Review of the Book:
The Long Emergency
by James Howard Kunstler

H. William Batt



[This book is published by Atlantic Monthly Press, 2005.
This review is reprinted from GroundSwell, May-June 2006]


Belatedly, a year after its initial publication, I am reviewing James Howard Kunstler's fourth non-fiction book, The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century. I am doing so first, because I promised him I would, and second, because this book is important. It is a keeper, because it has staying power much like the books of Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel, and his later book, Collapse. Readers will find themselves referring to it a decade from now for its prescience. Unlike other books that address the prospect of "peak oil," the looming acme of oil extraction after which we will see a decline in supply, Kunstler explores the likely impact of this unfolding specter. But in taking a view of history covering not just the "age of oil" but the before and after, he offers his interpretation of what our civilization likely faces beginning in the near future -- a future which may already have begun.

The book proceeds in logical order, first by reminding us how much our whole mode of living is premised on the existence of cheap and convenient fossil fuel energy sources, mostly petroleum and natural gas. It then traces how we got to this point, the evidence that changes are in store, and what other energy options, if any, are possible. The author adds a short chapter on what other crises will likely be coterminous with peak oil's arrival: climate change, epidemic disease, water scarcity, habitat destruction, and how much the industrial age can explain these threats. (One is reminded here also that he is far from alone in anticipation of these; for a comparable list, check Colin Mason's book, The 2030 Spike, accessible online in part at www.2030spike.com, and worth looking at.)

It is in the next to last chapter, however, where the book really outclasses others of the genre. Here the author steps into the deep waters of economics to address globalization, ecological impact, and future welfare, and he manages to explain the issues in clear English without stumbling. Few others have been so bold or as successful. He actually refers to the school of ecological economics. Doing so requires a discussion of entropy, the second law of thermodynamics, which posits that matter and energy stocks flow toward an ever-increasing state of randomness. It is worth quoting him here at length, as few conventional economists appreciate the importance of energy sources as anything but one more commodity in their equations:

. . . A hot cup of coffee cools off sooner or later. Its heat is diffused until the temperature of the coffee stabilizes to equilibrium with the air around it. It never gets spontaneously hotter. A tire goes flat, it never spontaneously reinflates. Windup clocks wind down, they don't wind up. Time goes in one direction. Entropy explains why logs burn, why iron rusts, why tornadoes happen and why animals die.

The reason that everything in the real world does not fall apart at once is that the flow of entropy faces obstructions or constraints. A given system will automatically select the paths or drains that get the system to a final state - exhaust its potential - the fastest possible rate given the constraints. Simple, ordered flows drain entropy at a faster rate than complex disordered flows. Hence, the creation of ever more efficient ordered flows in American society, the removal of constraints, has accelerated the winding down of American potential, which is exactly why a Wal-Mart economy will bring us to grief more rapidly than a national agglomeration of diverse independent small-town economies. Efficiency is the straightest path to hell. (p.191)

So if we are to maintain social order, it is necessary to build in stops, fixed points that offer us the opportunity to build structures of every sort to assure a greater comfort and security for our lives. Economic globalization may offer one kind of rationality, perhaps, but it compromises others, and Kunstler shows how it is that we have destroyed our towns, our family and social relationships, our very modes of living, all for the sake of a cheaper hair dryer or coffee maker. All the imported goods coming from beyond our national borders depend on our momentary reliance on cheap oil, while we at the same time trash our own manufacturing and distribution infrastructure, allow our labor force to wither away, and eviscerate the community bonds that hold together the body politic.

A particularly interesting digression involves the shift we have experienced in the nature of capitalism. This is apparent not only in the transformation from farming to agribusiness, but also going from manufacturing to finance capitalism. Until the past generation, money was mostly earned through labor. Increasingly we have witnessed an ever larger proportion of income derived from manipulation of paper and property, all unearned. The ten pages devoted to the "abstracted economy" as he calls it -- the chapter is titled "Running on Fumes" -- trace the growth of the joint stock company, its evolution and recognition in law as a "person," and the implications of according corporations limited liability, all of which is leading to ever more power and dominance of business rationality over our daily lives. Immediate and short-term payoffs become the signposts of every part of our existence. But all of this transformation is possible only because, and insofar as, the true costs of energy are not recognized -- because petroleum is priced as a free good, no more than what it takes to pump it from the ground and bring it to our neighborhoods.

Later on Kunstler opines that,

. . . the America of the 1980s and 1990s was [a] commoditization and conversion of public goods into private luxuries, the impoverishment of the civic realm, and, to put it bluntly, the rape of the landscape - a vast entropic enterprise that was the culminating phase of suburbia. The dirty secret of the American economy in the 1990s was that it was no longer about anything except the creation of suburban sprawl and the furnishing, accessorizing, and financing of it. It resembled the efficiency of cancer. Nothing else really mattered except building suburban houses, trading away the mortgages, selling the multiple cars needed by the inhabitants, upgrading the roads into commercial strip highways with all the necessary shopping infrastructure, and moving base supplies of merchandise made in China for next to nothing to fill up those houses. (p.222)

The book argues that the artificial pricing of motor fuels for the distribution of our goods and services has led more than anything else, to the growth of suburbia -- what he terms "the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world -- a design which has no future." It is here where a better understanding of Georgist economics and the concept of ground rent might have served him well. In an earlier book -- Home from Nowhere -- he has devoted a chapter to describing land value taxation as a means by which to foster urban infill and revitalization, remove the penalties on improvements, and to reverse the centrifugal forces of sprawl. But here, in this book, he makes no mention of Georgist thought, focusing almost exclusively on energy rather than land resources. That they are in a sense reciprocal is a point perhaps he will emphasize in his next book.

The concluding chapter offers the authors thoughts on what he thinks this country -- indeed the world to a lesser degree -- will face when the petroleum crisis is really upon us. Having shown earlier that no alternative and no combination of alternatives are likely available to supplant our century-plus indulgence -- what he at times calls the "oil fiesta" -- he explores with inexorable logic what kind of society we are likely to become. He points out how much even food we eat relies on petroleum input -- long before it is brought to our table: that "under the current industrial farming system it takes sixteen calories of input to produce one calorie of grain, and seventy calories of input to produce one calorie of meat." This is all due to the energy-intensive agriculture system that relies on enormous quantities of water and fertilizer, farm machines, and other mechanization. Reversion at some point to a system where human labor is once again primary leads to the conclusion that many more people will be involved in growing food, and that our diets are likely to change drastically.

From here he goes on to explore the implications for land use, for property rights, for urban land use configurations, for transportation, and for just about every other dimension of our lives. "The Long Emergency will present conditions Americans have never experienced, and the non-rich masses may resort to the kind of desperate action that other historically put-upon people have taken." His allusions to the political possibilities are veiled but nonetheless conveyed. The possible changes in our institutions -- businesses, schools, and even national borders are touched upon, but necessarily remain broad-brush speculation. He concludes by saying that "we spent all our wealth acquired in the twentieth century building an infrastructure of daily life that will not work very long into the twenty-first century." He didn't add that future generations may well resent our shortsightedness and self-centeredness.

In the final analysis, however, he is quite clearly a puritanical Yankee in his outlook, as it is evident throughout that he believes that people should earn their keep and not live off the largess of others or of nature. This becomes particularly clear in his account of how attitudes toward gambling have changed in his own lifetime.

. . . in the 1950s and 1960s of my youth, gambling was considered a vice, with criminal sanctions applied to it, occupying the distant margins of society. Now, forty years later, gambling is a mainstream recreation in an entertainment-saturated culture. Following that a little further, though, one can't fail to see how the new attitude toward gambling reflects a deeper fundamental shift in normative thinking - that so much current behavior is predicated on the belief that it is possible to get something for nothing. (p 302)

But it's not just gambling; it's looking for lawsuit windfalls, or flipping real estate parcels. As our own society divides increasingly between those who work for a living and those who rely upon economic rents -- what David Korten, Michael Hudson, and others are calling "finance capitalism" -- the moral dimensions of our economic designs, as well as their study, are becoming ever clearer. "Landlords grow richer in their sleep without working," wrote John Stuart Mill. It's an apt and useful quote to remember.

The record of the book's sales, likely well over six figures, is warranted, as Kunstler is an extremely skillful writer, as well as witty, hard-hitting and on target. Amazon.com's posting space contains over 300 comments on the book, most of them laudatory even if often disturbing. The book suffers for not having an index or even a short bibliography. But that's only a reflection on the nature of publishing today. Now that the paperback edition is available, for only $14, it should be part of many university courses as well as a choice of reading clubs. His hope in writing it was to jolt our society out of its "sleepwalking" ignorance and lack of preparedness for what is likely an alarming future; he says at the beginning he's neither as gloomy as the die-off crowd, or as polyannish as the technocrats. Students coming of age today should have this book assigned in their classes. They need the perspective, which Jim Kunstler offers, as it should be a factor in how they plan their own lives. As a former university professor myself, I can envision the book used in all social science and policy courses, in philosophy, history and American studies, and even for courses of a technically oriented nature. It is the technocrats, after all, that need to be disabused of their hubris that solutions to our energy future are just around the corner.




Common Ground-U.S.A. does not share name/address/phone/email information with any other organization without your written permission.


Send questions or comments about this web site to WEBMASTER
Copyright © 1997-2015 Common Ground-U.S.A.