Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Long Emergency: surviving the converging catastrophes of the twenty-first century, by James Howard Kunstler.

Consider this: In the beginning, there were 2 trillion barrels of oil. We’ve now made our way through half of our oil endowment. That means there are 1 trillion barrels of oil left in the ground.

That’s still a lot of oil. Although remember, it took us roughly the last 50 years to gobble that amount up. According to James Kunstler, if we were to continue consuming at our current levels, every single last drop of oil will be gone within 37 years.

But even that is an optimistic figure. You see, the top half of the oil is the easiest to get. The bottom of the barrel, as it were, is much harder to extract. Even Saudi Arabia now has to pump massive amounts of sea water into the ground in order to push the oil up.

Here’s another thing to consider. At the dawn of oil discovery, the energy requirements to get oil out of the ground were small. But now as the oil is much harder to get out, a lot more energy is used. Eventually it will reach a point where it simply takes too much energy to get the oil out of the ground. For example, if you were to use one barrel of oil in energy to get one barrel of oil out of the ground. Obviously this wouldn’t be worth doing.

To cap it all off, there are emerging economies like China and India. All of their people are going to want to drive cars and live lush Western lifestyles in the near future. So their populations will put more pressure on oil.

In short, we have 37 years to find a new energy source to replace oil. That’s a best case scenario. In reality it could be 20 years. Or we could see real changes within the decade, as it becomes clear that we have reached what’s known as ‘peak oil’.

Peak oil is not some left wing, greenie spoiler theory. It was developed by geoligist M. King Hubbert. He correctly predicted American oil would peak in 1970. He was spot on. He predicted global oil would peak around 2000. On this he has been wrong. No matter, a lot of eminent geololigsts and people who work within the oil industry know that we are close to that peak.

This peak in global oil will be confirmed a few years after the fact. That is, when we see supplies tapering off. When this time comes, it will obviously cause great alarm and a seismatic political shift. For our rich way of life, our very economy, is based on cheap oil.

The Long Emergency basically tries to look at this post-oil world, describing a rather bleak, reduced world where we will have to go back to a much more basic, some may say medieval, lifestyle. We will live in more tightknit communities, and we will spend a lot of our time in farming and producing food closer to where we live. Our current lifestyles, which are so devoid from reality, will be a thing of the past.

The Long Emergency, however, isn’t a kind of peer-into-the-future kind of book. It’s really a sustained cultural, economic and political critique. Kunstler really knows his stuff, and he writes in a no-nonsense, off-with-the-gloves style. The politics of the environmnt are very much divided along left / right lines. Kunstler is refreshing in that he has not time for all of this cant and just delivers his opinions straight. Frankly, I’m jealous of his assured and erudite writing style.

Here’s a sample:

"The free-market part of the equation referred to the putative benefit of unrestrained economic competition between individuals, and because corporations enjoyed the legal staus of persons, they were assumed to be on an equal foodting with other persons in a given locality. Thus Wal-Mart was considered the theoretical equal of Bob the appliance store owner, and if Bob happened to lose in the retail competition because he couldn’t order 50,000 coffee –makers at a crack from a factory 12,000 mmiles away in Hangzhou, and receive a deep discount for being such an important customer, well, it wasn’t as though he hadn’t been given the chance."

Or here’s another favourite:

"The industrial experiment took the idea of currency (money) to the next level of abstraction – as hard currency can represent actual goods, so paper currency can represent hard currency and actual goods. As trade increased and took place over ever-greater distances, paper promises to pay hard currency began to steadily take the place of the hard stuff itself, which was cumbersome, hard to to lug around in large quantities, and subject to theft in transit. So to steamline these trades, all kinds of certificates were used as equivalents to hard currency: individual IOUs, bills of lading, letters of credit from rich people, promissory notes issued by guilds. In time, the use of paper certificates became more and more normative and conventionalised. Protocols of exchange were established. Institutions were created to process them. This process of managing monetary affairs – of wealth abstracted in paper – was called finance. "

The Long Emergency has 300 pages of this kind of dense analysis. I found it utterly stunning.
As you can tell, I was a big fan of this book. Kunstler has written two other books about suburbia, The Geography of Nowhere and Home from Nowhere. He’s also written a swag of novels.

You may disagree with a lot in this book. Perhaps this is all doomsayers stuff. Maybe a new super energy source is just around the corner. Kunstler could be all wrong about the modern market economy not being able to come up with some nifty ideas. I mean, I even read a recent release by my own party, the Greens, claiming that a rigorous emissions trading system would unleash the creativity of the market to solve our energy problems.

One thing is for sure, Kunstler is no bullshit artist. He most certainly believes what he writes about. I hope things don’t turn out as bad as he says. Although I think we would all do well to start thinking seriously, now, about what we’re going to do when the oil runs out. How will we make things, travel, conduct our current economic life, and most importantly, grow and transport food?

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