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Book review: 'The Long Emergency'

By Peter McMahon - posted Tuesday, 11 April 2006


There is a long tradition of books presenting an apocalyptic future, but most have turned out to be a little pessimistic, to say the least. Until now, that is. Suddenly, with global warming accepted as scientific fact and Peak Oil a commonly discussed subject, the future does appear somewhat tricky.

James Howard Kunstler's book, published in 2005, is titled The Long Emergency and subtitled Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century. The book does discuss global warming, declining fresh water supplies and other environmental problems, but overall Kunstler's main concern is the imminent end of cheap oil.

Kunstler makes a compelling case, relying mainly on the Hubbert's curves analysis, that Peak Oil (that is, when half the available oil is used up) is imminent, and that afterwards global civilisation faces enormous problems, regardless of whatever else happens. He points out that the issue is economically cheap oil, not a shortage as such, and that once the production peak is reached prices will skyrocket as demand outstrips supply.

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He argues cogently that the very basis of modern society, initially developed in the US and now globalising rapidly, has been very cheap oil - a one-off boon that enabled extraordinary growth in population and wealth. Cheap oil has been behind plentiful food, urbanisation and just about everything else modernity takes for granted. But in a century and a half we used up energy deposited over many millions of years. He argues that the often touted alternative oil sources, such as shale, although representing vast quantities of oil, are simply uneconomic to develop.

The basic facts he presents are indeed stark. Of the roughly two trillion barrels of liquid oil thought to exist, we have burned around one trillion, essentially the best quality and most easily available. Production follows discovery, and discovery peaked in 1964. We use about 27 billion barrels a year, and even if we could extract all the oil left, it will run out around 2042.

Kunstler effectively deals with hopes that either currently available renewable energy technologies or any near future varieties can take the place of oil. Basically, they either just cannot be scaled up enough, or they are in the wrong form. In particular, he points out that the whole hydrogen economy notion is fanciful, as hydrogen is an energy carrier, not energy generator. He says that in fact the hydrogen economy is code for nuclear economy as only nuclear power can provide the original energy in adequate quantity.

Kunstler is sanguine about nuclear power, seeing it as the only energy source that might play some meaningful role in the transition phase, but even so, this could only occur if there was a sudden surge in the building of new reactors. It is quite obvious that we will have a new debate about nuclear power, especially as it is being promoted as greenhouse-friendly, and it is highly likely that a new generation of supposedly safer reactors will be built.

It is also obvious that Australia, as a major uranium source, is about to get mixed up in a very complicated issue, as indicated by recent talk of supplying fissile material to China and India. Uranium is a strategic material, since it is a prime energy source and also the raw material for nuclear weapons.

India, which is not in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, has already exploded nuclear weapons, while China, currently undergoing a major military build up, is set for an interesting relationship with the world superpower, the United States. So what are arguably the two most important countries to Australia have moved towards a stance that might conceivably involve the threat or even use of nuclear weapons.

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The last part of Kunstler's book is a more detailed description of what may well happen in the US as cheap oil runs out, but is not hard to translate his arguments to Australia. We suffer most of the problems of a high energy use society; indeed in some ways we are worse off than the US, especially as recent governments have led us down the American path.

The main change Kunstler sees will be a reversion to localism as long-distance travel becomes difficult and energy dependent cities and suburbs crash. Social upheaval and even war are probable, especially as the strong wrest the dwindling energy resources from the rest. Indeed, he sees the invasion of Iraq as merely the first of the likely energy wars.

In many ways, survival will necessitate a return to earlier arrangements, before the era of cheap oil. Rail, not road, with local energy sources where applicable, and all technology greatly simplified. The eventual pattern will be small towns surrounded by fields for growing food while relying on animals for power. But many people will have died by then to match the lesser carrying capacity of the solar economy.

Of course, parts of the world would find this transition relatively easy. They have contributed little to the use of oil, less to global warming, and have not forgotten how to live without oil.

Kunstler's main interest in the past has been suburbanisation, and so he brings another viewpoint to the emerging debate on the imminent global crisis. In this he is part of what might be called the second wave of analysis which focuses not so much on the issues of climate change and Peak Oil as such - both results of the same basic phenomenon, late industrial civilisation - as their effects and what the changes will mean for global civilisation.

The Long Emergency is a sobering read. Kunstler's strength is his ability to join the dots and see the big picture, and if he is right, there is no easy way out of our predicament. Perhaps he underestimates human ingenuity and our capacity to act cohesively when the chips are down. Certainly, we need to construct new ways of interacting that place need over want, scientific evidence over ideology, and to develop an awareness that in this matter we sink or swim together. In any case, the sooner we face material reality and get organised, the better our chances.

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About the Author

Dr Peter McMahon has worked in a number of jobs including in politics at local, state and federal level. He has also taught Australian studies, politics and political economy at university level, and until recently he taught sustainable development at Murdoch University. He has been published in various newspapers, journals and magazines in Australia and has written a short history of economic development and sustainability in Western Australia. His book Global Control: Information Technology and Globalisation was published in the UK in 2002. He is now an independent researcher and writer on issues related to global change.

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