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?”