The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of Oil, Climate Change, and Other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century
© 2005 James Howard Kunstler
Well, we’re in for it. Such is the lesson of The Long Emergency, which predicts that the end of the 21st century will resemble the end of the 18th far more than the 20th. In it, author James Howard Kunstler posits that the systems that run our society are about to run out of the very fuel that keeps them going. Oil is about to peak, leading to global disruption, resource wars, the total collapse of civilization, and all manner of unpleasantness. And that’s before climate change wreaks havoc.
But last week The Atlantic ran an article that said we’ll never run out of oil! It even had a smiley face! Surely a smiley face couldn’t be wrong? Perhaps it’s true that we’ll never wring the Earth completely dry of its sticky, black goodness — but without a steady stream of oil to keep the global economy well-fed and lubricated, like any machine with moving parts it will seize up and die long before the last drop has been siphoned. We don’t just use oil to get ourselves hither and yon — we use petroleum for everything. Your refrigerator and pantry are stocked with oil, not food — from the pesticides to the tractors to the transfer trucks and ships that got the food (along with virtually ever other consumer good) to your door, every morsel you eat is dripping with petrol. They’re literally covered in it, given the amount of petroleum-derived plastic wrapping that so many of the goods in the grocery come in. The entire system of globalization depends on oil to keep commerce flowing.
People have been predicting peak oil since the 1970s, but Kunstler’s argument that we’re approaching the critical mark begs some consideration given how intensively the wealthiest entities on Earth are combing the globe for any trace of anything that be converted to oil. Demand for petroleum products is ever-increasing as billions more in the developing world demand cars and shrinkwrapped food, the blessings of civilization. We’re already experiencing diminishing returns, working hard to obtain the oil that used to come out of the ground all on its own, and the more energy we put in to extract oil, the more expensive the product will be. Considering that we’re been reduced to smashing rocks to look for fuel, the fact that we’re increasingly desperate for energy can’t be overlooked.
Unfortunately for us, there are no real energy alternatives. Natural gas is finite as well, and its price is already rising; biofuels and hydrogen are energy losers, and even renewables like solar and wind depend on oil for their parts and manufacture. Nuclear energy and electrified rail lines are our best bet, in Kunstler’s view, but even that is limited by the fact that a cheap-oil economy produces what they’re made of . Instead, Kunstler predicts catastrophe: contraction, not growth, will define the world to come (contraction referring not only to the amount of economic activity, not only to traffic, but to the human population as well; Kunstler expects a massive die-off though he never dwells on such morbidity). Kunstler predicts that local agriculture will soon become the only viable kind, that cities placed on waterways will suddenly reexperience their golden ages, that much of our energy will soon be provided by animals and humans. Writing chiefly for Americans (who, thanks to car-centric urban policy, are going to be up peak oil creek without a paddle), Kunstler divides the country into different cultural and environmental areas and speculates on how they might adapt to the world to come, the world made by hand. The “Old Union, all but the southern of the original 13 colonies, are best poised for survival: the topography is well suited to water mills, there are many cities built to a traditional walkable pattern, and the people don’t have a history of going outside the law to settle disputes….unlike the South, which will be taken over by crazy religious militias driven to madness by the summer heat once the air conditioners quit. The Pacific Northwest may cope, but it all depends on how much abuse they take from the refugee hordes swarming in from California, for the southwest and “old west” are doomed.
It’s a daunting picture, one I first heard painted five years ago when Kunstler gave a lecture on ‘the long emergency’ at my university. I’ve since heard elements within it constantly, through regular listening of Kunstler’s podcast and reading his articles online. Yet I’d never read the book properly until now, and I rather expected something World Altering. I must have read The Geography of Nowhere over ten times in the three years I’ve owned it: it delivers. Perhaps the impact of Long Emergency was lessened for me because I’ve been hearing its arguments consistently for the last five years and take part of them for granted. I suppose it doen’t hurt that the book is edging on dated now, Kunstler issued an update in the form of Too Much Magic, released last year, in which he declared that we can’t just rely on throwing money around or technology magicking up a solution, where he uses fracking as an example of both. As far as presenting the case for peak oil, Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet does a better job of presenting data and exploring global consequences. What that book misses, though, is Kunstler’s prose and scathing commentary, which for me are a ball to read. Kunstler steadfastly maintains what Americans lack, most of all, is a “coherent narrative” about what has happened to us, and this he spins here, with a story of how cheap energy allowed for high levels of entropy to manifest themselves in our system, increasing the nation’s fragility. Kunstler’s chief weakness is his enthusiasm for urgent predictions that never quite come true: here, Kunstler predicts peak oil by 2008, and that hasn’t quite happened. The only room for uncertainty he gives is that we may not know we’ve peaked until after the fact.
Although not as potent as The Geography of Nowhere, The Long Emergency carries sting enough to merit the attention of Americans concerned about the country’s future.