The Long Emergency
Surviving the End of Oil, Climate Change, and Other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century
James Howard Kunstler
Grove Press, NY, 2005 (Paperback Edition Epilogue 2006)
Howard Kunstler's "The Long Emergency" is not a fun read. It is by no
means long-winded or boring - the pacing is brisk and there are plenty
of vivid images and wry turns of phrase to keep interest up, reflecting
Kunstler's past in popular journalism. The book is no fun because
Kunstler manages to bring together several subject areas that are
usually reported on and examined in isolation, and in pointing out
their fragile and interdependent nature he forces one to recognize at
least that major changes are on the way, changes over which we'll have
no meaningful control.
Kunstler's thesis is
that life as we know it, especially in the Western World, is
inextricably linked with having abundant and ever-growing supplies of
cheap fossil fuel, that it is evident growth in fossil fuel supplies
has already peaked, that the future holds worsening scarcity, intense
competition and ruinous expense, and that life in this not-at-all
distant future will be overwhelmingly different (unimaginably so,
unbearably so, for most) from the carefree consumerist
existence we've slouched into. Our great-great- or
great-great-great-grandparents might find the new order recognizable.
Except for the all the abandoned structures, useless paved-over
cropland, and hordes of impoverished people lacking even the most basic
skills for getting by. Add into the end of oil the
wishful-thinking-powered mythos of alternative energy,
the unforeseeable effects of global climate change, already rising
geopolitical tensions, the clashing of Christian and
Muslim world views, and the house-of-cards Global
Economy and you have the stage set for a disastrous slide into
darkness that would make a Bosch
nightmare look like an idyllic weekend in the Bahamas.
will always be amongst us, be they street-corner
Cassandras, conscientious cultural icons,
or conniving con men with survival kits. Kunstler seems to be none of
these. His arguments have a coherence that one quickly finds lacking in
the wide-eyed shouters, wild-haired whisperers and menacing mutterers.
While he was schooled in the arts and counts being an editor of
Rolling Stone (in the early days) as one of his major credits, he's
not trading on celebrity or seeking to redeem himself for success and
comfort gotten by virtue of physical appearance or providing shallow
entertainments. Most importantly, he doesn't have anything to sell to
help us out of this mess, no five-point plan that would work if we'd
all just sign up for the training courses, no enlightened belief system
to buy into. Aside from the income from sales of the book it doesn't
appear Kunstler has anything to gain (directly) by pointing out these
dire truths. He's not a scientist or an economist or a Fundamentalist
or a prescriptionist - he's a journalist, one who came of age in the
late 1960's, who still holds some ideals from that era. He apparently
springs from the good old Yankee tradition of rational, secular,
clear-thinking and straight-talking that has served us so well in the
past. Additionally, Kunstler discounts thoughts of chicanery or
conspiracy as being behind a crisis that doesn't really exist.
Instead, he considers the crisis to be simply the cumulative result of
thousands upon thousands of practical decisions made within necessarily limited spheres of knowledge and operation, an emergent property of human nature, if you will. In many ways his work is reminiscent of that of Mike Davis, though he takes a much larger view.
have been plenty of completely rational thinkers in the past who've
put forward clearly reasoned explanations of why full-scale
catastrophe was just around the corner. Many feel Ehrlich's Population Bomb has fizzled, for example. Kunstler
goes so far as to mention Thomas Malthus' failed prediction that
geometric growth in population would outstrip arithmetic growth in food
production by the middle of the 19th century. In Kunstler's view, the
discovery and exploitation of cheap fossil fuels beginning in the late
19th century temporarily skewed the equations Malthus based his
conclusions on, and that he was right overall. Kunstler's conjectures
about the progression of the Long Emergency may be somewhat overblown
in many ways and plain wrong in many details. While he convincingly derails the hope of some alternative energy source taking the place
of oil, he doesn't consider the possibility that significant advances
might be made in all of them that in sum would lead to a less dismal
future. His repeated hammering at the follies of American Suburbia
is indicative of his heartfelt animosity toward that aspect of modern
America - he has published several previous books on the subject. In
his survey of the prospects for various US regions, Kunstler takes some
mild verbal swipes at the people of the Rockies and the Southeast,
while being generous to his home Northeast, so his scenarios may be
similarly slanted, somewhat.
By the end of
this book, one is overwhelmed and fatigued by the sheer weight and
variety of the dangers Kunstler elucidates, to the point where one
might think, after a few days' reflection, that it isn't that bad. But
what if it is? There will no doubt be some developments which 'rescue'
some slices of the whole, but much of what he projects, dire and dismal
as it is, will turn out to have been optimistic pie-in-the-sky. Kunstler's The Long Emergency provides a much
needed starting point for the serious thought that we need to give to
to the subject of how the world will be changed by the lack of cheap
energy and how we'll have to change our approach to life in order to
follows is a rather detailed summary of the book, chapter by chapter, with a minimum of
editorial commentary. Many supporting details and illustrative examples
have been left out. Chapter 4 will be covered in some detail in a
separate node. Chapter 7 is simply a very long chapter with many small
parts that don't lend themselves to being lumped together. If one
objects to the arguments as represented in this summary, the actual
book should be consulted before speaking out against them. If one is
intrigued by the topics covered, by all means seek out the book as
Sleepwalking into the Future
main thrust of chapter one is that the astounding changes that the
Industrial Age has brought, the freedom from abject want and endless
drudgery, the distractions and comforts of the entertainment saturated
consumer age, have lulled us into a somnambulant stupor
where we think this is all normal and that it couldn't possibly change
for the worse, that there's both a willful disregard for the warning
signs all around and a real inability to lend credence to the flashes
of reality that do make it onto our screens, so great is the cognitive
dissonance they engender.
The end of oil will
be so catastrophic because far more than just the obvious uses for
transportation, heating and cooling, powering lights and appliances
will be curtailed, but the very existence of those appliances, systems
and vehicles will be doubtful. Further, our industrial-level
agriculture requires machines and fuel and boatloads of fertilizers and
pesticides, all largely derived from fossil fuel by-products. The same
goes for our medical equipment and pharmaceuticals, our high-tech
entertainment systems and our computers.
oil supplies were to remain at their current levels indefinitely, there
would be problems because inexorable worldwide economic growth is
putting increasing demand on those resources. Climate change, pollution
and new diseases are other serious threats to the status quo. The
globalized economy requires cheap oil for intercontinental shipping
of goods. Modern financial market 'instruments' are less and less
connected to real production and value, and the effects of failed
schemes like Enron and MCI WorldCom are being felt by more and more
Without cheap oil, Kunstler sees the end of the Industrial Age.
Modernity and the Fossil Fuels Dilemma
gives a brief history of how fossil fuels have driven the Industrial
Age and all the marvels and miracles we've come to take for granted,
how cheap energy has taken us down a road from which there is no
turning back - once the tank is dry, we'll have to get out and walk,
though we may waste some effort pushing the car along for a few miles.
The problem is that we are at, or about to reach, Peak Oil - the
point after which the worldwide rate of oil extraction can only
decrease. Kunstler gives a good argument that the American oil production curve (which peaked in 1970) will be matched by the
worldwide production curve.
Geopolitics and the Global Oil Peak
already seeing the geopolitical effects of the
competition for the remaining oil. As is human nature, the conflict is
not expressed directly, but is rather channeled through other
outlets, such as the growing tension between Militant Islam and the
largely Christian West. Kunstler describes the global oil peak period
as a "bumpy plateau" which will feature fluctuations in supply and
demand, confusion and denial, strange market behaviors and feedback loops. In a memorable passage, Kunstler paraphrases oil
maven Kenneth Deffeyes' statement of 2003: "The good news was that
OPEC could no longer dictate world oil prices; the bad news was that
no one could." Refining capacity has been allowed to
decline and there have been gas supply problems when refineries have
been damaged by weather or accidents.
Taking the world by large geographic regions, Kunstler looks at the political prospects each faces as oil becomes scarcer.
America has proven that it can't just go in and take control of the oil fields.
China may feel it has to.
The Middle East faces internal tensions.
Russia is already in decline and has little to sell but oil.
will likely be drawn into any conflict with the Muslim world, but
Europe hasn't abandoned its small towns and moderately sized cities.
South America won't be on the world stage so much.
Africa's already bad situation won't really change appreciably.
potential changes in the USA/North America are left for the final
chapter. Overall Kunstler sees a period of geopolitical turbulence
that could settle out in any number of ways, few of them reassuring.
Beyond Oil: Why Alternative Fuels Won't Rescue Us
key chapter of Kunstler's The Long Emergency is chapter 4, where he
argues convincingly that finding some energy source or mix of sources
to simply take the role of fossil fuels is an escapist daydream,
the pursuit of which will only dissipate our energies and delay the
needed response of drastically cutting back on consumption and
wastefulness. The book is worth reading for this chapter alone.
Kunstler likens the vague hope that "somebody will come up with
something" to the absurd cargo cults that arose in the
South Pacific islands in the wake of US supply airdrops during World
War II. At best, there will be a period of chaos and stress after oil
runs out and before whatever, if anything, comes next. How long this
period will be is anyone's guess - 10 years? 100? Longer? Consider that
major breakthroughs in developing power from nuclear fusion have been
'10 years away' for over 30 years.
of the major proposed alternative energy sources in turn, Kunstler
exposes the fallacies and unaddressed problems with them. This chapter will be covered more extensively elsewhere.
Natural Gas: Finite like oil, difficult and dangerous to transport.
Hydrogen Economy: Delusional 'pseudo-fuel'. Dangerous, very difficult
to transport, requires completely new infrastructure.
Coal: Finite, dirty, only poor sources remaining
Power: Exploiting all identified remaining sites would only add 5% of
current electricity demand. Water supplies may diminish greatly.
Solar and Wind Power: Unproven on large-scale, will become
more expensive to build and install without cheap oil.
Synthetic Oil: Massive cost and labor, requires natural gas or coal.
Thermal Depolymerization & Biomass: Requires industrial-scale agriculture, which relies on cheap oil.
Methane Hydrates: Speculative, unproven, expensive, accidents very bad for the environment
Zero Point Energy: Realm of science fiction, TANSTAAFL
Nuclear Energy: Long-term hazards, possibly our only choice
Nature Bites Back
problems that will arise as global climate change continues will
amplify those from the loss of cheap energy. Kunstler states that
whether or not human activities are behind the acceleration in global
climate change doesn't matter – the fact of the change itself has to be
accepted, planned for, possibly dealt with. The coming disruption of
economies and governments will mean that concerted action over global
warming won't happen in any meaningful way, which is not to say that
there actually is any meaningful action to be taken at this late date.
Kunstler discusses the crucial role the Gulf Stream plays and how
large-scale melting of the Arctic ice could shut off the Gulf Stream
and possibly trigger another ice age.
an excess of fresh water in the seas may ultimately halt global
warming, it is a lack of fresh water on land that will be the root
cause of most of the problems for human civilization. Less snow means
less water, so water supplies will fluctuate more and ecosystems will
be severely strained, failing catastrophically if their constituents
cannot adapt quickly enough. Food supplies will be disrupted, leading
to hunger and untimely death. Ground water is rapidly being
depleted, with China as one of the most at-risk areas. Food shortages
will lead to migration and refugees, further straining areas that might
have been able to cope otherwise. In the US, the wet areas will get
drier and the the dry areas will become useless for agriculture.
Widespread die-offs from rampant disease outbreaks would reduce our
ability to produce food and maintain economies. In role-playing
simulations, even assuming a health care infrastructure on a par with
today's, responses to epidemics have failed miserably.
Running on Fumes: The Hallucinated Economy
next turns his jaundiced gaze on the state of the US economy and the
global economy, since they are so intertwined. This chapter at first
seems like a somewhat tangential rehashing of the great financial
blunders of the last century or so, somewhat unrelated to the concrete
realities of the passing of peak oil and the problem of global warming,
but the point is that the current economic infrastructure is
especially shaky right now and threatening to collapse. A few ill-timed
global-warming-caused gusts, or tremors from oil-flow disruptions could
bring the house of cards down in a spectacular and well-nigh
unrebuildable way. Kunstler declares that “Globalization promised the
same nirvana as Communism” while it has turned out to exhibit “the
same tendency to impoverish and enslave the many while enriching a
few”, amounting to “corporate colonialism”. Kunstler savagely attacks
the 'big-box' retailing model of companies like Wal-Mart and how
they've laid waste to domestic and foreign economies.
Kunstler describes the birth of corporations and abstract finance in early 18th
century France and the first stock market crash, in which the French
middle class was wiped out, eventually leading to the fall of the
monarchy. The Great Depression was the result of a similar departure
from reality, where finance had come to be seen as a productive
activity in itself and 'investments' were being made to turn a quick
buck instead of to enhance long-term growth in productivity. After the
stock market crashed in 1929, credit became almost impossible to get,
which dried up growth and new jobs and led to multitudes suffering in
severe want while there were unsold (and unsellable) goods mouldering
in warehouses and stockyards. Kunstler blames a “divorce between
ecological economics and an economics of abstract finance” as the root
cause of these and similar failures
discusses how the highly entropic suburban lifestyle has given
rise to the "mythical service economy" while the US manufacturing base has been dismantled by
globalization; fewer people are doing real work producing real things.
We've seen repeated financial scandals where prices were, willfully or
not, separated from reality for a while, long enough for a small few to
live high on the hog until the smoke and mirrors fell away and huge
numbers of people suffered (are still suffering) the financial
consequences. Having cheap energy available has always helped recovery
from these schemes, but soon that won't be the case. Kunstler sees the
housing bubble of the 2000s as being another departure from reality
because “there is no such thing as intrinsic value in a house” - the
suburban tract home is a consumer product. Newer
homes are built cheaply with cheap materials and thus require more
upkeep (more trips to Home Depot) than ever. The home loan industry
is teetering under the weight of bad sub-prime loans and if the
Federal Government has to step in to cover those bad loans, the
repercussions will reverberate through all levels of the economy and
“make the S&L scandal look like a
bad night of poker.” Kunstler wraps up this cheery chapter by
pointing out that if there's a crash, it won't be "want amidst
plenty" but "hardship amidst scarcity."
Living in the Long Emergency
7 constitutes about 20% of the entire book, and is a broad speculation
on what life may look like without cheap energy. Again the focus is
primarily on the US, with specific sub-sections on a few large regions.
Kunstler allows that his musings are inescapably limited and personal.
Kunstler says that there will be “comprehensive downscaling, rescaling,
relocalizing of all our activities, a radical reorganization of the way
we live in the most fundamental particulars.” There will be no 'deus
ex machina' to save us (the machina will be out of gas, anyway). The
question will be how disordered will things become before order
The Next Economy
economy as we know it is prone to dysfunction and collapse in the
event of even a few disruptions that would be minor of they occurred in
isolation. The economy or economies that arise from the ashes will:
Be “intensely local and smaller scale.”
Be focused on food production.
Require land to be reallocated for farming.
Require relearning skills in agriculture and supporting trades
have to relearn how to work in harmony with the land and the seasons
instead of imposing our will with fertilizers and pesticides. We'll
have to learn to enjoy the food that's in season, storing or preserving
what we can't eat now for the time between harvests. There will be
large numbers of agriculturally unskilled peasants, and feudalism
or sharecropping might reemerge. Upheaval and disease
will no doubt thin the ranks to an alarming degree. On the positive
side, cooperative farming could rebuild a social infrastructure of
craft trades and local commerce resembling the 'country living' that so
many try to evoke in their suburban decor.
The End of Suburbia
folly of Suburbia is a topic close to Kunstler's heart and he lets
loose in this section with some cogent attacks and truly inventive
turns of phrase. The core fallacy of suburbia is the pursuit of urban
convenience in a rural setting, which has led to routine 20-mile drives
to the grocery store or hardware store (multiple trips per day) and
90-minute commutes to jobs. He says “we spent all our wealth acquired
in the twentieth century building an infrastructure of daily life that
will not work long into the twenty-first century.” The waste will be
continued as great effort is spent trying to shore up the illusion
that suburbia is still viable. The collapse of suburbia will be so
complete that it may tear us apart socially and politically, with
scapegoating of arbitrary groups, lawlessness and strife in
the abandoned suburban slums, and the negative effects of legal or
military attempts to control the situation.
people of suburbia would probably be best off gathering in relatively
densely populated small towns surrounded by farmland where they can
work to produce enough food for each other. The big cities are products
of and servants to the Industrial Revolution, and so will be useless
after industrial collapse. Skyscrapers won't work if power and gas
disruptions become common. Reviving the centers of small towns will be
difficult as well. Kunstler sees small towns on rivers that could be
exploited for small-scale hydropower as being quite viable. In one of
his few outright recommendations, he suggests moving to one of these
areas, getting some land and learning a practical
vocation. What we now consider 'cottage industry' will be the norm,
with repair and resale of goods comprising much of non-agricultural
trade. The national retailers and consumer culture will be gone – it
will simply be uneconomical to move goods around in large volume, and
there may be few to sell to anyway.
What We Live In
structures will have house many people, be within walkable distances
of workplaces and food sources, be heated or ventilated with simple,
low-energy systems, and have maintainable roofs. We'll see a return to
masonry and wood construction, possibly reinforced concrete, but the
steel for rebar may be unavailable or too expensive.
Transportation in the Long Emergency
and people will move slowly, if at all. There may be electric cars for
a privileged elite, but where will the funds for maintaining the roads
come from? Highways are almost useless unless in near-perfect condition
– cracks and bumps quickly spread and they damage the vehicles at the
same time, so a cascading transportation failure is
likely. We could work to revive the railroads, but we'll need steel for
the rails and coal and electricity to power them. Riverboats will be
utilized to a much greater extent than now, but climatic changes will
probably cause cyclic flood problems, and sea level rise will put
many existing ports and other infrastructure out of commission.
Airlines will be a memory after fuel costs go to the stratosphere and
the middle class starts staying on the ground.
Kunstler projects that for most, education beyond the 8th
grade level may be at an end, with an overall shift to more practical,
vocational training of various kinds. During the
Long Emergency, every available hand will have to be put to work.
College education will make sense for fewer people, and there will be,
at least at first, a great need for new adult education programs to
retrain service and technical workers, among others.
Kunstler addresses the prospects of the six broad geographical regions
of the Continental US. The climate
characteristics of each region will be the dominant factor in how they
fare, and the mix of advantages and disadvantages will surely change
somewhat as global warming continues, but the social and cultural
makeup of the residents will play an important role as well. Also in
question is whether the USA will continue to function as a unified
entity. The national government may lose influence and credibility and
regional coalitions of states, perhaps even crossing current national
borders, may gain influence as they address their individual, unique
Sunset in the Sunbelt
desert southwest, from Southern California to
western Texas and up into Utah and Colorado is only habitable (by
large numbers) because of cheap energy that powers air conditioning,
irrigation, and travel over long distances. Climate change will
probably make it harsher. There will no doubt be friction with Mexico
- many of those struggling to the south will probably want to come
north, and previous immigrants will be at least sympathetic to their
plight; the influx will only make things worse.
The Land of NASCAR
US southeast is flat, wide and hot. The power from the
TVA's mid-century dam projects allowed the widespread adoption of air
conditioning which in turn allowed the dispersed suburban boom
throughout the region, that expansion largely becoming the basis of the
economy there. Kunstler's disdain for the southeast is barely
contained as he describes the “ersatz country-folk of suburbia”
leading a largely indoor existence, shuttling in overpowered cars
between air-conditioned oases, filling their homes with “cheap plastic
junk and anything with a motor in it.” Cultural acceptance of violence,
belief that the USA is “special”, rugged individualism, firearm
ownership and NRA membership, simmering racial tensions - these
cannot be ignored, nor can the Evangelical/Fundamentalist Christian
influence. All these factors point to probable disorder and
splintering. A despotic theocracy may rise in the South or possibly
smaller social constructs – families, clans, tribes, gangs – may become
the largest functional organizing entities in this region.
The Old Union
Old Union (the northeast, where Kunstler has spent most of his life)
has better prospects, given the favorable climate, water sources,
varied topography, and an existing, if decayed, underlying fabric of
small towns and farms. The culture is rooted in a more secular view
than the South, with much more tolerance for diversity. The suburban
swath from Boston to Washington, D.C., dotted with megacities,
will sink into ruin and disorder, displacing a huge population, but the
areas to the west will remain livable. The cities of the Rust Belt
are already decayed, so they may be able to 'skip a step', as it were,
in the transition to new paradigms. The Great Lakes are underutilized
economically, and the US states and Canadian Provinces surrounding them
might merge in some way to meet common needs.
The Great Plains
Great Plains will become “dismal, depopulated and desolate” - this is
already underway, according to Kunstler. The simple fact is that the
Plains can't be farmed very productively without the benefits of oil.
thinks the Rockies will perhaps become even more
desolate than the Plains. The current enclaves of “high-entropy
yuppie hypersuburbanites” will have no reason to exist, cut off from
the rest of the country. The residents' outdoor adventures “won't have
to be contrived." The land on the eastern slopes of the Rockies is arid
and poor for farming. The Mormons' high birthrate is a
problem. Extremists and zealots of various stripes are scattered
throughout the Rockies, which could lead to many dangerous encounters
between desperate, often deluded people.
The Pacific Northwest
Pacific Northwest has a good climate and farming possibilities, at
least in the coastal portions; the areas east of the Cascade Range
are quite arid. Recent development has been largely suburban, though
the large cities are vibrant and of manageable size. There is likely to
be a lot of population pressure as refugees from California head
north. The Long Emergency won't happen to the US in isolation, of
course, and the Pacific Northwest could be vulnerable to 'raiders' from
Asia (where conditions will probably be much worse), much as the
British Isles were targets of the Vikings.
Racial Conflict / Ideas, Morals, and Manners
hesitantly touches on the issue of race relations in America. He
feels that the disingenuousness of much of the 'progress' that was made
in the 20th century will become evident, possibly painfully
so. He asserts that the separateness of the black sub-culture,
especially as expressed among the inner-city poor, will prove counter
productive, with the simmering resentment and aggression possibly
erupting into riots and destruction as the poor become truly poor by
world standards. Beyond the racial issues, much of the broader
culture's high-minded and enlightened ideals were developed in a time
of unprecedented prosperity. Human nature hasn't evolved in the brief
flash of the Industrial Age. We're already on a track of abandoning the
ethos of hard work being the best path to
long-term security in favor of a 'get rich quick' mentality where
luck leads to getting something for nothing. For instance, gambling
was considered a vice forty years ago, but now we have lotteries and
Indian casinos from coast to coast and Las Vegas has been
re-cast as an arrested-adolescence theme-park where actions have no
consequences - “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.”
the paperback edition of The Long Emergency (published in February
2006), Kunstler wrote an epilogue in late 2005, wherein he looks at how
major events since completing the original text relate to his
conclusions and prognostications. Kunstler states that “We're in the
zone” - that the Long Emergency is starting. He points to the
infrastructure failure after Hurricane Katrina and the fuel price
spikes as bearing out his view of the fragility of our systems and
emergency response capabilities. The price of fossil fuels continues to
“fibrillate strangely”, and the Strategic Petroleum Reserve was put
into action as the market-stabilizing “swing producer” when the Saudis proved completely unable to boost their production in
2005. The housing bubble continued to swell. “Mortgage lending was out
of control” with as many as 50% of mortgages being in the very risky
“sub-prime” category. Natural gas prices were up 80% in 2005, with
prices oscillating and a European LNG shortage
having direct negative effects in the US market. Europe had the London subway bombings and the riots in France by gangs of
unemployed, disaffected, predominantly-Muslim youth. Just as the
Nixon/Watergate scandal distracted from the seriousness of the
OPEC oil embargo and made it seem like more chicanery by the powers
that be, the growing flood of scandals from the Bush Administration
could have the same effect. Still no one has proposed fixing the
Kunstler closes the epilogue with a pertinent question: “How do we become a reality-based nation?”
conclusion, before a brief aside on his personal circumstances and
choices and the epilogue, Kunstler says that a tragic view of life may
replace the optimism that has been the norm for so long. Religious
authority may displace an impotent secular authority. In any case,
society will become more starkly hierarchical, filled with
downtrodden people who are easily led, easily pushed. Such
populations have been induced to do horrible things by exploitive
'leaders' throughout human history. There will be much injustice and
persecution; what justice remains will be harsh and swift. In a
particularly dark statement, Kunstler sums up the Long Emergency:
“There will be hunger instead of plenty, cold where there was once
warmth, effort where there was leisure, sickness where there was
health, and violence where there was peace.”