Book Review of The Long Emergency by James Howard Kunstler

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While at the library, I happened upon the book The Long Emergency by James Howard Kunstler. It’s subtitle is, “Surviving the End of Oil, Climate Change, and Other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century”. It seemed like an important book to dive into and a great random library find, so I snatched it up. I didn’t recognize Kunstler’s name at first, but now that I’ve noticed it on this book, I’ve see that his name pops up now and then in other writings I encounter, so appreciate having this book under my belt to fill out the other things that I read.

The Long Emergency starts out with a quote:

“The fatal metaphor of progress, which means leaving things behind us, has utterly obscured the real idea of growth, which means leaving things inside us.”

That’s from G.K. Chesterton, whose quotes I’ve always loved, and this one starts the book off right. We’ve got this idea called “progress” in our culture, and it has obscured quite a lot of things. In the coming decades we (we humans, not necessarily we who are alive right now) will get to find out whether progress has obscured our ability to continue as a species.

When the access to cheap oil runs dry and global warming inches higher, Kunstler foresees a time of political and economic disorder that he calls The Long Emergency. Kunstler positions himself as an optimist, when compared to the collapse crowd – he thinks civilization will continue  (although in a much different form) and that new energy options may be discovered/invented, but that stability will be a long way off. In the meantime, during The Long Emergency, we’re in for a world of hurt. Even when trying to be optimistic, Kunstler concedes that oil may have been a one-time deal for the excesses it allowed.

One thing that the abundance of oil has facilitated is our ever-swelling population. Kunstler mentions that the green revolution was “mostly about dumping massive amounts of fertilizers and pesticides made out of fossil fuels onto crops, as well as employing irrigation at a fantastic scale made possible by abundant oil and gas.” Our population went up, up, up, and running out of oil will have enormous impacts because, “The people are already here.”

So how much of what we think of as “normal life” is tied up in this oil thing? The Long Emergency doesn’t have to stretch very hard to come up with lists of things tied to oil, because there are simply so very many. In some ways, nearly everything you can think of ties back to the availability of cheap fossil fuels. There are some very big ideas like our national defense, airplanes, the construction and maintenance of nuclear power plants, the ability to truck and fly food anywhere, and suburbia. Then there are the everyday things we don’t think of as extraordinary like central heating, air conditioning, cars, having electricity in our homes, cheap clothes, recorded music and movies. Then there’s the never-ending list of just stuff that’s made from oil: balloons, yarn, ballpoint pens, band-aids, toothpaste, umbrellas, cameras, shoes, carpet, hair coloring, shampoo.

The problem with our reliance on oil is what is often described as “peak oil”, which is the point at which half of all the oil has been extracted. While it may seem like the peak means middle and that there’s 100 more years to go, the half that’s extracted prior to peak is the easy half – it’s easy to get to, easy to extract, and easy to use. What remains is in harder to reach places, is more difficult to extract, and is in a form that’s harder to utilize. At some point, long before the planet is out of oil, we will be out of oil, because the energy costs to get it will exceed what we get in return. And when will this peak happen? That depends entirely on who you read, and won’t be known for sure until hindsight. The Long Emergency was published in 2005, and Kunstler states that peak will likely occur or did occur between 2000 and 2008. Based on other people that I read, I think he’s right, and global peak oil has already happened.

Chapter Three, Geopolitics and The Global Oil Peak, is a quick and dirty march through history, pointing out the various ways in which oil has impacted the politics and economies of the world since it flowed onto the scene in 1859. Kunstler outlines ways in which oil affected the course of World War I, factors into the Arab-Israeli conflict, has played into China’s growth, and is increasingly focusing world attention on the Middle East. In reading this chapter, I learned that Afghanistan shares a tiny bit of border with China. Kunstler suggests, and I agree, that the availability of oil in the Middle East, China’s proximity to the region, and China’s oil needs that rival the US’s go a long way to explain our continued military presence in Afghanistan.

Chapter Four is called Beyond Oil: Why Alternative Fuels Won’t Rescue Us, and begins like this:

“Based on everything we know right now, no combination of so-called alternative fuels or energy procedures will allow us to maintain daily life in the United States the way we have been accustomed to running it under the regime of oil. No combination of alternative fuels will even permit us to operate a substantial fraction of the systems we currently run – in everything from food production and manufacturing to electric power generation, to skyscraper cities, to the ordinary business of running a household by making multiple car trips per day, to the operation of giant centralized schools with their fleets of yellow buses. We are in trouble.”

Kunstler points out that all of the non-fossil fuel energy sources actually require fossil fuels to happen, such as for metal manufacturing or making batteries. He then proceeds to march through the alternative fuel ideas we have and shoot them down as viable saviors. Natural gas, coal and tar sands, shale oils, ethanol, nuclear fission, solar, wind, water, tidal power, and methane hydrates? Not going to work. He positions nuclear power as the only remaining option to help pad the fall from our current lifestyles, though ramping up nuclear energy will cause great political strife. Nuclear energy won’t divert us from The Long Emergency, though – it won’t run the cars. Massive changes in where we live, how and where we grow our food, and drastic social changes are still coming, regardless. But, Kunstler says that nuclear power is the answer to the question of whether these changes will “happen with the lights on or the lights off.”

After tackling the largest looming problem of energy, Kunstler devotes the next couple of chapters to various other interrelated issues like climate change, epidemic disease, water scarcity, habitat destruction, the economy, and the concept of globalism. His outlook is not-too-rosy on any of these topics, either, outlining the ways in which various forces and patterns are coalescing to kick start The Long Emergency.

One of the reasons I was excited to pick up this book was the subtitle: “Surviving the End of Oil, Climate Change, and Other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century”. That word “surviving” indicated to me that the book would address some ways to prepare, get by, get through, or make do with the coming difficulties. I was disappointed, though. Unfortunately, the book is long on gloom-and-doom and low on strategies or advice of any kind.

The final chapter, “Living in the Long Emergency” actually turned me off entirely, and I didn’t finish it. Kunstler looks at various areas of the US and talks about aspects of The Long Emergency particular to the location. There is some potentially useful information there, like the reality that the southwest doesn’t have the water for its population. However, a lot of the storytelling in this chapter was downright offensive, like the strangely prejudicial descriptions of Southerers, where his logic seemed to boil down to, “The South will suck so much during the crisis because they like NASCAR too much.” I found it strange and unreadable.

Overall, I would recommend this book. I found the historical information extremely readable. My eyes usually glaze over at history, but this book did a great job of placing historical events and trends in a context that made a lot of sense and remained exciting to read. If you’re new to the idea of peak oil, Kunstler’s outline of the issues is written in accessible language. If you’re long familiar with peak oil, the book does a great job of weaving other factors into the whole picture.

Have you read The Long Emergency? What did you think?