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The Long Emergency Synopsis

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The Long Emergency Synopsis Empty The Long Emergency Synopsis

Post by  on Sun Jul 08, 2012 10:32 am

The Long Emergency
What's going to happen as we start running out of cheap gas to guzzle?

by James Howard Kunstler
A few years ago, the price of oil ratcheted above fifty-five
dollars a barrel, which is about twenty dollars a barrel more than
a year ago. The next day, the oil story was buried on page six of
the New York Times business section. Apparently, the price
of oil is not considered significant news, even when it goes up
five bucks a barrel in the span of ten days. That same day, the
stock market shot up more than a hundred points because, CNN said,
government data showed no signs of inflation. Note to clueless
nation: Call planet Earth.

Carl Jung, one of the fathers of psychology, famously remarked
that "people cannot stand too much reality." What you're about to
read may challenge your assumptions about the kind of world we live
in, and especially the kind of world into which events are
propelling us. We are in for a rough ride through uncharted
It has been very hard for Americans -- lost in dark raptures of
nonstop infotainment, recreational shopping and compulsive motoring
-- to make sense of the gathering forces that will fundamentally
alter the terms of everyday life in our technological society. Even
after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, America is still sleepwalking
into the future. I call this coming time the Long Emergency.
Most immediately we face the end of the cheap-fossil-fuel era.
It is no exaggeration to state 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.
The few Americans who are even aware that there is a gathering
global-energy predicament usually misunderstand the core of the
argument. That argument states that we don't have to run out of oil
to start having severe problems with industrial civilization and
its dependent systems. We only have to slip over the all-time
production peak and begin a slide down the arc of steady
The term "global oil-production peak" means that a turning point
will come when the world produces the most oil it will ever produce
in a given year and, after that, yearly production will inexorably
decline. It is usually represented graphically in a bell curve. The
peak is the top of the curve, the halfway point of the world's
all-time total endowment, meaning half the world's oil will be
left. That seems like a lot of oil, and it is, but there's a big
catch: It's the half that is much more difficult to extract, far
more costly to get, of much poorer quality and located mostly in
places where the people hate us. A substantial amount of it will
never be extracted.
The United States passed its own oil peak -- about 11 million
barrels a day -- in 1970, and since then production has dropped
steadily. In 2004 it ran just above 5 million barrels a day (we get
a tad more from natural-gas condensates). Yet we consume roughly 20
million barrels a day now. That means we have to import about
two-thirds of our oil, and the ratio will continue to worsen.
The U.S. peak in 1970 brought on a portentous change in
geoeconomic power. Within a few years, foreign producers, chiefly
OPEC, were setting the price of oil, and this in turn led to the
oil crises of the 1970s. In response, frantic development of
non-OPEC oil, especially the North Sea fields of England and
Norway, essentially saved the West's ass for about two decades.
Since 1999, these fields have entered depletion. Meanwhile,
worldwide discovery of new oil has steadily declined to
insignificant levels in 2003 and 2004.
Some "cornucopians" claim that the Earth has something like a
creamy nougat center of "abiotic" oil that will naturally replenish
the great oil fields of the world. The facts speak differently.
There has been no replacement whatsoever of oil already extracted
from the fields of America or any other place.
Now we are faced with the global oil-production peak. The best
estimates of when this will actually happen have been somewhere
between now and 2010. In 2004, however, after demand from
burgeoning China and India shot up, and revelations that Shell Oil
wildly misstated its reserves, and Saudi Arabia proved incapable of
goosing up its production despite promises to do so, the most
knowledgeable experts revised their predictions and now concur that
2005 is apt to be the year of all-time global peak production.
It will change everything about how we live.
To aggravate matters, American natural-gas production is also
declining, at five percent a year, despite frenetic new drilling,
and with the potential of much steeper declines ahead. Because of
the oil crises of the 1970s, the nuclear-plant disasters at Three
Mile Island and Chernobyl and the acid-rain problem, the U.S. chose
to make gas its first choice for electric-power generation. The
result was that just about every power plant built after 1980 has
to run on gas. Half the homes in America are heated with gas. To
further complicate matters, gas isn't easy to import. Here in North
America, it is distributed through a vast pipeline network. Gas
imported from overseas would have to be compressed at minus-260
degrees Fahrenheit in pressurized tanker ships and unloaded
(re-gasified) at special terminals, of which few exist in America.
Moreover, the first attempts to site new terminals have met furious
opposition because they are such ripe targets for terrorism.
Some other things about the global energy predicament are poorly
understood by the public and even our leaders. This is going to be
a permanent energy crisis, and these energy problems will synergize
with the disruptions of climate change, epidemic disease and
population overshoot to produce higher orders of trouble.
We will have to accommodate ourselves to fundamentally changed
No combination of alternative fuels will allow us to run
American life the way we have been used to running it, or even a
substantial fraction of it. The wonders of steady technological
progress achieved through the reign of cheap oil have lulled us
into a kind of Jiminy Cricket syndrome, leading many Americans to
believe that anything we wish for hard enough will come true. These
days, even people who ought to know better are wishing ardently for
a seamless transition from fossil fuels to their putative
The widely touted "hydrogen economy" is a particularly cruel
hoax. We are not going to replace the U.S. automobile and truck
fleet with vehicles run on fuel cells. For one thing, the current
generation of fuel cells is largely designed to run on hydrogen
obtained from natural gas. The other way to get hydrogen in the
quantities wished for would be electrolysis of water using power
from hundreds of nuclear plants. Apart from the dim prospect of our
building that many nuclear plants soon enough, there are also
numerous severe problems with hydrogen's nature as an element that
present forbidding obstacles to its use as a replacement for oil
and gas, especially in storage and transport.
Wishful notions about rescuing our way of life with "renewables"
are also unrealistic. Solar-electric systems and wind turbines face
not only the enormous problem of scale but the fact that the
components require substantial amounts of energy to manufacture and
the probability that they can't be manufactured at all without the
underlying support platform of a fossil-fuel economy. We will
surely use solar and wind technology to generate some electricity
for a period ahead but probably at a very local and small
Virtually all "biomass" schemes for using plants to create
liquid fuels cannot be scaled up to even a fraction of the level at
which things are currently run. What's more, these schemes are
predicated on using oil and gas "inputs" (fertilizers,
weed-killers) to grow the biomass crops that would be converted
into ethanol or bio-diesel fuels. This is a net energy loser -- you
might as well just burn the inputs and not bother with the biomass
products. Proposals to distill trash and waste into oil by means of
thermal depolymerization depend on the huge waste stream produced
by a cheap oil and gas economy in the first place.
Coal is far less versatile than oil and gas, extant in less
abundant supplies than many people assume and fraught with huge
ecological drawbacks -- as a contributor to greenhouse "global
warming" gases and many health and toxicity issues ranging from
widespread mercury poisoning to acid rain. You can make synthetic
oil from coal, but the only time this was tried on a large scale
was by the Nazis under wartime conditions, using impressive amounts
of slave labor.
If we wish to keep the lights on in America after 2020, we may
indeed have to resort to nuclear power, with all its practical
problems and eco-conundrums. Under optimal conditions, it could
take ten years to get a new generation of nuclear power plants into
operation, and the price may be beyond our means. Uranium is also a
resource in finite supply. We are no closer to the more difficult
project of atomic fusion, by the way, than we were in the
The upshot of all this is that we are entering a historical
period of potentially great instability, turbulence and hardship.
Obviously, geopolitical maneuvering around the world's richest
energy regions has already led to war and promises more
international military conflict. Since the Middle East contains
two-thirds of the world's remaining oil supplies, the U.S. has
attempted desperately to stabilize the region by, in effect,
opening a big police station in Iraq. The intent was not just to
secure Iraq's oil but to modify and influence the behavior of
neighboring states around the Persian Gulf, especially Iran and
Saudi Arabia. The results have been far from entirely positive, and
our future prospects in that part of the world are not something we
can feel altogether confident about.
And then there is the issue of China, which, in 2004, became the
world's second-greatest consumer of oil, surpassing Japan. China's
surging industrial growth has made it increasingly dependent on the
imports we are counting on. If China wanted to, it could easily
walk into some of these places -- the Middle East, former Soviet
republics in central Asia -- and extend its hegemony by force. Is
America prepared to contest for this oil in an Asian land war with
the Chinese army? I doubt it. Nor can the U.S. military occupy
regions of the Eastern Hemisphere indefinitely, or hope to secure
either the terrain or the oil infrastructure of one distant,
unfriendly country after another. A likely scenario is that the
U.S. could exhaust and bankrupt itself trying to do this, and be
forced to withdraw back into our own hemisphere, having lost access
to most of the world's remaining oil in the process.
We know that our national leaders are hardly uninformed about
this predicament. President George W. Bush has been briefed on the
dangers of the oil-peak situation as long ago as before the 2000
election and repeatedly since then. In March, the Department of
Energy released a report that officially acknowledges for the first
time that peak oil is for real and states plainly that "the world
has never faced a problem like this. Without massive mitigation
more than a decade before the fact, the problem will be pervasive
and will not be temporary."
Most of all, the Long Emergency will require us to make other
arrangements for the way we live in the United States. America is
in a special predicament due to a set of unfortunate choices we
made as a society in the twentieth century. Perhaps the worst was
to let our towns and cities rot away and to replace them with
suburbia, which had the additional side effect of trashing a lot of
the best farmland in America. Suburbia will come to be regarded as
the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the
world. It has a tragic destiny. The psychology of previous
investment suggests that we will defend our drive-in utopia long
after it has become a terrible liability.
Before long, the suburbs will fail us in practical terms. We
made the ongoing development of housing subdivisions, highway
strips, fried-food shacks and shopping malls the basis of our
economy, and when we have to stop making more of those things, the
bottom will fall out.
The circumstances of the Long Emergency will require us to
downscale and re-scale virtually everything we do and how we do it,
from the kind of communities we physically inhabit to the way we
grow our food to the way we work and trade the products of our
work. Our lives will become profoundly and intensely local. Daily
life will be far less about mobility and much more about staying
where you are. Anything organized on the large scale, whether it is
government or a corporate business enterprise such as Wal-Mart,
will wither as the cheap energy props that support bigness fall
away. The turbulence of the Long Emergency will produce a lot of
economic losers, and many of these will be members of an angry and
aggrieved former middle class.
Food production is going to be an enormous problem in the Long
Emergency. As industrial agriculture fails due to a scarcity of
oil- and gas-based inputs, we will certainly have to grow more of
our food closer to where we live, and do it on a smaller scale. The
American economy of the mid-twenty-first century may actually
center on agriculture, not information, not high tech, not
"services" like real estate sales or hawking cheeseburgers to
tourists. Farming. This is no doubt a startling, radical idea, and
it raises extremely difficult questions about the reallocation of
land and the nature of work. The relentless subdividing of land in
the late twentieth century has destroyed the contiguity and
integrity of the rural landscape in most places. The process of
readjustment is apt to be disorderly and improvisational. Food
production will necessarily be much more labor-intensive than it
has been for decades. We can anticipate the re-formation of a
native-born American farm-laboring class. It will be composed
largely of the aforementioned economic losers who had to relinquish
their grip on the American dream. These masses of disentitled
people may enter into quasi-feudal social relations with those who
own land in exchange for food and physical security. But their
sense of grievance will remain fresh, and if mistreated they may
simply seize that land.
The way that commerce is currently organized in America will not
survive far into the Long Emergency. Wal-Mart's "warehouse on
wheels" won't be such a bargain in a non-cheap-oil economy. The
national chain stores' 12,000-mile manufacturing supply lines could
easily be interrupted by military contests over oil and by internal
conflict in the nations that have been supplying us with
ultra-cheap manufactured goods, because they, too, will be
struggling with similar issues of energy famine and all the
disorders that go with it.
As these things occur, America will have to make other
arrangements for the manufacture, distribution and sale of ordinary
goods. They will probably be made on a "cottage industry" basis
rather than the factory system we once had, since the scale of
available energy will be much lower -- and we are not going to
replay the twentieth century. Tens of thousands of the common
products we enjoy today, from paints to pharmaceuticals, are made
out of oil. They will become increasingly scarce or unavailable.
The selling of things will have to be reorganized at the local
scale. It will have to be based on moving merchandise shorter
distances. It is almost certain to result in higher costs for the
things we buy and far fewer choices.
The automobile will be a diminished presence in our lives, to
say the least. With gasoline in short supply, not to mention tax
revenue, our roads will surely suffer. The interstate highway
system is more delicate than the public realizes. If the "level of
service" (as traffic engineers call it) is not maintained to the
highest degree, problems multiply and escalate quickly. The system
does not tolerate partial failure. The interstates are either in
excellent condition, or they quickly fall apart.
America today has a railroad system that the Bulgarians would be
ashamed of. Neither of the two major presidential candidates in
2004 mentioned railroads, but if we don't refurbish our rail
system, then there may be no long-range travel or transport of
goods at all a few decades from now. The commercial aviation
industry, already on its knees financially, is likely to vanish.
The sheer cost of maintaining gigantic airports may not justify the
operation of a much-reduced air-travel fleet. Railroads are far
more energy efficient than cars, trucks or airplanes, and they can
be run on anything from wood to electricity. The rail-bed
infrastructure is also far more economical to maintain than our
highway network.
The successful regions in the twenty-first century will be the
ones surrounded by viable farming hinterlands that can reconstitute
locally sustainable economies on an armature of civic cohesion.
Small towns and smaller cities have better prospects than the big
cities, which will probably have to contract substantially. The
process will be painful and tumultuous. In many American cities,
such as Cleveland, Detroit and St. Louis, that process is already
well advanced. Others have further to fall. New York and Chicago
face extraordinary difficulties, being oversupplied with gigantic
buildings out of scale with the reality of declining energy
supplies. Their former agricultural hinterlands have long been
paved over. They will be encysted in a surrounding fabric of
necrotic suburbia that will only amplify and reinforce the cities'
problems. Still, our cities occupy important sites. Some kind of
urban entities will exist where they are in the future, but
probably not the colossi of twentieth-century industrialism.
Some regions of the country will do better than others in the
Long Emergency. The Southwest will suffer in proportion to the
degree that it prospered during the cheap-oil blowout of the late
twentieth century. I predict that Sunbelt states like Arizona and
Nevada will become significantly depopulated, since the region will
be short of water as well as gasoline and natural gas. Imagine
Phoenix without cheap air conditioning.
I'm not optimistic about the Southeast, either, for different
reasons. I think it will be subject to substantial levels of
violence as the grievances of the formerly middle class boil over
and collide with the delusions of Pentecostal Christian extremism.
The latent encoded behavior of Southern culture includes an
outsized notion of individualism and the belief that firearms ought
to be used in the defense of it. This is a poor recipe for civic
The Mountain States and Great Plains will face an array of
problems, from poor farming potential to water shortages to
population loss. The Pacific Northwest, New England and the Upper
Midwest have somewhat better prospects. I regard them as less
likely to fall into lawlessness, anarchy or despotism and more
likely to salvage the bits and pieces of our best social traditions
and keep them in operation at some level.
These are daunting and even dreadful prospects. The Long
Emergency is going to be a tremendous trauma for the human race. We
will not believe that this is happening to us, that 200 years of
modernity can be brought to its knees by a world-wide power
shortage. The survivors will have to cultivate a religion of hope
-- that is, a deep and comprehensive belief that humanity is worth
carrying on. If there is any positive side to stark changes coming
our way, it may be in the benefits of close communal relations, of
having to really work intimately (and physically) with our
neighbors, to be part of an enterprise that really matters and to
be fully engaged in meaningful social enactments instead of being
merely entertained to avoid boredom. Years from now, when we hear
singing at all, we will hear ourselves, and we will sing with our
whole hearts.

Join date : 1969-12-31

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