will become progressively more dysfunctional than they are at present. The spreadout suburbs are doomed by the unavailability of cheap transport. Localities will have to become more compact and self-sufficient agriculturally and otherwise. Vast areas will be unable to support and sustain their present populations. Conflict over arable land, water and ready resources is likely but will only further deplete and diminish each. Society will have to contract, reconfigure, reorganize and reconstruct on a much more local scale. Individuals will fare better who produce something tangibly useful. Paperpushers, number jugglers and managers beware!

Kunstler occasionally lapses into nasty, petty labeling and name-calling, particularly of groups disliked. Just step around it and keep going, the overall message is what matters. Generally, despite the ominous tone, the book is quite readable with one excruciating howler: "the region once known as Aztlan [the mythical Aztec homeland in the American southwest] and more recently known as the southeastern (sic) United States". There are a few bibliographic references within each chapter but the lack of comprehensive Index is a great pity. Overall the ride is not a pleasant one but the trip is well worth the discomfort.


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