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One long emergency
Jon Lebkowsky, 14 May 05
One long emergency

The Worldchanging Team has discussed the clear and compelling evidence that the USA and industrial nations can't sustain the lifestyle we've made for ourselves, and there's no way our fossil-fueled economies can scale globally with existing resources, let alone sustain a world of suburbs, SUVs, cheap gasoline and food, and weekend trips to Cancun. The editors think that we can live sustainably and still meet all of our needs if we innovate and change and adapt to a world without cheap oil. I've been less optimistic, figuring we'll have hard times before a real understanding of our dilemma sinks in, but Worldchanging is about exploring future scenarios and options and finding paths to positive outcomes.

This morning I read an interview in Salon with James Howard Kunstler, talking about his new book The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-first Century,which is, in a way, a breath of fresh air, probably because Kunstler wants no part of the denial he sees throughout the USA:

We have now become a people who believe that wishing for things makes them happen. Unfortunately, the world just doesn't work that way. The truth is that no combination of alternative fuels or so-called renewables will allow us to run the U.S.A. -- or even a substantial fraction of it -- the way that we're running it now.

There's another mental disturbance that Americans are suffering from. It's the idea that it's possible to get something for nothing -- unearned riches, free energy, perpetual motion -- and it's exemplified by Las Vegas. Combine the Jiminy Cricket syndrome and the idea that it's possible to get something for nothing and you end up with a population that's thoroughly deluded and unable to deal with reality. That's precisely where we're at.

Kunstler makes several important points. He notes that there are all sorts of ways that we're dependent on oil that we don't think about, and that world finance is based on unrealistic assumptions about ongoing, endless increasing accumulation of wealth. He talks about the "real estate bubble" as "a consequence of capital desperately seeking a way to increase in an industrial economy that has ceased to grow." (Alex disagrees pretty strongly with Kunstler -- you might want to read his essay on the Post-Oil Megacity.)

He's critical of attempts to build more fuel efficient vehicles, like Amory Lovins' Hypercar®:

I regard Lovins hypercar venture as a stupid distraction, if for no other reason that it tends to promote the idea that we can continue being a car-dependent society. Clearly we can't, no matter how good the gas mileage is. I wrote three other books about the fiasco of suburbia before I even got a bug up my ass about the energy issues....I'm against the idea that somebody in Amory's position would focus on cars at the expense of something else like promoting walkable communities.

He notes that the era of cheap food is ending and "it will be very important to live close to places that have viable agriculture, and the places where this is not possible are going to be in trouble."

Ultimately he argues that, though there will be social benefits:

we will not be living in the kind of narcissistic isolation that was so pervasive in recent decades. Geopolitically, the world is going to be a larger place. But our individual worlds may become smaller places. American life will be much more about staying where you are than about ceaseless and endless and pointless mobility.

Could you live without mobility?

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"Could you live without mobility?"

With the internet I could live with a seriously reduced mobility. Telecommuting certainly is part of the solution; too many people drive morning and evening to do jobs that they could do from home.

Posted by: Mikhail Capone on 14 May 05

There are a lot of things one could say ... but I'd expect people to me more adaptable than we give them credit for - and I think there is a lot of "easy pickin's" in the energy budget.

I was thinking this morning about the people I know who drive from the beach to the river (300 miles) on summer weekends, often towing boats or personal watercraft.

That might just be an (amazing) point example, but I don't think they are going to be that unhappy riding bikes to the beach - maybe for a sailboat ride.

Posted by: odograph on 14 May 05

I have a bunch of problems with Kunstler, most of which I allude to in Post-Oil Megacity, the biggest two being that I think he's factually wrong about the prospects of some of the technologies he disses, and that I think he enjoys in completely unrealistic ways the prospect of the apocalypse, seeing it as a purging event, when, in fact, if we hit that wall as hard as he obviously likes to think we will, there ain't gonna be anything pretty or positive about it.

In short, while he's amusing, I think he's not very useful.

But read for yourself:

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 14 May 05

The concept that we have reached our limit for almost everyting we do is absurd. This belief has no relationship to intellectual thought. The Worldchanging Team has to ignore all of our technological developments and improvements over the past two centuries to arrive at a point that the Carter malaise feeling developed in 1977.

How can thinking persons hate comfort and consumption so much when it actually drives all of the world's poor upward mobility? Global commerce has lifted over 3 billion of the world's population out of poverty. While government programs have enslaved the rest. Get a clue or get a life.

Posted by: ARP on 14 May 05

Kunstler is a bit of a curmudgeon and very opionated.

So he is very interesting to read, much more so than bland optimists, but this can have a polarizing effect. It is easier to love those who promise lollipops and sunshine.

While his set of ideas may not match worldchanging positions exactly, he is more of an ally than a enemy when it comes to building a renewable future.

His core ideas - decreases car dependant urbanism, replaced by human scale living arrangements, more reliance on European style transportation, more local agriculture - can exist side by side with a world changing "bright green future".

Given the reality of depletion, in fact, I argue his realist ideas are essential.

Also, Alex, it is fair to say that Kunstler hasn't fully considered some of the technology he disses - but I think your statement "I think (kunstler) enjoys in completely unrealistic ways the prospect of the apocalypse, seeing it as a purging event" is your own projection of fears and distaste to the future he describes. If you have some specific quote from him where he revels in bloodshed or starvation, ear cocked to the four horsemen, I'd like to read it.

Posted by: Jon S. on 14 May 05

Alex, I'm wondering where Kunstler is factually wrong (hoping you'll expand on that), and like Jon S. I don't think he 'enjoys the prospect of apocalypse.' In your 'Megacity' piece you mention upgrades, but Kunstler agrees all those things will happen and must happen.

I don't think he's pessimistic about technology. I think he's pessimistic about human nature. I tend to share his concern: some of us are already aware of the dilemma we're in and many will adapt, but others will, as Kunstler says, create "turbulence." However on the positive side, Worldchanging and others like us will drive positive solutions and understanding, and hopefully we'll have a significant effect on the "depletion transition."

Posted by: Jon Lebkowsky on 14 May 05

Kunstler is amusing. But, it's an act and he's the actor. He predicted doom during Y2K with all the clever cynicism found in his latest book and we all know what Y2K amounted to.

I have more faith in human ingenuity than he does, little is gained by scolding and calling victims stupid.

Posted by: Rodrigo on 14 May 05

I was unaware of his Y2K comments, but I looked 'em up, and they do seem to reinforce the impression that he's apocalyptophiliac: Systems will fail, crash, seize up, cease to function. Not all systems, maybe only a fraction, but enough, and enough interdependent systems to affect many other systems. Y2K is real. Y2K is going to rock our world.

As Y2K was approaching, I had worked within an agency on one of the many workgroups formed to determine system modifications so that we'd have business as usual. I had friends who were assuming the worst, but they didn't know much about technology and were unaware of the work people were doing to prepare. Sounds like Kunstler was in the same boat.

So maybe this is just his schtick. But I'll say again: I still think there's a rough road ahead, and I'm glad to hear him say so. On the other hand the Worldchanging position is that we can deal through innovation and ingenuity, and I have no doubt that's true. Somewhere in the middle there's a good chance we'll see that turbulence Kunstler mentions, and we need to think about that.

Posted by: Jon Lebkowsky on 14 May 05

I think most of these comments are externalizing onto Mr. Kuntsler the internal demons and addictions of the commentators.

Posted by: David Foley on 14 May 05

Okay call me crazy but, I believe Kunstler is missing something when he so easily predicts the demise of Suburbia. He should consider how much land in Suburbia is wasted by growing grass. This land could rather easily be used to grow crops. Add a chicken coop and you have yourself a nice little micro-farm.

Also because these area are sparse, it would take very little to drop little villages right in the middle of them. You can't do it now because stupid Town and City planning prevents it but if push came to shove, small villages could easily be built up in the middle of these huge suburban areas. A City could buy a small block of the houses in the middle of a subdivision and make a small village downtown.

You say that the streets are too long and winding. Well why not buy some houses, knock them down and make a few side streets?

With a little effort, most surban areas can be made into little villages surrounded by micro-farms. If you think about the land aquisitions to make freeways and airports this is nothing.

Also , if you look at successful neighbourhoods in big cities, you will notice that they are actually very much like small little villages.

Okay call me crazy.

Posted by: PeterW on 14 May 05

No, it's not a crazy notion.

I doubt an averaged sized lawn (much less the postage stamps that pass for lawns in the Portland suburbs) would be able to support a typical household. But it could produce enough vegetables to satisfy a few layers of the food pyramid.

Posted by: Stefan Jones on 14 May 05

More fuel efficient vehicles don't matter?? The era of cheap food is ending ?? America is no longer producing wealth?? We will need nuclear energy to keep the lights on after 2020?


What a bunch of crap!

Posted by: Joe Deely on 14 May 05

Reading the Kunstler interview and Alex's piece about the Post-Oil Megacity, I'm struck by the way they are each describing single -- albeit very different -- scenarios for the next 20+ years. Kunstler preaches his apocalyptic scenario. Alex spins his bright green yarn.

Seems like a narrow and somewhat unproductive dialogue. One thing I've learned from the work of Peter Schwartz et al. ( is the value of examining a basket of scenarios to anticipate the future and position oneself intelligently in it.

Why argue about whether the end of cheap oil will come with a Kunstlerian crash or a soft landing onto a bed of bright green grass? Could go either way. Depends on a number of key driving forces, plus the free will and best judgment of several billion humans. Instead of debating which one _will_ come to pass, doesn't it make more sense to discuss the levers that will affect the course events will actually take?

Posted by: Seth Zuckerman on 14 May 05

Those who say that the human race can survive with current consumption due to our ingenuity seem to be ignoring the facts. We're rapidly using up lots of non-renewable resources and poluting our environment as we do it. Meanwhile, millions of people are struggling to survive and billions more are aspiring to western levels of comfort. If everyone in India and China has a car then we are in serious trouble, even if they are 5 time more efficient than those we have.

I'm worried about the world my children will live in. Politicians seem more concerned with the 'markets' than with the future. The markets only care about themselves.

Ultimately we may all (in the 1st world) have to learn to live with less. Do we really need all this stuff anyway?

Posted by: Steve on 15 May 05


Some of you commentators need to actually read what Kunstler wrote about suburbia before debunking things he never actually said.

The Geography of Nowhwere is a great little book. Start there. I tend to agree with his thesis that the continent wide strip mall that was unrolled in the U.S. starting in the 1950's was a huge misallocaton of resources,

and ironically, I still like my car.

I mean, what can I say, I came of age in the 1990's and my dad had to explain to me in 2001 that hydrogen is at best an energy carrier, at least as far as this green earth is concerned.

So bring on a bright green future, but don't spread it too thick. When an engineer tells one there aren't enough struts to hold up a given bridge, she's a realist, a pessimist, and optimistic enough to imagine someone will listen.

Posted by: Jon S. on 15 May 05

Joe Deely:

"Let me tell you some facts the way I see it,' he began. 'Global oil (production) is 84 million barrels (a day). I don't believe you can get it any more than 84 million barrels. I don't care what (Saudi Crown Prince) Abdullah, (Russian Premier Vladimir) Putin or anybody else says about oil reserves or production. I think they are on decline in the biggest oil fields in the world today and I know what's it like once you turn the corner and start declining, it's a tread mill that you just can't keep up with."

T. Boone Pickens, 2005.

He's one of many "crying wolf". Google him. Matt Simmons. Jim Rogers. Colin Campbell.

Q4, this year, will be a roller coaster ride.

Posted by: Jon S. on 15 May 05

I think the impression that Kunstler feels we'll all be better off and happier in our Honest Agrarian Future comes across strongest (to my eye, anyway) at the end of this excerpt published in Rolling Stone:

"These are daunting and even dreadful prospects. The Long Emergency is going to be a tremendous trauma for the human race. We will not believe that this is happening to us, that 200 years of modernity can be brought to its knees by a world-wide power shortage. The survivors will have to cultivate a religion of hope -- that is, a deep and comprehensive belief that humanity is worth carrying on. If there is any positive side to stark changes coming our way, it may be in the benefits of close communal relations, of having to really work intimately (and physically) with our neighbors, to be part of an enterprise that really matters and to be fully engaged in meaningful social enactments instead of being merely entertained to avoid boredom. Years from now, when we hear singing at all, we will hear ourselves, and we will sing with our whole hearts."

It seems to me that people who may disagree on what sorts of lifestyles promote the greatest amounts (and best kinds) of happiness can still agree on the need for reusability, more intelligent industrial design, and so on. Well, except for the people interested in waste for waste's sake, I guess.

Posted by: Simon on 15 May 05

Who cares if Kunstler's jumping for joy at the prospect of a cataclysmic energy crash? We'll all have individual reactions, each to their own. More important seems to be actually knowing whether we're on course for an energy cataclysm or not, and what to do to make the best of things if we are. Phrased so barely, I can't imagine anyone who's not on the same boat here.

I had a book when I was a kid, the Hamlyn Book of the Future. There were two contrasted two-page spreads, one utopian and one dystopian. One was what we would call here a "Bright Green" future. It was bright, and it was green. Monorails glided smoothly distributing goods and people were happy. In the other, it looked like King's Cross on a grim February evening. Cyclists with smog masks, dirty walls, thick grey air.

I thought of this reading Seth Zuckerman's comments. Take a step back from these polarised scenarios in a 70's kids book, and you'll realise that IT'S A KID'S BOOK, and while such binary oppositions might be good for opening up visions of the future for children, you would hope that in the future, adults would be less simple-minded about the future!

As for mobility, I live without it much of the time. I like walking and cycling. I personally dislike the profusion of cars - in terms of air quality (I'm asthmatic), their effect on street culture, and many more reasons. I think it's important to recognise that car culture (and many other oil-based industries, like agriculture) has seriously deleterious effects, even putting aside their serious impact on the natural environment. Perhaps then people might be more understanding about Kunstler's alleged pleasure at the prospect of the whole system collapsing. It really doesn't seem to be dancing on people's graves as much as recognising that despite the clouds ahead, there might be a silver lining.

Posted by: Gyrus on 15 May 05

Its bloody simple folks. There are a large group of people many of them suberbanites that right now afford 15 mpg cars just fine. 5-10 years from now they plan to drive 40-50 mpg cars just as roomy and fun as thier current 15 mpg cars. Now you you have a 50-60 mpg car and your still having trouble paying for the gas and there is no 120 much less 180 mpg car planned any time soon.

Now hydrogen is the perfect fuel to keep those 45 mpg suv supertech cars running... because the people using them can afford it and will pay it and will STILL be perfectly fine budget wise.

And THAT market is an american market not a european market.

Now why do the japanese companies want in on the tech? Well DUH DUH DUHDY DUH !!!!!DUH!!!!!! Because japanese cars arnt driven much they are more status symbols and fasion statements... and high tech hydrogen fuel cell cars.. well thats a natural for 2020 timeframe.. Specialy since unlike oil or bio japan can make its own hydrogen... May be spendy but your talking about people that pay 75 bucks of a watermelon folks!

So japan and america find themsevles with markets europe doesnt have and both go at thier markets with a gusto.

Now hydrogen is a perfectly fine fuel for th

Posted by: wintermane on 15 May 05

Sorry, but I don't buy Kunstler's pessimism. Are changes ahead? Sure, but this century sure didn't turn out the way people in the last century thought it would (Ok, except for Jules Verne). For the most part, we're amazingly better off, even if we don't live the same lives our great-grandparents did.

I see advances in the safety of nuclear power, and I see advances in the efficiency of solar cells (Los Alamos has reached 50%!), and I'm not worried. That's not even accounting for a breakthrough. That's not even accounting for the Space Elevator (going up in 2012, hopefully) which could put massive solar satellites in orbit. I see biologically engineered microbes turning coal into clean burning natural gas (and we have enough coal for centuries), and I'm not worried.

All of the above will have to be paid for, and there will probably be a market shock or two along the way, but the idea that everyone in the world will just let civilization slide away is idiotic. There's just no other word for it.

Agriculture is doomed? Please. Has he been to Brazil or Australia? The Ag Lobby in the US, EU, and Japan has successfully stifled innovation in the 1st world for almost 75 years now, but the rest of the world isn't waiting for us. They're moving on, and they're so efficient we in the USA/EU/Jap have to heavily subsidize our farmers just to not lose market share. Once we let our farmers go bankrupt, and Brazilian Agri- Billionaires come in and show us how it's done, the American plains could once again produce enough food to feed the world twice over. We won't have to though. Our fields will be efficient enough that we'll only need a small part of the plains to feed ourselves, and we can allow the rest to return to their natural state for good, Green reasons.

(By the way, Brazil doesn't export more food than any other nation in the world with "microfarms" either, it does it with a highly urbanized population and ultra-mega corporate farms that are thousands and thousands of acres. It's called Economy of Scale. A garden in every yard is incredibly inefficient. As for everyone giving up their office job to become a farm hand or whatever, WTF? Never heard of specialization of labor?)

Most of the rest of Kunstler's opinions are worthless too. He's an extremist, and enjoys being one. I'd love to have a rational conversation with someone on the merits of this or that technology, but when someone makes broad, sweeping (and perfectly obvious) statements like "Nothing is free", well duh. Of course not. That doesn't mean we can't afford it. We just have to work hard and pay for it. Problem solved. The oil peak is probably real, but that does not automatically lead to "no more economic growth, ever" Sorry. I just don't think we're than unimaginative.

Posted by: Cardozo Bozo on 15 May 05

My feeling is that Kunstler's opinions will turn out to be more accurate than yours, since you seem to think we'll have a space elevator in place by 2012.

Posted by: MillionthMonkey on 15 May 05

Cardozo Bozo wrote "Agriculture is doomed? Please. Has he been to Brazil or Australia?" Well, here I am in Australia. Farmers are screaming because of the looooong drought and the prospect of El Nino next summer. A new program of 'Rural Financial Counsellors" has been set up to help those who are in deep trouble; farmers are walking off their farms to work in the mines; Australia is considering getting rid of its sheep (the fragile soils can't withstand their tiny sharp feet); salinization of cropland and irrigated land has taken a good proportion of previously productive land out of production, our aquifers are at their "water peak"; rivers are either polluted with algal blooms or a series of turbid waterholes and there was debate last week about withdrawing from all agricultural exports because the land can't support it. We Aussies not coming to your rescue, Yank.

On the other hand, it'd nice if people commenting on Kunstler's views could restrain themselves till they have read his book. I finished it this weekend. I'm not sure about the certainty of the straight line Kunstler draws from where we are now to the agrarian arcady he predicts. And, Jeez, he doesn't think much of the SE US States!

Posted by: Keith Thomas on 15 May 05

An alternative view of the possible future is Nancy Jack Todd's _A Safe and Sustainable World_, her history of New Alchemy Institute and its off-shoots. They were able to produce a whole bunch of organic food on a small piece of basically suburban land on Cape Cod back in the 70s.

In fact, the one clear success of hippie days is the way we transformed the food culture in the US. Farmers markets were dying or dead and have been revived. Tofu and tempeh were exotic and are now available in every supermarket. Organic was weird and crazy and is now the fastest growing market segment.

There is an alternative economic system among local farms, farmers markets, food coops, CSA's, and local restaurants. We are not leveraging that system to its maximum effect nor are we using the opportunity that weekly farmers markets give us to reach a core constituency with solar survival information. If you set up a table and demonstrated energy and resource saving techniques at the local farmers market week after week, from Memorial Day to Thanksgiving, we could do a lot before next winter in setting forth a new direction for our own lives and futures.

Posted by: gmoke on 15 May 05

Well, I'm sorry Keith. Maybe you know something the Australian Department of Agriculture, Fisheries, and Forestry doesn't, but all I had to work with were the "official" numbers, however inaccurate. Whatever secret information you have, you should hand it over as a public service. I'm sure they'll appreciate it.

Kuntsler WANTS civilizationt to collapse. He's said over and over again that he thinks civilization as it exists is wrong, ugly, and a terrible waste of resources. He just keeps prediciting doom & gloom in the hope that one day he'll be right.

It's too bad too, because cranks like him make it harder to have a rational conversation about environmental issues.

PS - You're right. I didn't read his book. I only checked out his website. Sorry if that doesn't make me informed enough to comment on his opinions. In the mean time, go read some economic forecasts from your own government.

Posted by: Cardozo Bozo on 15 May 05

Jonathan Swift's, A Modest Proposal comes to mind here. I believe Kuntsler's "wake up call" musings are exactly what's needed to get our attention. Regarding the conent ~ I see his insights/opinons as a part of the "range in point of view" that warrants serious considerations Scenaros are what they are...scenarios. I'd prefer a future that comes out of our collective wisdom ~ driven in part by our serious consideration of Kunstler's "Walenda Death Spiral" musings.

Anthony Harris, Principal "Walking On Cotton Enterprises" (Portland)

Posted by: Anthony Harris on 15 May 05

Jon S.

All of those peak-oilers you are mentioning - Matt Simmons. Jim Rogers, Colin Campbell along with Kunstler are really lucky guys.

They appear to have information about future oil supplies that the rest of the world markets is not privy to. By using this information to buy oil futures they can make billions!

By next year they will be on the cover of Fortune!

Posted by: Joe Deely on 15 May 05

Jon S.

All of those peak-oilers you are mentioning - Matt Simmons. Jim Rogers, Colin Campbell along with Kunstler are really lucky guys.

They appear to have information about future oil supplies that the rest of the world markets is not privy to. By using this information to buy oil futures they can make billions!

By next year they will be on the cover of Fortune and Forbes!

Posted by: Joe Deely on 15 May 05

Whether Kunstler's scenario is precisely correct or not, it's clear that there is a limited supply of oil and that our economy is totally dependent on it--not just cars, but our entire industrial and energy infrastructure runs on oil, gas, and coal. Meanwhile China and India, the two most populous nations on earth, are just getting rolling into the industrial and automobile culture.

We may be able to adapt new energy scources, but we shouldn't be deluded into thinking we will be able to continue to consume at our present levels. Solar and wind power have much lower "energy density" than petroleum. Coal is plentiful but very polluting. Nuclear may come back into vogue but it has its own obvious problems, and switching to a hydrogen based economy, if it happens, will take years and billions of dollars.

The point is we need to be starting now to address the problem. The Bush administration's only solution is more drilling. Simply raising the CAFE mileage standards could significantly reduce comsumption and the need to import oil.

For a thorough discussion of these points read "The End of Oil" by Paul Roberts.

Posted by: Rendell Bower on 15 May 05

Cardozo Bozo:

I'm afraid you don't know what you're talking about - maybe you should come and visit inland Australia and see for yourself.

Global warming combined with thin soil and unsuitable european farming practices is going to require a radical overhaul of Australian agriculture in the very near future. Most of the country has been in drought or near drought for several years now.

If you'd like to see what our national "paper of record" has to say on the subject today, check this out :

And of course, peak oil in Q4 is just going to make the current problems worse, as the cost of mechanised agriculture and fertiliser starts inexorably increasing.

Achieving a bright green future first requires people to leave their current state of denial.

Posted by: Big Gav on 15 May 05

The trouble is not whether Kunstler is accurate or not. The trouble is that the people who should be listening to him have long since stopped listening due to numbness induced by the history of all his ancestral pessimists going all the way back to Malthus.

At the same time we can all think of examples of numbness induced by history's optimists. All the bright futures imagined by the 1939 New York World's Fair seem laughable now. Remember Gerald O'Neill's dreams of space colonies back in the 1970s?

When the future becomes the present it's neither optimistic or pessimistic. It's just confusing and different.

Yes, the oil reserves will diminish to a point where it's too expensive to extract them anymore. That's just geology.

But at the same time we'll have moved on to other energy sources, greater efficiency and conservation, telecommuting, onsite fabrication, mass customization and so on. There will also be a lot of unexpected social changes that we have no way of predicting that might render current problems moot by replacing them with new problems we can't even imagine.

The oil crisis won't really go away, it'll just slowly fade in the face of new crises. Assuming we don't destroy ourselves, we'll find something else to worry about--probably about ways to recycle nuclear waste. By that point India and China will be running the global economy anyway.

Assuming we don't destroy ourselves, we'll just continue to exchange old problems for new ones.

Posted by: Mr. Farlops on 15 May 05

Cardozo Bozo wrote: "Kuntsler WANTS civilizationt to collapse. He's said over and over again that he thinks civilization as it exists is wrong, ugly, and a terrible waste of resources."

It's easy to criticize without having read the book. Try this: "If I hope for anything from this book, it is that the American public will wake up from its sleepwalk and act to defend the project of civilization" (page 2). Kunstler makes similar statements thoughout and never says anything to contradict that theme. His only 'hate' appears to be of sun-belt suburbia and he is full of admiration for European cities. He also writes "The survivors will have to cultivate a religion of hope, that is, a deep and comprehensive belief that humanity is worth carrying on..." (p21). Purple prose, yes, but not the writer you are describing.

He actually has a sophisticated discussion on human progress and how it should not be conflated with the industrial experience. He is strong on civil society, good manners, and conviviality. He has an extensive - too extensive in my view - discussion on education in the long emergency. A number of times (p302 and 304 for instance) he says he is in the business of forecasting the future and explicitly steps back from saying that he finds his forecast scenarios to his liking. You may not agree with his cultural criticism, but it is thought-provoking - and I guess that's all he wants from his readers: not agreement but engagement, critical thought, unencumbered by vested interests.

I am looking for a flaw in his basic arguments and so I find this thread useful, but I have yet to come across a case anything like as strong as his which damages his basic thesis.

Posted by: Keith Thomas on 16 May 05

I think it is interesting that we talk as if eco-desavastation and resource contraction are far off things that MAY or MAY not affect our 'lifestyles' somewhere in the 'future.'

The future is now folks.
Ecological devastation, delpetion and extraction are the basis of most wars. 30,000 children per day die of eradicable disease and malnutrician because WE refuse to resolve soluable problems which we have the technology and resources to solve but clearly choose to put our communal resources into wars for oil, and will apparently defend our 'lifestyles' with the actual lives of others - whether they be poor and generally undereducated Americans or the inhabitants of the countries we are willing to kill.

It is our priveledge, based on our histories of exploitation that allow us to discuss all this as matter of an abstract future 'scenarios' -- The 'scenario' planners got to work 30 years ago - the right wing ones anyway - and they came up with The Project for the New American Century.

I'm reminded of the Walter Benjamin quote (via Laurie Anderson)

She said: What is history?
And he said: History is an angel
being blown backwards into the future
He said: History is a pile of debris
And the angel wants to go back and fix things
To repair the things that have been broken
But there is a storm blowing from Paradise
And the storm keeps blowing the angel
backwards into the future
And this storm, this storm
is called

Don't get me wrong - I believe in a bright green future - because I have to believe in something - but if we are in denial about the catyclysm NOW.. as some are it seems... well hope is hard to maintain. Technophiles rarely deal with the politics of implementation, or vested interests arrayed against positive innovation. We've had the technology for bright green transportation for half a century -- politics and vested capital power got in the way.

Posted by: eam on 16 May 05

I'm a little tired of people discussing the possible / not possible fossil fuel shortage and then waking up to news reports about the price of gas being absurbly high. This isn't a theory, this is reality and to dismiss it because you don't like the outcome is silly. It seems that kuntsler is not preaching a dooms day scenario, or if he is? Then to deny that he most probably understands the full extent of the problem is crazy. He's not saying don't try to do something; he is simply saying don't put your hope in modifying the current situation. It's time to re-think, re-work, change.

Posted by: Canucka on 16 May 05

It's also amazing to see people talk about relying on computers to telecommute etc? suburban farms? What do you think will power your computers when the fossil fuel crisis reaches serious levels? Better yet what will make your computer components when the break du to planned obsolesence? Suburbia may not die but it will need to become a series of smaller independent towns and communities which work separated from our current economy instead of in in conjunction. Instead of driving to the mall you will have to walk to the next town. I love my computer and my cable tv and I like to go to europe and drive to the beach but I can also see that much further reaching implications of the oil peak, fossil fuel crisis.

Posted by: Canucka on 16 May 05

"When the future becomes the present it's neither optimistic nor pessimistic. It's just confusing and different."

You know, if humankind understood this profound truth,
the future would become much less confusing.

Posted by: Bruce Sterling on 16 May 05

"It's also amazing to see people talk about relying on computers to telecommute etc? suburban farms? What do you think will power your computers when the fossil fuel crisis reaches serious levels? Better yet what will make your computer components when the break du to planned obsolesence?"

even BETTER YET! What the hell do you think you're going to be doing on that computer when the economy is gone and your web design service or widget design is no longer needed...

Kunstler may be a little cranky, but he isn't a crank. I bet cassandra was pretty pissed off too. The curse is in the correctness not the being ignored part. He's pissed off because of people who walk up to him and spout sentences about solar panels made from crystals grown in space and elevators that will carry power from orbital platforms so that he can recharge his ultra efficient super high-potential batteries so he can drive his ultralight techno-alloy microcar to visit with his gardening-by-the-yard meetup group in a pub 100 miles away.

grow up and get real, nobody wants an apocalypse, you're just attempting to shoot the messenger...but you only have blanks in your gun and you think you're john wayne.

Posted by: the_sampo on 16 May 05

People always take what they see today and extrapolate it out in a linear fashion.

Mr. Kunstler likes to concentrate on many of the negative trends in the present and thus his future predictions are generally negative.

The trouble is, we don't arrive at the future in a linear fashion. It's nonlinear. History repeats itself, but never quite in the same way. And we can influence the future to make it better than the present. It's hard for individuals to do so, but we aren't stuck on some straight line path that takes what we see today and amplifies it.

Posted by: Bolo on 16 May 05

marvelous, bolo, but one point.

oil depletion is observably linear, unless we stop using oil. (We seem to be in no danger of this at present). That underpins Kunstlers argument;

sure, beyond that he makes some extrapolations about human behaviour and gets his licks in for favored ideas.

The corollary to this is we have no useful alternative for liquid fuel on a scale of millions of barrels a day. (Guess how many acres of corn it would take to replace, say, 20% of USA daily oil consumption with bio-willie - or how many nuclear plants - or windmills...)

So, if some of the long toothed crochety oil pigs like T. Boone Pickens are right, around quarter four this year, we'll have a shortfall and nothing to fill it with but wishes.

You've all heard of the future as a verb, right? This is world changing blog.

So what are we (the globe, western industrialed society) actually doing right now? Ideas are great but they don't cut wheat.

at least not right away

Posted by: Jon S. on 16 May 05

20-25% of the worlds population starves every night, and we do next to nothing to stop it. Anyone who is in denial needs to take a hard look at why were in Iraq? And if you think its because of WDM, you better read this:§ion=focusoniraq and Kinda starts to make you wonder about the Italian info a little doesn't it...

As for city vs suberbia. Solar greenhouse pannels are cheap, passive solar heated water could ELMINATE home heating needs by electric or gas and also provide year round vegitative growth.

Planning is the only way to prepare, cause if we dont, we can't expect a reaction just like the 70's... people doing nothing but waiting in line for gas.

I'd like to see bike path's mirror freeways and interstates, and tax credits for people who turn in gas mowers for manual push mowers. Mandate people save lawn trimmings for compost, knock down vacante buildings and start innercity organic gardens.

30% of our oil usage is in agricuture alone. Foods gonna get expensive unless local governments start to act. Dont expect bush, or his special interest advisors to come up with a real plan.

Posted by: Kyle on 16 May 05

Although it appears that many of the commentators here have forsaken economics, perhaps some will enjoy Alan Greenspan's viewpoint on this matter.

Posted by: Joe Deely on 16 May 05

Kyle is about the only one in these comments who talks about what needs to be done now if not yesterday. We have technology and ideas that can reduce dependence on fossil fuel if we have the will and imagination to make use of them today. Instead, even the worldchangers here would rather argue about whether there is a problem or not.

I've been trying to interest people in small-scale solar devices that could become useful mass market commodities - bike lights, reading lights, solar/dynamo battery chargers - but I can't get anybody to care. I have an outline for a do-it-yourself solar TV show that focuses on what you can do with one south-facing window. No interest. I have a plan to do public demonstrations of solar survival techniques at farmers markets, a core constituency if there ever was one. No interest.

People would rather talk about whether Kunstler is exaggerating or not.

Posted by: gmoke on 16 May 05

I just finished reading both Kunstler's Long Emergency and Heinberg's Powerdown. They complement and confirm each other considerably. Nitpicking about whether Kunstler is unfairly dissing certain technologies is pointless. As Heinberg would quickly point out, the problem isn't technological per se. It has much more to do with an out of control economic system, hot-wired for endless growth in a finite planet. Energy is merely among the first major limits this system is encountering, along with environmental destruction. Sadly for us, the impending energy famine will have a huge impact on us. The general thrust of both authors is what has me so intensely focused. I am preparing myself and presently my family and friends to face a future unlike any we've imagined, outside of science fiction. I started an HVAC/R course a few months ago and I'm delighted to discover how well it will segue into renewable energy technologies. I'm taking my first PV workshop next weekend. For the longer term, I am focusing on what Heinberg refers to as civilization lifeboats. I'm of Irish ancestry and my ancestors saved civilization once before, according to Thomas Cahill's wonderful history. I can think of nothing more worthwhile than squarely facing our most probable future and trying to ensure that some of the best of our civilization survives between the coming Dark (or Dim?) age and a brighter future for our progeny.

Posted by: Alec on 16 May 05

It is difficult to imagine what will be gained by bombing Iran's nuclear capability, but it appears likely, perhaps as soon as next month. I think that the 4th quarter will be the beginning of the decline, and each year will see several million barrels of oil per day depleted, perhaps as much as 4 - 6 mbpd. What will bombing Iran bring about? Certainly an interruption in the oil supply for at least a little while. Venuzeula has a mutual defense agreement. Will they cut off oil to the US? Will Russia, China, and India sit back idly and watch their energy security go bye-bye? It seems to me that if Bush does nothing crisis will hit around Christmas with real shortages in parts of the US, and high $75 to $90 per barrel prices. If he strikes Iran, will we have nuclear world war? Is this what Bush wants? Is population reduction his goal?

Posted by: Ben on 17 May 05

Wow! Gee, thanks Bruce! Really!

I was just expressing my frustration with these sorts of debates.

They always seem so paralysing. Faced with predictions of immenent and horrible collapse, most people fall into nihilism and inertia. They'll just keep driving their RVs, throwing their paper away and leaving the lights on because they think they can do nothing and they stop caring.

I don't think that's what Kunstler really wants. I really think he wants us to do something to avoid these coming disasters. And I totally agree that these disasters are unfolding even as we speak and will kill us for sure if we do nothing. But he's got realize that repeating the mantra of doom, just makes people stop caring.

He needs to realize that no one is going to bury their cars forever tonight, most people are not going to return to the land and live the life of the Amish, the people of the poor countries continue to rush into the swelling cities of the developing world. Repeating the mantra of doom won't shock us into abandoning modern technology. It won't shock us into enlightenment. If it were that easy, it would have happened long ago in some great global change of heart.

It would be nice if we all suddenly became enlightened like the Tasmanians and stopped messing with nature as the demented apes we are.

But that's simply not going to happen.

His call for radical solutions, assuming he's calling for such (I have not read him and, honestly, maybe I'm not qualified to say anything about this.), misses the most radical solution of all: we invent our way out this.

But sometimes the most radical solutions are the ones you barely notice until decades after they've been implemented.

I don't own a car. I don't plan to learn to drive ever. I live in an energy efficient apartment in the city filled with compact fluorescents. I recycle. I don't have any children. Since children in the post-industrial world consume 20 to 30 times the resources of children in the developing world, I don't plan to ever have children. Let no-one say I'm not doing my part!

But part of the reason why I'm doing this is because I believe we can actually do something to avert disaster.

It seems like Kunstler is saying that even this is not enough. How can anyone sustain any effort in the face of such hopelessness?

Posted by: Mr. Farlops on 17 May 05

As for technology coming to the rescue I think the chances are very slim after 100+ years of automotive design and technology it is still a box on four wheels with an internal combustion motor. How long do we have before peak oil? Kunstler is a bit abrasive but he is trying and succeding in getting blogs like this started getting people thinking about the fact the the world is finite, yet we expect unlimited growth of economy and population..cant work and everyone knows it if they are honest with themselves.

Posted by: Ken on 17 May 05

"Australia is considering getting rid of its sheep (the fragile soils can't withstand their tiny sharp feet)"

Totally idle and perhaps not entirely serious speculation, with no real knowledge of anything to do with sheep, but perhaps there is a market for sheep slippers of some sort?

Posted by: Simon on 17 May 05


While I don't claim to be an expert on sheep and haven't set foot on a farm in over a decade, the idea that Australian soil isn't up to carrying large flocks of sheep doesn't appear to be an idle or unserious claim - do a quick google search and you'll find plenty of serious references claiming exactly that.

For example:

Kangaroo Industry Association -

"Many Australian ecologists are now suggesting that we should try to replace, at least to some extent sheep and cattle with kangaroos on rangeland properties. The hard hoofs of sheep and cattle are not adapted for the Australian environment, they cause a lot of damage to our fragile soils which are amongst the oldest on earth."

Australian Heritage Commission -

"Julian Cribb, writing in The Weekend Australian, also put the case forcibly: 'Half of Australia's arid land and nearly half its productive wheat-sheep country is in the grip of a slow death'. Three quarters of the Australian continent is rangelands. Of the portions of these areas that are used by white people, fifty-five percent is degraded. Thirteen per cent is so badly damaged it may never recover."

Posted by: Big Gav on 17 May 05

Invest in Oil Companies? Duh.

"The giant oil companies just announced record profits for 2004. Exxon Mobil, the biggest oil company in the world, had after-tax profits of 26 billion dollars last year on its ongoing operations, up 52 per cent from 2003. ChevronTexaco had 13 billion dollars in profits, up 85 per cent from a year ago. And Shell Oil had profits of 19 billion dollars, up 48 per cent from 2003."

Trouble is, you need something to invest in the first place...

Posted by: EOlson on 17 May 05

The idea that technology will miraculously swoop in and solve everything is a conrucopian fantasy. Peak oil is here, peak oil is happening. Our government's response is the occupation of Iraq and the creation of a "Caspian Guard." It is a switch to LNG and building six LNG ports so we can continue to import our energy. The President's own energy bill had its alternative energy provisions virtually gutted by the time it left Congress. And your fantasyland of giant cities in the desert do not explain how the bloated global overpopulation will continue to feed itself without petroleum based feedstock.

Posted by: Deodand on 17 May 05

It seems a little late to add more, but I thought everyone might like to hear from Mr. Kunstler himself, who read and was interested in all your comments. (No one who generates this kind of debate can be called useless.)
Here's a quote regarding his 'terriblisma':

"But I'm not celebrating the hardship that I have predicted and I certainly imagine it will affect me personally."

As for everything else, too much to write about briefly except this (from me, not Kunstler):
We all see the same problems, we all hope for the same future (bright green!); so although we are envisioning different methods and pathways for getting there, let's be sure that we are working in cooperation, toward our goal.

Posted by: justus on 17 May 05

I wasn't doubting the impact sheep can have on top soil. It was my suggesting putting them all in tasteful footwear that was idle fantasizing.

Posted by: Simon on 17 May 05

Simon - sorry - I completely misunderstood your original post - doh ! Myabe I'm just not inclined to fantasising about sheep's footwear (and if an Australian of welsh heritage isn't, then I'm surprised anyone is).

EOlson - "Invest in Oil Companies? Duh." Its not as simple as that unfortunately - ask any Shell shareholder. The key to valuing oil companies as it gets harder and more expensiive to locate new oil fields is to look at their reserves. So you should say "Invest in oil companies based on their market cap per barrel of reserves they have" - some are OK investments, some are terrible...

Posted by: Big Gav on 17 May 05

Kunstler's opinions are perfectly valid. The US experienced the peak of its own domestic oil production in the '70s, and our economy has slowly drifted downward ever sinceĀ–real wages for the average worker haven't kept pace, and we've become the world's biggest debtor nation rather than the universal creditor we were. Even with the technological achievements of the '90s, many people are unemployed or uninspired.

I agree with Mr. Farlops: SIMPLIFY YOUR LIFE! It's the easiest way to be happier. I also plan to never bear children, it's the ultimate sacrifice for the environment. The problems we're facing have much to do with this simple idea: too many people, consuming way too much, way too fast.

Richard Heinberg's Powerdown is a very good book to read as well as Jared Diamond's Collapse: How Civilizations Choose to Fail or Succeed. I have continued to do research and found inspiring models for a sustainable future in the forms of intentional communities, eco-villages... has a great model called Agaria. I recommend learning permaculture skills and getting together to re-zone towns and suburbs for walkability, communal gardens and renewable energy installations. Pay off your debts.

The future is now.

Posted by: RaisinToastie on 18 May 05

In the context of conversing about this article with another, I mentioned something about all the Big Predictions that have failed. I mentioned that some of these failed because there were things we couldn't have accounted for -- i.e. Malthusian population crisis predictions in the 70s were partially mitigated by a sudden and unexpected downfall of fertility rates in industrialized nations. Point: perhaps Kunstler goes too far in not recognizing the historical inevitably of nature to throw a curveball into our predictions. STRIKE against absolute scenario prediction (but not against the concept of evaluating multiple scenarios and finding what leverage is required to help propel us to the most favorable one).

HOWEVER, it was rightly pointed out to me that many disaster scenarios have probably been averted not because the predictions were wrong but BECAUSE the predictions were made. China, for instance, seeing the population issues, mandated a draconian population policy (with other horrible repurcussions) that has greatly reduced the threat of imminent population boom/crash. Another case in point: Y2K. Were the pessimists wrong in their predictions of what would happen if we didn't fix things? I remember buying a few bottles of water and extra batteries on 12/28/1999 or so... and am thankful that billions of dollars were poured into making sure I didn't need them on 01/01/00. POINT FOR KUNSTLER.

Posted by: Stephen A. Fuqua on 18 May 05

The future is uncertain. Yellowstone could go active tomorrow for all we know and wipe out one-third of the U.S. population. Oil depletion problem solved! Perhaps the smartest thing to do is to live like my grandparents did, as if the next Great Depression could be around the next corner. They had a vegetable garden and fruit trees and grape vines and canned everything they had left over. They bought silver coins as a hedge. They owned one car and lived close to work in a small house that was paid for.

It doesn't really matter whether you are expecting an oil crash or the Y2K bug or the Xist Invasion. Economic disaster is usually unexpected. Just today I was reading that the U.S. honey bee population is being wiped out by a Chinese mite. Since one-third of our food supply depends on honey bee pollination, a Great Honey Bee Crisis of 2005 could make the issue of oil depletion rather moot. Maybe we should add raising honey bees to the list of skills necessary to survive.

As for me, I'm reading up on how to grow my own ganja. If we have to go back to living like Native Americans, I figure the medicine man will be well supplied with food and hooch.

Posted by: Pocket Rocket on 18 May 05

I believe Garrett Hardin once said that if all the people of conscience decide, out of conscience, not to bear children then conscience will be bred out of the population within three generations.

Of course, I don't have a car nor kids myself but I'm not sure that's because of my conscience (more like lack of patience).

FOX-TV is advertising a made-for-cable movie called "OIL STORM" scheduled for next month.

It's indeed a fragile world we've built for ourselves but I firmly believe that relatively small changes made by the mass of the population over time can make a big difference. The question is whether we have the time or not, whether we can recognize the changes that are needed and stick to them.

Posted by: gmoke on 18 May 05

Peak oil has nothing to do with what people think, but rather what they do.

Posted by: Jon S. on 18 May 05

Much ado about nothing here. The future is uncertain and we all have our own ways of dealing with it.

There are better things to debate. Kunstler does some good work, so no need to bust his chops so severely.


Posted by: Joseph Willemssen on 18 May 05

I just got into blogging and I absolutely love it, so thanks, I keep track of this blog as well as 5 others so far.

Posted by: Bruce Parker on 23 May 05



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