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.)