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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.

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.


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This Post Has 12 Comments

  1. I’ve read the Long Emergency,
    I’ve read the Long Emergency, along with a few of Kunstler’s other books and I declared him either the craziest sane person or the sanest crazy person I had ever run across. I had the pleasure of meeting him at a conference a few years ago and shared my analysis with him, which he rather appreciated. His vision of the future is truly terrifying and disturbing, although he may well be exaggerating the extent of the problem and it is unlikely that we will be alive to see if his predictions actually come through. If you aren’t yet disturbed enough by his predictions, check out “World Made by Hand,” his fictional take on “The Long Emergency.” You’ll probably lose even more sleep. I’d be happy to lend it to you.

  2. Inexpensive energy touches
    Inexpensive energy touches every aspect of our lives. It enables outsourcing, suburbs, high intensity agriculture, plastics, and just about anything else you can think of. Cheap energy is the new slave labor, except is comes with little immediately apparent human cost. 
    Fossil fuels are the battery that took millions of years to charge, but only a couple centuries to deplete. 
    As energy prices increase (and we have seen nothing yet), we will be forced to alter our lifestyles dramatically in order to survive, and the sad truth is that the planet cannot sustain the current human population. 
    I will have to pick up a copy of Kunstler’s book. Thanks for the article!

  3. Sounds like an interesting
    Sounds like an interesting read. I have read similar books 5-8 years ago as well. I do believe that Saudi Arabia is already past peak oil, but we cannot access the facts, because of … 
    I am glad the “great recession” hit – just call it a depression damn it. If we called it then the condition would improve, and instead since we are pretending, it will just get worse. The reason I am glad is because the prior growth continued on would have been devastating to our energy society. 
    I think that the hidden factor in the doom and gloom, is thus. Technology advances are on a hyper curved improvement. Technology advances are going to save mankind. 
    An example of this is this blog, and linked in. We are no longer getting as much daily dose of propaganda from the syndicated networks. This is all more productive for us all. We are presented with real solutions from real people and we are sharing our technology. Another huge leap forward in technology.

  4. Curmudgeon
    Curmudgeon: I have to agree with your assessment of Kunstler. Think I’ll pass on the fictionalized version. Thanks for the offer, though. 
    Andrew: Sounds like Kunstler’s book is right up your alley. 
    Chris C.: I agree that the interwebs is making a huge difference in the flow of information. I disagree that technology will save us. I think we’re going to have to save ourselves in the end, and it’s not going to be easy.

  5. LOL. Well I did not mean that
    LOL. Well I did not mean that technology would save us independent of our ability to help ourselves and others.  
    I think that technology increases should cube our ability to help ourselves and others. That is my hope. This is one of my interests, and lines of development. 
    For sure there is a long long way to go in getting the masses to come to the conclusion that they need to do “efficiency yesterday!” This topic of efficiency has already been – not easy – for me. 
    I concede with you on that. 🙂 
    Always a pleasure. -CC

  6. Ever since “Famine 1975
    Ever since “Famine 1975” I have been dubious of all disaster scenarios. Malthus is another good example. Homo sap keeps muddling on, and is nothing if not resourceful when it comes to continuing to muddle. Yes, things are going to continue to change (even IF politicians do promise it), and the future belongs to those smart enough to cope, and come up with new ways to cope. Kunstler predicts an empty southwest… why not a prospering SW which gets more solar energy and puts it to good use? Like planned economies, predicting the future is certain to fail… except by accident.

  7. John M.:
    John M.: “…predicting the future is certain to fail… except by accident.” I agree!

  8. As Allison can attest, I was
    As Allison can attest, I was there with him many years ago in Yellow Sprngs. We just had Steve Andrews speak at RaterFest! and while his view is not as dystopic as JK, it’s moved steadily darker in the past few years.  
    The issue is, to ride off of Steve, a liquid fuel problem. The magic fairy dust of kerogen or marlstone, aka shale oil or any of the other “silver bullets” is not going to save anyone’s bacon.  
    I remain an optimist, but it’s increasingly difficult in the face of such willful ignorance. Of course, there is a lot of that resource around.  
    It ought to be easier to get people to understand Peak Oil than say, Climate Change or Evolution. However, when faced with having to change the status quo, we seem to have an, again, infinite supply of resolve to do nothing, or damn close to it.  
    Lots of great comments above. So, does TBTF apply only to banks or to nations as well?

  9. Steve B.:
    Steve B.: Yes, I certainly can attest to that. Although I know you from my first RESNET conference (2004), I didn’t get onto your radar screen until that peak oil conference in Yellow Springs, Ohio and then the very first ASPO-USA conference in Denver a month or so later. Steve Andrews also spoke at the ’04 RESNET conference, and I recall he focused on natural gas supply. 
    Well, maybe too-big-to-fail applies to nations, too. I think China’s been helping keep us afloat with all the investment capital they’ve put here, at least partly for that reason.

  10. What John Mattson said. The
    What John Mattson said. The number of Chicken Little scenarios in the course of just American history, is amazing. All you need to do is take a trend, project it immoderately and presto — you have a disaster scenario that many will find titillating.

  11. Sure, looking back over the
    Sure, looking back over the past ten years, America is smarter, kinder, richer, safer and more free. Nothing to worry about…

  12. Have you seen the updated
    Have you seen the updated projections for US oil production in Energy Information Administration’s 2011 Annual Energy Outlook? The EIA predicts 25% growth from current output to 2035. The Outlook does not reveal where these new reserves will be found. It is an interesting report for anyone who likes fiction.

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