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The Long Emergency

Surviving the End of Oil, Climate Change, and Other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century

James Howard Kunstler
324 pp.
Grove Press, NY, 2005 (Paperback Edition Epilogue 2006)
ISBN-10: 0-8021-4249-4

Review

James Howard Kunstler's "The Long Emergency" is not a fun read. It is by no means long-winded or boring - the pacing is brisk and there are plenty of vivid images and wry turns of phrase to keep interest up, reflecting Kunstler's past in popular journalism. The book is no fun because Kunstler manages to bring together several subject areas that are usually reported on and examined in isolation, and in pointing out their fragile and interdependent nature he forces one to recognize at least that major changes are on the way, changes over which we'll have no meaningful control.

Kunstler's thesis is that life as we know it, especially in the Western World, is inextricably linked with having abundant and ever-growing supplies of cheap fossil fuel, that it is evident growth in fossil fuel supplies has already peaked, that the future holds worsening scarcity, intense competition and ruinous expense, and that life in this not-at-all distant future will be overwhelmingly different (unimaginably so, unbearably so, for most) from the carefree consumerist existence we've slouched into. Our great-great- or great-great-great-grandparents might find the new order recognizable. Except for the all the abandoned structures, useless paved-over cropland, and hordes of impoverished people lacking even the most basic skills for getting by. Add into the end of oil the wishful-thinking-powered mythos of alternative energy, the unforeseeable effects of global climate change, already rising geopolitical tensions, the clashing of Christian and Muslim world views, and the house-of-cards Global Economy and you have the stage set for a disastrous slide into darkness that would make a Bosch nightmare look like an idyllic weekend in the Bahamas.

Doomsayers will always be amongst us, be they street-corner Cassandras, conscientious cultural icons, or conniving con men with survival kits. Kunstler seems to be none of these. His arguments have a coherence that one quickly finds lacking in the wide-eyed shouters, wild-haired whisperers and menacing mutterers. While he was schooled in the arts and counts being an editor of Rolling Stone (in the early days) as one of his major credits, he's not trading on celebrity or seeking to redeem himself for success and comfort gotten by virtue of physical appearance or providing shallow entertainments. Most importantly, he doesn't have anything to sell to help us out of this mess, no five-point plan that would work if we'd all just sign up for the training courses, no enlightened belief system to buy into. Aside from the income from sales of the book it doesn't appear Kunstler has anything to gain (directly) by pointing out these dire truths. He's not a scientist or an economist or a Fundamentalist or a prescriptionist - he's a journalist, one who came of age in the late 1960's, who still holds some ideals from that era. He apparently springs from the good old Yankee tradition of rational, secular, clear-thinking and straight-talking that has served us so well in the past. Additionally, Kunstler discounts thoughts of chicanery or conspiracy as being behind a crisis that doesn't really exist. Instead, he considers the crisis to be simply the cumulative result of thousands upon thousands of practical decisions made within necessarily limited spheres of knowledge and operation, an emergent property of human nature, if you will.  In many ways his work is reminiscent of that of Mike Davis, though he takes a much larger view.

There have been plenty of completely rational thinkers in the past who've put forward clearly reasoned explanations of why full-scale catastrophe was just around the corner. Many feel Ehrlich's Population Bomb has fizzled, for example. Kunstler goes so far as to mention Thomas Malthus' failed prediction that geometric growth in population would outstrip arithmetic growth in food production by the middle of the 19th century. In Kunstler's view, the discovery and exploitation of cheap fossil fuels beginning in the late 19th century temporarily skewed the equations Malthus based his conclusions on, and that he was right overall. Kunstler's conjectures about the progression of the Long Emergency may be somewhat overblown in many ways and plain wrong in many details. While he convincingly derails the hope of some alternative energy source taking the place of oil, he doesn't consider the possibility that significant advances might be made in all of them that in sum would lead to a less dismal future. His repeated hammering at the follies of American Suburbia is indicative of his heartfelt animosity toward that aspect of modern America - he has published several previous books on the subject. In his survey of the prospects for various US regions, Kunstler takes some mild verbal swipes at the people of the Rockies and the Southeast, while being generous to his home Northeast, so his scenarios may be similarly slanted, somewhat.

By the end of this book, one is overwhelmed and fatigued by the sheer weight and variety of the dangers Kunstler elucidates, to the point where one might think, after a few days' reflection, that it isn't that bad. But what if it is? There will no doubt be some developments which 'rescue' some slices of the whole, but much of what he projects, dire and dismal as it is, will turn out to have been optimistic pie-in-the-sky. Kunstler's The Long Emergency provides a much needed starting point for the serious thought that we need to give to to the subject of how the world will be changed by the lack of cheap energy and how we'll have to change our approach to life in order to survive.

 

Book Summary

What follows is a rather detailed summary of the book, chapter by chapter, with a minimum of editorial commentary. Many supporting details and illustrative examples have been left out. Chapter 4 will be covered in some detail in a separate node. Chapter 7 is simply a very long chapter with many small parts that don't lend themselves to being lumped together. If one objects to the arguments as represented in this summary, the actual book should be consulted before speaking out against them. If one is intrigued by the topics covered, by all means seek out the book as well.

Sleepwalking into the Future

The main thrust of chapter one is that the astounding changes that the Industrial Age has brought, the freedom from abject want and endless drudgery, the distractions and comforts of the entertainment saturated consumer age, have lulled us into a somnambulant stupor where we think this is all normal and that it couldn't possibly change for the worse, that there's both a willful disregard for the warning signs all around and a real inability to lend credence to the flashes of reality that do make it onto our screens, so great is the cognitive dissonance they engender.

The end of oil will be so catastrophic because far more than just the obvious uses for transportation, heating and cooling, powering lights and appliances will be curtailed, but the very existence of those appliances, systems and vehicles will be doubtful. Further, our industrial-level agriculture requires machines and fuel and boatloads of fertilizers and pesticides, all largely derived from fossil fuel by-products. The same goes for our medical equipment and pharmaceuticals, our high-tech entertainment systems and our computers.

Even if oil supplies were to remain at their current levels indefinitely, there would be problems because inexorable worldwide economic growth is putting increasing demand on those resources. Climate change, pollution and new diseases are other serious threats to the status quo. The globalized economy requires cheap oil for intercontinental shipping of goods. Modern financial market 'instruments' are less and less connected to real production and value, and the effects of failed schemes like Enron and MCI WorldCom are being felt by more and more people

Without cheap oil, Kunstler sees the end of the Industrial Age.

 

Modernity and the Fossil Fuels Dilemma

Kunstler gives a brief history of how fossil fuels have driven the Industrial Age and all the marvels and miracles we've come to take for granted, how cheap energy has taken us down a road from which there is no turning back - once the tank is dry, we'll have to get out and walk, though we may waste some effort pushing the car along for a few miles. The problem is that we are at, or about to reach, Peak Oil - the point after which the worldwide rate of oil extraction can only decrease. Kunstler gives a good argument that the American oil production curve (which peaked in 1970) will be matched by the worldwide production curve.

 

Geopolitics and the Global Oil Peak

We're already seeing the geopolitical effects of the competition for the remaining oil. As is human nature, the conflict is not expressed directly, but is rather channeled through other outlets, such as the growing tension between Militant Islam and the largely Christian West. Kunstler describes the global oil peak period as a "bumpy plateau" which will feature fluctuations in supply and demand, confusion and denial, strange market behaviors and feedback loops. In a memorable passage, Kunstler paraphrases oil maven Kenneth Deffeyes' statement of 2003: "The good news was that OPEC could no longer dictate world oil prices; the bad news was that no one could." Refining capacity has been allowed to decline and there have been gas supply problems when refineries have been damaged by weather or accidents.

Taking the world by large geographic regions, Kunstler looks at the political prospects each faces as oil becomes scarcer.

  • America has proven that it can't just go in and take control of the oil fields.

  • China may feel it has to.

  • The Middle East faces internal tensions.

  • Russia is already in decline and has little to sell but oil.

  • Europe will likely be drawn into any conflict with the Muslim world, but Europe hasn't abandoned its small towns and moderately sized cities.

  • South America won't be on the world stage so much.

  • Africa's already bad situation won't really change appreciably.

The potential changes in the USA/North America are left for the final chapter. Overall Kunstler sees a period of geopolitical turbulence that could settle out in any number of ways, few of them reassuring.



Beyond Oil: Why Alternative Fuels Won't Rescue Us

The key chapter of Kunstler's The Long Emergency is chapter 4, where he argues convincingly that finding some energy source or mix of sources to simply take the role of fossil fuels is an escapist daydream, the pursuit of which will only dissipate our energies and delay the needed response of drastically cutting back on consumption and wastefulness. The book is worth reading for this chapter alone. Kunstler likens the vague hope that "somebody will come up with something" to the absurd cargo cults that arose in the South Pacific islands in the wake of US supply airdrops during World War II. At best, there will be a period of chaos and stress after oil runs out and before whatever, if anything, comes next. How long this period will be is anyone's guess - 10 years? 100? Longer? Consider that major breakthroughs in developing power from nuclear fusion have been '10 years away' for over 30 years.

Taking each of the major proposed alternative energy sources in turn, Kunstler exposes the fallacies and unaddressed problems with them. This chapter will be covered more extensively elsewhere.

  • Natural Gas: Finite like oil, difficult and dangerous to transport.

  • The Hydrogen Economy: Delusional 'pseudo-fuel'. Dangerous, very difficult to transport, requires completely new infrastructure.

  • Coal: Finite, dirty, only poor sources remaining

  • Hydroelectric Power: Exploiting all identified remaining sites would only add 5% of current electricity demand. Water supplies may diminish greatly.

  • Solar and Wind Power: Unproven on large-scale, will become more expensive to build and install without cheap oil.

  • Synthetic Oil: Massive cost and labor, requires natural gas or coal.

  • Thermal Depolymerization & Biomass: Requires industrial-scale agriculture, which relies on cheap oil.

  • Methane Hydrates: Speculative, unproven, expensive, accidents very bad for the environment

  • Zero Point Energy: Realm of science fiction, TANSTAAFL

  • Nuclear Energy: Long-term hazards, possibly our only choice



Nature Bites Back

The problems that will arise as global climate change continues will amplify those from the loss of cheap energy. Kunstler states that whether or not human activities are behind the acceleration in global climate change doesn't matter – the fact of the change itself has to be accepted, planned for, possibly dealt with. The coming disruption of economies and governments will mean that concerted action over global warming won't happen in any meaningful way, which is not to say that there actually is any meaningful action to be taken at this late date. Kunstler discusses the crucial role the Gulf Stream plays and how large-scale melting of the Arctic ice could shut off the Gulf Stream and possibly trigger another ice age.

While an excess of fresh water in the seas may ultimately halt global warming, it is a lack of fresh water on land that will be the root cause of most of the problems for human civilization. Less snow means less water, so water supplies will fluctuate more and ecosystems will be severely strained, failing catastrophically if their constituents cannot adapt quickly enough. Food supplies will be disrupted, leading to hunger and untimely death. Ground water is rapidly being depleted, with China as one of the most at-risk areas. Food shortages will lead to migration and refugees, further straining areas that might have been able to cope otherwise. In the US, the wet areas will get drier and the the dry areas will become useless for agriculture. Widespread die-offs from rampant disease outbreaks would reduce our ability to produce food and maintain economies. In role-playing simulations, even assuming a health care infrastructure on a par with today's, responses to epidemics have failed miserably.



Running on Fumes: The Hallucinated Economy

Kunstler next turns his jaundiced gaze on the state of the US economy and the global economy, since they are so intertwined. This chapter at first seems like a somewhat tangential rehashing of the great financial blunders of the last century or so, somewhat unrelated to the concrete realities of the passing of peak oil and the problem of global warming, but the point is that the current economic infrastructure is especially shaky right now and threatening to collapse. A few ill-timed global-warming-caused gusts, or tremors from oil-flow disruptions could bring the house of cards down in a spectacular and well-nigh unrebuildable way. Kunstler declares that “Globalization promised the same nirvana as Communism” while it has turned out to exhibit “the same tendency to impoverish and enslave the many while enriching a few”, amounting to “corporate colonialism”. Kunstler savagely attacks the 'big-box' retailing model of companies like Wal-Mart and how they've laid waste to domestic and foreign economies.

Kunstler describes the birth of corporations and abstract finance in early 18th century France and the first stock market crash, in which the French middle class was wiped out, eventually leading to the fall of the monarchy. The Great Depression was the result of a similar departure from reality, where finance had come to be seen as a productive activity in itself and 'investments' were being made to turn a quick buck instead of to enhance long-term growth in productivity. After the stock market crashed in 1929, credit became almost impossible to get, which dried up growth and new jobs and led to multitudes suffering in severe want while there were unsold (and unsellable) goods mouldering in warehouses and stockyards. Kunstler blames a “divorce between ecological economics and an economics of abstract finance” as the root cause of these and similar failures

Kunstler discusses how the highly entropic suburban lifestyle has given rise to the "mythical service economy" while the US manufacturing base has been dismantled by globalization; fewer people are doing real work producing real things. We've seen repeated financial scandals where prices were, willfully or not, separated from reality for a while, long enough for a small few to live high on the hog until the smoke and mirrors fell away and huge numbers of people suffered (are still suffering) the financial consequences. Having cheap energy available has always helped recovery from these schemes, but soon that won't be the case. Kunstler sees the housing bubble of the 2000s as being another departure from reality because “there is no such thing as intrinsic value in a house” - the suburban tract home is a consumer product. Newer homes are built cheaply with cheap materials and thus require more upkeep (more trips to Home Depot) than ever. The home loan industry is teetering under the weight of bad sub-prime loans and if the Federal Government has to step in to cover those bad loans, the repercussions will reverberate through all levels of the economy and “make the S&L scandal look like a bad night of poker.” Kunstler wraps up this cheery chapter by pointing out that if there's a crash, it won't be "want amidst plenty" but "hardship amidst scarcity."



Living in the Long Emergency

Chapter 7 constitutes about 20% of the entire book, and is a broad speculation on what life may look like without cheap energy. Again the focus is primarily on the US, with specific sub-sections on a few large regions. Kunstler allows that his musings are inescapably limited and personal. Kunstler says that there will be “comprehensive downscaling, rescaling, downsizing and relocalizing of all our activities, a radical reorganization of the way we live in the most fundamental particulars.” There will be no 'deus ex machina' to save us (the machina will be out of gas, anyway). The question will be how disordered will things become before order re-emerges?

The Next Economy

The economy as we know it is prone to dysfunction and collapse in the event of even a few disruptions that would be minor of they occurred in isolation. The economy or economies that arise from the ashes will:

  • Be “intensely local and smaller scale.”

  • Be focused on food production.

  • Require land to be reallocated for farming.

  • Require relearning skills in agriculture and supporting trades

We'll have to relearn how to work in harmony with the land and the seasons instead of imposing our will with fertilizers and pesticides. We'll have to learn to enjoy the food that's in season, storing or preserving what we can't eat now for the time between harvests. There will be large numbers of agriculturally unskilled peasants, and feudalism or sharecropping might reemerge. Upheaval and disease will no doubt thin the ranks to an alarming degree. On the positive side, cooperative farming could rebuild a social infrastructure of craft trades and local commerce resembling the 'country living' that so many try to evoke in their suburban decor.

The End of Suburbia

The folly of Suburbia is a topic close to Kunstler's heart and he lets loose in this section with some cogent attacks and truly inventive turns of phrase. The core fallacy of suburbia is the pursuit of urban convenience in a rural setting, which has led to routine 20-mile drives to the grocery store or hardware store (multiple trips per day) and 90-minute commutes to jobs. He says “we spent all our wealth acquired in the twentieth century building an infrastructure of daily life that will not work long into the twenty-first century.” The waste will be continued as great effort is spent trying to shore up the illusion that suburbia is still viable. The collapse of suburbia will be so complete that it may tear us apart socially and politically, with scapegoating of arbitrary groups, lawlessness and strife in the abandoned suburban slums, and the negative effects of legal or military attempts to control the situation.

The people of suburbia would probably be best off gathering in relatively densely populated small towns surrounded by farmland where they can work to produce enough food for each other. The big cities are products of and servants to the Industrial Revolution, and so will be useless after industrial collapse. Skyscrapers won't work if power and gas disruptions become common. Reviving the centers of small towns will be difficult as well. Kunstler sees small towns on rivers that could be exploited for small-scale hydropower as being quite viable. In one of his few outright recommendations, he suggests moving to one of these areas, getting some land and learning a practical vocation. What we now consider 'cottage industry' will be the norm, with repair and resale of goods comprising much of non-agricultural trade. The national retailers and consumer culture will be gone – it will simply be uneconomical to move goods around in large volume, and there may be few to sell to anyway.

What We Live In

Usable structures will have house many people, be within walkable distances of workplaces and food sources, be heated or ventilated with simple, low-energy systems, and have maintainable roofs. We'll see a return to masonry and wood construction, possibly reinforced concrete, but the steel for rebar may be unavailable or too expensive.

Transportation in the Long Emergency

Goods and people will move slowly, if at all. There may be electric cars for a privileged elite, but where will the funds for maintaining the roads come from? Highways are almost useless unless in near-perfect condition – cracks and bumps quickly spread and they damage the vehicles at the same time, so a cascading transportation failure is likely. We could work to revive the railroads, but we'll need steel for the rails and coal and electricity to power them. Riverboats will be utilized to a much greater extent than now, but climatic changes will probably cause cyclic flood problems, and sea level rise will put many existing ports and other infrastructure out of commission. Airlines will be a memory after fuel costs go to the stratosphere and the middle class starts staying on the ground.

Education

Kunstler projects that for most, education beyond the 8th grade level may be at an end, with an overall shift to more practical, vocational training of various kinds. During the Long Emergency, every available hand will have to be put to work. College education will make sense for fewer people, and there will be, at least at first, a great need for new adult education programs to retrain service and technical workers, among others.

Regional Issues

Next, Kunstler addresses the prospects of the six broad geographical regions of the Continental US. The climate characteristics of each region will be the dominant factor in how they fare, and the mix of advantages and disadvantages will surely change somewhat as global warming continues, but the social and cultural makeup of the residents will play an important role as well. Also in question is whether the USA will continue to function as a unified entity. The national government may lose influence and credibility and regional coalitions of states, perhaps even crossing current national borders, may gain influence as they address their individual, unique challenges.

Sunset in the Sunbelt

The desert southwest, from Southern California to western Texas and up into Utah and Colorado is only habitable (by large numbers) because of cheap energy that powers air conditioning, irrigation, and travel over long distances. Climate change will probably make it harsher. There will no doubt be friction with Mexico - many of those struggling to the south will probably want to come north, and previous immigrants will be at least sympathetic to their plight; the influx will only make things worse.

The Land of NASCAR

The US southeast is flat, wide and hot. The power from the TVA's mid-century dam projects allowed the widespread adoption of air conditioning which in turn allowed the dispersed suburban boom throughout the region, that expansion largely becoming the basis of the economy there. Kunstler's disdain for the southeast is barely contained as he describes the “ersatz country-folk of suburbia” leading a largely indoor existence, shuttling in overpowered cars between air-conditioned oases, filling their homes with “cheap plastic junk and anything with a motor in it.” Cultural acceptance of violence, belief that the USA is “special”, rugged individualism, firearm ownership and NRA membership, simmering racial tensions - these cannot be ignored, nor can the Evangelical/Fundamentalist Christian influence. All these factors point to probable disorder and splintering. A despotic theocracy may rise in the South or possibly smaller social constructs – families, clans, tribes, gangs – may become the largest functional organizing entities in this region.

The Old Union

The Old Union (the northeast, where Kunstler has spent most of his life) has better prospects, given the favorable climate, water sources, varied topography, and an existing, if decayed, underlying fabric of small towns and farms. The culture is rooted in a more secular view than the South, with much more tolerance for diversity. The suburban swath from Boston to Washington, D.C., dotted with megacities, will sink into ruin and disorder, displacing a huge population, but the areas to the west will remain livable. The cities of the Rust Belt are already decayed, so they may be able to 'skip a step', as it were, in the transition to new paradigms. The Great Lakes are underutilized economically, and the US states and Canadian Provinces surrounding them might merge in some way to meet common needs.

The Great Plains

The Great Plains will become “dismal, depopulated and desolate” - this is already underway, according to Kunstler. The simple fact is that the Plains can't be farmed very productively without the benefits of oil.

The Rockies

Kunstler thinks the Rockies will perhaps become even more desolate than the Plains. The current enclaves of “high-entropy yuppie hypersuburbanites” will have no reason to exist, cut off from the rest of the country. The residents' outdoor adventures “won't have to be contrived." The land on the eastern slopes of the Rockies is arid and poor for farming. The Mormons' high birthrate is a problem. Extremists and zealots of various stripes are scattered throughout the Rockies, which could lead to many dangerous encounters between desperate, often deluded people.

The Pacific Northwest

The Pacific Northwest has a good climate and farming possibilities, at least in the coastal portions; the areas east of the Cascade Range are quite arid. Recent development has been largely suburban, though the large cities are vibrant and of manageable size. There is likely to be a lot of population pressure as refugees from California head north. The Long Emergency won't happen to the US in isolation, of course, and the Pacific Northwest could be vulnerable to 'raiders' from Asia (where conditions will probably be much worse), much as the British Isles were targets of the Vikings.

Racial Conflict / Ideas, Morals, and Manners

Kunstler hesitantly touches on the issue of race relations in America. He feels that the disingenuousness of much of the 'progress' that was made in the 20th century will become evident, possibly painfully so. He asserts that the separateness of the black sub-culture, especially as expressed among the inner-city poor, will prove counter productive, with the simmering resentment and aggression possibly erupting into riots and destruction as the poor become truly poor by world standards. Beyond the racial issues, much of the broader culture's high-minded and enlightened ideals were developed in a time of unprecedented prosperity. Human nature hasn't evolved in the brief flash of the Industrial Age. We're already on a track of abandoning the ethos of hard work being the best path to long-term security in favor of a 'get rich quick' mentality where luck leads to getting something for nothing. For instance, gambling was considered a vice forty years ago, but now we have lotteries and Indian casinos from coast to coast and Las Vegas has been re-cast as an arrested-adolescence theme-park where actions have no consequences - “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.”

 

Epilogue

For the paperback edition of The Long Emergency (published in February 2006), Kunstler wrote an epilogue in late 2005, wherein he looks at how major events since completing the original text relate to his conclusions and prognostications. Kunstler states that “We're in the zone” - that the Long Emergency is starting. He points to the infrastructure failure after Hurricane Katrina and the fuel price spikes as bearing out his view of the fragility of our systems and emergency response capabilities. The price of fossil fuels continues to “fibrillate strangely”, and the Strategic Petroleum Reserve was put into action as the market-stabilizing “swing producer” when the Saudis proved completely unable to boost their production in 2005. The housing bubble continued to swell. “Mortgage lending was out of control” with as many as 50% of mortgages being in the very risky “sub-prime” category. Natural gas prices were up 80% in 2005, with prices oscillating and a European LNG shortage having direct negative effects in the US market. Europe had the London subway bombings and the riots in France by gangs of unemployed, disaffected, predominantly-Muslim youth. Just as the Nixon/Watergate scandal distracted from the seriousness of the OPEC oil embargo and made it seem like more chicanery by the powers that be, the growing flood of scandals from the Bush Administration could have the same effect. Still no one has proposed fixing the railroads.

Kunstler closes the epilogue with a pertinent question: “How do we become a reality-based nation?”

 

Conclusion

In conclusion, before a brief aside on his personal circumstances and choices and the epilogue, Kunstler says that a tragic view of life may replace the optimism that has been the norm for so long. Religious authority may displace an impotent secular authority. In any case, society will become more starkly hierarchical, filled with downtrodden people who are easily led, easily pushed. Such populations have been induced to do horrible things by exploitive 'leaders' throughout human history. There will be much injustice and persecution; what justice remains will be harsh and swift. In a particularly dark statement, Kunstler sums up the Long Emergency: “There will be hunger instead of plenty, cold where there was once warmth, effort where there was leisure, sickness where there was health, and violence where there was peace.”