Book Review - The Long Emergency by James Howard Kunstler

Monday, September 18, 2006

Written by Scott Gilbert

James Howard Kunstler's latest book The Long Emergency: Surviving the end of oil, climate change, and other converging catastrophes of the twenty-first century, is a natural extension of his previous non-fiction writing. Kunstler's focus in previous books has centred around issues of urban planning; his most recent one explains in detail the reasons why more attention must be paid to - and why we will be forced to address - the ideas put forth in his previous writing, namely that we need better urban planning, more walkable communities and localized economies.

The Long Emergency is blunt, to the point and rather frightening. The subtitle "Surviving the end of oil, climate change, and other converging catastrophes of the twenty-first century" is a fairly accurate summary of the book's theme. The information presented is hardly new - peak oil and climate change are not new ideas, but it is in explaining clearly the implications and likely consequences for our modern society that Kunstler does so well.

He starts the book by explaining where his opinion stands relative to the extremes. On one side you have a faction that believes "technology" will overcome even the worst of our environmental and resource problems, while coming catastrophes will force us to innovate solutions in time. The other extreme is those who believe that no matter how many minds we have working on solutions to certain issues - like global warming - we are already in way over our heads and there is no turning back. Kunstler asserts himself as somewhere in between, but slightly closer to the latter.

The way the author combines the coming problems to paint a picture of what kind of world me might be living in within the century is alarming. The first major problem we will face is a dwindling supply of abundant oil. He notes that most of the world's leading scientists agree that the passing of the global peak for oil production has either already happened in the last year, or is likely to happen within the next five years. The passing of the peak can only be seen "in the rear view mirror", meaning that it will require a few years of data analysis after we actually pass the peak to be sure that this has in fact happened. Once the peak has been passed, the first set in a long list of catastrophes will set in. He makes it clear that the passing of the peak does not mean there will cease to be oil. To the contrary, there will be a considerable amount of oil left long after humans cease to exist. However, it is the ease of accessing this oil that will become - and already has started - to become increasingly difficult.

During the "black gold" oil rush of earlier this century, the pressure in underground reservoirs was so high that sometimes all you had to do was dig a hole in the ground a few feet deep and the dirty black liquid would shoot up all by itself. Now however, massive amounts of water or natural gas must be pumped into the reservoir to create enough pressure to drive the crude oil out. Every year the amount of energy required to get the oil out increases and the quality of what is removed decreases. The feasibility of pumping oil from the ground is constantly declining, and a point will be reached when it takes more energy to recover a barrel of oil than can be produced from the barrel itself. When this point is reached the planet will still have massive amount of oil left.

The actual numbers are startling. Before we started using oil, the planet had about 2 trillion barrels of it. Now that we are sitting at or around the global peak, we have about 1 trillion barrels left. The world currently uses 27 billion barrels a day. If we were able to maintain current levels of production, and extract every last drop - which is extremely unlikely - there would be only 37 years of oil use left.

To explain just how screwed we will be, the author details all of the currently available "alternative" fuel sources and compares them to oil. He argues that nuclear will likely be the main source of energy for electricity in the future, but you cannot fly a plane or drive a tank on electricity (unless you plan to build railroads through the places you intend to bomb). However, no new nuclear plants have been build in the US since the 1970s, and a new plant takes about 10 years to come online from the time the decision is made to do so.

Oil not only has so many uses in our current society - from plastics production to fertilizer for industrial agriculture - but the primary advantage is it's portability. For instance, it is safe for someone with a low IQ and a 30 second lesson to handle gasoline. However, even highly skilled technicians are scared about handling compressed hydrogen - let alone doing crash tests with a hydrogen fuel cell car. Other energy generation sources like solar and wind power, while good ideas, only produce minimal quantities of energy compared to current usage. Wind turbines require constant servicing, which given the need for a remote location for their operation, are generally serviced by driving to them using a petroleum based vehicle. Wind and solar are both reliant upon natural conditions, reqiring either a windy or sunny day to function. Not to mention that the quoted costs associated with making a wind turbine are all based on the assumption that we still have an abundant supply of cheap oil - the materials the turbine is made from have to be mined, transported and intalled, which is all currently done using gasoline or diesel powered vehicles.

The author also touches on global warming, but limits much of the potential discussions to the fact that dealing with the issue will be sidelined as the major focus of human activity after the passing of the oil peak will centre around food production. The heavy fossil fuel inputs used in industrial agriculture will become increasingly expensive in the years to come and we will be forced to return to small-scale, organic farming, which is extremely labour intensive.

Kunstler's thesis, consistent with his previous writing, it that the circumstances of the near future will force us to live on a much more local level and spend considerably more time and physical labour growing food. He says this is not necessarly a bad thing, but argues that it will require major changes.

My only criticisms of the book, which is otherwise excellent, are that there should have been more discussion of the impact of global warming on small scale food production and, since the book contained much about what we are likely to see as a result of peak oil, the issue of stockpiling or hoarding the remaining supplies. For instance, many countries current have what is called a Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR). SPRs are currently used to offset price jumps as the supply of crude fluctuates. When Hurricane Katrina hit the US last year, several major refineries were badly damaged and had to be taken offline for repair. The US dipped into its SPR to fill demand. This reserve, despite being colossal in size (about 700 million barrels), is still minuscule compared to overall US annual consumption. It is only logical to assume that once there is a consensus among the international scientific community that the peak has been passed - meaning that every year global production will decrease - there will be a scrambling by every country, military, company and individual to stockpile or hourd as much as possible for future use or sale. The price will skyrocket immediately and the amount available for public consumption (at a reasonable price) will plummet almost instantaneously.

In the US during WWII, it was common to wake up in the morning and find your car out of gas. People would siphon out the petroleum in the middle of the night and either use it for themselves or sell it on the black market. This is a likely scenario in every corner of the globe once it is widely agreed upon that the peak has in fact been passed.

The shelf life of crude oil is indefinite, but gasoline for instance has a shelf life of only a few months at best. There are however treatments that can be mixed with gasoline to keep it usable in most engines for up to a few decades. Although the hoarding of gasoline by individuals is a relatively dangerous and space demanding operation, it will surely be common as the value of it increases in orders of magnitude within very short periods of time. Any business that depends on transportation will either have to close down as their fuel cost rise, or explore ways to store whatever fuel they can. Hoarding will become illegal, and the theft of stockpiles will likely become commonplace. If Kunstler is correct in his analysis and criticisms of the potential for alternative fuel sources coming online for public consumption in time, I see the stockpiling of petroleum as inevitable.

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