Book #54: The Long Emergency, by James Howard Kunstler

Kunstler’s recent book on the post-petroleum world, “The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of the Oil Age, Climate Change, and Other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-first Century”, is written in the same critical mold as his earlier classic, Geography of Nowhere, and is well worth reading. Little Kunstler says is unique — you can read Paul Roberts’s “The End of Oil : On the Edge of a Perilous New World” or half a dozen other books for the basic outlines of “peak oil” theory and the likely course of oil depletion in the twenty-first century. What makes Kunstler’s book unique and well worth reading is the connection to his earlier analysis of American land-use history.

Kunstler points out that a larger proportion of America lives in suburban landscapes than do European nations, which often still have vibrant city cores and strong communities of small farmers. As a consequence, America is far more reliant on long-distance transport for both food and our corporate economy than most other nations. Thus, our economy may be more susceptible to disruptions which arise from fuel cost increases than European countries, or for that matter developing nations which have lower per-capita oil consumption.

Much of the second half of Kunstler’s book discusses the likely consequences of passing the oil peak. He’s relatively pessimistic about alternative energy sources, and I believe quite rightly so. Most alternate energy sources still require large inputs of petrochemicals to manufacture their infrastructure, so it’s unclear what the true net output rates from such sources are. His basic conclusions I tend to agree with: (a) society will become much more locally and regionally focused, as the cost of transport rises due to fuel price increases and oil scarcity, (b) the economy will necessarily de-globalize to some extent, given the impossibility of maintaining 12,000 mile supply chains for consumer goods and delivering low prices. These conclusions are fairly incontrovertible to my mind, barring “miracle” finds of additional easily extractible oil or an alternative energy source usable for internal combustion engines with a good ratio of energy output to input.

What is more speculative, and far less certain, are the social consequences Kunstler forsees. Economic effects are relatively predictable given the pricing and cost structure of our current economy, if one looks at oil hitting ever-higher barrel prices. How societies will respond is something none of us really knows, though social unrest, the unraveling of fragile multi-ethnic nationalities, and potentially repressive responses by governments are certainly something we’ve seen historically in analogous circumstances. The book and the topic — our energy future — deserve more discussion among progressives than it’s getting. In America today, energy is largely a Republican issue in the political arena, and that’s too bad. For it is progressives that need to understand how we will fight to stop repressive responses should the “Long Emergency” come true in some form or another.


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