Has the Long Emergency Begun? Peak Oil and the Economic Downturn
Seven years ago, I became obsessed with the topic of peak oil. I had to read everything about it that I could find. I was one of the first subscribers to The Oil Drum. I went to peak oil conferences. It really got to me.
One of the recurrent themes of peak oil writers was what some called the "bumpy plateau." Once we hit the peak of global oil production, they said, the price of oil would shoot up, knocking the economy down, possibly into recession. With a weak economy, the price of oil would drop. As the economy gained strength from lower oil prices, guess what — the price of oil rises again. Eventually, the economy falters again, and the cycle begins anew.
In the past few years, we've seen some new wrinkles introduced with the all the goings-on in the finance industry and those "too-big-to-fail" companies that have dragged us all down. Peak oil is certainly not the only factor holding us back, but I do still think it's important.
Of all the reading I did back in 2004-2006, two books stand out: The Long Emergency by James Howard Kunstler and Twilight in the Desert by the late Matthew R. Simmons. The latter took a good, hard look at Saudi Arabia's oil production, and Simmons came to the conclusion that Saudi Arabia may be past their peak of oil production. It was rational and calm.
Kunstler's book, on the other hand, disturbed me. It took months before I regained my balance after reading his dire predictions for this century. I wrote short reviews of both books for my website back in 2005 and will reproduce them here in the Energy Vanguard blog. We'll start today with Kunstler:
The Long Emergency, by James Howard Kunstler
Death, war, disease, violence, famine. These and similar problems are the fate of the human race in the 21st century according to Kunstler. In short, he believes that the peak of oil production will combine synergistically with climate change, germ resistance and mutation, US debt, the instability of the Saudi government, and other weaknesses in the systems that keep the human enterprise afloat.
These "converging catastrophes" will bring civilization to its knees and reduce the human population from its current 6.4 billion to something possibly far lower. There will be massive migrations away from the cities and suburbs, and the Southwest, Great Plains, and Rocky Mountain regions will be almost completely depopulated. Most of those who survive will be engaged in agriculture.
The book has good explanations of peak oil, climate change, and the other issues discussed. Kunstler's scope is very broad; it's the only book I know of that touches on oil, climate, NASCAR, bubonic plague, communism, globalism, and Jiminy Cricket, to name but a few of the topics covered. His overview of our current situation is good, and he ties together a lot of pieces that on first glance seem unrelated. Documentation of sources, however, is almost nonexistent, and there is no bibliography or index. Also, make sure to have a dictionary handy as you read, unless you already know words like tergiversate (something Nixon did) and incunabula (part of the hippie "platform").
Kunstler's vision of the future is extremely disturbing. Whereas Paul Roberts in The End of Oil makes the topic an interesting read, Kunstler makes it terrifyingly realistic. Are his predictions guaranteed to come true? Certainly not. Is there more than a miniscule chance that our future will look something like the one he's painted for us? Sure. Understanding the range of possible futures is part of educating yourself about this issue.