It is tempting to dismiss The Long Emergency by James Howard Kunstler as the literary equivalent of a guy standing on a corner with a bullhorn screaming that the end is nigh. At some level, after all, that's exactly what it is: With sledge-hammer repetition and a strange, almost misanthropic, relish, Kunstler argues that modern civilization is about to be plunged into a period of historically unprecedented chaos--the Long Emergency of the title--in which modern industrial civilization will grind to a halt, nations will fight desperate wars over scarce fossil fuels, and the planet's population will be reduced by more than 80 percent.
The alarmist tone, one senses, is by design: The Long Emergency appears calculated to scare the bejesus out of its readers. But Kunstler also aspires to be taken seriously as a credible expert, and though he initially succeeds, marshaling a steady succession of well-sourced facts about energy production, climate change, and global pandemics, eventually he starts to sound more and more like a crank. Kunstler seems to hold just about every single demographic group in some kind of contempt--from white suburban America, "narcissistically lost and clueless," to senior citizens, the "most coddled generation of old people in world history"--and goes on tangential rants about everything from the aesthetic bankruptcy of contemporary architecture to the absurdity of the service economy to the folly of Bretton Woods. Midway through the book he offers an extended meditation on how the physics concept of entropy explains "conditions as seemingly unrelated as war, industrial pollution, pornography, mass political murder, the shattering of consensus about the value of money, and incompetent parenting."
The more Kunstler's thesis seems motivated by a generalized misanthropy and contempt for modernity, the easier it is for readers to conclude that he is, in fact, an alarmist loon. And that's a shame, because buried beneath the onslaught of hyperbole, some of Kunstler's warnings are actually grounded in reality.
Kunstler argues that the Long Emergency will be triggered some time in the near future when we pass "peak oil," the point at which half the world's oil has been consumed. Kunstler views the world's reserves of fossil fuel as a kind of global energy inheritance that humans have, with breathtaking profligacy, blown through in a mere century and half, like a working shlub who wins the lottery, and then, MC Hammer-style, buys three mansions and fills his swimming pools with Dom Perignon, only to end up broke. "So much of what we construe to be among our entitlements to perpetual progress," Kunstler writes, "may prove to have been a strange, marvelous, and anomalous moment in the planet's history."
Soon after we hit this "peak," prices will rapidly spiral upwards as supply can no longer meet rising demand, the U.S. and global economies will be plunged into deep depressions, and nations will engage in increasingly brutal and wasteful wars for the remaining resources. Alternative fuels won't save us, Kunstler predicts, because "nothing really matches oil for power, versatility, transportability, or ease of storage" and transitioning to an alternative-fuel-based economy would require a massive, expensive, coordinated undertaking to retrofit the world's existing oil and natural-gas distribution networks just as the economic hardship and global chaos ramp up.
As if that wasn't bad enough, Kunstler argues there's a good chance we'll also be hit with catastrophic climate change and global pandemics like avian flu and AIDS. The upshot is that humanity will plunge into a kind of neo-dark ages. Life will become "intensely local," as the big cities and suburbs are abandoned for small towns surrounded by arable hinterlands where people will focus almost exclusively on simply growing enough food to survive. During this turmoil the global population will recede back to the earth's pre-fossil fuel "carrying capacity" of about a billion people.
Kunstler's dark predictions may give too little credit to the capacity of human ingenuity to rise to new challenges; and yet, at base, many of the fears he builds his predictions around have recently attracted attention from more mainstream voices--and rightly so. Just a few weeks ago, The New York Times ran an op-ed by Princeton geologist Kenneth Deffeyes titled, "What Happens Once The Oil Runs Out?" which argued that the oil peak is near; and there is an entire cluster of academics and experts who believe that passing this peak will usher in economic misery and geopolitical instability. The validity of this argument largely rests on the empirical question of just how much fossil fuel is left in the ground, and there's a heated debate about the answer. Some argue we have historically underestimated the amount of fossil fuel and claim there's more than enough for perhaps the next several centuries.
Still, even if Kunstler is wrong about how much fossil fuel we have left to burn through, and even if his predictions are over the top, his book raises an important question: How does our political system cope with long-range existential threats? The narrow lesson of September 11 was that we were caught napping on terrorism, but the broader lesson is that we do a bad job of anticipating catastrophes in general, focusing on the banal (stained dress) over the apocalyptic (airborne attack on civilian targets). While Congress acted quickly and decisively to end the scourge of telemarketers with a national Do Not Call List, there are still Soviet nukes unsecured, global warming remains unsolved, and resources devoted to researching and preventing global pandemics like avian flu are laughably insufficient. It's easy (and fair) to blame politicians for a lack of leadership, but if there's a value to Kunstler's alarmism, it might be that it forces us to face our own complicity in ignoring long-range threats. After all, how many of us would vote for a candidate whose slogan was, "The end is nigh"?