Tuesday, April 19, 2005

The Long Emergency

James Howard Kunstler, author of The Geography of Nowhere has a new book due, called The Long Emergency. An excerpt from it has been printed in Rolling stone and various other places, including our local weekly, The Northern Express.

Essentially Kunstler claims that petroleum production has already peaked, and that supplies will be well short of demand quite soon, and that the suburban middle class economy that has been built around cheap oil is going to collapse, along with civilization as we know it.

None of these things is terribly far fetched (though Kunstler's more particular predictions, like complete social collapse in the South, are more suited to speculative fiction than speculative non-fiction), but the truly disturbing thing about the book is the relish with which Kunstler seems to anticipate all the death, destruction, poverty and displacement he predicts. His Long Emergency essay, like his Geography of Nowhere book, is strongly marked by hate--a hate that sometimes echoes Hitler writing on the same subjects (architecture, the depravity of modern life, the looked-forward-to day of reckoning, etc.) [More on this later.]

I don't think Kunstler is a little Hitler, but I do think he needs to give a thought to whom he sounds like and think seriously about whether he really hates white upper middle-class folks enough to cheer while they starve in their remote gated communities.

And I think he should start to wonder whether a lot of his predictions aren't just wishful thinking. Does he really think oil supplies are going to fall so fast that the rich won't be able to make adjustments? Does he really think oil supplies will follow a bell-curve pattern when the bell curve really applies to populations, not to single measures taken over time (like oil supplies) and when there are good arguments that oil supplies DO NOT conform to a bell curve? Does he think that it will be impossible to rebuild hub/spoke transportation infrastructure in the next twenty years when it only took 20 years (circa 1950 to circa 1970) to go from hub/spoke to ringroad sprawl?

But one gets the feeling that this is not a writer terribly interested in details when they get in the way of drama.

Of course oil supplies are running low, and of course as we exhaust the finite reserves of oil, current supplies will begin to fall, but what's the point of dragging the "bell curve" into it except to impress the unknowing with a sense of inevitability and predictability. In fact, we can't predict the details of the decline in oil supplies. It'll happen--maybe quickly, maybe slowly, we don't know--or at least we don't know without an awful lot of careful study, which Kunstler's essay shows little evidence of.

We should remember that the "great changes" in our economy and society that Kunstler now predicts will happen by 2020 he predicted for 2010 just a few years ago in the Geography of Nowhere. 2010 now being uncomfortably close, catastrophe has been deferred for another decade by our author. I'm glad to see he has some mercy on us.