Living on Borrowed Time

OilChartsJames Kunstler’s The Long Emergency is, at its heart, a story. It is a dystopia, but an entirely credible one. The pieces of this story have all been told before — the failure to learn from the lessons of history, the fact that nothing (including civilization) lasts forever, the scenarios of a world riven by cultural strife, and by the ultimate necessity to repay resource overuse and financial debts racked up in a reckless “tomorrow will take care of itself” spending spree. The story has a frighteningly familiar ring to it — it is a retelling of the stories our parents taught us about living beyond our means.

It is also a narrative about the laws of thermodynamics, and about what happens when we blithely assume that technology will magically find ways to overturn them. Its message is simple: we have to learn to live with less — much less, and very soon. Those that see Kunstler as a glum neo-Malthusian should consider that in this book he predicted, six months before it happened, the attack of Islamic fanatics on London.

The law of supply and demand is as inexorable as the laws of thermodynamics. Chinese demand for oil is growing at 16% per year and accelerating. Saudi oil supplies are being taxed to the limit using colossal amounts of expensive injected seawater, ultimately shortening their lives. The US is currently codependent on both cheap Mideast oil and cheap Chinese manufactured goods. The debt level of the US government and its corporations and citizens is unprecedented in the history of civilization and requires low interest rates to be sustained indefinitely to keep all three groups from bankruptcy. China’s water table is dropping at a phenomenal 3 to 10 feet per year,while land available for agricultural production is shrinking rapidly, meaning that China is going to need to ratchet up its oil consumption not only to sustain its exploding manufacturing economy but its agricultural economy as well — and it has virtual no oil reserves of its own and is entering a period of sustained water crisis. Put these together and any economist could tell you the long-term price of oil will be (following huge short-term whipsaws) infinitely large, and the long-term value of the US dollar will be (following equally huge short-term currency instability) infinitely small.

Kunstler begins the book by hinting at the future, kind of working you into it slowly and then, before his narrative takes full flight, he painstakingly deconstructs the myths that energy salvation will come from natural gas, tar sands, hydrogen, coal, hydroelectricity, solar and wind power, biomass, nuclear, and six other forms of energy I hadn’t even heard of. He is not dismissive (Kunstler is so pragmatic and cautious that he actually accepted there was some logic to Bush’s invasion of Iraq, due to Hussein’s unwillingness to grant access to the UN inspectors to the underground bunkers beneath the dictator’s palaces). He sees a huge role for coal and nuclear power (with their attendant damages and risks) in mitigating the massive lifestyle changes that will be required to survive in the future with reduced, unaffordable oil.

But ultimately, he illustrates, the problem will reach crisis because of cultural unpreparedness and inertia — the inability of Western ‘suburban’ culture to “entertain the possibility that industrial civilization will not be rescued by technological innovation”. This will be compounded, he argues, by “multidimensional turbulence” in the Islamic world — “religious, ethnic, ideological, economic, taking place on an underlayer of ecological desperation as populations in many Muslim nations grossly overshoot the carrying capacities of the places they inhabit”, compounded further by an end to free-ride handouts from those nations’ utterly corrupt and dysfunctional governments.

The equation Kunstler lays out is simple: The more human food we have, the more humans we create to consume it. And vice versa. Most human food is now oil-dependent (without oil the 250% yield increases of the ‘Green Revolution’ will end, and we will be left with massively depleted soil — compounded by a severe water shortage). Less oil, less food. Less food, fewer people. The oil production curve in the top illustration above will be followed very quickly by an almost identical human population curve. Unpleasant, unpreventable, precedented, and predictable.

Those in denial will not bother reading Kunstler’s book (though that won’t stop them from criticizing it). I’m not going to relate the evidence he provides to support his scenario, or the scenario itself, but here are a few of the lessons his story could teach us:

  • “The future will be much more about staying where you are than traveling incessantly from place to place”
  • We should not forget that fossil fuels are essential not only for modern travel and food production, but also for electric light (giving us respite from “the despotic darkness of night”) and for making safe, sanitary ‘private’ homes affordable for the majority for the first time in history. We think of light, security and sanitation as perpetual and permanent, but they are recent and dependent on resources that are running out, so they are all at risk.
  • “If it takes a barrel of oil to get a barrel of oil out of the ground, then you are engaged in an act of futility”. As the second chart above shows, we are getting increasingly and precipitously close to that level of futility now, and much of the remaining oil in the ground is well beyond that level, even allowing for foreseeable improvements in extraction technology.
  • “It is not their job to look after the future of the world”, BP oil geologist Colin Campbell has written, as explanation of why Big Oil knows, but is not telling us, about the energy crisis on the horizon and the need to prepare for a future of energy scarcity.
  • There is a significant possibility that China, whose appetite for oil is skyrocketing, could strike a devil’s bargain with the Mideast countries (once the fundamentalists overthrow the playboy sheiks in Saudi Arabia), offering them the opportunity to cut off supplies to the West entirely, while still giving them a huge market for their oil, an offer that could prove irresistible to many oil-rich Islamic nations.
  • “Under the current profligate industrial farming system, it takes 16 calories of inputs (largely oil products) to produce one gram of grain, and 70 calories of inputs to produce one gram of meat”. The Cargill/ConAgra/ADM oligopoly model of food production is perverse and bankrupt (in more ways than one) and will be one of the first casualties of the end of cheap oil.

The last chapter tells the future story of the local economy of upstate New York, describing in detail how every part of their daily lives — commuting, shopping, producing and obtaining food, keeping warm etc. will change with the end of cheap abundant energy. He goes on to explain how the situation of big cities and suburbs will be even more dire (they are too remote from food supplies and too dependent on energy, and will ultimately become unsafe and unsanitary as infrastructure becomes unsustainable and begins to deteriorate. The best situated Americans, he says, will be those in small towns with fertile agricultural hinterlands (good food close), ideally located on rivers, with dense, walkable infrastructure, and buildings that are well-insulated and have roofs that will be easy to keep in good repair.

“We will be compelled by the circumstances of the Long Emergency to conduct the activities of our daily life on a smaller scale, whether we like it or not, and the only intelligent course of action is to prepare for it.” The alternative, in his very compelling portrayal, is chaos, leading to a feudal economy and a society increasingly dominated by evangelical religion (these religions are less dependent on the oil economy than more centralized social infrastructure like central governments and large corporations, both of which could collapse as they become unable to afford or enforce continued operations).

Kunstler’s story read likes progress and time read backwards — about a regression almost exactly mirroring in pace and attributes the steps we took to get to where we are now. Even the future need for masses of working animals to do what we humans cannot do on muscle power alone, is anticipated and presented in an astonishing plausible and credible scenario.

What is most frightening to me about Kunstler’s scenario is that it sounds so much, in every respect, like the lead-up to and events of the Great Depression, except on a much larger and more enduring scale. We have all been here before. We had a sneak preview of our likely future, but it was too long ago, a lesson we have long forgotten.

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13 Responses to Living on Borrowed Time

  1. Zephyr says:

    Given the kind of quote unquote “leadership” we have on capitol hill in the USAtoday, yes I can see this is a forseeable future. But, you know leadershipin the USA, Canada and other countries comes and goes. Our society changeda lot between 1920 and 1950 and it was because of very very bold leadershipin a certain direction.People in the USA congress believe that they are good leaders if they cantalk smoothly, and make people like them, look busy and make a war or twohere and there in pursuit of some wildeyed dream of domesticating thelands across the ocean.Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a president in the USA, who broughtabout incredible changes to our society as a whole. We would be stillliving in a feudalistic or caste system today if his legislation hadn’tgone through, as well as it did.Future forecasting is always an uncertain kind of thing. We are thosewho will make our future what it will be. Let us not each get to be 80 yearsold, and find that all our efforts were in a misguided direction. Letus think carefully. Those who wanted to put an end to war in the 1960s…went away from their protest marches and didn’t lift a finger to putpeople in political office in future years who would not be mindedto make war.

  2. kerry says:

    In addition to the cultural unpreparedness and inertia of Western suburbia, does he (the author of the book you mentioned) consider the aspirations of the more underdeveloped or newly developing countries that aim towards the very thing western suburbia needs to let go of? These countries represent a large percentage of the human population, and they are rapidly and desperately trying to develop towards the kind of consumerism that the first world countries are starting to try and curb! How do we help these newly developing communities to accept that they need to let go of all the convenciences they have seen are possible just as they are starting to achieve and experience it for the first time? That, I would imagine, is a greater challenge than changing the inertia of those who already have it all to learn to live with less.The newly developing African countries, for example, have always lived with less and now they see a chance for more. They themselves have long since abandoned a ‘natural balance’ with their environment due to ever growing population explosions, so a return to this type of non technical and non industrial world doesn’t solve the problem either.Now, more than ever, the world needs to unite as a species in order to understand the common problem and work towards the common solution. Unfortunately, in times of impending crisis, fear is rampant. And fear is what prevents us working together. It appears to me that we need a world-wide healing programme so that each individual can let go of fear and insecurity – the seeds of the excessive behaviour that leads to where we are.Just me, being a caring idealist with limited logic:)

  3. dave davison says:

    What a great way to start a Monday!! I will get out my map to locate the most suitable place to move – near a river, walking infrastructure,local food production – small town – where, oh where can it be?Given the dystopian view ( which I will now order so that I can read it from the author’s text, the continuing trend toward urbanization and its discontents seems to require a reversal, accompanied by a drastic reduction in our dependency on fossil fuels. Pretty discouraging outlook – is this THE job for AHA?

  4. Kunstler’s argument runs something like this: economy is dependent upon transport, transport is dependent upon oil, hence no oil implies no economy. Unfortunately that analysis skips over the question of efficiency without even a glance. The unstated assumption is that the only vehicles we can produce must have an oil supply as abundant as the current one, but that is simply not true.In the U.S. the average fleet efficiency is presently about 20 miles per gallon. Yet, in Europe it is possible RIGHT NOW to buy a four passenger, production car from either VW or Audi that will get 80 to 100 miles to the gallon. This is not speculation or science fiction, nor must we wait for technological breakthroughs. The cars are coming off conventional production lines TODAY. This means that over a few years time, the fleet efficiency could be QUADRUPLED without any special trouble at all.Nor is this anywhere near the best that can be done. VW has a two seat concept car that gets as much as 300 miles to the gallon on the highway. That’s right – Boston to New York on one gallon with fuel to spare. This car is not yet in production, but the prototype exists, and performs as advertised. Moreover it is a very attractive car. I’d love to have one myself. Anyone can read about it on the Web, and VW can clearly go into production if it chooses to. Unfortunately, our friend Kunstler dismisses this entire set of facts without a word, even though these cars have been around for some years, and they have been rather well publicized among those who actually care about fuel efficiency.Obviously the remaining oil will last a lot longer if we improve the fleet efficiency by a factor of five or ten, but it’s even better than that. The proponents of ethanol and biodiesel estimate that the Western world could produce enough of these fuels to cover about 25% of our current requirements given the current fleet efficiency. However, if we drive cars that are four times as efficient then biofuelswould cover ALL of our requirements. Thus, we don’t need the petroleum at all, and we can quietly give it up any time we care to spend a few years making the changeover.Kunstler does have a sentence or three dismissing ethanol as a net energy loss since modern factory farming currently requires large inputs of petroleum. However, it does not have to be that way. He envisions everyone going back to an agrarian life in which the land would still produce the food we need, but there seems to be no reason that it could not produce biofuels as well. Again, this does not require any technological breakthrough, but simply wider adoption of more energy-efficient farming methods. In short, he comes off as deliberately inconsistent when he suggests that we could grow food, but that somehow we could not grow the material to make biofuels.

  5. Dave Pollard says:

    Zephyr: I agree FDR was a great leader, but if he had not accomplished what he did, is it not likely that the next leader would have done so? To some extent leaders are selected by circumstances and do what they must. We will need leaders like that in the future, but they will help deal with the situations we face, not prevent them.Kerry: You’re right about what we need, but I just can’t see it happening. Dave: Perhaps. We must prepare to prepare, so that when people are ready to prepare we are prepared for them. In the meantime, it probably makes sense to focus on things that people already acknowledge they need — like solutions to health care, education and violence.John: There is some evidence that if we were able to quadruple, say, transportation fuel economy, we would simply travel more and continue using up all the available oil nearly as fast. As for biofuels, it is extremely difficult to ‘grow’ and something and convert it to oil that will work with current transportation without using more calories in the inputs to grow it than it generates in fuel. We would need to completely retool vehicles to handle less ‘refined’ biofuels, which would be hugely expensive, and polluting.

  6. Zephyr says:

    The writer comes out of his crystal palace andreplies! Cool!What is leadership? Well, I believe the situation with the state ofcurrent cable television programming is prettymeager in my country – the usa. It’s a lineup whichincludes cnn and foxnews, as well as many stationswhich air reality tv, tired trite comedy, andmisandrous action shows. It doesn’t give those whoview it much to believe in, hope in, or worktowards. The usa is heavily influenced by thesetelevision organizations, who’ve worked theirfingers to the bone providing this service over theyears – a service which is of a questionablequality.Those of us with skills, have to go aboutcommitting ourselves to forming organizations whichwill cycle in and replace these influentialorganizations. All the tools are there for us,today, with the computer and the internet. Itdoesn’t even require any capital to put those gearsinto motion.Part of what we need to encourage, is the progressand influence of the green party, in the usa andCanada. We have to provide political education tothe public, which is palatable to them, fun, andeasy to access.The reason Bush jr. won the 2004 election incentral usa states is because, quite frankly, noone pays attention to politics in most of mycountry. People come together once every two yearsfor an evening of caucuses – and that’s it.Therefore, their vote reflects a lack of educationabout the issue. It’s interesting to compare the2004 average vote ratio across the country, withthe vote tally in the Washington DC area, wherepeople think about politics, every day.I don’t take a fatalistic view of the worldsituation. I think that it’s wise to look at whatwe can do, and how we can do it quickly. I rememberdoing a report for my ecology class in highschoolabout the theory of carrying capacity and cycles ofpopulation boom and bust – and relating this tohuman population… but life has ticked along quitesmoothly in the usa, in thetwenty years since Iwrote that report, and I believe we have a decentwindow to work with, in future decades, if we startnow.A first step could be to form a portal on theinternet, which will allow people to find all theexcellent resources out there of varying natures.There’s no navigation system that’s really workableon the net, currently – except search engines.There’s a new movement of folksonomies like – but those sites really are still toopoorly designed for general use, as of yet. If agroup of people, with ethics such as we have, wouldcreate such a portal – there would be theopportunity to have a lot of influence on theenglish speaking nations as a whole. (Think aboutthe effect that wikipedia is starting to have,today.)___________By the way – Kerry – you make an excellent point -that the hazard to the biosphere will more and morebe coming from those nations, which are stilldeveloping their industrial infrastructure, today.

  7. ted lukac says:

    Kunstlers right. Unlimited use of limited natural resources eventually has to come back and bite us in the ass.Regression seems a logical course for the planet to take because as hard as it is for some of us to swallow, the stamp humans try to place on this planet ultimately depends on what the earth first gives us. We squandered,waisted and abused this relationship and now must suffer the consequences. The Native Americans were smarter than we realized and knew that their existence depended upon mutual respect among species,as well as,a humility in believing that humans are only one spoke on the cosmic wheel.Thomas Berry,the Paulist environmentalist,poet,priest said it best: ”

  8. Joe Deely says:

    Kunstler like many other doomdayers doesn’t like certain aspects of our life here on Earth. So, like others, he tries to find ways that this lifestyle is forced to change. The latest in a long,long, long line of quacky theories on how this lifestyle is doomed is Peak Oil. Even a basic understanding of economics shows how silly this latest doomsday theory is… oil is not air… there are substitutes.

  9. Zephyr says:

    The new orleans flood incident is very interesting study.Natural consequences are sometimes very hard to explain to people, before they are experienced.New Orleans ought never to have been built below sea level.I don’t see how they will ever be able to get that water pumped out of the entire city back into Lake Pontchartrain and into the gulf of mexico.I wonder if Venice, Italy had the same problem – it wasonce built below sea level, and one day, the water floodedin, and the streets were never dry, again.In the same way, many people will say that the naturalconsequences which Kunstler is drawing our attention to,are just gloom and doom prophecying. It’s odd that a wholesociety can be so mistaken.

  10. Chris says:

    regarding peak oil,scarcity etc. :, comparing the vote tally in DC to the midwest is ludicrous. Do you really think *everyone* in DC is thinking about politics all the time? You forgot to mention the most crime-laden, worst school district (also mysteriously the most expensive), avoid at all costs other 50% of DC that votes almost 100% democrat.

  11. James Aach says:

    Interesting comments on world energy needs in the future. You might find the following to be of value:My name is James Aach, and I

  12. mike janket says:

    I am currently reading Kunstler’s book. Chilling, to say the least. In discussing the book with others, I find many adults who are in total denial. “The balloon just goes higher and higher, the sky’s the limit, we have a vibrant economy, the sky ain’t falling”… however, the book Kunstler has written jibes with lots of other industry sources that detail production, failure to find huge new oil fields, huge consumption increases in China, geopolitical dyspepsia, etc. While no book could be considered perfect, Kunstler simply has more meat than gristle in his book and I’ve recommended it to my circle of friends that they read it. It’s no longer a business as usual world, guys and gals. Peak oil supplies is a chilling fact of reality and the future is not just living off a nice pension quaffing a central California coast chardonnay…far from it. Pay the 23 bucks and read Kunstler’s book.

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