"The Long Emergency" by James Howard Kunstler

“Personally, I was so depressed I felt like gargling with razor blades.”

The Long Emergency by James Howard KunstlerThat was James Howard Kunstler’s reaction to a lecture he attended describing the end of life on Earth, which is set to occur in a few hundred million years as a result of the natural aging process of our sun. It might also be a reader’s reaction to his latest book, The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-first Century. I posted some excerpts from the book earlier (here and here), and they weren’t exactly met with cries of joy. I’ll try not to go into too much gory detail here, but I think it’s much better to face the gore now than to end up looking like Condoleeza Rice when she said “I believe the title was, ‘Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside the United States.’”

The Long Emergency has two major themes: we are going to run out of oil, and we are woefully unprepared to handle the consequences. [By “we” Kunstler means Americans, but Canada is in more or less the same boat.] He also discusses other calamities, such as global climate change and epidemic diseases, but they seem minor compared to the impact of fossil fuel depletion. Water depletion is another major issue, but will soon be moot since the pumping of aquifers and damming or diverting of rivers is wholly dependent on petroleum power.

There are a few key points in the discussion around fossil fuels. First and foremost, fossil fuels are finite, something which the entire world has been and continues to be in deep denial about. Secondly, we are reaching the peak of petroleum production, after which production will decline steadily (and rapidly, due to our extreme levels of consumption), and prices will rise accordingly. The desperation to secure the last dregs of oil will also rise, leading to more of the dreadful conflict we are already seeing in the Middle East. (Kunstler calls the Iraq war the “opening ceremonies” of WWIII.)

Thirdly, there are no viable alternatives to fossil fuels. The flip side to the denial about the finitude of fossil fuels is what Kunstler calls magical thinking about the ability of “they” to “come up with” some alternative energy source that will enable us to carry on our prodigiously consumptive lifestyles. As Kunstler puts it, under the current laws of thermodynamics, it ain’t gonna happen. Fourthly and finally, our agriculture, our consumer economy, our financial systems, our governments, even our social lives are almost entirely dependent on cheap and plentiful fossil fuels. Factory farming and suburbia are not sustainable, and both will have to be abandoned in favour of small-scale, muscle-powered, community-oriented, town-and-hinterland living.

Kunstler has written books on the plague of suburbia that has taken over North America and discusses at great length the complete inadequacy of this way of life (and the global financial and trade systems that support it) to survive in a petroleum-free future. He is also rather misanthropic about the capability of Americans to make the transition to sustainable living in a peaceful manner, and I regretfully can’t argue with him about that. I’m guessing that his book tour didn’t cross the Mason-Dixon line because he is especially hard on Southerners (especially whites), with their propensity to religious fanaticism, hyperindividualism, and a high tolerance for violence. These are not qualities that contribute to the formation of stable, civil, interdependent communities.

On the other hand, he practically waxes romantic about the ability of Northeasterners to reconstitute themselves into civilized small towns and villages due to their inherent respect for the rule of law and concern for the common good. Perhaps. At any rate that is where he has thrown his lot in, to the point of quitting his corporate job and getting established in a small town that he feels will be viable after oil.

As for the rest of the country, most of it will be uninhabitable, Kunstler says. The Southwest is too dry and likely to be reclaimed by la raza (i.e. Mexicans); the Great Plains are too dry and too cold, uninhabitable except by those who go native; and the Rockies lack agricultural land and have been infiltrated by militia-type survivalist wackos. The Pacific Northwest gets the least attention (as usual) and although he worries about invasions by land from a desperate California and by sea from a desperate Asia (we had a preview of that in 1999 with the Fujian boat people), he acknowledges that most experts have the highest hopes for the continuance of decent human life here in the temperate rainforest.

The two big questions, which are not satisfactorily addressed in the book, are when will this all happen and what should we do about it? As for when it will happen, and in what order will things fall apart, that is probably unknowable. Soon, for sure, definitely in this half-century, and things might start unravelling as soon as the oil production peak becomes apparent and the panic begins. That could be this decade. (OK everyone, breathe…) Remember Condi Rice. Let’s not get caught with our pants down.

As for what to do about it, the answer is to figure out where you might fit in a future small-scale agricultural economy and prepare for that. Kunstler envisions a society that will be all about growing food, with three classes of people involved: farmers, farm labourers, and townsfolk in occupations that support the agricultural enterprise. Obviously one would want to avoid the farm labourer category, which history has shown to be a poor vocation, except for when labour is scarce, which might be the case after worldwide starvation and epidemics. Being a landowner may or may not be a secure position. If labour is not scarce, you may end up with a pitchfork-wielding mob on your doorstep with a not-too-subtle eviction notice. Townsfolk, though dependent on farmers for food and livelihood, might have a decent time of it provided they have the skills required by their community. You might do you kids a favour by sending them to apprentice at Colonial Williamsburg rather than to college or university. Seriously.

One thing the book does well is give you the background of how our world was built. In particular, Kunstler describes the growth and development of the three flimsy legs of the stool on which we are all sitting: petroleum, finance, and suburbia. His chapter on “The Hallucinated Economy” was particularly informative for someone whose eyes glaze over during the financial report on the evening news. The likelihood of financial paper of any kind surviving “The Long Emergency” seems pretty low. He doesn’t come right out and say it, but I’m thinking that now might not be such a bad time to get into metals. His chapters on the geopolitics of oil and the suburbia-based economy are equally enlightening.

One drawback of the book is that he completely ignores women’s issues, except to mention that “traditional divisions of labour” may be “reestablished.” That doesn’t even begin to describe the changes that will be happening to women, not the least of which will be a reduction in our ability to technologically control fertility. You don’t have to be a women’s studies major or a mother of 12 to know the loss of human potential that comes with uncontrolled reproduction. Our great-grandmothers most likely lived lives of dawn-to-dusk drudgery (I know mine did), and we may be doomed by biology (and ignorance of natural alternatives) to see a repeat of that. Kunstler also ignores the role of women in establishing and maintaining the social networks that he feels will be critical to re-establishing civilized society after the crash. Women are often the glue that holds communities (and churches) together, and we ignore that at our peril.

Speaking of churches, Kunstler doesn’t have much to say about them either, except for disparaging remarks about Evangelicals/Pentecostals and about the co-opting of religion by powerful groups to control the peasants. He does admit that higher learning may be preserved in monasteries, something I sincerely hope is true. (Personally I think we are likely to see a revitalization of monastic life as living conditions erode and vocational choices constrict, especially for women. It has certainly crossed my mind as a potential future role.) Other than that he sees no positive role for religion, other than as a tool to create social unity. I think he is not familiar with the good work that churches (especially the women in churches) quietly carry out for the poor in their local communities. This has been going on for 2000 years (and longer for older faith groups) and I see no reason why it wouldn’t continue to be a positive, civilizing force.

Since we’ve all seen the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina I probably don’t have to mention this, but Kunstler is also pessimistic about governments’ willingness to prepare us for and ability to shepherd us through “The Long Emergency.” It will be individual and community effort that will rebuild a sustainable, civilized, low-tech society, and we will all have to grow up pretty fast to be able to do it. This is perhaps the one thing Kunstler is most pessimistic about. He writes:

The Long Emergency will demand so much of individuals in terms of personal responsibility, civic cooperation, and adult skills, that large numbers of people will be unprepared to cope, and the rest won’t be disposed to excuse the truculence or misbehavior of those who cannot.

So there you have it. Now don’t go gargling razor blades, people. We won’t be living like Little House on the Prairie tomorrow, but if you’ve ever wanted to learn how to make preserves or dress a deer, now’s the time to cultivate those kinds of skills. They may be the only kind of investment to survive the global petroleum meltdown. Now, like Dr. Rice, you can’t say you weren’t warned!