The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-first Century

By James Howard Kunstler

320 pp., hardcover. Atlantic Monthly Press, Apr. 2005. $23.00.
 
When James Howard Kunstler’s The Long Emergency came out in 2005, it was at once terrifying and riveting, like a nightmare whose outcome must be discovered despite the difficulty of braving through it. A chorus of critics praised Kunstler’s erudition and wonderful writing, while stressing that his book thoroughly unsettled them. (One reviewer declared that the book couldn’t help but be read “with white knuckles.”1) Kunstler’s vision held particular appeal among speculative fiction authors who were looking for fresh worlds in which to set their post-industrial dystopias. Indeed, one of the genre’s most distinguished writers, Robert Charles Wilson, has said that he "freely borrowed” from The Long Emergency in writing Julian Comstock.2 And of course, Kunstler himself went on to novelize his great work in the form of the World Made by Hand series. The present reviewer was held in thrall to Kunstler’s masterpiece and gave it five reads in just a few months.
 
So what is my reaction after having recently read it a sixth time a decade later? Does its warning to the people of the industrial world still have the same ring of authenticity as it did originally? Absolutely it does. The past decade has brought a progressive worsening of our society’s crisis exactly along the lines that Kunstler foretold. On the energy front, we’ve witnessed sustained oscillations in oil prices, along with proof-positive evidence that world oil production has peaked and begun declining. We’ve also watched alternative energy sources continue to disappoint as replacements for cheap oil. In addition, the climate crisis has become ever more manifest, as have other threats about which Kunstler warned, including water scarcity, famine, epidemic disease, decaying infrastructure and international terrorism. Above all, we’ve seen everyday people continue to believe as vehemently as ever, in a tour de force of collective delusional thinking, that all this isn’t actually happening.
 
Those who claim that history has proven Kunstler wrong haven’t read his book closely enough. Contrary to what some believe, he never suggests anywhere in The Long Emergency that a sudden advent of doomsday is in the offing because of oil depletion. In fact, he’s since stated that he rejects the very label “doomer.” Rather, he argues, with hard facts and unassailable logic, that a new epoch is dawning for industrial civilization. It is one whose precise trajectory can’t be known in advance, but which is bound to turn a whole lot of familiar assumptions on their heads. He refers to this new era as a “discontinuity” in our modern society’s vital systems, lasting from the end of the cheap oil age to whatever energy regime comes next. His name for this discontinuity is “The Long Emergency.”
 
Nor does Kunstler say the world is running out of oil, as has been widely assumed. He, like other peak oil figures, is simply pointing out that we’re in for trouble once the easily produced oil is gone. He acknowledges in his argument that a large fraction of the world’s remaining oil will remain untapped forever because it won’t be economically or technologically feasible to produce. It also won’t be any good to us from a net energy standpoint, because most of it will require more energy to produce than it will yield in return.
 
One thing Kunstler’s critics have seized on in recent years as evidence that he’s wrong has been the rapid growth of gas and oil production from U.S. shale. To their credit, the shale boom really has added substantially to the overall energy picture, a development that Kunstler and many other peak oil writers failed to see coming. Yet the U.S. shale phenomenon is increasingly showing signs of being a short-term answer. Shale oil and gas are far more expensive to produce than their conventional counterparts, meaning they aren’t viable without high oil prices. Indeed, output from some major shale plays is beginning to dwindle as drillers bail because of recent low oil prices. As more and more fields enter decline, the growth in total U.S. oil production seen in recent years, due mostly to tight oil from shale, will start dropping. In short, the U.S. shale success story has had the effect of postponing The Long Emergency rather than obviating it.
 
With regard to the bubble that preceded the shale extravaganza—the one in America’s housing market—Kunstler’s projections have proven right on the mark. The collapse has had all the landmarks he anticipated, including surging foreclosure and underwater-mortgage rates, the implosion of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and the stupendous derivatives losses requiring trillions in government bailouts.
 
Despite the shale reprieve of recent years, global production of conventional oil peaked in 2005, pretty much when Kunstler said it would. In point of fact, Kunstler never actually names a specific peak date in The Long Emergency but writes, “The best information we have is that we will have passed the point of world peak oil production between the years 2000 and 2008.” He emphasizes that the precise date can be determined only after the fact through the “rearview mirror.” If several years pass in which production fails to match the level achieved during the peak year, it can be said with confidence that the year in question was, in fact, the peak and not simply a blip of market instability.
 
A decade ago, Kunstler and other peak oil commentators were warning that, in addition to the oil crisis confronting the world, North America faced imminent natural gas shortages. I, for one, was utterly convinced by their arguments, and was waiting in terror for an epidemic of blackouts that would make cities unlivable and leave entire populations freezing in winter. It’s clear from reading The Long Emergency that Kunstler expected this to have happened by now: “The United States doesn’t have a decade to solve this problem,” he writes. While this obviously isn’t the way things worked out, the North American natural gas crisis is not a problem that has gone away. Instead what has happened is that the unexpected glut from shale gas has postponed our reckoning. Once that glut is gone, the shortages that Kunstler and others warned us about will be on our heels again, since conventional gas production for the continent at large peaked in 2001 and has been dropping ever since.
 
Besides taking a comprehensive look at our energy future, Kunstler also examines how a host of other crises, chief among them climate change, might unfold. His list of the certain impacts from climate change remains spot-on: rising temperatures and sea levels, more frequent extreme weather events, the disruption of agriculture, increased exposure to vector-borne disease and the forced migration of tens of millions from lands made uninhabitable by flooding or desertification. Kunstler also reports on the ongoing collapse of the West Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets, as well as a potential hydrothermal shutdown of the Atlantic Gulf Stream, an event that would plunge Europe into a freeze.
 
However, scientists have also lately become aware of an aspect to climate change absent from Kunstler’s discussion: acidification of the world’s oceans caused by their absorption of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. But faulting Kunstler for this omission isn’t really fair, since it is only in recent years that the true extent and gravity of ocean acidification have been realized.
 
Ten years is, of course, an insufficient vantage point from which to judge the accuracy of Kunstler’s longer-range forecasts. Some examples of these include the disintegration of the U.S. highway system for lack of resources to maintain it; the deforestation of North America as natural gas supplies for home heating run short; a return to an agrarian society in America possibly structured along the lines of medieval feudalism; and the plundering of the U.S. West Coast by pirates from the Far East. Kunstler never hazards a guess as to how long it will take for these transformations to unfold, but it’s clear that he expects them to be well underway within his lifetime. “I have reasonable expectations to live through the early decades of these epochal changes,” he writes, “and perhaps to suffer because of them.” No doubt, the time perspective needed to properly evaluate such predictions is at least a few tens of years.
 
To elaborate on one of the examples given above, the condition of the U.S. highway system has shown signs of improvement in recent years, even though Kunstler is certainly right that it’s doomed in the long run. While the percentage of highways deemed to be in “poor” or “mediocre” condition has crept up by a couple of points—from 18 to 20.5 percent—the percentage of bridges rated “structurally deficient" or "functionally obsolete” has decreased from 29 to 24.2 percent. Structurally deficient bridges now make up 10.4 percent of all bridges, down from 16 percent.3 These developments have been the result of heavy investments by state and local highway agencies. But they’re investments that must be sustained in perpetuity if the highway system is to be kept from falling apart. As incomes and tax revenues alike diminish in the years ahead, and as mass motoring increasingly becomes a privilege of the ultra-rich, funding for the needed maintenance won’t be as forthcoming as it is now.
 
One of the main goals of this book is to establish a vocabulary for describing the psychology of our troubled times. A key term in this vocabulary is the “Jiminy Cricket Syndrome,” defined as the belief that getting something for nothing is perfectly normal. We’ve been tricked into this belief by our long line of successes with technological invention in recent centuries. And this goes a long way toward explaining why people can’t see the proposed energy alternatives for the empty hype that they so often are. So does the psychology of sunk costs. Americans desperately need to believe that renewables can replace oil because we’ve invested untold wealth and resources into a suburban living arrangement that can’t survive without oil. Since oil is irreplaceable, this living arrangement is doomed; but most people can’t process this fact. In describing our failure of imagination, Kunstler borrows the phrase “outside context problem” from author Iain M. Banks. The term refers to societal crises that go unrecognized because they lie beyond a society’s frame of reference.4
 
It may surprise many to learn that Kunstler does harbor hope for the future. It’s just that his notion of hope differs from that of most people. He views hope not as something that can be imparted from one person to another, but as something we all must create for ourselves by earnestly meeting life’s challenges and demonstrating that we can overcome them. Thus, while we may not have any chance of maintaining our current oil-dependent lifestyle, we can still cultivate hope by setting new aspirations in light of the signals reality is sending us and making steady progress toward our new goals. Kunstler says he has faith that his own small-town community in upstate New York—where he’s long been a public intellectual, master storyteller, landscape painter, sometime wood craftsman and all-around colorful personality—will fare well during The Long Emergency. (Incidentally, he has since moved to another town about 15 miles away, which he chose for having similar virtues.)
 
If you require further proof that Kunstler isn’t a doomer, here’s an excerpt from The Long Emergency that should suffice. It speaks, as movingly now as in 2005, of all the admirable things our species has managed to accomplish during the industrial age, even as it has sown the seeds of its own demise. Writes Kunstler, “[T]he fact that we were here once will not be altered, that once upon a time we peopled this astonishing blue planet, and wondered intelligently at everything about it and the other things who lived here with us on it, and that we celebrated the beauty of it in music and art, architecture, literature, and dance, and that there were times when we approached something godlike in our abilities and aspirations.” How could a speech so brimming with pride in humanity be the work of a doomer?
 
1 Bryant Urstadt, “The Get-Ready Men: The cheap oil will end one day. What about civilization?,” MIT Technology Review, Feb. 21, 2006, http://www.technologyreview.com/news/405361/the-get-ready-men/page/2 (accessed Mar. 2, 2015).
2 Brian Francis Slattery, “A Conversation with Robert Charles Wilson, Part 3,” TOR, May 29, 2009, http://www.tor.com/blogs/2009/05/a-conversation-with-robert-charles-wilson-part-3 (accessed Mar. 4, 2015).
3 “Transportation FAQs,” American Road & Transportation Builders Association, http://www.artba.org/about/transportation-faqs (accessed Mar. 5, 2015).
4 Iain M. Banks, Excession (London: Orbit, 1996), 71-2.