Note: I need to devote more time to my upcoming book, now known as Wild Free & Happy. The following is Jim Minter’s review of James Howard Kunstler’s book, Home from Nowhere. It was posted over 20 years ago (5 December 1996) on the e-design website. This was back when the Peak Oil movement still lived in caves. Oddly, most of the essay could have been written in 2018. America’s fanatical addiction to motorized wheelchairs is stronger than ever. Minter is an excellent writer. Enjoy!
Joy Ride to Global Collapse:
Reflections on Kunstler’s Home from Nowhere
Here’s a prediction for you. In the next two decades millions of Americans will begin a serious search for an alternative to the gasoline-powered automobile. It is not going to be a happy search. If you think trying to wean gun owners from their passion for firearms is a hornet’s nest, try talking to the great majority of us about reining in our passion for the automobile. Lordy! And yet, most of us agree there is a problem, vaguely phrased as, “There are too many other people out there clogging up the highways and slowing me down.” Otherwise our attitude is similar to the rabid firearms bumper sticker: “You’ll get my car when you pry my cold, dead fingers from around the steering wheel.”
No one is talking to us about giving up cars today — even though there is hard scientific evidence that the freewheeling automotive world we know today will have totally vanished within the lifetime of most of us now living. A few idealists are talking about maybe getting us to constrain our use a little bit. None of them are running for any position of political influence in this country. They would be lucky to get their family’s vote. We don’t want to hear it.
Auto mania is not confined to Americans. The love affair is international and now grows fastest in the nations of the Second and Third World. Humanity burns 70 million barrels of oil a day. At the present rate of increase, it is projected we’ll be burning 100 million in 20 years. But we’ll never get there. We are close to that peak of global production which was foreseen almost half a century ago by Dr. M. King Hubbert, the foremost petroleum geologist of his day. The descent from that peak only takes a few decades. We know that petroleum is a finite resource. But even as gasoline prices begin to creep upward some time in the not-too-distant future we won’t curtail our driving until real supply shortages absolutely force the issue.
Take a look at an ugly future scenario: The sudden, agonizing death of the private automobile is a wall that global society will hit full speed, pedal to the metal when a global petroleum crisis finally catches up with us. We will not accept any solutions that will soften the impact until the real shortage hits us at some time (early) in the next century. If we continue to fail to take any reasonable steps to prepare for it, and it comes upon us thus, the constriction of the petroleum base of our global economy is quite likely to begin a plunging, bucking, gasping downward spiral towards a deep and lasting depression-with-inflation that could virtually end modern times as we now know them.
I will explain the combination of hard science and human hard-headedness which backs the likelihood of this future. But first, let’s examine where we are. Even if we believe that we are joyriding toward the abyss, few of us will volunteer to be first to quit driving. I’ve tried it twice. Once in Tallahassee as Florida’s “Energy Czar,” and once as a freelance investigative reporter in Washington, D.C. What a royal pain it was to be carless in Florida’s sprawled-out, little, old capital city. What a joy it was not to have to fool with parking in our nation’s capital. Cabs there were plentiful and cheap. Walking was a pleasure. The excellent subway and bus lines were just a hop from my little flat three blocks from the Library of Congress. But that urban experience is the exception.
For most Americans life without a car is unthinkable — even in Washington, D.C. It is too late to talk about rational restraint. As James Howard Kunstler’s new book Home from Nowhere makes clear, the entire complex of the American civilization and infrastructure that we have built since World War II is almost unworkable without our massive herd of private autos. We can’t get along without them, although Kunstler would clearly like to tame them.
Kunstler’s first best seller, The Geography of Nowhere, was described by a Wall Street Journal reviewer as “a sharp polemic.” The language of Home from Nowhere is just as crisp and creative as he continues his positive indictment of America’s post-World-War-II built environment. I say “positive,” because in Home from Nowhere Kunstler tries to focus on curing the blight — what we are already beginning to do in a few places, and what more we can and must do.
I, however, turned immediately to the chapter entitled “Car Crazy.” The book’s dust jacket says it “offers real hope to a nation yearning to live in authentic places worth caring about.” Not only does the car chapter not deliver hope, Kunstler’s auto jeremiad is almost as bleak as my post-petroleum scenario. After a splendidly concise and eloquent damning of what American car craziness is doing to our built environment, he concludes his chapter, “We have the knowledge to do the right thing; we lack only the will to do the right thing. The inescapable conclusion is that our behavior is wicked, and that we are liable to pay a heavy price for our wickedness by losing the things we love, including our beautiful country and our democratic republic.”
Pretty appalling. Hello! Is anyone home, out there? No. We’re out joyriding. “But,” you protest, “lose our country? Our form of government?” Perhaps that’s not impossible.
The sudden death of the automobile in America would produce a major crunch that would dwarf the Great Depression. Kunstler deplores the negative aspects of the car without understanding just how endangered the automobile truly is. He even purports to see signs that we may be wandering away from the automobile. Fat chance! We Americans are not going to abandon our cars. Especially because some guru is telling us they are immoral. We don’t care if they are immoral. We won’t abandon them even if they cause global warming and melt the polar ice caps putting Florida and New York City under water. Even if we have to wear gas masks because of pollution and the whole nation grinds to gridlock we will still sit in our cars on the freeways, beeping our horns and idling our engines, praying we can creep just a few more yards. We are not going to walk or ride bicycles except for exercise. We are not going to ride buses, streetcars, subways, taxicabs or rickshaws except as entertainment. A personal automobile is the right of every American. It says so in the Constitution.
Ah, would that Kunstler’s prophesy of a gradual taming of the automobile were possible. Nothing so gentle as that seems likely to me. The Auto Age is going to hit a rapid deceleration. But it will not be graceful, gradual or planned. Disregard for a moment the thesis that the environment will run out of breathable air before we run out of petroleum. What is unquestionable is that if we keep burning it, one way or another, the human species is eventually going to burn up the planet’s vast store of petroleum. The only question is when. Some very good scientists who study the globe’s petroleum supplies, but don’t work for oil companies, auto companies or nervous governments say that time is closer upon us than we suspect.
The Petroleum Age will begin sputtering into crisis as demand continues to rise and petroleum production peaks (within a decade, according to the best Hubbert projections to which I will link you at the end of this column). We will not yet be at the bottom of the barrel, just turning towards it. Vast windfall profits will be made by some, which will complicate the ability of leaders to explain the reality. And the supply-side religion will tune-up its highly paid chorus. In fits and starts prices will rise and then fall, spiraling upward because of real shortfalls in the distribution system, or in anticipation of shortage, then dropping as over-speculators take a bath, only to rise again and then fall again, but with prices always rising further and falling back slower as supply constricts. And if an “artificial” shortage is politically created in anticipation of hoarding for the real shortage down the road, it could be a recipe for wars. Either way, most of us will not be able to imagine curtailing our driving until the bitterest end.
What makes the decline of the Petroleum Age so relentlessly damaging is that there is no fuel that is going to substitute for it. I know the technological optimists, with a lot of cynical hype from the auto/petroleum industrial axis and a lot of naive wishing by the Greens, vaguely promise a clean, beautiful, driving world on “a mixed fuel economy.” It is this promise that keeps us tranquilly driving along burning it up for “a few more years” without feeling at all wicked. Some cabal of scientists in white coats is going unmask the Second Law of Thermodynamics as an oldthink fraud.
NONE of the promised alternatives will replace petroleum.
It ain’t gonna happen. None (let me get way out on the limb and repeat that: NONE) of the promised alternatives will replace petroleum — not even vast stores of natural gas, which is the closest potential substitute, but is also finite. Nor will liquified and “scrubbed-up” coal juice. Nor (again disregarding for the moment the environmental and safety questions) will the scores of new nuclear plants needed to charge up electric cars be economically supportable in a Post-Petroleum Age.
Why? That was explained to us by an almost forgotten scientist at the University of Florida over 20 years ago. It is the concept of “net energy.” If it takes one barrel of oil to produce every ten barrels of oil, you have nine barrels of oil left to run the rest of society.
As oil becomes more difficult to find and transport, the net yield decreases. There is less to run society. Oil costs rise. All other costs that are touched by oil (everything) also rise. Eventually, you creep into recession-with-inflation, which economists said wasn’t supposed to happen — until it did happen after the 1973 oil embargo.
This is where economists display their ignorance of physics. Many economists, people who should know better, say at that point people go out and explore for more oil. (We’re still finding new oil, but not at the rate we’re burning it. And there are a steadily diminishing number of places on the planet where we haven’t poked holes.) Or, economists chirp, we’ll find other energy sources and drive prices back down. That is what happens for every other commodity, they say, and energy is no different from any other commodity. Not so.
Energy is the great exception to conventional economic theory. The Second Law of Thermodynamics is why. Every time you “use” energy you lose some. You can never get perfect efficiency. So burning energy to get energy is a “losing” process. Burn oil to get electricity and you end up with less energy in the electricity than you began with in the oil. Transmit that electric energy over wires to a home or factory and you lose some. You can’t “make” energy; and though you can sometimes “store” it in another form for a while (with loss each time) you only use energy once. So the more complicated a process is.., the more “technologically involved”.., the more you lose in the processing. That’s the problem with burning electricity which is a “highly refined” energy, to get hydrogen, a “lower” form, from water to then burn in cars. That’s also why liquified coal will always be devilishly expensive to burn in autos and trucks.
The great shale oil fiasco of the late ’70s is a perfect example of what is wrong with all of the proposed “high-tech sources” of “new” energy. Economists kept saying that when the price of oil rose high enough, extracting the oil from shale deposits would make it an economical commodity. We burned billions of your tax dollars and billions more in private investment money trying to make it work. There are those who still say it will work some day. Don’t let them sell you any shale stock.
It doesn’t matter how high the price of shale oil rises
The problem with shale oil is that it has to be mined and crushed and heated to extract the oil that is there. Mining machinery burns oil. Crushing machinery burns oil. Heating shale burns oil. Hauling and dumping the spent shale burns more energy. And of course, refining that oil into useable product takes more energy. As does transporting it, and transporting all of the workers in the process, etc., etc. In the ’70s we discovered that we burned about a barrel of oil to produce a barrel of shale oil. (So-called in situ production methods shared a similar problem.) In other words the “net energy” was zero. So it didn’t matter what the price was. If the price rose to a million dollars a barrel, it would still consume a million-dollar barrel of oil to produce a million-dollar barrel of shale oil and there would be no net gain to sell.
Energy is not just another commodity in our modern economic system. Energy is the underlying power that carries the burden and makes our modern economic infrastructure “more productive” (less labor intensive). Petroleum is the dominant energy source for the transportation network that undergirds the global economy, and the planet’s most plentiful, most versatile, most transportable and most efficient energy source. In a very real and measurable sense the price of every other energy source we have floats on a “subsidy” of cheap petroleum. In other words every other energy form we use, including all of the “solar” energies are as cheap and usable as they are because they are “underwritten” by cheap oil. (Cheap petroleum and natural gas produce and transport those silicon PV cells. When the oil is gone, the price of “solar” will skyrocket, along with every other “alternative energy source,” in direct proportion to the petroleum used in every step of its production and delivery.)
“Gasohol” is another ideal example of an “alternative fuel” that floats on a cheap petroleum subsidy. It takes cheap oil for each step of planting, tending, fertilizing, spraying, harvesting, transporting and processing corn into alcohol. It takes more cheap oil to blend that alcohol into something that will (still imperfectly, compared to gasoline) power your car. Gasohol from corn, sugar, peat, beets, sawdust, tropical rain forest, or any other “biomass” is not going to run our present global auto world, let alone the expanding auto world glowingly predicted by the car industry for the future. Ignore, for a second the fact that such massive use would quickly begin cannibalizing the biomass that supports all life and supplies such basics as food and oxygen. “Biomass” is not a long-term massive source of global energy because many of our current agricultural and forestry practices “mine the soil,” and are, in the long run, neither “renewable,” nor “sustainable.” Ignore the environmental concerns about CO2, ozone, etc. Ignore the shrinking global biomass and arable land that will be needed in ever greater amounts to feed, clothe and house a swelling human population. There isn’t enough biomass on earth to run our petroleum economy at its present level if we are insane enough to try it. (And we are.) We would quickly turn the planet into a desert trying to run our current automobile fleet on biomass.
And so the real “Catch 22” for alternative fuels is that when the petroleum economy begins to stumble over shortage, all of the “alternative fuels” that are supposed to be waiting in the wings, are going to rise in price dramatically. It is going to be an ugly, cost-pushed, escalating thing that is going to cripple the global economy and impoverish global society.
Cleaned-up coal and natural gas and perhaps even some nuclear will provide our electricity for a period of time. And some niche-market transportation, too. Wind power can be a real electric winner for many places on the planet (not much wind here in Florida and cloud cover makes solar PV a marginally expensive source on much of the planet). But none of these sources, along with their electric cars, will run our present automotive economy at the level of wealth and consumption we enjoy in this glorious sunset of our Petroleum Age. Trans-continental economies that are most strung-out on automobiles and trucks (the United States, Canada, Australia, etc.) are likely to be hardest hit first.
So just when we need to make the transition to other fuels we will discover that everything we do is much more expensive and we seem to have less than we anticipated. It will puzzle economists. The economy will slow down but the prices of everything will keep on rising. We will then rediscover the age-old truth: money is not a real thing; it is only an accounting device. Congress can’t print oil and they can’t repeal the Second Law of Thermodynamics. So after we have ritually fired the then-current crop of politicians and the new ones haven’t changed anything, we won’t know who to blame. What will be going on?
Now pay attention economists. Here are three dicta that may sound heretical. First is Minter’s Little Observation: Neither capital nor labor can create energy. Growing out of this observation is Minter’s Little Law of Energy Subsidy: The shortage of a more efficient energy source in an economy will always make the remaining sources of less efficient energy more expensive and even less efficient. Will humanity belatedly begin to use all energy more efficiently when we finally hear those sucking sounds in the petroleum barrel? Of course. We will have to. But such efficiencies will not make us more prosperous (as they do today). By that time they will only slow the rate at which we get poorer. Why? Heed Minter’s Little Maxim: A society’s transition from a more efficient energy source to a less efficient energy source will always and invariably decrease the wealth, flexibility and options available to that society.
In other words, just when we most need the wealth and flexibility of cheap petroleum energy to make the transition to a less energy-intensive infrastructure, everything is going to cost much, much more. We will be poorer.
If this is all true, what should we be doing? I do not have many answers. We should at least take off the rose colored alternative fuel glasses that are blinding the Greens and providing a smoke screen for short-sighted governments and industries. Until we do that we can’t accurately begin envisioning what a post-petroleum society is really going to look like. Possibly we should stop sinking so much money into long-term expansions of infrastructure to support automobiles. Maybe a few advanced thinkers will begin considering post-petroleum cities with electric-only cars, or without private-passenger cars altogether. You tell me.
One thing that seems obvious is that we need to begin an honest net energy analysis of all of the proposed alternative fuels, and just what their true net is after all of the present petroleum subsidies are worked out of the formula. That is not going to be as easy as it sounds. Petroleum subsidizes everything we make and do. But it is vital if we are to make rational judgments not based upon the partisan polemics of vested interests or true believers. Just what we will do with this knowledge once we get it is another matter. The Western World is run by corporate leaders who think quarter-to-quarter, politicians who think election-to-election, and a public that is hostile to bad news about their lifestyle (especially our beloved cars). The Pacific Rim countries are enslaved to automobile exports (and petroleum poor). The oil exporters are already exaggerating their reserves to get loans and the global financial community is making those loans. Is there anyone out there who isn’t heavily vested in a continuation of the existing myopia?
In an earlier column, I said that since we obviously are going to do nothing about transportation until it is way too late, America’s only energy policy option is to work for efficiency in our buildings and built environment. Certainly that is the focus of Kunstler’s two books. That is the focus of what we have been calling “Sustainable Design.” What is crucial for the design professions to realize is that we probably don’t have as much time as we think before we will not be as rich as we once were. To me that spells building for quality and endurance. It means an end to “consumable” buildings. It means building for ourselves and posterity. It means the old-fashioned conservative virtues of thrift and investment, not burn-up and squander. To be Biblical, it means using the remaining fat years to prepare for the coming lean years.
Without considering the decline of petroleum, Kunstler already thinks we are wicked to be trashing our lives, our cities, and our infrastructure in our mad romance with the automobile. Would he think us diabolic if he understood we are really racing towards a post-petroleum economy that stands to impoverish our posterity?
If so, he would probably be right. Morally what we are doing is very much akin to burning the children’s lifeboats on the Titanic to keep the partying adults warm for another half an hour.
In the very humane, final chapter of Kunstler’s book, he reflects on the fine life that the success of his previous book, The Geography of Nowhere, has given him in a small town in New York. It’s an idyllic world of writing and painting in an almost car-free cocoon. He should enjoy it with a clear conscience. He, at least, has jousted with the beast and urged reform.
But we are unreformable, and it seems certain that any such modest reforms as humanity would swallow will only delay the inevitable by a few years. And so, as I understand it, a global economic crunch of epic proportions, one that stands to debase much of our current wealth and render much of our current infrastructure valueless, lies just over the horizon sometime in the next century. The economic tremor of the early ‘70s was but a mild hint of the times to come. Once again humanity is going to demonstrate Voltaire’s little maxim: “History teaches us that history teaches us nothing.”
Jim Minter, Editor
(1) Minter thought we’d never make it to 100 million barrels per day of global oil production. In 2014, we were at 89 million barrels. Nobody was fracking in 1996. Fracking is an extremely expensive and low net energy process that has no long term future.
(2) He foresaw the Petroleum Age beginning to sputter in a decade or so (i.e., 2006). A barrel of oil was $30 in 2004. In 2008, it was $147 — at which point the global banking system suddenly melted down, and the sky was filled with fat cats leaping off tall buildings.
(3) He mentions that shale oil is resource that will never be used. This is accurate, because he is referring to shale that contains carbon-rich kerogen, a precursor of petroleum, which cannot be profitably extracted and refined into oil. Today, the fracking industry is working different shale beds, in other regions, that actually contain petroleum, which can be profitably extracted only if the market price of oil is very high.
(4) Minter’s essay has gone extinct on the current internet. It can be accessed via the Internet Archive Wayback Machine. Use it to search for: http://fcn.state.fl.us/fdi/e-design/online/9612/joyride.htm
(5) His essay was produced by e-design, part of the Florida Sustainable Communities website, run by the Florida Design Initiative. This endeavor went extinct around 2000, when Republicans gained control of Florida government, and declared that Sustainability was “a socialist plot.”
(6) Minter was a former Miami Herald reporter, a bureau chief, daily columnist, and editor at the Tallahassee Democrat, a freelance investigative reporter in Washington, D.C., and Florida’s “Energy Czar.” He’s over 80 now.
And… Our Plundered Planet, by Walter Youngquist (1921-2018), is an excellent 8-page essay that updates the nonrenewable resource story as of 2014. He was one of the grandfathers of the Peak Oil movement, a top level petroleum geologist, and a university professor. See pages 4-5 to learn about the limits of fracking, and the daunting reality of sharply diminished Energy Returned on Energy Invested (EROEI), which almost all joyriders are completely ignorant of. Download the PDF [HERE]