by Joshua H. Liberatore
In The Long Emergency, James Howard Kuntsler presents his dark, near-apocalyptic vision of life in the United States after peak oil, the point at which production has reached its half life, after which no more oil wells will be discovered and the oil that remains becomes increasingly more difficult and expensive to extract. The U.S. economy saw a mini-shock version of this in 1973 and again in 1979, by which time domestic oil production had long passed peak, but these temporary crises in supply pale in comparison to the scenario expected to unfold between 2010 and 2015 by many informed observers. Resource competition becomes markedly fiercer, as demand routinely outstrips available supply and countries go to great lengths to secure their piece of the remaining pie.
I’d heard technical explanations of peak oil production before, but after reading Kuntsler’s more panoramic description, I realized a fundamental, naiveté in what I assumed would be the effects. In a quintessentially individual-obsessed culture like ours, it’s easy to think of oil supplies and prices as merely a factor in gasoline rates. And indeed, a goodly proportion of our national oil consumption is devoted to personal transportation. Succumbing to this bias in my first exposure, my initial thought was that peak production would shoot gas prices into the five- to-six-dollar per gallon range that would finally make small, fuel-efficient or electric cars the norm, encourage the wide development and use of public transportation, and generate the political will to pursue in earnest the renewable energy investment that many countries in Europe and Asia have been emphasizing for more than a generation.
But that is far too simplistic and limited a consequence. In fact, the peak oil threshold will teach us just how integrally oil and other fossil fuels are embedded in nearly every aspect of our society, from agriculture to retail to any service or product that relies on “economies of scale,” i.e. elaborate and often globe-trotting supply chains that allow us to get our goods cheap and fast in all the big-box stores that dot our suburban and exurban landscapes. After peak oil, prices will skyrocket in all of those sectors as well, and in turn, eliminate many of the industries that rest on the heretofore dependable platform of cheap fuel. Large cities will be in big trouble, of course, but nowhere will the suffering be more acute than in the distant suburbs whose very existence depends on the automobile. These far-flung “communities” – however artificial and recent their provenance, however established their seeming affluence – will become the slums of the future in Kuntsler’s view.
Rapid depopulation and contraction will be the major demographic trends in the decades to come. People will jut have to live closer to one another, and the goods and services they consume will necessarily be locally produced. Many more people will have to learn how to grow food, pick up a trade, do something useful in an actual community of interdependent enterprises. We will travel less and get to know our neighbors better. Regardless of our individual role as this intense localization of economic and social life fully manifests, all of us will have to content ourselves with tools and products that last, and we will have to learn how to fix them when they break down. In a culture where choice, mobility, convenience (i.e. disposability), and “freedom” have become the watchwords of the good life, these economic realities will be painful for some Americans to assimilate.
One particularly disappointing aspect of Kuntsler’s findings is the limited role played by what we now blithely call renewable and alternative energy sources. One by one, solar, wind, biodiesel, and other alternative options are debunked based on their manufacturing dependence on the fossil fuel platform and conventional industrial infrastructure. Large wind turbine towers are not easily manufactured on the juice from hydrogen fuel cells. How will solar panels be distributed across the continental United States when the cost of trucking and freight becomes prohibitively high? If we expect these energy sources functionally to replace oil and natural gas, we need to start the conversion process in earnest, while we still enjoy the unique and historically unprecedented benefits of the fossil fuel industrial platform. An unfortunate mythology in the renewable fuel dream suggests that we can still do all of the things we do now, we just have to get creative and invest in adequate substitutes. That mythology breaks down at peak production, when the cost of fossil fuel renders those alternatives mere technological fantasies, the panacea imagined by wealthy urban liberals. Only nuclear power ranks a future in Kuntsler’s dark vision, as a viable replacement of some grid-level electricity and some industrial production. But again, since nuclear plants take enormous resources and energy inputs to produce, we’d better get cracking on the overhaul, as France and Japan have done since the 1970s, when glimpses of the oil apocalypse first appeared on the radars of the civilized world.
I caught myself asking this question over again as I read Kuntsler’s book: How would I fare at this or that stage of the post-peak world? Can I walk to the grocery store? Yes, definitely. Could I bike to work? Yes, but with considerable effort. Do I have access to public transportation? Yes. Do I know how to grow food? Well, some. But as the narrative advances in detail, one sees, once again, how naïve the premises of these questions become in the uncharted territory of post-peak America. Sure, I can walk to the local Safeway and Giant, but both are huge corporate entities intimately dependent on industrial agriculture, long supply chains, and distant growers, each of which owes its continued existence to cheap fossil fuel. Sure, I can bike to work, but will I have a job when the federal government goes bankrupt fighting overseas wars to secure the last remnants of Middle Eastern and Central Asian fossil fuels?
My modest suburban district located just outside a sizable East Coast city is certainly not one of the sprawling McMansion developments skewered by Kuntsler’s bleakest predictions. In this place, most have cars, but we could live without them. The more sinister question is what we would do when everything else dependent on cheap fuel collapses around us. In short, Kuntsler’s book teaches us to think beyond price per gallon and embrace a world in which there just aren’t that many gas stations, and those that remain have long lines and angry customers on an order we’ve never witnessed in this country.
The Long Emergency is a compelling and provocative guidebook for one likely future, and I appreciated it as a sort of table-top exercise, a war game in the chaotic scenario of post-peak nation building. My only criticism is that Kuntsler seems to take a sort masochistic pleasure in revealing his stunning predictions of strife, violence, and widespread hardship. There’s very little optimism to hold on to. Maybe that’s the inevitable outcome of clear-eyed research and a cold look at the available data. Still, it’s hard to dispel the doomsday tonalities of Kunstler’s storytelling, and my only fear is that these stylistic indulgences will turn too many readers away from material that is not only depressing but also fundamentally contemptuous of nearly every aspect of modern American life. Still, there’s excellent content in there, crucial food for thought; only many won’t have the stomach to get to the last chapter, let alone the real meat and potatoes at the book’s argumentative core. To let oneself be distracted away from the serious message Kunstler has packaged up with such unironic candor would be a shame, and I wonder if a less merciless approach would be more effective in getting people on board.