The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of the Oil Age, Climate Change, and Other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-first Century by James Howard Kunstler

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Places Discussed

Posted 2005-06-25

People PlacesBook Notes by John December

This book raises an alarm: contemporary ways of life epitomized by suburban sprawl have a weak spot--an assumed source of inexpensive, portable, and widely available energy in the form of petroleum products. Kunstler argues that dwindling oil supplies will intensify a confluence of economic, environmental, and social problems that he terms "The Long Emergency." To cope with these problems, he advises, emphasis must be made on developing local agriculture, local commerce, sustainable transportation, and community-building social relationships.

I include this book in my People Places books section because it amplifies the problems of suburban sprawl as Kunstler cogently covered in The Geography of Nowhere, Home from Nowhere, and The City in Mind. Further, this book underscores the major problems in living arrangements we've brought upon ourselves.

Kunstler's core argument is:

  1. The demand for oil is increasing.
  2. The production of oil is peaking.
  3. The cost of oil will increase as its availability drops.
  4. There are no practical alternatives to cheap oil.
  5. Any energy source that requires more units of energy to obtain it than it can produce as useful work is useless.
  6. The way of life based on cheap oil will unravel.

Kunstler's gloomy vision rests on the linchpin of the lack of practical alternatives to oil, and he spends considerable space (chapter 4) to setting up and knocking down the candidates: natural gas, hydrogen, coal, hydroelectric, solar, wind, synthetic oil, thermal depolymerization, biomass, methane hydrates, zero-point energy, and nuclear. Many of these technologies do not scale up to replace the enormous amount of energy to meet oil-scale appetites. Alternate technologies don't reach the efficiencies of the stored energy found in oil. For example, during the heyday of easy oil extraction, one unit of energy spent in getting oil out of the ground produced as output a quantity of oil with as much as 28 units of energy in it (p. 67). We can't find stuff like this laying around anymore. Hydrogen fuel cells require more energy to charge up than what they store (p. 111), and thus merely shift the burden of creating the stored energy to some other process.

Many of the alternate forms of energy are interesting as demonstrations on a small scale. For example, it is possible to set up a thermal depolymerization (TDP) plant and turn turkey guts into oil and gasoline (p. 136), but there aren't enough turkey guts or even garbage in the whole United States available to reach even 5% of the daily US consumption of oil (p. 137). Moreover, the problem of gathering up all the turkey guts and garbage and bringing it to the TDP plants drops the energy return on the process possibly down to the point of no return. Ditto with almost any new technology that requires new infrastructure and equipment. The large stock of wind turbines that would have to be made and set up would have to be produced by industrial processes that depend on oil. Solar panels must be manufactured and deployed by industrial processes that depend, presently, on oil, and battery technology has not advanced enough to reduce long-term maintenance costs. While observing the benefits of nuclear power, Kunstler admits its toxically political nature may make it impractical. This discussion drives home the point that almost any old oil company brochure would have cheesily touted: oil has excellent properties for fueling all manner of useful work very flexibly.

Based on an assumption of no practical alternatives to oil, Kunstler explicates the problems of contemporary oil-based life and sketches out a grim future in which this dependency cannot be broken. He vividly describes oil as the essential input to large-scale agriculture, long-distance food distribution, suburban-style houses and sprawl, skyscrapers, big box retailing, and of course automobile-dependent transportation and living arrangements. Without cheap oil, these features of contemporary life break down. People go hungry because food cannot be produced on massive industrial farms that depend on petroleum-based inputs and transportation in trucks or rail depending ultimately on oil. Suburban housing breaks down because of the enormous energy inputs needed for heating and cooling and its absolute dependence on automobiles for access. The "hallucinated economy" (p. 185) breaks down because it is based on oil financed by an "abstracted economy" (p. 194) and supported by "sprawl economy and funny money" (p. 222) exemplified by the dot-com boom/bust, housing bubble, and the construction and upkeep of suburbia as an end in itself.

And it gets worse! In a reprise of woe not unlike the old Y2K literature (but this is no joke), Kunstler piles on water shortages, viruses, climate change, political upheavals, religious zealotry, and general anarchy to the mix. Kunstler sees unruly Mexicans, "ultra-right-wing militias," and "poorly educated, under-employed, angry whites" (p. 276) in the southwest, "southern cracker lumpenproleteriat" (p. 282) with guns and latent delusions and hatred tending toward mayhem in the southeast, the "extremely monotonous landscape and horrible weather" (p. 294) of the midwestern plains deepening its backwater nature, and a Pacific Northwest "molested by military or paramilitary seaborne adventurers" (p. 296). The rural northeast--where Kunstler lives--with its "thrift, rectitude, perseverance, and allegiance to a community" (p. 290), seems best suited to stand a chance in Kunstler's eyes. (Kunster's stark caricatures of the landscapes and people outside of his social context and identity are similar to Bettina Drew denigrating the American Midwest in Crossing the Expendable Landscape and Daniel Solomon painting a wry portrait of places outside of his San Francisco home in Global City Blues).

If Kunstler is right, we are in for a tough, long emergency. But even if he is only partially right, and the globally-addicted oil economies stumble along on the squeezings from the remaining wells or synthesized somethings from Rube Goldberg devices, I think Kunstler's criticism of modern suburban sprawl and architecture (The Geography of Nowhere and his other books), along with this work, stand as crucial testimony about the corner we have backed ourselves into. We've done this through our own choices and by electing politicians who have failed to create a sustainable and humane energy, transportation, housing, environmental, trade, and land use policy.

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2024-06-04 · John December · Terms ©