Review: Living in the Long Emergency by James Howard Kunstler

March 9, 2020

living bookcoverLiving in the Long Emergency: Global Crisis, the Failure of the Futurists, and the Early Adapters Who Are Showing Us the Way Forward
By James Howard Kunstler
277 pp., hardcover. BenBella Books – Mar. 2020. $24.95.

Many fans of author James Howard Kunstler can tell you exactly where they were when they first read his book The Long Emergency. Originally published in 2005, it has since become a modern classic among those concerned about the issue of world oil depletion. It was near the forefront of a growing tide of books that warned of the threat posed to our modern way of life by the imminent peak and decline of global oil production, and it communicated its message with unparalleled vividness, lucidity and power. Kunstler’s stark, detailed portrait of a future post-peak-oil world riveted and terrified readers. It also became fodder for Kunstler’s World Made by Hand series, a magnificent quartet of novels tracing the fortunes and tribulations of one community striving valiantly to make its way in a world without fossil fuel energy.

Kunstler’s latest book is a welcome nonfiction follow-up to The Long Emergency titled Living in the Long Emergency. It profiles a handful of remarkable people from across America whose lifestyles embody what Kunstler refers to as “heroic adaptation.” Kunstler describes these individuals as having all been touched in some way by the early manifestations of the phase in history he calls the Long Emergency—defined as the time between when oil production begins to peak and whenever alternative energy sources succeed in supplanting oil, if they ever do. Some of these people have forged ways of thriving outside the traditional economy of jobs and wages. Others have managed to educate themselves and maintain their health without having to rely on the obscenely costly services of the modern higher education and health care systems. Their adaptability thus far bodes well for their ability to survive the societal discontinuities that Kunstler foresees.

Living is organized into three parts. Its opening section revisits Kunstler’s 2005 predictions, reflecting on what he got right and what he got wrong. The book’s middle part sees Kunstler, a former newspaper reporter, don his journalist’s hat once again to capture the lifestyles and personalities of his heroic early adapters. The third and final section attempts to peer into our civilization’s likely future.

The author’s first order of business is to address the proverbial elephant in the room: the fact that events have not unfolded quite as he predicted they would in his earlier book. Global crude oil production (counting both conventional and unconventional sources) has risen instead of declining, and as a result, life seems to most people to be carrying on as usual. People are still driving long commutes, trawling supermarket aisles for food flown in from around the world, vacationing at Disney World and entrusting their money to huge international banks. Quoting Ricky Ricardo from I Love Lucy, Kunstler deprecatingly says of himself, “You got some ’splainin’ to do!”

Yet this remark can’t help seeming self-flagellatory, for as Kunstler correctly goes on to point out, he was hardly alone in failing to anticipate the revolution in U.S. oil and natural gas production that has temporarily forestalled the Long Emergency. That took everyone, including some of the world’s most distinguished petroleum scientists, by surprise. It was achieved through a combination of new advances in horizontal drilling; the application of the decades-old technology of hydraulic fracturing; and access to cheap financing courtesy of the Federal Reserve’s near-zero interest rate policy and the injection of vast amounts of liquidity into bond markets. Kunstler stresses that the cheap financing and low interest rates have been especially crucial, given that shale oil and gas, unlike their conventional counterparts, are too costly to produce at a profit. The shale oil so-called miracle has been, in Kunstler’s words, “a very impressive financial and technological stunt” that has bought us about another decade of business as usual, to be followed by an even harder eventual crash.

The first person to be featured in Kunstler’s series of profiles of early adapters is restoration agriculturist Mark Shepard. During a visit to Shepard’s New Forest Farm in Viola, Wisconsin, Kunstler observed his pioneering style of integrated agriculture firsthand. It’s one that seeks to imitate nature rather than destroying it the way that today’s dominant monoculture-driven farming practices have long done. Shepard’s farm doesn’t fit most people’s mental image of a farm. It doesn’t have separate areas devoted to forest, pasture and fields; instead, it resembles one big oak savanna, inspired by the savannas that dominated the region before industrial agriculture. When Shepard first acquired his land, it was exhausted from overfarming; but Shepard has since managed to revitalize it. Kunstler’s rich recollections of the sights and sounds on the farm are a pleasure to read, as is his description of Shepard’s physical likeness: “He’s a sturdy six footer and looks uncannily like the movie actor Bill Murray, with a cleanly cropped beard, as if Murray were cast in a biopic of Ernest Hemingway.”

Tom Thomas and Sukey Watson of Whidbey Island, Washington, offer another exemplary case study in heroic early adaptation. In 2012, the couple resolved to become full-time homesteaders, even though the land on which they lived was poorly suited to growing cultivated crops. The soil on their 10-acre property was hard and sodic, necessitating the use of a horticultural technique known as hügelkultur. Designed to mimic natural forest decomposition, hügelkultur is ideal for regions with poor soil. It involves creating raised garden beds out of densely packed wood mounds and then filling the empty spaces with compost or other organic material. When Kunstler went to visit Thomas and Watson, he was struck by their beautiful handmade house, their side jobs as professional musicians and Tom’s “warm, gravelly storyteller’s voice with a slight western twang.”

In Washington County, Vermont, Kunstler spent time with Suzanne Slomin, owner of the renewably powered Green Rabbit Bakery in Waitsfield, and Kempton and Carrie Randolph, who own the Hooker Mountain Farm Distillery in Cabot. Kunstler brings his customary descriptive flair to the task of encapsulating the life’s work of these entrepreneurs. He finds a particular room of the distillery to be quite like “a frontier laboratory, the shelves and workbenches lined with bottles, jugs, flasks, beakers, retorts, funnels, condensers, and other accessories of the liquor-making trade.” Of Slomin’s bakery operation he writes, “The sense of order verged on the fanatical. Altogether, it looked like a very cheerful place to do a lot of hard and rewarding work.”

Kunstler expects the harsh conditions of the Long Emergency to aggravate the already gaping racial divide in America. Two chapters in Living speak to this divide and the ideologies behind it. The first of these probes the life story and intellectual journey of someone for whom dealing with racism is a daily reality, while the second attempts to shed light on the mentality of those who perpetuate racism. For this second chapter, Kunstler interviewed a white nationalist and practicing Buddhist who credits his Buddhist faith with keeping him serene. Kunstler acknowledges that this latter interview will offend those who are against providing a platform to white nationalists. But I think his case for having it in the book is persuasive: “[White nationalism] is with us whether we like it or not, and it requires our attention.”

If you listen to podcasts geared toward sustainability-related issues, you may already be familiar with the subject of a chapter titled “The Trials and Heartaches of a Gen Xer.” His name is Kevin Michael O’Connor, or KMO for short, and for the past 14 years he has hosted and produced a program called the C-Realm (the C standing for Consciousness). Kunstler met KMO early in his podcasting career and has since regularly appeared on his show. Here he turns the table to interview KMO about his life and philosophy at his home in Vermont.

To Kunstler, the course that KMO’s life has taken so far epitomizes the plight of Gen Xers at large. The preceding three generations rode a wave of unprecedented prosperity made possible by the post-war cheap-oil bonanza. But those days were fading fast by the time KMO and the rest of his cohort came of working age. For them, career opportunity and economic security have been far from guaranteed. Thus, KMO admits that he’s struggled to make ends meet for much of his adult life, and that it took him decades to hit his stride career-wise. He currently has no health insurance beyond staying physically fit. Nonetheless, he’s fulfilled by the vocation he has made of his podcasting passion, and the path that led him to this point has taken him on some thrilling adventures around the world.

The conclusions put forth in the final section of Living are just as cogent, well founded and frightening as those offered up in Kunstler’s 2005 book. There are, however, two notable differences between Kunstler’s earlier predictions and this new round. First, the latter have been revised to reflect current events and present-day science. In 2005 Kunstler didn’t write about ocean acidification, since back then the seriousness and extent of this threat had not yet been realized; but he does address it here. The second difference is that Kunstler is justifiably less inclined to posit specific timelines this time than before. In 2005 he stated that America had less than a decade to solve its natural gas supply crisis—a prediction that history has disproven, though it seemed entirely reasonable 15 years ago given what we knew then. In the new book, Kunstler wisely steers clear of short-term projections altogether, keeping his focus big-picture.

In the personal coda that concludes this book, Kunstler tells us about changes he has made in his own life to prepare for conditions to come. He says he lives in a small village in upstate New York, and that since 2011 he has been establishing himself as a homesteader. With a sizable garden, fruit trees, berry bushes and chickens, he’s able to produce all the food he needs. In the event that fuel shortages prevent him from traveling or keeping his home furnace running, he’ll still be able to get around and stay warm since he lives a few minutes’ walking distance from town and his property has a woodlot from which to procure firewood. Kunstler doesn’t kid us about the rigors of the homesteading life. He describes a series of rookie mistakes he’s made and what he’s learned from them. All in all, he and the other people featured in this book have set admirable examples of early adaptation and self-reliance.


Teaser photo credit: Hügelkultur bed prior to being covered with soil. By Jon Roberts from Austin TX, USA – Garden, 12 Apr 2012Uploaded by zellfaze, CC BY-SA 2.0

Frank Kaminski

Frank Kaminski is an ardent reader and reviewer of books related to natural resource depletion, climate change and other issues affecting the fate of industrial civilization. He lives in southwestern Washington state near the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge.  

Tags: building personal resilience, long emergency