Tuesday, July 12, 2005

The long emergency

As a counterpoint to my post from June 25 about Thomas Friedman’s new book The World is Flat, here’s something else to think about. The book is called The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century by James Howard Kunstler. This is the kind of book that can keep you up at night wondering if the author’s dismal vision of the future is indeed as plausible as he believes. No, this isn't fringe survivalist literature. An abbreviated version of Kunstler’s thesis appeared in the Dallas Morning News on Sunday, July 3. In The Long Emergency, Kunstler points to the reality that “reliable supplies of cheap oil and natural gas underlie everything we identify as the necessities of modern life – not to mention all of its comforts and luxuries: central heating, air conditioning, cars, airplanes, electric lights, inexpensive clothing, recorded music, movies, hip-replacement surgery, national defense – you name it.” This is no new observation. What’s alarming is his calculation that the world is using its finite supply of fossil fuels so quickly that the global supply will be at its halfway point in just a few years. He refers to the halfway point as the “oil peak” and in the book’s introduction he notes, “What is generally not comprehended about this predicament is that the developed world will begin to suffer long before the oil and gas actually run out.” (The “oil peak” concept originated with geophysicist M. King Hubbert. Some background here and here.) Today's New York Times has a retrospective on American oil crises that helps put all these arguments in perspective. One write-up of Kunstler's book says, “The Long Emergency tells us just what to expect after the honeymoon of affordable energy is over, preparing us for economic, political, and social changes of an unimaginable scale. Riveting and authoritative, The Long Emergency is a devastating indictment that brings new urgency and accessibility to the critical issues that will shape our future, and that we can no longer afford to ignore.” That more people aren’t talking about the inevitability of the end of oil is something Kunstler explains. He says, “throughout history, even the most important and self-evident trends are often completely ignored because the changes they foreshadow are simply unthinkable.” He attributes complacency on the issue to the “presumption that technology and markets will naturally rescue us.” But what if technology and markets can’t compensate for the end of fossil fuels? This book urges people to start thinking about that possibility.