|James 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 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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