The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century
James Howard Kunstler
Atlantic Monthly Press, 2005, $23.
Finally, a wake-up call of a book that actually does the job. All the elements of The Long Emergency have been thoroughly discussed elsewhere—the imminent end of the brief age of cheap oil, the repercussions of global warming, overpopulation, water scarcity, environmental destruction. The difference here is that Kunstler is simply a good writer, without the complicating bias and specialized vocabulary, not to mention tunnel vision, of any particular academic discipline. He can see the emperor wears no clothes, and says so in colorfully emphatic language, putting the delusional pieces of our global situation together into one utterly convincing whole. His historical overviews on the fossil fuel era, geopolitics, and global finance are concise, spot-on, and just outrageous enough to be entertaining. Much of the book is even funny, if you can laugh and cry at the same time.
The overall effect is profoundly disturbing, but avoids the stupor-inducing despair often produced by discourses on our planet’s predicament and immediate future.
Kunstler begins by speaking directly to our collective denial. “The blandishments of cheap oil and gas were so seductive, and induced such transports of mesmerizing contentment, that we ceased paying attention to the essential nature of these miraculous gifts from the earth: that they exist in finite, nonrenewable supplies, unevenly distributed around the world.” I thought I knew that, thought in fact that I’d been rooting my whole life for the end of the fossil-fuel era. Yet The Long Emergency’s two-chapter summary of the history and politics of oil had a joltingly immediate impact, making me realize for the first time that dramatic changes really are in store very soon.
Kunstler’s ambitions on the shattering-complacency front extend into some of our most cherished topics:
“To aggravate matters, the wonders of steady technological progress under the reign of oil have tricked us into a kind of ‘Jiminy Cricket syndrome,’ leading many Americans to believe that anything we wish for hard enough can come true. These days, even people in our culture who ought to know better are wishing ardently that a smooth, seamless transition from fossil fuels to their putative replacements— hydrogen, solar power, whatever—lies just a few years ahead.”
For years, many of us have worked and dreamed toward such a transition, more anxiously as the window of opportunity grew measurably smaller. The Long Emergency demonstrates that not only has the time for a smooth shift to renewable energy passed, but that the idea was never more than what Kunstler calls “a dangerous fantasy.” Not that solar electricity and biodiesel cars won’t soften the blow in regions like ours in which alternative technologies are embraced. The advantage, though, will be a slightly more gradual and comfortable landing into a truly “post-modern” world we can’t yet imagine. As Kunstler points out, “You can’t manufacture metal wind turbines using wind energy technology. You can’t make lead-acid storage batteries for solar electric systems using any known solar energy systems.”
A chapter called “Nature Bites Back: Climate Change, Epidemic Disease, Water Scarcity, Habitat Destruction, and the Dark Side of the Industrial Age” trashes any remaining fantasies a reader may harbor about a possibly gentle or gradual shift. Go ahead and read it—there is something energizing about acknowledging imminent horrors we’ve expended so much effort ignoring.
Kunstler is at his best in “Running on Fumes: the Hallucinated Economy,” in which he provides a succinct historical overview of the insidious institution known as free-market globalism—”primarily a way of privatizing the profits of business activity while socializing the costs.” Finance is a topic so encrusted in deceptive obfuscation that plain explanation is especially welcome. Understanding global finance, of course, includes understanding how precarious is its balance and how easily and soon it may collapse.
In The Long Emergency’s final chapter, Kunstler attempts a look into the near future, not as successfully as in his rear-view mirror descriptions but every bit as provocatively. His predictions about certain regions’ responses to the oil crash can be myopic and stereotypical enough to raise questions about some of his other broad statements. But he’s clearly having fun, and notes of sharp glee intrude: “The public may look back on the big-box shopping era with deep and mournful nostalgia, but we are apt to discover that happiness is still possible without the extraordinary advertising-driven compulsive materialism of recent decades.” Other positive aspects of the collapse of oil-based civilization may be a return of real community, of immediately useful cooperative work, of the value of craft. But why wait for the end of oil? The Long Emergency should leave you sufficiently motivated to begin now.