Surviving the End of the Oil Age, Climate Change, and Other Converging Disasters of the Twenty-First Century
by James Kunstler
Grove/Atlantic, 2005

by Tim Corrigan

Hate Walmart and Hummers? Good news! The end of them is nigh–but you’ll have little time to enjoy their demise as you huddle in the cold and dark ten years from now and scramble for food to avoid your own end… James Kunstler’s The Long Emergency is about the approach of the peak of global oil production and its aftermath, and he argues that the foreseen disasters will happen much sooner than we expect and without much warning. He also argues that our blinders on this issue and lack of preparation will make the ensuing disaster even worse than it might otherwise be.

Peak oil is the idea first described by M. King Hubbert, a geologist working for Shell Oil, who created a mathematical relationship to describe the time between the peak of exploration and the peak of production, and how production will decline over time. In other words, some time after you realize you are finding less new oil fields, you can use this curve to figure out approximately when you will start producing less oil, and from that you can roughly determine when your lights will go out.

The peak of global oil discoveries was in 1964, and the peak of global production may have already occurred. At current rates of consumption, that would give an absolute maximum of about 37 years between the peak and the definitive end of the oil-based economy–and, as he emphasizes, the first half was the oil that was easy to find and extract. Additionally, global consumption is growing as China and India ramp up their consumer economies.

Due to what he calls “the rear view mirror” effect, we’ll only wake up to the decline after we’re already in it. Some disruptive global event similar to the 1973 OPEC embargo will occur, and prices will find a new level far higher than now. The high oil-consuming nations realize that we have entered the era of permanent scarcity.

Kunstler’s argument is that we have already reached the point he calls “overshoot,” where no matter how well-intentioned and hard-working we are in addressing the issue (assuming, for a second, our country had any serious intention of working hard on this issue) we are in for a hard landing that may disrupt civilization for an indefinite amount of time. We’re using what he calls a one-time endowment of millions of years of accumulated solar energy in the form of oil to subsidize American civilization’s greatest “achievement”–sprawl. We can’t get that energy back, and he argues that no other form of fuel will allow that level of energy concentration needed to make car culture possible. And the very size of our investment in the suburbs and our sense of entitlement as Americans will, he argues, prevent us from taking any steps to start dealing with our energy issues seriously. For suburbanites, it is literally unthinkable that we would have to give up our cars.

When you wish upon a star…

Kunstler attacks what he sees as the American tendency to think that because we have solved many technical problems in the past, we will auto-magically come up with something that will fix our lack of oil, just in time. He calls this the “Jiminy Cricket effect,” where we seem to believe that just wishing will make it so. In one chapter he quickly runs through half a dozen alternative energy technologies, and dispatches almost all of them in a few pages. To one extent or another, he describes them as being either simply infeasible or indirectly dependent on oil to create. For example, the production of solar panels is dependent on oil energy. Panels are made out of plastic and silicon – the manufacturing process requires oil, and some of the actual material comes from oil products. And panels are useless without batteries created from petroleum byproducts. Hydrogen is simply a storage medium for energy, but is not energy itself. He sees nuclear as one option that would produce more juice than it loses, but argues that at this point America will not be able to build enough of a nuclear infrastructure to keep the lights on–partly because people aren’t scared enough yet to overcome NIMBY attitudes.

Kunstler dismisses a huge number of new technologies, many of which have already reached feasibility on a limited scale. It’s true that renewables are a tiny fraction of a percent of our energy use now, but the technologies are still maturing, and people have not had a reason yet to use them on a large scale because oil was at $10 a barrel only three years ago. To use an analogy from digital technology: we had digital cameras for consumers for almost a decade before they became popular, and then they went from no penetration to virtually supplanting film cameras in less than a decade. Solar cells have roughly tripled in efficiency in the last 15 years, become common in certain applications, and are spreading to new ones every day. Wind power has reache economic viability in many places without subsidies.

To say that all of these technologies are impossible to build without oil is ludicrous–many forms of metal production actually use electricity as their main form of power. Wind is not as convenient or high-grade a power source as oil (you can’t plug your car into a windmill; some storage mechanism is required), but we have a lot of plains and coastlines where it could be easily exploited.

Wind power also requires aluminum and steel, and Kunstler says that we will not be able to extract the raw materials for this renewable energy push when we need them. On the other hand, if we are moving beyond SUV’s and Walmarts, obviously a lot of recyclable raw materials–metals and plastics in particular–will already be close at hand in the vast lots of suddenly immobilized Hummers and Excursions.

To be fair, his argument is that these technologies might be possible for a large portion of the power we will need, but they will not allow suburbia to continue as it has. He may be right about this, or maybe not. The needs of most commuters could be served fairly well by a number of technologies that exist, or are close to economic viability–for example, a car in Italy was developed to use compressed air as its power source. It might look more like a scooter with a roof than a Hummer, but if that was the car that your typical American could afford they’d no doubt take it over a bicycle or trains. The suburbs may become smaller and more dense, but there is no reason we could not rebuild streetcar lines where we currently have major highways.

However, Kunstler may still be correct in his overall scenario, since even if the renewable energy technologies end up being feasible, we may not choose to deploy enough renewable energy soon enough to prevent the disasters predicted in The Long Emergency.

Kunstler seems driven to quickly get these alternative energy sources out of the way so he can get on to his main topic–the collapse of suburbia and the drive-thru lifestyle. He has written several other books about suburbia and its impact on American life–most notably 1993’s The Geography of Nowhere–and he sets up a scenario where our sprawl will simply disintegrate as people are unable to get the energy they need to commute. All of us who don’t like the Walmartization of American culture will have some reason to cheer–as the oil that makes the products cheaply and transports them 12,000 miles runs out, we will find the big box stores drying up and blowing away. The very scale that they operate at will make them unable to continue, as consumers can no longer drive 80 miles round trip to buy tchotchkes from China. The problem is, however, that we will be looking to replace everything we currently import with things produced locally–which we don’t have the expertise or supply chain to do any more–just around the time that we’re running out of energy and dealing with the impact of global warming.

The stuff we buy used to be made in the town where we lived–there were local clothing mills, shoe makers, metal smiths, not to mention farmers nearby. First with the railroad, and then with trucks and planes, we’ve stretched this to the point where if we aren’t bringing containers in from China, we will have no clothes. Our produce is increasingly from Mexico. Car parts are also from China and Mexico. Electronics are almost entirely produced overseas. In other words, we can’t maintain our current way of doing things if international trade shuts down for any length of time. Worse yet, the chain of human skills necessary to get the factories going again is gone.

In fact, the way he sees things, the big, looming, obvious disaster is likely to distract us from seeing the equally huge but less obvious disasters to follow. Networks that we have built around plentiful energy will suddenly stop working, with additional disastrous, unforeseen side effects. One example is the natural gas network–right now this is the cooking and heating fuel for millions of urban consumers; however, the natural gas supply depends on a minimum level of pressure in the lines. Below that, air gets into the lines, and the utility companies are forced to shut off the supply temporarily to rebuild the pressure. Some of the pilot lights in hot water heaters around the country might not go back on by themselves, causing gas explosions. If all of this happened during winter, skyscrapers could face a situation where their heat is off and forty stories of plumbing freezes and explodes–a scenario he claims almost happened in the winter of 2003. (A similar unexpected follow-on happened during the blackout of summer 2003, where people found that after the electricity went out they also couldn’t get gas because the pumps were all electric.)

The end result of these disasters, Kunstler believes, is that it will be impossible to organize a rational response to the problem as many different systems crucial to our society break down simultaneously. For instance, Kunstler predicts disruption of our food supply. Hydrocarbons are the feedstock of our “green revolution.” Beyond the fact that the fixings for the average Caesar salad travel 2,000 miles before they reach your plate, hydrocarbons are the base for the fertilizers and pesticides that we liberally spray on our fields and crops to increase yields to unnatural levels. He argues that really without hydrocarbons the “green revolution” does not exist, and we are in a situation where we will have billions of people more than we can support.

“One might take the view that World War Three has already started and we are well into it.”

While Kunstler argues for the end of big box stores and for a return to a more sustainable, local life, he is more a follower of realpolitick than a liberal. He was for the war in Iraq–because it was for oil.

“Of course [the war] was about oil… But members of the anti-war lobby were just as likely to be car-dependent suburbanites as Bush supporters were. At least that was my observation among my fellow middle aged yuppies in upstate New York. One family in my neighborhood had a sign in their yard that said ‘War is Not the Answer’–and had two SUV’s parked in the driveway.”

He argues that the war was the only rational response that a society as oil-dependent as ours could have had, as our supply was put in great danger by the erratic Baghdad regime. He thinks we should have eliminated Hussein and left. It seems Kunstler believes we should have gotten our society to a sustainable point long ago so all of this wouldn’t be necessary–but since we haven’t, we will have less and less latitude to act rationally as the crisis comes on us. Once we’re cold and hungry, we’ll support anyone who can keep the lights on, including, as he puts it “corn pone Nazis.”

At that point, we’ll still be in the Middle East, but current fig leaves of pretending to care about democracy there (or here) will vanish, as we are “forced” to occupy all of the Persian Gulf states to secure our fix of oil. Once we’ve alienated the Muslim world, they will destroy enough of the oil infrastructure to force us to withdraw (or make it pointless to stay), and China will be there to pick up the pieces–assuming there are pieces left to pick up. The global disaster could happen in a way that we don’t initially realize is connected to the struggle for oil–in much the same way that World War I was (to appearances) ignited by an assassination of one man.

Kunstler also predicts the crisis will bring world regionalization. Once the cheap transportation fuel is gone, globalization will be over–so over, in fact, that all regions of the world, and even constituent parts of large countries, will be left to muddle through as best they can on their own. Europe is very well prepared for this future already, since the cities there have little suburban sprawl, and distances are small. Local agriculture using sustainable methods has continued uninterrupted, and many of the European countries are well along in preparing for the end of oil–for example Denmark gets 15% of its power from wind already, and France gets 70% of its power from nuclear. Europe’s main problem is that a little ice age may occur as global warming shuts down the Gulf Stream conveyor of warm water that keeps the continent from freezing over.

In the United States, in contrast, the size of our country and the scale of the disaster will leave our regions to very different fates. Residents of the Southwest will wake up to the fact that they are in the desert, and 30 million or more people will need to move somewhere else–but not before a small war is fought with local Chicano insurgents seeking to establish the region as the Mexican-American homeland “Aztlan,” or re-unite it with Mexico.

The Great Plains will be marginally better off, and will largely de-populate as the current method of farming with fossil water becomes impossible with depletion of the aquifers. The Southeast will return to its agricultural, feudal roots. The Northeast and the Northwest will fare the better than the rest of the country due to climate, water supplies and culture, but the Northwest may be beset by Asian pirates.

This is one of the strangest predictions of The Long Emergency. For some reason, although he predicts the Gulf Stream conveyor will shut down and Europe will suddenly be in a little ice age, and “everything will become more local,” Asian pirates will ravage our West Coast after sailing 7,000 miles across the Pacific. It’s hard to understand why Europeans plunged into a new Dark Age will not also be a problem on our East Coast. I guess he never heard of the Vikings. Meanwhile, Mexicans will overthrow El Norte to reclaim an uninhabitable desert. Much of this seems to be a little bit of sensationalism to make the book more exciting. As I read these perhaps slightly racist sections, I found myself thinking that if Kunstler’s nightmare scenario ever does happen, we’re going to need every campesino we can find to teach us how to survive again as subsistence farmers.

Kunstler’s sheer catalog of catastrophes leaves a reader overwhelmed – global warming, but also a potential new ice age, the end of fossil water in the Great Plains, new diseases, natural gas shortages, economic collapse, wars for oil, wars for water, famine, piracy, rioting, and the list goes on. The Long Emergency ends up being like a Khmer Rouge fantasy of all of humanity forced to move back to the land in one huge Peak Oil Year Zero. If you follow this vision of the future–if you don’t just give up immediately–your next move should be to quickly acquire a skill like candle-making or shoeing horses and move out of the city. He offers some consolations in this nightmare future, as local communities rebuild–but to get there we end up abandoning many of our larger cities, and incidentally millions of people starve to death, kill each other or die in disease waves.

Kunstler is at his most effective where he is talking about our social and political obstacles to change. Our investment in the suburbs is such at this point that any talk of change would mean destroying virtually our entire economy as it now exists. In fact, he argues that except for the illusory industry of building the suburbs, we haven’t really had any economic growth of any kind in the last forty years–and that seems about right. He assails the assumption that we could have an entire economy based on cutting each other’s hair as being a fantasy. The parts of the book that critique suburban culture are good. The main problem with The Long Emergency is its use of questionable science to close off entire parts of the debate. It still provides a sobering look at a near worst-case scenario of where our culture’s momentum might take us if we fail to change our direction.


The Long Emergency excerpt, Rolling Stone, March 2005, online at TruthOut:

See also WW4 REPORT’s ongoing coverage of the global oil crisis


Special to WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, Aug. 1, 2005
Reprinting permissible with attribution