The Long Emergency

January 24, 2008

We like our scares compartmentalized. The Exorcist is fun because we can turn on the lights after watching the movie and remind ourselves it is fiction. We can threaten ourselves temporarily with a monstrous threat to everything we love and hold dear, and then return to our old life, without truly risking that which we cherish.

Just finished the scariest book I’ve ever read, The Long Emergency by James Howard Kunstler, about the impact of the end of cheap oil on our society. An excerpt of the book is available at Rolling Stone, for whom Kunstler writes. To quote:

Most immediately we face the end of the cheap-fossil-fuel era. It is no exaggeration to state that reliable supplies of cheap oil and natural gas underlie everything we identify as the necessities of modern life — not to mention all of its comforts and luxuries: central heating, air conditioning, cars, airplanes, electric lights, inexpensive clothing, recorded music, movies, hip-replacement surgery, national defense — you name it.

Kunstler’s point is that we are near, or have already passed, the peak of global oil production. This means that we have used half of the oil our planet contains. However, since the rate at which we are using the oil has been, and will continue to, rise exponentially, we will use the second half much faster than we have used the first half, in only 20-30 years, by some estimates.

If the end of cheap oil merely meant that we have to drive less it would be incovenient but survivable. But what makes Kunstler’s predictions terrifying that the core of our modern civilization depends upon cheap oil. We live in suburbs where we can’t walk anywhere. We eat more apples flown in from Chile than grown in the farmlands 50 miles away. The green revolution that produces so much food itself depends upon fertilizers and pesticides that derive from petroleum. We commute hundreds of miles to work each week. We live in deserts and thus require irrigation and air conditioning to survive.

One of the characteristics of our insecurity is that we ridicule anyone who points to the end of the good times as an unstable nutcase. Jimmy Carter, who told Americans to put on sweaters and turn down their thermostats, to drive slower so as to conserve fuel, was a laughing stock. Heck, I thought he was ridiculous, but, then, I was all of 12 years old. But he will go down in history as the first (and, to date, the only) President to understand the danger the oil boom poses to our civilization. We simply don’t want to hear that access to Wal-Mart hair driers (to pick one of Kunstler’s favorite whipping boys) might cause the erosion of our way of life and ultimately our civilization. Perhaps the scariest part is that Kunstler doesn’t seem like a nutcase now, what he says makes real sense, which means that culturally we’re already feeling the beginnings of the Long Emergency.

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4 Responses to “The Long Emergency”

  1. asqfish Says:

    Man is the father of invention. When we will not have cheap oil, we will have to change our life style and perhaps it will be more family friendly and less stress creating.
    Eventhough one cannot imagine living as such, but don’t people go camping to relax?

  2. Asqfish: You’re right, of course. The future will neither be as great as the big corporations think it will be, nor will it be as dire as the alarmists fear. You are also right that economic pressures could improve some aspects of society and cause us to live more locally and more communally, and, as such, increase our enjoyment of life.

    What *is* alarming is the exponential growth of our consumption. Exponential curves seldom die well, and there is no question but that the exponential growth cannot continue. When the curve stops there will be millions of people without food, shelter, or income. Society needs to start preparing now so that such a transition happens in as compassionate a way as possible.

  3. […] Home From Nowhere January 29, 2008 Since I liked The Long Emergency so much, over the weekend I read Home From Nowhere, James Howard […]

  4. […] Stanley Robinson’s Three Californias Trilogy. I read the book because, perhaps because after reading The Long Emergency I was in the mood for dystopia. What was a wonderful surprise, though, was that […]

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