Friday, November 26, 2010

The Long Emergency

I'm going to take a minute on the most consumer-driven of holidays (Black Friday) to plug a book I just finished:  The Long Emergency by James Howard Kunstler, 2005.  The book predicts a very, very bleak future for the consumerist way of life.

The subtitle of The Long Emergency is "Surviving the End of Oil, Climate Change, and other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty First Century."  Essentially, this is a book about the devastation caused by the coming of Peak Oil.

Kunstler is not a scientist nor an urban planner.  He is a one-time journalist and now author living in Upstate New York.  I'm familiar with him because of his book The Geography of Nowhere, which focused on the destruction of America's cities for carbon-copy suburbia, and the social, ecological, and economic costs of doing that.  Due to his background, he brings a lot of energy to the Peak Oil topic, but does very little to source his data or present dissenting viewpoints.  That said, he makes compelling arguments.

If you are unfamiliar with the theory, Peak Oil states that there is a bell curve shaped oil extraction rate - once we ramp up to the maximum extraction rate possible (the peak), wells don't simply run dry overnight, they decay over time.  This is because not all oil is created equal.  Some is far, far easier to extract than others, some might be so costly to extract, it will never be worth it.  As the easy stuff runs out, the harder stuff comes online, at a higher cost and a lower production rate.  The production curve is called the Hubbert Curve after its creator, M. King Hubbert, who correctly predicted in the mid 1950s that US oil production would peak in 1970.  In the 1970s, he also predicted a peak for world oil in the mid 1990s (which did not happen).  However, many other countries have had their oil production peak, but are still churning out oil at reduced rates.

There seems to be little disagreement that there is only so much oil in the ground or that its output produces a curve.  There is disagreement about how much oil there is in the ground, what it will cost to retrieve it, and how much the world will need, leading to disagreements about when exactly we'll begin running out of oil.  For example, the oil fields in the Gulf of Mexico or the Canadian Oil Sands or the talk of shale oil mining in the middle of America would not have been talked about a generation ago as there was far easier to retrieve oil out there, especially in the Middle East.  However, this oil will be far more expensive than what we have now, so talking about it as being just more oil for us to use is misleading.

Oil is more important than a lot of people realize.  Higher oil prices means a lot more than having to carpool more, buying a Prius, and heating your house to t-shirt weather on natural gas.  Oil is a miracle fuel storing eons of stored solar energy that is easy to retrieve and process, easy to extract energy from, easy to transport, and useful for secondary things like plastic and pesticides.  There is nothing else like it.  There are really not even any collective things summed up that are like it.

As oil is so central to our economy, demand is only so elastic, and people can't simply stop buying it to cut costs.  So, in addition to remaining oil supplies becoming more expensive to extract and therefore more expensive to buy, a reduced supply in relation to demand will likewise push prices up because of scarcity.  As more money is spent on oil or expensive alternatives, profits and discretionary income will fall, leading to recession.  Then, profits will turn to deficits and domestic budgets will turn to debt in a market allowing no credit.  This is very likely to cause a worldwide economic depression.  Our debt-based society hedged on continual growth using fossil fuels to pay off the debt will collapse.  It might cause resource wars.  As the economy fails, the economic engine - demand for oil - will drop as well.  Society will ratchet down the slope of oil production.

It gets worse than an economic crash and war.  Without the miracle of cheap oil, the modern world is just not possible.  Intensive industrial food production using tractors and chemical fertilizers and pesticides will fail, leading to food shortages.  The transport of food and other goods will fail.  Electricity costs will go up and there will be brownouts, destroying industry and rendering many buildings relying on mechanical ventilation, electric water pumps, or elevators unusable.  Suburbia will collapse when it can no longer support the enormous energy costs of private vehicles, road maintenance, and giant single family homes.  Cities will devolve into riots.  Nations may collapse, and people will die.

So, don't we have alternatives?  How long do we have?

There are similar concerns about peak natural gas and peak coal as well.  Renewable energy sources, aside from the high-tech metallurgy and batteries that go into them (requiring rare minerals the US doesn't have and huge energy inputs to create that may not be possible without oil), just aren't going to be able to replace our dependence on fossil fuels to live.  Nuclear power is risky, slow to get online, and not portable.  Batteries and fuel cells don't solve all of our portable energy needs.  Peak Oil appears to be a decade or two away at best, and some have said it occurred as early as 2005.  In other words, we're in big trouble, barring a technological miracle.

Kunstler says he doesn't relish the idea of all of this happening, but he does seem to at least somewhat welcome a return to simpler, agrarian times - but this time with knowledge of germ theory, etc.  As an anti-suburbanist, it's easy to see how he might feel vindication, or even Schadenfreude, over all this.  He has, as is visible on his website, a nearly zealous devotion to this idea, violently attacking detractors.  His website recently attacked a New York Times article saying we have plenty of fuel by going after the source instead of the content.  This is a fundamentalist tactic: don't believe the credibility of the messenger if it contradicts you.  In his defense, it is a suspect article.  The article says the US now has plenty of natural gas, and the Canadian Oil Sands will provide us with oil.  It then goes on to say that the oil sands will produce 5 million barrels of oil a day by 2030.  However, the world currently uses something like 80 million barrels a day, and China and India are ramping up rapidly.  The argument about natural gas seems a bit more convincing, but I've seen in  other reports these new extraction techniques are supposedly highly damaging ecologically.  And again, natural gas is not oil.

As to his predictions on how life carries on in the Long Emergency, he is also most optimistic (and possibly a bit unfair) about his - and our - region of the US surviving best.  The Southwest and its water and heat issues are problematic even without Peak Oil.  The Great Plains are overly reliant on fertilizers and high-energy irrigation systems to survive.  The Mountain region is a lost cause without food from elsewhere as well.  He goes after the South as being "prone to violence," expecting it to devolve back to sharecropping, if a government lasts at all in the car-worshiping land of the Dukes of Hazzard and Christian Fundamentalism.  Being unable to find a way to put the Northeast ahead of the Northwest objectively, he suggests the Northwest will be attacked by Asian pirates (but no similar reports of the British coming back to take us over once the North Sea oil runs out!).

That said, the good news for us Lowellians is that he suggests smaller, compact cities with a lot of walkable areas and a lack of huge buildings will survive best.  He also says that hydropower and easy access to water in general is a great resource.  Hey, that's us!  Lowell, of course, was a large and important city well before the dawn of the oil age, and had been an important human settlement for a long time before Europeans arrived.  And if Kunstler is right and the oil age is just about over, if we can survive the strife (and turn Chelmsford and Dracut back into farms so we can eat), we might come out ok.


  1. Hi Corey,
    I don't know if you know about the concept of transition towns. There are several small cities where groups have formed and collaborate with their local governments to prepare for the transition away from fossil fuel dependence. I'm very interested in helping start such a group in Lowell if it doesn't already exist.

    I really appreciate your posts.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. More information. Hope you find this interesting.

  4. Thanks for the links - that's an interesting idea. I haven't heard of such a group in Lowell, but I've also never looked into it...