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Peak Oil and "The Long Emergency"

The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-first Century. By James Howard Kunstler. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2005.

By Keith Akers

Kunstler is one of a growing body of prophets predicting a coming crisis of industrial civilization.  Thank goodness he's also an excellent writer; he comes across as friendly, down-to-earth, doesn’t talk down to you but at the same time assumes you’re pretty smart.

In the Geography of Nowhere and Home From Nowhere Kunstler was a social critic of the car culture which has eviscerated our towns and cities. In The Long Emergency he is a prophet of doom, but he is also a prophet of  hope as well. Yes, there’s a lot of doom and gloom here (what’s not to love about war, famine, and disease?), but the one thing which may save us in the Long Emergency is Kunstler’s beloved "traditional neighborhood development." Everything else may be going to hell, but at least we’re going forward to an era in which cars won’t dominate the environment.  Hey, maybe this won't be so bad after all!

Peak Oil and the Looming Energy Crisis

Prophets of doom lead a precarious existence. In the 1970's people predicted environmental disaster, famines, and the death of the oceans. Well, fisheries declined, and we did see the occasional famine or two, tens of thousands dying, concerts held to raise money, various genocides committed against the Cambodians or the Tutsis, and anguished spirits in the prosperous West questioning how moral our rich society was. But none of this became an ongoing spectacle: it came, and then it went, and nothing changed. None of it toppled civilizations near or far. 

Kunstler reminds us of the story of the boy who cried "wolf," and eventually people did not believe the boy any more because the boy had cried "wolf" several times and no wolf had appeared. But eventually, the wolf did appear: an important fact to remember.  Perhaps an even better analogy between this fable and real life would be this: the boy cried "wolf," and a small wolf appeared which scared a few sheep and then retreated back into the woods, and years pass with no wolf sightings.  

Environmentalists in succeeding decades became more cautious, and predictions of doom faded. In recent years they have re-emerged. Ed Ayres of WorldWatch Institute published a book called God’s Last Offer.  Lester Brown came out with Plan B and predictions of global food shortages and a rapid rise in food prices in 2004 and 2005.  We’re still waiting on that one; the basic mechanism Brown proposes of "global warming reducing grain production" may be sound, but in fact in 2004 the global temperature dipped ever so slightly (still the fourth highest on record) and there was a record grain harvest. So why should we believe Kunstler’s predictions of "converging catastrophes"? 

Kunstler bases his ideas on the idea of "peak oil." "Peak oil" is not about when we run out of oil, but is the date when we are halfway through the earth's oil supply. Actually, to be technical, the date of maximum oil production (implied by the term "peak oil") and the date of being halfway through our oil supply are not necessarily the same: the distribution may be skewed slightly in one direction or the other. But if it’s a normal, bell-shaped Gaussian distribution, these two points will coincide. Once we pass the midpoint, oil supplies will decrease. There is in fact an  organization, the Association for the Study of Peak Oil (with a cool web site), which is studying this  problem.

When will we hit "peak oil"? Many people using optimistic USGS data think it will be sometime comfortably in the future, say 2036 or so.  That gives us three decades to mull over the alternatives, perfect wind turbines and photovoltaics, and maybe even develop nuclear fusion, before oil supplies begin to decline. 

But do we really have that much oil?  Scientific information is regularly politicized, so we need to be cautious here.  The government regularly lies in order to promote its political point of view. There are a lot of pretty smart petroleum geologists in the ASPO who think that Saudi oil reserves are vastly exaggerated, and that "peak oil" will be in the next decade, maybe in the next five years, maybe as early as  Thanksgiving 2005.

A number of excellent books have come out on this subject. The two which immediately come to mind are by Richard Heinberg (The Party’s Over) and Kenneth Deffeyes (Hubbert’s Peak). Actually, if you are more interested in the technical details of the debate over whether we’re really going to hit "peak oil," the books by Heinberg and Deffeyes are better. The difference between Kunstler and these other books is that Kunstler goes into the social ramifications of the demise of the car culture. This is Kunstler’s strong point, to which he repeatedly returns. All this comports well with his previous work on urban geography — the trend-breaking Geography of Nowhere and Home From Nowhere, where he demonstrates that the car culture has in fact destroyed traditional neighborhoods, by placing everything you normally need to get to on a regular basis (stores, jobs, etc.) at a far distance, requiring a car, rather than in the neighborhood.

The Long Emergency Summarized

Chapters 1 and 2 discuss the nature of our oil-based society and the realities of peak oil — a good general summary of the technical issues. Chapter 3 discusses geopolitical ramifications, war and whatnot, the most important of which is chilling: "This is a much darker time than 1938, the eve of World War II. The current world population of 6.5 billion has no hope whatsoever of sustaining itself at current levels, and the fundamental conditions of life on earth are about to force the issue. The only questions are: What form will the inevitable attrition take, and how, and in which places, and when?"

Chapter 4 talks about why alternative fuels won’t rescue us. Basically, after "peak oil" hits, oil supply will decrease at a rate of 2% to 6% per year and there’s no realistic scenario in which alternative fuels can be ramped up rapidly enough to make up for this, much less actually increase the energy supply to sustain the world's expanding economy.  We needed to start about 10 or 20 years ago. Remember those guys who said that the 1980's were the last decade to turn our culture around on the environmental issues?  Well, guess what — they were right.

Chapter 5 talks about the bad effects of industrialism even before we get to "peak oil" — climate change, food supply, and all manner of modern diseases (AIDS, flu, mad cow). Chapter 6 discusses the economic fallout of our hallucinated high-entropy economy, such as the collapse of the housing market.

Kunstler saves the best to the last. Chapter 7 is the most interesting chapter, in which he discusses living in the Long Emergency. "In the Long Emergency, land will be wealth," he says — not urban real estate, but land on which you can actually grow stuff. The big retail chains such as Wal-Mart, Target, K-Mart, and so forth, will go belly up. Large cities are in big trouble. Small cities surrounded by productive farmland have the best chance.

Places like Phoenix and Tucson are toast: they are too dependent on energy and have little productive farmland. The Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains will be depopulated. The Pacific Northwest, the southeast, and the "Old Union" (basically the area north of the Ohio and east of the Mississipi) are better off ecologically, but have different problems. The Pacific Northwest will be affected by turmoil in Asia (remember that China and India are also affected by the Long Emergency). The southeast, the "land of NASCAR" as he derisively terms it, will be caught up in cultural wars over fundamentalist religion. The "Old Union" will be the most desirable place to live.

The Nature of the Long Emergency

So what do we make of Kunstler's book? First of all, we have to place him in the overall schema of the prophets of doom. He is more a cultural-impact guy, not a facts-and-figures guy. But we needed that. 

A number of criticisms could be made of Kunstler’s book. But if he had dealt with them, his book would be much, much longer than it actually is, so while the questions they raise are valid, I think that Kunstler can legitimately plead "scope" as limiting his book.  Here are a few questions his book raises:

1. How much population can the planet support, after all? Is it 1 billion, 2 billion, or 8 billion? Kunstler says that the current population cannot sustain itself once energy starts increasing in price, but why exactly is this so? I think he’s right, I just would like the point explored a bit more. After all, before 1859 nobody really used oil at all. Life in 1859 wasn’t quite as cool as it was in the 1990's; we lacked such essential items as PCs, cell phones, and digital watches. But we managed somehow. Worst case, why can’t the world go back to an energy regime like that around 1859?

2. I’d like a little more discussion of food issues. He says that "land will be wealth," but doesn’t this imply that efficient use of land will be even more important? Doesn’t this imply vegetarianism somewhere along the way, since it requires much, much less land than a meat-oriented diet?  In fact, on an all-plant-food diet, wouldn't our agricultural requirements be sufficiently reduced so that some of those large cities could indeed be supported if you take into account back yards, vacant lots, and surrounding counties?  

And on a related subject, isn't a vegetarian diet essential in coping with rising health care costs during The Long Emergency?  Dare I mention Medicare?  If there's going to be an economic decline and an awful lot of Boomers retiring, we've got to have better ideas on health care than heart bypass surgery for all.  Get these people out of "Fast Food Nation" mentality and into Jazzercise, I say!  

3. What about transportation issues? What about bicycles? Couldn’t the use of bicycles extend the breadth of the "traditional neighborhood" beyond where it was (say) in 1800? Wouldn’t bicycles expand the size of cities that might be livable during the Long Emergency — not so much that they would enable suburbia to continue, but wouldn’t this significantly increase our transportation options?

Here’s my thought on what life after peak oil will be like, at least for the first decade or so. The historical period which most resembles the time after "peak oil" is the decade of the 1970's, in the wake of which oil consumption actually declined because of the "oil shocks" of 1973 and 1979. There are two trends worthy of note in the 1970's: a surge of interest in vegetarianism and in bicycles.

The 1970's saw the publication of both Diet for a Small Planet and Animal Liberation, as well as the spectacularly successful World Vegetarian Congress in Orono, Maine, at which 1500 people showed up — something that has never been duplicated before or since in America. The number of bicycles produced in America tripled in the 1970's. Both of these trends are obviously related to the energy crisis — food and transportation are two items obviously dependent on energy. But sustainability is more than just energy supplies, and there are other serious problems which would remain even if all our energy problems were solved.

I don't see Kunstler's book as the last word on the environment and the energy crisis. Rather, it's the beginning of a nationwide discussion.  Bringing people’s attention to this matter is of critical importance in increasing the consciousness of the need for a fundamental change in our way of living. That is what Kunstler has done so effectively.  Get ready for The Long Emergency, America.

(updated slightly Dec. 1, 2005)