CHANGE—THE LONG EMERGENCY
November 6, 2008
A book review
Even with the election of Barack Obama, we Americans stand in the cross hairs of ominous social and environmental change in the early years of the 21st century. Each day, media reports stream into major networks as they expose ‘symptoms’ erupting across the planet. Water shortages, ozone pollution, species extinction, gridlocked traffic, energy crisis and other calamities dominate the news.
With so many events hammering us from all angles? Who can we believe? What’s really going on? Who gets down to brass tacks to explain it all?
James Howard Kunstler, knuckle-busting author of “The Long Emergency” writes with irreverent humor, sobering clarity and brilliant prose as he explains America’s plight in the 21st century. He hits readers with brutal ‘reality punches’ like a prize fighter in a three rounder. He bridges our understanding by expanding our knowledge. His electrifying style energizes our brains while we ponder his disconcerting realities facing our civilization.
He backpacks us across uncertain terrain as he leads us toward our destination. What do we seek? Short answer: a sustainable civilization! Unfortunately, we forge toward a most unsustainable future.
The eminent historian Arnold Toynbee said, “The U.S. will set a record in the rate of rise—and fall of an empire. Between wide open borders and fall of the dollar and growing population against a declining resource base, the US will be defeated from within. Mobs will rule the streets in the nation that is now the third largest in the world and unable to support its population except by taking resources from other countries.”
Kunstler writes, “How could such a catastrophe be so close at hand, and yet civilized, educated people in free countries with free news media and transparent institutions be so uninformed about it? I do not believe that the general ignorance about the coming catastrophic end of the cheap-oil era is the product of a conspiracy. Mostly it is a matter of cultural inertia, aggravated by collective delusion, and nursed in the growth medium of comfort and complacency. Author Erik Davis referred to this as the ‘consensus trance’.”
No matter what our ‘trance’, we face Hubbert’s Curve I and II whereby the USA peaked its oil production in 1970 and world oil production peaked somewhere around 2007, give or take a few years. Kunstler writes, “The world will be in trouble long before we run out of oil, when we reach peak production. At absolute peak, there will still be plenty of oil left in the ground—in fact, half of all the oil that ever existed—but it will be the half that is deeper down, harder and costlier to extract, sitting under harsh and remote parts of the world, owned in some cases by people with a grudge against the United States, and this remaining oil will be contested by everyone. (Note that China adds 27,000 cars to its highways every week.) At peak and just beyond, there is massive potential for system failure of all kinds, social, economic and political. Peak is quite literally a tipping point. Beyond peak, things unravel and the center does not hold. Beyond peak, all bets are off about civilization’s future. In historical memory, the world has never faced such dangerous circumstances as it does early in the 21st century.”
How can it get this bad this fast? For starters, China, at its current growth rate, expects to consume 98 million barrels of oil annually by 2030. Yet, no one dares look at the flashing red light signifying ‘empty’on earth’s fuel gauge! Folks! That’s a mere 22 years from now. The U.S. burns 20 million barrels daily in 2008. Ninety-eight million barrels equals five times our current consumption. Humans pump 85 million barrels of oil daily in 2008. Something’s got to give. Kinda’ like the I-35 Bridge in Minneapolis last year!
Kunstler explains why alternative fuels won’t rescue us. Wind, water, coal, solar and bio cannot maintain the per capita power of our 20th century slave: oil.
Yet, leaders stand around hoping our scientists will invent a new technology to save us. In a slide show I attended in Washington DC in October, Kunstler clicked on a power-point whereby a 747 jetliner pulled up to the pumps-- “Fill her up with “technology,” the pilot said.
Coal power may be increased, but, “Coal is implicated in mercury pollution that causes 60,000 cases of brain damage in newborn children every year in the United States. Coal is linked to asthma.”
What if we engage biomass? Corn or anything else for that matter cannot grow THAT fast! Also, it takes 1,700 gallons of water to produce one gallon of bio-diesel. Kunstler sobers his readers if we pursued biomass agriculture with, “I think we can expect a fairly massive devastation of forest in those places—such as America east of the Mississippi—where forests had been able to recover during the many decades when coal, oil and natural gas reigned in home heating. The future deforestation of America and Europe could be as rapid and dramatic as the extermination of the American bison in the decades after the Civil War.”
Kunstler does not throw readers a bone in the first half of the book. He refuses bromides and platitudes.
He said, "The cheap oil age created an artificial bubble of plentitude for a period not much longer than a human lifetime....so I hazard to assert that as oil ceases to be cheap and the world reserves move toward depletion, we will be left with an enormous population...that the ecology of the earth will not support. The journey back toward non-oil population homeostasis will not be pretty. We will discover the hard way that population hyper growth was simply a side-effect of the oil age. It was a condition, not a problem with a solution. That is what happened and we are stuck with it."
Subscribe to the NewsWithViews Daily News Alerts!
In the second half of his book, he startles, alarms and sobers readers. We’re not in for a fun ride at Disney World. We’ll cover what’s coming and what we can do about it.
By James Howard Kunstler