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
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
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
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
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
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)