The long emergency

What’s going to happen as we start running out of cheap petrol to guzzle? The beginning of the long emergency.

Carl Jung famously remarked, ‘People cannot stand too much reality’. What you’re about to read may challenge your assumptions about the kind of world we live in, and especially the kind of world into which events are propelling us.

We are in for a rough ride through uncharted territory.

It has been very hard for Americans lost in dark raptures of nonstop infotainment, recreational shopping and compulsive motoring, to make sense of the gathering forces that will fundamentally alter the terms of everyday life in our technological society.

Even after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, America is still sleepwalking into the future. I call this coming time the Long Emergency.

Most immediately we face the end of the cheap-fossil-fuel era.

It is no exaggeration to state that reliable supplies of cheap oil and natural gas underlie everything we identify as the necessities of modern life — not to mention all of its comforts and luxuries: central heating, air conditioning, cars, airplanes, electric lights, inexpensive clothing, recorded music, movies, hip-replacement surgery, national defence — you name it.

The few Americans who are even aware that there is a gathering global-energy predicament usually misunderstand the core of the argument.

That argument states that we don’t have to run out of oil to start having severe problems with industrial civilisation and its dependent systems. We only have to slip over the all-time production peak and begin a slide down the arc of steady depletion.

The US passed its own oil peak in 1970, and since then production has dropped steadily. We now have to import about two-thirds of our oil, and the ratio will continue to worsen.

The US peak in 1970 brought on a portentous change in geoeconomic power.

Within a few years, foreign producers, chiefly OPEC, were setting the price of oil, and this in turn led to the oil crises of the 1970s.

In response, frantic development of non-OPEC oil, especially the North Sea fields of England and Norway, essentially saved the West’s ass for about two decades. Since 1999, these fields have entered depletion.

Now we are faced with the global oil-production peak. The best estimates of when this will actually happen have been somewhere between now and 2010.

In 2004, however, after demand from burgeoning China and India shot up, and revelations that Shell Oil wildly misstated its reserves, and Saudi Arabia proved incapable of goosing up its production despite promises to do so, the most knowledgeable experts revised their predictions and now concur that 2005 is apt to be the year of all-time global peak production.

It will change everything about how we live. We will have to accommodate ourselves to fundamentally changed conditions.

No combination of alternative fuels will allow us to run American life the way we have been used to running it, or even a substantial fraction of it.

The wonders of steady technological progress achieved through the reign of cheap oil have lulled us into a kind of Jimminy Cricket syndrome, leading many Americans to believe that anything we wish for hard enough will come true.

Wishful notions about rescuing our way of life with ‘renewables’ are also unrealistic.

Solar-electric systems and wind turbines face not only the enormous problem of scale but the fact that the components require substantial amounts of energy to manufacture and the probability that they can’t be manufactured at all without the underlying support platform of a fossil-fuel economy.

We will surely use solar and wind technology to generate some electricity for a period ahead but probably at a very local and small scale.

China’s surging industrial growth has made it increasingly dependent on the imports we are counting on.

If China wanted to, it could easily walk into some of these places — the Middle East, former Soviet republics in central Asia — and extend its hegemony by force.

Is America prepared to contest for this oil in an Asian land war with the Chinese army? I doubt it.

Nor can the US military occupy regions of the Eastern Hemisphere indefinitely, or hope to secure either the terrain or the oil infrastructure of one distant, unfriendly country after another.

A likely scenario is that the US could exhaust and bankrupt itself trying to do this [Ed note, this has happened in the 5 years since this piece was written], and be forced to withdraw back into its own hemisphere, having lost access to most of the world’s remaining oil in the process.

We know that our national leaders are hardly uninformed about this predicament. President Bush has been briefed on the dangers of the oil-peak situation as long ago as before the 2000 election and repeatedly since then.

In March [2005], the Department of Energy released a report that officially acknowledges for the first time that peak oil is for real and states plainly that ‘the world has never faced a problem like this.

Without massive mitigation more than a decade before the fact, the problem will be pervasive and will not be temporary’.

The circumstances of the Long Emergency will require us to downscale and re-scale virtually everything we do and how we do it, from the kind of communities we physically inhabit to the way we grow our food to the way we work and trade the products of our work.

Our lives will become profoundly and intensely local. Daily life will be far less about mobility and much more about staying where you are.

Anything organised on the large scale, whether it is government or a corporate business enterprise such as WalMart, will wither as the cheap energy props that support bigness fall away.

The turbulence of the Long Emergency will produce a lot of economic losers, and many of these will be members of an angry and aggrieved former middle class.

Food production is going to be an enormous problem in the Long Emergency.

As industrial agriculture fails due to a scarcity of oil- and gas-based inputs, we will certainly have to grow more of our food closer to where we live, and do it on a smaller scale. America today has a railroad system that the Bulgarians would be ashamed of.

Neither of the two major presidential candidates in 2004 mentioned railroads, but if we don’t refurbish our rail system, then there may be no long-range travel or transport of goods at all a few decades from now.

The commercial aviation industry, already on its knees financially, is likely to vanish. The sheer cost of maintaining gigantic airports may not justify the operation of a much-reduced air-travel fleet. 

Railroads are far more energy efficient than cars, trucks or airplanes, and they can be run on anything from wood to electricity. The rail-bed infrastructure is also far more economical to maintain than our highway network.

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 neighbours, 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.

Adapted from the new book The Long Emergency, 2005, by James Howard Kunstler.

Originally published in the Here & Now magazine Byron Bay