Below is a review of The Long Emergency ,Surviving the Converging Catatstrophes of the Twenty First Century by James Howard Kunstler. It was originally published in a small newspaper and as I believe it was not copyrighted, I have revised it a bit and am reposting it here at the very least to fill up space..
When George Carlin was young and undiscovered and therefore somewhat humorous, he had a routine in which he played a character called “The Hippy Dippy Weatherman.” In the only sketch I remember, he is looking at the “Hippy Dippy Weather Radar,” wherein he sees brutal thunderstorms that he describes in chilling detail. After he illustrates the horrors about to affect the viewing area, he off handedly mentions that “however our hippy dippy weather radar also detects a line of Soviet Inter Continental Ballistic Missiles headed this way so I wouldn’t sweat the thunderstorms.” If James Howard Kunstler is correct, the impact on our lives from the normal crises of everyday life to Peak Oil as he depicts it, will be similar to the comparison of thunderstorms with nuclear missiles.
Just who is this fellow anyway and why is he predicting disaster? I have been aware of JHK (as he is oft referred to and as I shall in the interest of brevity) for quite awhile now. his website, www.kunstler.com, is interesting, especially the vignettes of memoirs he has written. Every week he writes a column on the “converging catastrophes.” Though it is worth reading, I cannot provide its title in a family blog.
So what is the big disaster he is talking about? Though he writes of more than just the depletion of oil, that is the big change that will drive the others. The term that has become popular is “peak oil.” What peak oil means is that sometime soon, if it hasn’t already happened, we shall have extracted half of all the oil that was ever created. We are at that point at the “peak” of production on a bell curve. It does not take a genius to understand the implication of these facts. In a world where the majority of Americans want to live in the burbs and commute far away and the Chinese worker thinks of “The Great Leap Forward” no longer in Maoist terms, but rather as four cylinders of bliss, something has got to give.
But that is not all, as the sub title of converging catastrophes evidences. JHK treats a lot, the economy, disease, the environment as well as peak oil. As to the general theory of peak oil, It is, in and of itself, not controversial. Only a few, marginalized folks believe there is an unlimited amount of Texas Tea. Even the people who disagree with peak happening now, don’t argue that it is more than a few decades away. So where is the controversy?
The nature of the controversy is what will life be like when we wake up to the fact that peak has arrived. Will it be 1973 all over again with long lines at gas stations? Will suburban McMansions go for a fraction of original cost as people try desperately to get closer to a more survivable venue? JHK does not shy away from the questions and he is unequivocal that it will not be easy. The range of possibilities goes from a dieoff of a majority of our species to a very local, agriculturally based existence. His focus on the return to a more local mode of existence leads him to compliment organic agriculture for among other things preserving traditional knowledge.
Though JHK is known for his criticism of Suburbia, his stark representation of an urban aspect of the coming crisis says it all:
“What will happen to the water pipes in a sixty story residential building
in Chicago if the regional natural gas pipeline goes down in February for
six hours? What will happen is that the pipes will burst and every
apartment will become uninhabitable. What will happen when the gas
pipelines are repressurized and pilot lights don’t automatically restart in
some buildings? It is a recipe for gas explosions.”
Keep in mind, this is a man who does not think the burbs have a future. The future he posits will not be a one time event while we just do the workarounds. Energy shortages will be the norm because we are short of energy.
So, will it really work out that way? Y2K got our paranoia juices flowing and then fizzled. Is this just another scare. Maybe, maybe not.
There really was a y2k emergency. Fortunately, the wakeup call came soon enough and there were sufficient resources to make the new years eve transition uneventful. Have we received the wakeup call in time and are the resources there to avoid the long emergency? To paraphrase a saying au courant during the Viet Nam war, “What if they gave a Long Emergency and nobody noticed.” By that I mean, yes, constant price increases in fuel and related commodities, but not so steep that they destroy the economy. Tight fuel supplies, but no gas lines a la 1973.
On the face of it, it does not look good for the scenario just mentioned above. JHK in his analyses of the alternative fuels is not optimistic. It is true that none of the alternatives are ready to step in today to take over from petroleum. However, the Long Emergency does not argue the end of oil, but the decline, albeit a pretty stiff decline. Is there a fuel or technology out there that can alleviate the inevitable?
There is a method of converting coal to oil that JHK mentions and more or less dismisses, unless we become desperate enough and are forced to turn to it. That method is the Fischer-Tropf used by Germany in World War II to keep its air and mechanized forces moving even when they had no access to petroleum. It was also used by South Africa during the old regime. We should note that the apartheid regime did not end because cars could not get fuel.
Why should one think such an old technique could be an answer now. Well for one thing, the Sasol plant in South Africa never stopped running even though the pariah regime is gone and SA can get what ever it needs on the open market. Second, the price is right, the only question investors ask is, will it stay right? Third, it is already happening.
China is deciding between Royal Dutch/Shell Group and the above mentioned Sasol who is to build them two plants. Planning for nine plants worldwide has been underway since 2004 and three coal gasification plants are proposed in Illinois.
So is this feasible. The biggest thing preventing this has always been that crude was always cheaper to get and easier to crack. If that is changing forever (and is that not the point) then it is certainly is possible. My guess is you could put one of these things up as quickly as you could a Walmart. It was not so long ago that I’d never seen a Walmart, now you can’t avoid them.
There are environmental problems with synfuels. Fischer-Tropsch fuels burn cleanly, but there is a lot of CO2 generated in the cracking process. Can that be sequestered? Because it can be mixed with some types of crude oil, making it more fluid, CO2 from a synfuels plant in North Dakota is being piped to a past peak oil field in Saskatchewan and injected into the wells. The injection has already raised production to more than 2/3 of the former peak.
This is not in anyway evidence we have have the problem licked. It won’t be one thing anyway and there is probably no “solution” to the forever riddle of how our species deals with its environment and the materials of that realm. Still, we may just tweak it here and there such that people perceive they have to be a bit more sparing of the resources, but adjust well enough that it soon does not seem an “emergency.” You have probably heard of the question, “did the people living in the dark ages know they were living in the dark ages?”
Of course, many things could go wrong such that JHK is forever viewed as a prophet. An Iranian adventure just might work that magic.
This is a readable book. His organization of the chapters is well done. It does suffer from the lack of an index and bibliography. I do have some problems. In the chapter “Running on Fumes,” he makes a point of mentioning the effect of the Fordney -McCumber Tariff of 1922 yet completely ignores Smoot-Hawley, the most devastating tariff ever passed and arguably a direct cause of the depression. Missing the latter and not the former is, to say the least, interesting. Still, the book is worth it, if only for the section on LTCM (Long Term Capital Management), a group of certified geniuses who nearly cratered the world economy. Mommas don’t let yer boys grow up to be hedge fund managers, let’m be organic farmers instead.”
If you have not been reading about, peak oil and don’t want to get into a lot of geology and want a more global view of all the problems that are, as JHK would put it, converging, you could do a lot worse than this book.
Since I wrote that review, I've become a bit more skeptical of Mr. Kunstler. I refer to the quote below:
"People will consequently suffer. I don’t know how much. Some people may lose their lives - but more likely at the hands of a disabled medical establishment than because of civil disorder, loss of power, starvation, bad water, or other projected horrors (though these, too, are possible). Some will suffer the loss of fortunes, some of any income whatsoever, and many of something in between. Quite a few will find themselves suddenly without an occupation, and few ideas about how to make themselves useful to other people (without occupations themselves). Many will suffer a loss of comfort and modern convenience, and if that goes on any longer than a week, it may escalate into serious problems of public sanitation and infectious disease."
Of course the opening line to the above paragraph is:
"...Y2K is real. Y2K is going to rock our world."
He was spouting all the same stuff about the need to re-localize just a few years ago.
The man is snake oil with a great style. If we do end up with an energy crisis it will be caused by the usual culprit, politics.
You may want to trust me on this one. I suspect I am a lot older than you. Just out of the Army, in the early 70's, I sat in line at the gas station during the first oil crisis and we know that wage and price controls had a lot to do with that. Of course, I can probably rustle up a WIN button if I need to.
For a more exhaustive take on JHK you may want to visit Peak Oil Debunked.