The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of Oil, Climate Change, and Other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Centby James Howard Kunstler
A controversial hit that sparked debate among businessmen, environmentalists, and bloggers, The Long Emergency by James Howard Kunstler is an eye-opening look at the unprecedented challenges we face in the years ahead, as oil runs out and the global systems built on it are forced to change radically.
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Meet the Author
James Howard Kunstler was born in New York City in 1948. He is the author of two non-fiction books, The Geography of Nowhere and Home From Nowhere, and nine novels including Maggie Darling, The Halloween Ball and An Embarrassment of Riches. He has been a regular contributor to the New York Times Sunday Magazine and Op-Ed page, where he has written on environmental and economic issues.
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THE LONG EMERGENCY is more than a compendium of Kunstler's earlier writings and commentary on suburbia and America's loss of Main Streets. Consolidation of storefronts into big box malls was a local tragedy, to be sure. But Kunstler discerns another, less Chamber-Of-Commerce element lurking in the wings: the certitude of a reckoning with assumptions of cheap energy, always provided by drilling, digging, or technofix.
Master economists, more by luck than IQ, now it seems, rode the wave of cheap energy along with the rest of us, and now are eating humble pie. It is poetic justice that we shall all eat the pie together, and that is at the heart of our long emergency, nobody shall escape this. When a world economy built on cheap energy sees limits, we all become limited in our prospects, and must work together to pull through the trials ahead.
It is so much like todays financial headlines to read Kunstler's "Long Emergency", one can concentrate on Kunstler's closings wherein he deals with remedies, and imperatives for maintaining a semblance of American solidarity; what must in fact be done to hand on to our young the Union of States intact. JHK has a work list of ways and means of carrying on American Civilization that look very 19th century, and it is here that one must be most critical.
We shall gradually lose the oil and natural gas, and even the coal and shale resources have finite limits. Kunstler admits to electricity and nuclear and the common renewables like solar and wind generation. His fears center more on the political and social ramifications of the Oil Interregnum than ability of mankind to transition our affairs to oil depletion. There is a thread now running, the localization, or "Village" approach as a be-all & end-all. JHK is astute enough to include these shifts of living patterns, without using localization as a refuge, or final destination.
The clue in many of Kunstler's writings is his knack for including amenities, social as well as technical, that predate oil as a fuel, and must be carried by the family of man thru the Oil Interregnum, the period we are now entering, "The Long Emergency". Not a secret, just visualize America of the railroad century, roughly 1850-1950. Midpoint, people like Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse, Sprague, and their enterprises gave us light and mobility, aside from the oil/auto economy. Kunstler gives few words to railways and electric streetcars, and the Societal & Commercial Cohesion afforded by the railway network we enjoyed even as the automobile engulfed us. This reference to railways is more than a passing thought; witness massive railway rehab and extension now underway in every single US economic competitor around the world, including new High Speed Rail in Mexico!
Paradixically, we enetered the automobile age with electric cars, and we shall leave the oil age likewise. Moreover, we know more than we did in the 1890's, and Kunstler tries to encourage us even as he sounds the alarm. His mention of railways is inclusive in localization, notwithstanding the current mega-rail mergers now extant. Branchlines and local rail lines are also budding under the radar. Companion read for Kunstler are books like "ELECTRIC WATER" by Christopher Swan, and titles by Richard Heinberg. Websites like "theoildrum.com" and "peakoil.net" (see articles 374 & 1037) help us see JHK's viewpoin
This book lays out scenarios of the future that I wish everyone considered. I think it is a widely accepted fact that there is a finite amount of oil on the Earth, and we should anticipate and prepare for a point where this supply fails to meet the demand. This book explores this issue of oil depletion, and tries to paint what a future without abundant oil might look like. Along the way you might pick up a few ideas about what you can do to prepare for such a future.
Others have characterized this book as an overwrought jeremiad. Sad, but true. The text is almost guaranteed to impose a 'Chicken Little' patina on concerns about peak oil and/or global warning. It could not be more strident or self-righteous if it were coauthored Limbaugh and O'Reilly. It is surprisingly hard to give a faithful characterization of a rant - rants tend to be uneven. For example, there are pages of useful text describing methods used to study climate history (ice cores from Greenland). Then comes a statement that the last 100,000 years has been a climatic rollercoaster. You might think that this would provoke a statement of how difficult it is to forecast weather reliably, and the further difficulty of getting a robust read humanity's contribution to that variation. But no, we are simply treated to a statement that greenhouse gases will make everything 'worse'. The author repeatedly embarrasses himself with technical discussions that wind up unconnected to the conclusion he wants to draw. It is 'lawyerly', in the sense that 'winning the argument' is all-important while 'mechanisms' are mere trivialities. There are lots of problems with this book and other reviews do a good job of identifying them. If you think (as I do) that geological constraints on oil production might have serious repercussions for our economy then there are much better sources for information (see 'titles enjoyed', below). I don't think that people need to waste energy on this, an SUV of a jeremiad.
I don't understand why people still cling to Julian Simon as a refutation of limits. We live in a real and finite world. I was deeply affected by Kunstler's analysis of what will NOT be able to replace oil. I hear people talking blithely about hydrogen fuel cells. Used to feel like it might be a solution but no more. Several people have objected to this book because it's pessimistic and dark. I would use the words "realistic" and "plausible." Just because we can't imagine the consequences of less to no oil doesn't mean that it can't happen.