The Long Emergency, by James Howard Kunstler

The Long Emergency. James Howard Kunsler

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

U.S. oil production peaked in about 1971. It now appears that global oil production has already or is about to peak. James Howard Kunstler (blog) explores, with ample documentation, what this means in The Long Emergency.

If oil production has peaked, then 50% of all known oil reserves are gone and the remaining 50% will be increasingly difficult and expensive to get to. Some of it will be impossible to get out, so there’s actually less than 50% left. China and India are industrializing fast, creating more demand for oil. Globalism runs on cheap oil. Without it, for example, outsourcing factories to Asia, makes no economic sense.

So, Kunstler asks, what kind of planet will we have as oil supply continues to drop, demand increases, and the price rises? He sees huge economic dislocations coming, with entire industries being crippled or shut down. Those who live in the suburbs or the country will find their lifestyle increasingly untenable, as much of it is automobile-based. There will be further wars for the remaining petroleum reserves. The corrupt Saudi monarchy will probably fall, China could assert hegemony in the Middle East, and those countries without enough oil will have major problems. Government will fracture and autonomous regions will form.

Oil is widely used in manufacturing, both directly in things like pharmaceuticals and fertilizer, and to power the machines that make things. This is a crucial point. Oil isn’t just used for transporting goods, it is also used in creating them.

Ah, you say, renewable energy will solve the problem. Well, it could help, but the capacity of renewables to create enough electricity just isn’t there and again, all those wind turbines and solar panels need petroleum-based products to be manufactured. He sees nuclear power as the only method of keeping the lights on until we make the transition to whatever comes after our soon-to-be-ending era of cheap, readily available oil. Yes, there’s the storage problem for the spent nuclear rods. But there may be no alternative.

It occurs to me that little Cuba, which was forced to reinvent its agriculture after the USSR fell, could provide a model here. They now grow virtually all their food organically, without pesticides and fertilizer, and do so locally. In Kunstler’s view, this is precisely where agriculture is headed. You can forget about buying New Zealand strawberries at Whole Foods in the winter, transportation costs will make that untenable. Food will be locally grown, period.

Sure, this book is apocalyptic. But if you accept that oil production has peaked, then the seriousness of the situation becomes apparent. One wonders what forms of government will evolve because of this, as neither capitalism nor socialism as we know them would be able handle such changes. Capitalism assumes the market will handle supply-demand problems, but what if supply is always dropping? Socialism assumes central control and managed economies, but that seems an unlikely prospect as people increasingly begin to grow their own food, manage their own local economies, and become semi- if not completely autonomous.

(More on this important book in future posts.)


  1. It’s not quite that simple. It actually takes less oil to send goods to Boston from Hong Kong by ship than to truck it from California. So the first industries to be hit will not be global ones, they will be national, with trucking directly in the crosshairs. Sure, many companies will switch to rail transit. But in 2004, the U.S. employed 2.8 million truck drivers. That’s a lot of people to become unemployed.

  2. Unless rail can run on something other than oil, the pricing problem will still be there.

  3. The pricing problem is indeed there– but those tansportation methods with higher fuel consumption will suffer more. Consider:

    A diesel truck burns 3,083 BTU per ton-mile.
    Rail burns only 344 BTU per ton-mile.
    Vessel burns 417 BTU per ton-mile.

    So trucking is far more susceptible to fuel price increases than the other two.

    Conversely, artificially low fuel prices have supported the growth of the trucking industry, which is more convenient but far less efficient.

  4. Rail helps for much of the journey, but then how do you get the freight from the rr terminal to wherever it needs to be without trucks.

  5. Also true for ships– you’ve got to deliver it from the dock.

    At present, freight is heavily truck dependent– as you no doubt saw when driving the freeways of the west. That will change, impacting our economy.

  6. […] nukes. That’s the conclusion Jim Kunstler reaches in The Long Emergency, and I reluctantly agree. France already generates 70% of their power that way and have never had […]

  7. Excellent idea. I think in our life we have to be always prepared for some possibilities that might happen especially for the emergencies. Wherever we are, there will be always an emergency happen, and we dont know when will it happen. And being prepared and have the things or having emergency kit that we possible need whatever type of emergency will happen, is a clever thing that we do.

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