The Long Emergency - A Book Review

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The Long Emergency - A Book Review

Post by Climate SCIENCE on Mon Oct 28, 2013 10:14 pm

James Howard Kunstler has written several books about specific social problems, most notably suburbia, which he views as culturally stultifying and energetically unsustainable. And he has at least one published novel about a collapse. But this AFAIK is the first non-fiction book of his which points out the danger of general catastrophe. This book is Kunstler's warning to the world — a world he sees as plunging heedlessly toward collapse: certainly of the financial system, and of the abundant fossil-fuel energy that supports it; possibly the collapse of civilization itself.
The picture he paints is grim indeed. He makes it abundantly clear that the twentieth century was the century of oil. As sources of abundant petroleum were discovered around the world — with America's fields leading the cascade of black gold — an era of unbridled expansionism took off. Coal, of which America still has large deposits, also played a part; but nothing could match the flexibility and energy density of the fuels refined from oil. This fossil-fuel fiesta fostered the growth of a "throw-away" culture.1 For many, planning, prudence and preservation ceased to be values of importance. The world, with America once again in the vanguard, consumed energy like there was no tomorrow.
Which happens to be Kunstler's point. For, experts agree, we will quite soon reach a time when little or no oil will be available tomorrow — at least at prices most people can afford. The advent of that fuel scarcity portends other kinds of shortages. Many of the amenities we take for granted will vanish. Imagine having to accept locally grown food, because the cornucopia of global produce can no longer be provided at any reasonable cost. Imagine highways crumbling because maintaining them is beyond the means of state or local governments. Imagine doing without air conditioning, long-distance air travel, round-the-clock supplies of natural gas, electricity, or even clean water. Such are the possible effects of the Long Emergency. We can already see the harbingers of such shortages in the droughts hitting the American Midwest and Southwest. Alarming as it may be, it is not too much to forecast the breakdown of civil order in parts of this country as the twenty-first century proceeds.
"It is my view, for instance, that in the decades to come the national government will prove to be so impotent and ineffective in managing the enormous vicissitudes we face that the United States may not survive as a nation in any meaningful sense but rather will devolve into a set of autonomous regions. I do not welcome a crack-up of our nation but I think it is a plausible outcome that we ought to be prepared to face."
– Page 1
Kunstler predicts the shortages I've mentioned and more. However, his outlook is not an irredeemably gloomy one. He feels that with the right plans, the U.S. can survive with government, infrastructure, population and lifestyles relatively intact. We will not be living large, but our lives will be ones the proverbial time traveller from 1950 would recognize.
"If I hope for anything in this book, it is that the American public will wake up from its sleepwalk and act to defend the project of civilization. Even in the face of epochal discontinuity, there is a lot we can do to assure the refashioning of daily life around authentic local communities based on balanced local economies, purposeful activity, and a culture of ideas consistent with reality. It is imperative for citizens to be able to imagine a hopeful future, especially in times of maximum stress and change."
– Page 2
Where we are now
To put it as briefly and clinically as possible, the collapse Kunstler foresees has already begun. It grew from America's overuse of oil — as a source of energy, which was used profligately; to power maximally wasteful modes of transportation, including personal automobiles but also diesel trucks, ships and airplanes; to manufacture pesticides, fertilizers, and plastics; and to support the growth of cities full of skyscrapers and suburbs full of overlarge individual houses.
A secondary effect of this deluge of cheap oil which we enjoyed throughout the twentieth century was the expansions of both cities and suburbs into regions where massive diversions of water and other resources were needed merely to make civilized life possible. The American Southwest is the prime example: it is at best semi-arid, and in many places desert.
Another secondary effect was America's transition, late in the twentieth century, from an economy based on manufacturing to one where services, especially financial services, form the basis of the economy. This led in turn to globalization of the world's economies under the shareholder-driven mantra that, if I may paraphrase the late Ara Parseghian, profit isn't everything, it's the only thing. So American manufacturing jobs went first to Mexico's maquiladoras and then to China and other Asian lands where wages were absolutely rock-bottom and overhead was minimized.
But the worst of it was the creeping relaxation of rules for the financial sector that proceeded in parallel with the loss of American jobs and was perhaps too little noticed therefore. Ultimately, as we now understand too well, nearly all restraints on financial risk were torn away, and the sector embarked on what amounted to a gambling spree that almost brought the world's economy to a standstill. From this book's vantage point, before the collapse, he wrote:
"The economic wreckage is likely to be impressive. If large numbers of house owners cannot make their mortgage payments, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and by extension the federal government, would be the big losers. The failure of the GSEs would make the S&L fiasco of the 1980s look like a bad night of poker. The failure of the GSEs would pose a far graver situation than the LTCM flameout. It could easily bring on cascading failures that might jeopardize global finance. This time, the American public might feel the pain."
– Page 233
And feel it we did.
But Kunstler rates that recession, painful as it was, trivial beside the impact of the Long Emergency. When oil gets scarce, economics as we have known it will become impossible. That means many of the amenities we take for granted will vanish. Imagine having to accept locally grown food, because the cornucopia of global produce can no longer be provided at any reasonable cost. Imagine highways crumbling because maintaining them is beyond the means of state or local governments. (Not that fuel for private autos will be available either.) Imagine doing without air conditioning, long-distance air travel, round-the-clock supplies of natural gas, electricity, or even clean water. Such are the possible effects of the Long Emergency. We can already see the harbingers of such shortages in the droughts hitting the American Midwest and Southwest. Alarming as it may be, it is not too much to forecast the breakdown of civil order in parts of this country as the century proceeds.

"A contemplation of these circumstances that occurred seven hundred years ago gives us an idea of what to expect in the Long Emergency. One big difference is that now we can see it coming. However, we in America flatter ourselves to think that we are above this kind of general catastrophe—because our technologic prowess during the cheap-oil fiesta was so marvelous that all future problems are (supposedly) guaranteed to be solved by similar applications of ingenuity."
– Page 181
The last chapter of the book, "Living in the Long Emergency," proceeds to examine the probable depth and nature of this projected collapse for each region of the U. S., and to describe loci of potential redemption (my phrase) — that is to say, both places that offer hope of resisting the full effect of the debacle, and conditions that represent bulwarks potentially useful against it.
Cultures of Agriculture
Traditional farming is one of the things that helps a region survive the Long Emergency. It is one of the ways the United States is less well off than most of the world. Kunstler explains why:
For the past hundred years the trend has been for fewer people to be engaged in farming, and for farming to be organized on an ever more gigantic corporate scale. In that short span of time farming has transitioned from work done by people using knowledge and tools to work done by machines with minimal human presence, almost by remote control. There is a reason that farming is called agriculture. The culture part stands for the body of knowledge, skill, principles, and methodology acquired over thousands of years.
Most of that knowledge has been jettisoned in the rush to turn farms into something like automated factories. In fact, the current system is explicitly called "factory farming' by those who run it. The technology of factory farming promotes the expansion of farms by orders of magnitude above what had been the upper limit for traditional nonindustrial farms. Increasingly farming has changed from being organized on a family or community basis to being corporate and national, even global, with few benefits for the localities where it takes place and with devastating effects on local ecologies and social relations.
The diminishing returns of technology in farming have been especially vicious. Few other human activities demand so much respect for natural systems, and the abuse of natural systems has been monumental under the regime of industrial farming.
– Page 240
The solution, as he discusses, is to relearn the "lost arts" of raising crops by traditional methods.
Geography is the primary determinant of who will have the best chance of maintaining something like our present way of life during the Long Emergency. Upper New York State, from the Finger Lakes region east to Albany and points north, is one of the best. It has excellent soils, plenty of water, large numbers of small towns. This is why he picked it for his own residence. In sharp contrast is the arid American southwest. Cities like Phoenix and Las Vegas will wither when they can no longer import water from outside for drinking, irrigation, and other uses.
Next on the list of favorable conditions are history and culture. Here too, New York has the edge. Like New England, it has a history of local democracy, and a long tradition of small-community values: in a word, neighborliness. The cities of the southwest, relatively new and with largely transient populations, again are the antithesis of the northeast. Their communities will not have the social cohesiveness necessary for long-term stability under difficult conditions.
Kunstler examines the United States region by region, providing a comprehensive estimate of the chances each has of suffering the various kinds of misfortune the Long Emergency will offer up.
These regional assessments, and his overall description of the Long Emergency, make a great deal of sense; and his attitude of irascible skepticism makes even more. As the crunch begins to bite deep, a profusion of hare-brained schemes will be bruited about.
But where Kunstler falls short in his analysis is that he is too skeptical about alternative energy and biofuels, curiously incomplete in his assessment of them (he never even mentions geothermal energy), and too adamantly certain that nuclear fission will have no place in the energy mix of the future (he dismisses advanced reactor designs.)
In addition, while the book footnotes all its sources, it has no index. Because of the defects I've enumerated, I have to lower this book's rating to 4.0. It is important for Kunstler's insights into the financial crisis he anticipated, his warnings about the future, and his analysis of measures that might ameliorate the impacts of the Long Emergency — at least in certain regions of the country. I judge it a must-read but not a keeper.
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