Thursday, January 15, 2009

Notes on The Long Emergency
A couple evenings ago, I finished James Howard Kunstler's The Long Emergency, a book-length musing on "the converging crises of the 21st century" (as the subtitle has it) and their possible consequences. I turned the last page while sitting on the crowded subway, listening to music on my iPhone--a fairly fitting modern milieu, I think, as Kunstler's main thesis is that as the world's supply of oil starts to run out, life as we've known it will gradually disappear as well.

He spends the first several chapters building a convincing case that the 20th century, a period when humankind enjoyed unprecedented luxury, convenience, and global connectedness (for better and for worse--but see below) will stand out as an unsustainable exception to the general rule of life being strenuous, difficult, and local, and that pretty much all of it was enabled by easy access to oil. As we've almost certainly passed global peak as far as oil production--meaning that more than half of all the oil on the planet has been pumped and consumed--things are about to get hairy. Kunstler considers and dismisses the various possible substitute fuels, from natural gas, coal, and nuclear to hydrogen, solar, and wind; while I don't have nearly enough technical knowledge to confirm or dispute his scientific arguments, the point he makes about the systemic need to build a whole new infrastructure to support an economy based on a non-oil energy source seems pretty much inarguable. (The irony, which he repeatedly points out, is that you could probably do this if you had enough oil to start with, but of course we don't.)

Kunstler goes on to discuss several other coming calamities, including climate change--evidently a more accurate label than "global warming," as it's entirely possible (he asserts) that we'll see significant cooling in some places as well--and infectious diseases. These factors will exacerbate the trauma and difficulty of dealing with "The Long Emergency," but the disappearance of oil (and the conflict and dislocation we'll endure competing for the last drops) is really the core of the book. The last couple chapters include fairly wide-ranging speculation about the types of communities and conditions we could see as the Long Emergency unfolds, with attention to conditions in different parts of the United States and entertaining discussions of cultural and economic attributes of each region. (He's not a big fan of the South, where he deems the distinguishing traits to be suburban sprawl, belligerent religiosity and a cultural glorification of violence.)

It's a very, very good read, if unavoidably a little on the depressing side. I think it works because, improbably enough, Kunstler offers an extreme scenario without coming off as an extremist. He basically rejects partisan politics--or maybe more to the point, he considers them irrelevant since both major parties subscribe to the same basic view regarding how society should function, and to the premise that, as Ari Fleischer put it, the American way of life (meaning crazed consumption of oil) is non-negotiable. Kunstler's own worldview is a bit idiosyncratic--he really, really detests the suburban pattern of development that characterized postwar America, and he equally despises big box retailers and the practices of globalism that enabled their business model, but he's also almost defensive of the invasion of Iraq, which happened a couple years before the book came out, and seems to have almost as much contempt for extremists of the left as of the right.

But rather than rejecting the whole project of civilization, he goes out of his way to argue that the gains of the last hundred years or so--"due process of law, separation of church and state, social equality, the secret ballot, and compound interest, just to name a few"--are worth preserving, and that doing so will comprise the most important work of the Long Emergency. Essentially, Kunstler seems to view modern civilization, and particularly the America that represented its fullest expression, as a good idea taken too far. Specifically, we sacrificed too much future upon the altar of the present, as the pernicious idea took hold that it's possible to get something for nothing. (A strain of Puritanism does run through the book, though maybe I enjoyed it because I somewhat share that sense.) Again, this seems inarguable to me.

Kunstler doesn't engage with the questions I find interesting and troubling: whether this future-orientation is inevitable in a representative democracy (someone always will come along to demand more for The People, right now; short-term sacrifice is rarely a winning political argument), and whether the way the last sixty-odd years have unfolded was "worth it." The average standard of living in the late industrial age, and (as his list of modern goodies suggests) the spread of Enlightenment values to a greater portion of humanity than had ever previously enjoyed them, is nothing to sneeze at; without the "fiesta" of oil consumption the first couldn't have happened, and the second probably wouldn't have.

Of course, it's also not entirely certain that the Long Emergency he's predicting for us is inevitable. Obviously, the status quo of profligate consumption isn't sustainable. But I would submit that there's a lot we can do without that we now enjoy, and that we would choose to do without, before we truly fall into the Long Emergency. In other words, the American Way of Life might prove to be at least a little negotiable. I think we humans are a more adaptable bunch than Kunstler seems ready to give us credit for... though to be fair, he does hedge a little in implying that the Long Emergency might not really be all that long--ten or twenty years.

In a work as ambitious as this, some sections obviously will be stronger than others, and there's at least a little goofy, self-contradictory conjecture. For instance, Kunstler suggests that the Pacific Northwest might have a problem with pirates originating from east Asia, where he believes the Long Emergency will be at least as severe as in the U.S. It's not clear, however, how pirates based in Japan or Korea will be able to power crafts into Puget Sound given fuel shortages, a Pacific Ocean presumably more difficult to navigate, etc. A bit of the cultural conjecture at the end seems off as well; Kunstler's editor really should have excised the section about hip-hop music: "At their worst, rap videos played on cable TV resemble the war chants of a conflict that has not yet been joined." Swingandamiss.

Those are minor flaws, though. What's finally most haunting about this book is Kunstler's theme about entropic spread: that systems break down, and that this seems to be not only a law of physics but a guiding principle of individual and collective human endeavor. Our complex modern arrangements have masked a fatal simplifying trend, and simplicity really just serves to send the grains of sand falling more quickly through the hourglass.

I'll be adding Kunstler's site to the links here in the next few days. Check out his blog--another indication that the guy is not a hermit or a scold--and I do strongly recommend the book.

1 comment:

Chris said...

The British Isles are screwed in the future due to climate change.