Monday, October 24, 2011

The Long Emergency

James Howard Kunstler wrote The Long Emergency, which describes the fossil fuel tsunami, and how it is likely to shape our way of life in the coming decades.  Kunstler’s perspective is based on serious amounts of research.  He describes the future that he expects to happen, not the kinder, gentler, more enlightened future that he wishes would happen.  He lays the cards on the table, and predicts a tomorrow that is going to be more than a little challenging and unpleasant.
I’ve been reading promo material for Amory Lovins’ new book, Reinventing Fire, in which brilliant scientists and engineers design an amazing high tech future, and transform America into a super-green paradise on Earth.  The turbo-charged magical thinking envisions that the Industrial Revolution and endless growth will never end — hopes, wishes, dreams, and fantasies scampering and yapping giddily around the yard, released from reality’s leash.
But the daily news is dancing to Kunstler’s beat.  He has provided us with a stage upon which the unfolding dramas and tragedies of the 21st century can be performed.  The book was published before the 2008 crash, but it very clearly indicated that a crash was coming — maybe even before the book hit the shelves at Borders (R.I.P.).  It was interesting to read the book in 2011, when the world economic system is teetering on the brink of the abyss, the Middle East is going sideways, and resource shortages are stirring up conflicts in many regions — and we’re just days away from the herd reaching seven billion.  The Long Emergency is much less theoretical today.
In Kunstler’s story, our problems largely started with the steam engine and Colonel Drake’s oil well.  He doesn’t zoom farther out, to a 10,000 year view range.  ‘Twas a dirty sweaty ancient farmer who kicked loose the stones that set off the avalanche that’s about to sweep away the world as we know it.  We were already beyond the point of no return when the steam engines began hissing.  But the whole process shifted explosively into high gear 200 years ago.
Kunstler would be satisfied if we could just turn back the clock to 1800, and live in a happy Currier & Ives world of horse powered farms and villages, with laughing children playing in the dirt roads.  That would be an important first step for the healing process.  It would prepare us for the more challenging transitions that follow — abandoning the mining of soils, water, fish, forests, and so on.
I was excited to read his analysis of Malthus, whom he concluded was completely correct!  I’ve always worried that my understanding of Malthus was missing some vital pieces, because nearly everyone in the world says, over and over and over, that he was absolutely and totally wrong.  I have tried so hard to find serious defects in his ideas, and I have repeatedly failed.  I worried that my mental faculties were fading.  It’s not easy thinking at odds with the herd.  A basic misunderstanding has gone viral, put down strong roots, and nothing can kill it.
Kunstler serves us a level-headed reality-based image of tomorrow, and it is sobering.  Despite its gloominess, the book has managed to sell quite well.  The book’s subtitle is: “Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-first Century.”  But the contents don’t focus on revealing effective survival strategies.  The core of the book describes that huge change is on the way, and explains why.  Wake up, take off the blinders, throw your conventional thinking overboard, and prepare for interesting times. 

Kunstler, James Howard, The Long Emergency — Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-first Century, Atlantic Monthly Press, New York, 2005. 

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