Is there life after oil?
James Howard Kunstler is America’s version of an Old Testament prophet, a stinging social critic who warns of dark days ahead if we do not change the way we live. The former journalist emerged as a trenchant observer of modern life with his 1994 book “The Geography of Nowhere,” which traces the past and future of suburban sprawl. He followed this up with 1998’s “Home from Nowhere,” which offered solutions to the problem of sprawl, and 2002’s “The City in Mind: Notes on the Urban Condition,” a broad look at what makes cities thrive or decay.
His latest book, “The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century,” describes what may happen when the flood of cheap oil, which has sustained our society for a hundred years, begins to peter out—as experts predict it will in the coming decade.
The end of oil will mean more than the loss of gasoline, which would be devastating enough in a suburban society built entirely around the automobile. It will also mean the end to the plastics of which so many of our surroundings are made, and a shortage of the food we now grow with oil-based fertilizer.
Articles about the end of oil are now trickling into the mainstream, but Kunstler, more than anyone, considers the geopolitical ripples that an oil shortage would create. What happens if the last oil is owned by the brutal dictatorships of the Middle East? How will China, with 20 percent of the world’s population and skyrocketing oil needs, react when others have the oil they need? How will rural America, with its recent resurgence of violent and apocalyptic beliefs, react to a crisis? Schools, corporations, cities—nothing, he believes, will stay the same in the Long Emergency to come.
Pulse of the Twin Cities interviewed Kunstler last week.
PULSE: How did you come to focus on peak oil?
KUNSTLER: It was a natural outgrowth of my investigations into the fiasco of suburbia. Also, as a young newspaper reporter 30-odd years ago, I was very impressed by the effects of the 1973 OPEC oil embargo. I was convinced it was a “preview of coming attractions,” and indeed it was—in the sense that the embargo occurred precisely because U.S. production had peaked and pricing power had shifted from America to OPEC.
These things were barely understood even by the experts back then, but they resolved over the decades, and by the mid-1990s it was pretty clear that we were approaching a similar global production peak, and that it would change everything. We are now heading into the event.
PULSE: Why has this issue been so universally ignored?
KUNSTLER: … The American public has been poorly prepared for this period I call The Long Emergency, when we will be compelled to change the way we live and do things. The dirty secret of the U.S. economy for a couple of decades now is that it is mostly driven by the creation of suburban sprawl and all its accessories and furnishings—the subdivisions, the highway strips, the big box stores, the fried food shacks, et cetera. Subtract that, and the financial/real estate activity associated with it, and there isn’t a whole lot left in the economy besides open-heart surgery.
Our political and business leaders can’t come to grips with the unhappy reality of this. They can’t militate against the very car-dependency and oil addiction that our so-called economy depends on. I’ll go further to state that I don’t even regard George W. Bush and other establishment figures as necessarily “evil,” but they have been very misguided, and the final result will be a pretty sobering period of hardship for the United States.
PULSE: You strongly criticize the American suburbs, which you say cannot continue once oil becomes precious. But I wonder if the suburbanites might not be in a good position—close enough to neighbors for mutual support, but with room to grow their own food.
KUNSTLER: Suburbia represents the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world. It is theoretically true that suburbanites might grow some vegetables on what are now their lawns, but they are not going to raise beef cattle or winter wheat on them. Anyway, the liabilities of suburbia are so extreme otherwise that I think it will fail as a human habitat. Its failure will entail the evaporation of trillions of dollars in hallucinated wealth, as well as a lot of social disorder and political mischief.
PULSE: I was surprised at how much of our food is grown with oil. How will that change affect us?
KUNSTLER: We’re eating oil. There’s no question that we’re going to have to grow more food locally with more human labor, and probably with working animals, too. But there are a lot of questions about how that will reorganize itself. For instance, the subdivision practices of the past 50 years have been very destructive to the rural landscape—to our ability to reorganize land back into farms.
Also, we can’t predict what the social relations will be between the greater number of people who will have to work in agriculture when oil and gas are scarcer and the people who own the land. In other times and places, this has been a recipe for unrest and even revolution.
PULSE: As oil begins to get expensive, what’s to stop people from turning to sustainable architecture, recycling and clean energy? We’ve done it before, and the transition wouldn’t have to happen overnight.
KUNSTLER: That’s laughable. We have no … idea what sustainable architecture even is. We’re going to be a far less affluent nation anyway. It’s not like we’re going to replace 27 million McHouses with an equal number of new “sustainable” ones. Plus, there’s a lot of wishful thinking about “renewables.” They will not make up for what we are using now or even a substantial fraction of it. A lot of people are going to freeze, be too hot, and go hungry.
PULSE: Some people have dismissed the idea of an energy crunch, saying that we will come up with something like fusion. On the other hand, I’m not sure I want to see what a fusion-powered chainsaw can do. If we could continue our lifestyle through some other means, do you think we should? What would be your ideal scenario?
KUNSTLER: We’re not going to continue our lifestyle by other means. Forget it. No combination of alternative fuels will allow us to run the interstate highway system, Walt Disney World and Archer Daniels Midland. We’re going to have to downscale, rescale and resize all our activities, and live more locally, whether we like it or not.
We have acquired two very pernicious habits of thinking in recent decades. One I call the “Jiminy Cricket syndrome,” the idea that when you wish upon a star your dreams come true. That’s what the Spielberg movies and Nike commercials tell us. Guess what: it’s a childish delusion. The second mental obstruction we’ve taken on is the “Las Vegas-ization of the American Mind,” namely the idea that it’s possible to get something for nothing. This one-two combo of delusions defeats all honest and earnest efforts to really do something about the predicament we face.
PULSE: I know evangelicals who live in the countryside but don’t have an environmental perspective, and environmentalists with lots of theoretical knowledge but who live in city apartments. I can’t help but think of what they could do if they learned from each other. What groups do you think are best prepared for the Long Emergency, and what alliances could we see in the coming years?
KUNSTLER: Look, my friends are political “progressives” who drive their SUVs to the peace rallies. I think the entire U.S. public is poorly prepared. The Amish alone have a head start on where we are headed, but their way also includes a lot of religious baggage. Frankly, I think the answer is that the Long Emergency will produce a lot of economic losers and we will be living in a very turbulent society.
PULSE: People I talk to often think in either/or terms, either commuting 40 miles from a McMansion or being Amish. But I’m sure a lot of people would like to ease into a different world as much as possible. What are some basic things we—mostly city-dwellers—need to start doing to prepare for the Long Emergency?
KUNSTLER: What we’re facing is a sharp discontinuity, not a smooth transition. That’s why I call this period the Long Emergency. People don’t necessarily get what they want or what they expect.
In my opinion, the big cities are going to become very disorderly places—anyway many of America’s big cities are already in an advanced state of contraction—Detroit, St. Louis, Baltimore, Philadelphia … the list is very long. New York and Chicago are overburdened with mega-structures and skyscrapers. They will probably not be usable in a scarce energy economy. These cities will contract and the process will be painful. Phoenix will dry up and blow away. In Las Vegas, the excitement will be over. The action is going to shift to the smaller towns and cities, the places proximate to viable agriculture.
PULSE: Most of the people I know who are interested in the energy crunch are also against the government’s invasion of Iraq —but you seem to think that, in purely Machiavellian terms, Bush’s invasion was a smart move. What do you think we should do in the Middle East?
KUNSTLER: I didn’t say it was a smart move … I said it’s what we did. Yeah, all my friends were against the Iraq invasion and nothing has stopped them from commuting sixty miles a day or driving Ford Expeditions to the farmers’ market. I view the Iraq invasion strictly for what it was: a clumsy attempt to stabilize the region of the world where two-thirds of the remaining oil is, and to incidentally modify and influence the behavior of Iraq’s two troublesome neighbors, Iran and Saudi Arabia.
There’s a lady who lives near me with a sign in her yard that says “War is Not The Answer” and two SUVs parked in the driveway. What sanctimonious crap. I want to grab her by the collar and yell, “Guess what, war is the answer as long as you want to live this way. Get used to it.”
PULSE: What are the biggest signs of hope you see right now?
KUNSTLER: There’s some idea that if you don’t leave the public with “hope,” with the chance of a happy ending, that you have failed in your task as a journalist. This is also fallacious. And childish. This is not a Bruce Willis movie, this is America in the 20th century, stuck with the consequences of its behavior.
People will either adapt or perish in the Long Emergency. We’ve already made a whole lot of bad choices, collectively, including our decision to build a drive-in, easy-motoring utopia. Let’s not continue to make bad choices, okay? Let’s not mount a stupid and futile campaign to prop up the fading “entitlements” of suburbia. Let’s prepare to downscale and live locally. Let’s rebuild the U.S. passenger railroad system—that’s something we already know how to do, and it is a symptom of our obdurate cluelessness and lack of seriousness that we refuse to do it.
Life is tragic. History doesn’t care if we fail as a civilization. Others have gone before us. We have to take responsibility for what we are facing and quit expecting to be rescued by wishes, dreams, and miracles. ||
...see excerpt of Kunstler's latest book, The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century.