Living in the Long Emergency: Global Crisis, the Failure of the Futurists, and the Early Adapters Who Are Showing the Way Forward
© 2020 Jim Kunstler
In 2005, James Howard Kunstler penned The Long Emergency, building on his earlier work as a critic of American urbanism to argue that in addition to being economically ruinous, the suburban experiment has placed the United States in a uniquely bad spot for the converging problems ahead, chiefly peak oil, climate change, and financial upheaval. When the housing bubble burst and Americans continued plowing along, he warned against the dangers of ‘technological narcissism’ and connected the Great Recession with his Long Emergency thinking. In Living in the Long Emergency, Kunstler responds to the apparent rout of peak oil theorists by fracking, and interviews people throughout the United States who have begun changing their lives (as he has) in anticipation of future trouble. Living marks a shift in Kunstler’s writing; Kunstler appears to no longer believe that Americans can respond to the threat as a nation, and has shifted his focus to individuals who are willing and able to adapt at the level of their own lives. As a book, Living in the Long Emergency doesn’t fully live up to its promise, as only a few of the interviewed individuals are overtly planning for collapse. Kunstler nevertheless proves worth the reading, however, especially in his endcap section in which he excoriates both wings of the political elite.
In Too Much Magic, I commented that Kunstler’s works have built one upon another much like a train: the preceding arguments are still there, but they’re followed and strengthened by additional, interconnected concerns. Kunstler’s introduction and ending here continue that trend, though not to the same scale: Kunstler summarizes his preceding arguments and then comments at length on the sad farce that passes for politics these days, as both parties are fully in the grips of unreality. Kunstler used to advocate for change at the national level, urging better uses of capital that would ameliorate the chaos to come — like accepting nuclear energy, for instance, instead of wasting money on short-lived wind farms that can’t support a base load. Now he doesn’t bother, seeing his estranged party (the Democrats) having descended to the level of Jacobins, more interested in destroying those who disagree with them and waging war on the past than preparing intelligently for the future. And Republicans? The portion of their party with energy is moored to the same vision of Happy Motoring that Kunstler condemned decades ago. The United States is a truck hurtling into the abyss with two tweeting, vainglorious idiots fighting for who gets to drive. What interests Kunstler now is people who have bailed from business as usual and started altering their lives in preparation, and it’s these people who he focuses on in the heart of Living. These interviews include an interesting range of individuals, from Alaska to Vermont. Several have created their own homesteads, where they grown much of their own foodstuffs and at the same time create products to sell outside, like liquor or bread. This isn’t a series of interviews with survivalists, though: what unites the guests is their disconnection from mass society, their belief that the future will be worse than the present, and their willingness to find ways to adapt to it. For some, that’s growing their own food; for others, it’s learning practical skills they can sell. A couple of the interviews seem out of place, though they’re no less interesting: a couple of extremely race-conscious men are interviewed, one black and one white. They both comment on the disintegration of culture, on growing consumer-passivity that sets people and their communities up for failure.
Living in the Long Emergency is a minor addition to Kunstler’s line of argument that also examines ways those who follow Kunstler’s arguments are taking them seriously. This includes Kunstler himself, who for the last decade has lived on a farm in upstate New York, keeping chickens a few minutes walk from a small village. There’s not as much of the long emergency adaptation as readers would want, but if you can’t get enough of Kunstler excoriating modernity, it’s here for the reading.
“I am part of the most useless generation that’s ever existed in human history. Millennials know how to do less for themselves than anyone that’s ever existed on the planet Earth. [….] And most people who are under the age of forty don’t have a clue about where to even begin with that kind of stuff. We have been completely separated from any life of productivity, any knowledge of how to make anything or do anything. ” (From an interview with a Millennial turned farmer)
“In case you haven’t been paying attention to the hijinks on campus—the attacks on reason, fairness, and common decency, the kangaroo courts, diversity tribunals, assaults on public speech and speakers themselves, the denunciation of science—here is the key takeaway: It’s not about ideas or ideologies anymore. Instead, it’s purely about the pleasures of coercion, of pushing other people around, of telling them what to think and how to act.”
“A casual survey around America these days reveals shocking degrees of neuroticism, delusion, dishonesty, and functional failure in culture. The result is a political dwelling place that looks more and more like Kafka’s Castle, a techno-bureaucratic update of a particular kind of solipsistic Hell. The economically stranded former working class has devolved into a tribe of tattooed savages sunk in anomie. Those a rung up in the middle middle class are not far behind them, as vocations and incomes disappear, debts mount, and desperation creeps over the scene. Obesity and its by-product, diabetes, run at record levels thanks to “innovations” in the food-processing industry (another racket), and the absence of other traditional social satisfactions that have been destroyed by television and smartphones. Opiate addiction and suicide are the new normal in the flyover states. The triumphant completion of suburbia has produced yawning ugliness on the landscape, an epidemic of loneliness, family dysfunction, and a dismal cavalcade of mass shootings in public schools. Meanwhile, the upper rungs of society are enfogged in a contrived obsessive moral panic over race and sexual relations. Can a people recover from such an excursion into unreality?”
Off the Grid: Inside the Movement for More Space, Less Government, and True Independence, Nick Rosen
I added his books to my ‘Of Interest’ bucket after your last review (I think). Although I’m not hunting them down I might very well pick any up that Fate brings my way. I think I’d probably agree with at least *some* of what he says! [grin]
The Geography of Nowhere is his best, and The Long Emergency is of general interest. I don’t know how much of Geography would apply to someone in Britain, though, not being familiar with its approaches to contemporary urban development.
We certainly don’t have the urban sprawl the US seems to like! For a while we had rings of ‘Green Belt’ around our cities to slow their growth but then built ‘New Towns’ outside the belts to soak up any population increases. We tend not to do much ‘slash and burn’ urban development – at least not since the 1970’s – so a lot of places still have properties going back to the 1950’s or even 1850’s if you look hard enough! I was born in a house built in the 1880’s for instance.
That is interesting! I’ve looked for books on European urbanism, but they’re horribly expensive. There’s a guy on youtube (Not Just Bikes) who has done an extensive study on why Dutch cities are so people-friendly. That’s as close as I’ve found, and it’s really good on infrastrucure.
If you’re looking for something on Euro-urbanism I think you’d like: ‘Trans-Europe Express – Tours of a Lost Continent’ by Owen Hatherley. He travels around a whole bunch of cities across Europe and into the edge of Russia looking at the reasons behind different design choices and urbanisation philosophies.
Ooh! I think you reviewed that one? Thanks for the reminder about it. Considering what else I’ve got coming up (a book on Dutch infra, Copenhagen infra, and the effort to reform American streets), it’ll be very appropriate.
I did indeed: 1st Oct 2020. Easiest way to find it (as I don’t know how to link directly to it!) is by using ‘The City’ label. It’s the 4th entry from the top.
Thanks! Blogger almost hides the link. At the bottom of your post, where it says “Posted by Cyberkitten 6::47 pm”, the timestamp is a link. I assume it shows up similar on your system, though the time may be different.
Thanks! I NEVER realised the time-stamp thing. That’s REALLY useful [lol]
You’re welcome! I vividly remember hunting around for that years ago.
I certainly agree with a lot of what the author states. We really need to reconstruct our neighborhoods so people can walk every where and have parks that are visible to the houses. I am not going into detail and it doesn’t matter because it’s all pie in the sky.
I don’t think it’s possible to repair most of what we’ve built in the last century — even if we had money to burn, there’s too much of it. There were a couple of “sprawl repair manual” type books put out, but I suspect our best bet is to rehab the downtown cores that are still built to human scale and then progress from there. People find it easier to go to places that already have good urban bones (Portland, for instance) than to try to restore where they live.