The Long Emergency

Breathlessly written by James Howard Kunstler, and with the very long subtitle of Surviving the [End of Oil, Climate Change, and Other] Converging Catastrophes of the 21st Century. My edition had a shorter one by excising the bracketed words but they are key to the book with half of it being about oil (and its curtain-raiser, coal).

Both have correlated with our rocketing world population and have defined the carrying capacity of Planet Earth. Before the Industrial Revolution our numbers struggled up to 1 billion and managed to exploit most corners of the world. Now oil allows 7 billion. And when the oil runs out… Will nuclear, hydrogen, solar, wind or hydro cut it? They’re relatively so inefficient and user-unfriendly that it seems not.

We believe that technology will deliver. Kunstler doesn’t mention biofuel but that may postdate 2004. It doesn’t change his assertion that oil also fuels technology so it’d better find an alternative before it runs out. Well before; like now, and that doesn’t seem to be happening.

Next up is climate change (not global warming!) Here’s a nugget: twice in the last 20,000 years the planet has warmed by double-digit degrees (Fahrenheit, I assume) in about a decade. So you can throw away your smooth temperature projections. It can go crazy!

Oh, we’ve had scares about the future before. I grew up with the Cold War and nuclear winter but it was only ever one threat at a time. Now the question seems to be more the order in which the many will come. End of oil; end of gas; rising sea; depleted water; exhausted soil (which in any case requires gas to fertilise it for the yields we expect); disease (exacerbated by rising temperatures). And that’s not all…

The Running on Fumes chapter is an economic history and pretty much above my head. But I recognise a few terms, enough to think that Kunstler was somehow predicting the banking and real estate crisis that knocked the bottom out of my shares not long back. If so, I’m impressed and the more ready to believe his other projections.

The final chapter is a guess of how, principally, the US may cope post-oil. It sounds rather nice, for the 6 billion who won’t die of course. But they’ll largely be Johnny Foreigners so who cares about them? The other proviso is that society doesn’t degenerate into anarchy or war – rather a big ask given our reputation.

An eye-opener for me then and I thought I was au fait with most thinking about the future. This book does continue the sustainable retreat theme, which looks like the only rational, and hopeful, course of action. We won’t like it but we’ll like the alternative worse.

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