INDEX - ENERGYwww.islandbreath.org ID# 0517-03
SUBJECT: FUTURE OF CHEAP ENERGY
SOURCE: JUAN WILSON email@example.com
POSTED: 1 JUNE 2008 9:00pm HST
Brave new oil-scarce world
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by Ragnar Carlson published in Hawaii Island Journal 16 May 2005
Since the oil embargo of the 1970s, Americans have been aware that the day will come when the petroleum on which our economy is built will no longer be in cheap supply. Today, as oil prices hover around $50 per barrel, the issue is once again in the public eye, both locally and around the world. Drivers fret over rising prices at the pump while manufacturers see their profit margins collapse under the weight of higher shipping costs. The airline industry struggles for its very existence as jet-fuel prices deepen already staggering losses. A growing number of geologists, economists and oil experts argue that we are entering an era of declining oil production, one that will result in a permanent and dramatic rise in the price of petroleum, to levels previously unimagined.
One thing seems clear: the end of oil is approaching, and more rapidly every year. As the world's developing economies begin to demand greater supplies of petroleum, there is ample evidence that prices, even if they do not immediately reach the extreme levels some analysts fear, will increase steeply as growing demand meets dwindling supply.
The concern centers on something called "peak oil." At the simplest level, peak oil refers to the point at which global oil production will reach its peak, thereafter entering permanent decline. Because oil prices are driven by the interplay of supply and demand, the peak is significant in part as an indicator of when prices can be expected to begin creeping ever upward.
Hawai'i, with its high dependence on low oil prices for everything from tourism to food supply, can expect serious consequences across the economic spectrum when those price increases occur, consequences for which the state is alarmingly unprepared.
The United States reached its own oil production peak in the early 1970s at roughly 11 million barrels per day, with the amount of crude collection declining steadily since then, to a level of 5 million per day in 2004. Determining the date of the past U.S. peak is relatively easy and is apparent on any production chart. Pinpointing the future global peak is much more difficult; projections are heavily reliant on assumptions of future oil-field discoveries and advances in extraction technology. Compounding the problem is the reluctance, often for market reasons, of oil companies and oil-producing nations to be forthcoming with their own internal calculations.
Estimates about when the global peak will occur vary widely, with some experts suggesting that it won't happen until the middle of the current century, but a growing number of analysts fear that peak oil is already upon us. Some, including Princeton University geologist Kenneth Deffeyes, argue that oil will peak this year, with many others in government and industry projecting a peak sometime between now and the end of the next decade.
The end of the world as we know it
Those inclined toward optimism note that even the most dire peak predictions suggest that the world won't run out of oil for decades to come. Oil experts, however, insist that such thinking overlooks the larger significance of the peak-oil discussion. While many are aware that the world will face serious challenges when the supply of petroleum is finally exhausted, these experts argue that the crisis will occur much sooner than that, more or less at the moment when production begins to decline.
This is the central concern of peak oil analysts: that an economy of oil scarcity will usher the world into a new era, in which the organization of American life will begin to break down and the interconnected global economy, in which goods and resources are flown and shipped all over the world, will come crashing to a halt. Analysts foresee increased conflict over resources at the international level as developing economies battle with established ones. The confluence of anxiety about the end and a tightening of supply as production declines, they say, will shake our material culture to its foundation.
James Howard Kunstler, an expert on the interplay between environmental and economic issues and author of The Long Emergency, paints a vivid, often frightening picture of the economy that may be approaching. "When thinking of this coming period of oil scarcity," he said via phone from his home in New York, "so much comes down to scale. The distances we travel, the vast size of our cities and suburbs, the length of our retail supply chains...all of these things will be downscaled by orders of magnitude."
The American economy Kunstler foresees is almost unrecognizable. He points to the vast distances food must travel to reach most consumers, the reliance of Wal-Mart and other retailers on long supply and production chains that stretch around the world, and to the hundreds of hours Americans spend in gas-guzzling cars each year to get from far-flung exurbs to city jobs. All of these are dependent, Kunstler says, on a plentiful supply of inexpensive oil that simply will not exist.
"When you start talking about the scale of our economy having to be reduced so dramatically," he says, "a lot of it will happen in a disorderly way. These changes will not happen cleanly, and there will almost certainly be destructive results." Kunstler, like many others who have been thinking about peak oil in recent years, is nowhere close to optimistic. "We are entering an extremely unstable period," he says, "one with the most dire implications for our way of life."
Even if peak oil is already here, it is by no means certain that the near-apocalyptic scenario envisioned by Kunstler and others will materialize. New fuel-efficient technologies could be developed. Faced with soaring fuel prices, Americans may yet commit themselves to conserving more and living more simply, however unlikely such a development may now appear. Nuclear power, though unpopular at the moment, may gain favor in time. Any of these changes would reduce our dependence on cheap oil and may help stave off some of Kunstler's more frightening predictions.
Nevertheless, the central problem -- that oil is a non-renewable resource that is being consumed at record levels even as new oil discoveries dwindle toward irrelevance -- is almost certain to get worse. And perhaps nowhere will the impact be felt as intensely, nor as soon, as in Hawai'i.
"Island states like Hawai'i are very susceptible to energy prices," says Jack Zagar, a petroleum engineer and international consultant on oil reserves. "Economic collapse is not a given, but resourcefulness is a must."
A look at Hawai'i's petroleum "footprint" illustrates the source of Zagar's concern. According to the Hawaiian Electric Company, O'ahu relies on imported oil for 78 percent of its electricity, compared to the national average of just 3 percent. Because Hawai'i does not have access to natural gas or coal in the quantities available on the mainland, the state is uniquely at the mercy of oil prices simply to keep the lights on. HECO's Chuck Freedman explains the utility's economic model, which underscores the fragility of the system: "The cost at which we purchase oil is passed through dollar-for-dollar to the customer. The customer pays what we pay. It is difficult to see a situation in which we could charge less than that."
By some measures, Hawai'i, especially Hawai'i Island, is ahead of the pack in the pursuit of alternative, renewable energy sources. Hawai'i Electric Light Company uses geothermal energy for 15 percent of its fuel mix, and has working wind farms and hydroelectric plants as well, putting the island's total reliance on renewable non-fossil fuels to somewhere between 20 and 30 percent, by far the highest total in the state. Additional investments in alternative energy are under way, particularly in the area of wind power, where several start-up companies are on pace to provide HELCO with enough juice to power 9,000 additional homes. HELCO still relies on imported oil for nearly 75 percent of its fuel, but given the local utility's commitment to renewable fuels and the large (the precise count is unknown) number of households already living 'off the grid,' the Hawai'i County is clearly a national leader in alternative energy.
In the State of Hawai'i as a whole, solar is popular and growing and business and government groups continue to explore hydroelectric and other options. Still, despite research and exploration in recent decades, Freeman acknowledges that "most of the alternatives people were excited about in the 1970s haven't panned out." Freedman says that because more attention has been focused on renewables in recent years, "some people have gotten the notion that there's an alternative-energy solution available to replace fossil fuels, but there just isn't." Nuclear energy, the one currently available alternative to petroleum, "isn't on anyone's list for Hawai'i," he says.
Geothermal hasn't proven to be a panacea, either. Once touted as a possible power source for O'ahu and Maui via an underwater cable from the Hawai'i Island, the geothermal plant has not lived up to the levels of power production originally predicted, and a history of well blowouts, poisonous hydrogen sulfide gas leaks and cost overruns has not made it popular with its neighbors.
Alternatives may yet be found. Solar energy harvesting continues to improve, and many governments and companies are investing heavily in wind power. New York is planning a massive offshore wind-energy park, complete with 40 giant turbines that may power as many as 48,000 homes. Still, even the New York project's backers hope that over 20 years, the turbines will save 13.5 million barrels of oil, an amount less than is required to power American automobiles for a single day. For the foreseeable future, Hawai'i's fuel mix will remain heavily oil-dependent.
Hawai'i's vulnerability to a global oil crisis, however, goes far beyond the need for electricity. Tourism accounts for one in four jobs and a similar portion of Hawai'i's gross economic product. With the domestic airline industry already struggling for survival, the doubling or tripling of oil prices could impact airfares -- a potential cataclysm for the tourism industry. Combined with the already-reduced standard of living that may be in store for citizens of an oil-strapped future, the effects could be crippling for Hawai'i.
"Hawai'i now depends on large numbers of people coming in and spending money," Kunstler says. "What happens if those numbers drop by half or more?" He worries that the islands may become a bellwether of the massive changes ahead. "Volumes of tourism will decrease markedly for Hawai'i. From there, a collateral effect emanates that will severely affect your economy, your standard of living and your basic expectations about how life is lived."
A further challenge lies in Hawai'i's dependence on imported food. Even with its large commercial fishing fleet, the state imports nearly 70 percent of its fish and seafood. Locally grown chicken recently became a thing of the past on O'ahu and local dairies, once responsible for 80 percent of the state's milk supply, now account for only half. Hawai'i residents already face food bills 30 to 40 percent higher than the national average -- a dramatic rise in shipping costs would inevitably worsen the problem.
While local agriculture is enjoying something of a recovery, Hawai'i is nowhere close to sustainability. Larry Geller, an officer of Slow Food Hawai'i who has long been active in environmental and agricultural issues, notes that many of the state's prime agricultural lands have been lost to development, especially on O'ahu.
The overall picture is stark: despite proclamations by politicians and others that Hawai'i is a leader in sustainable development, the opposite appears to be closer to the truth. One hundred fifty years ago, many native Hawaiians still lived and worked in the lo'i, the foundation of a model sustainable economy. Today, asked to think of a society comparable to Hawai'i in sustainable-energy terms, oil expert Zagar points to Tokyo, one of the most dependent cities on earth. With a growing population in constant demand for new housing and infrastructure, the state is in many ways becoming more unsustainable every day. Each new development encroaches on already dwindling agricultural lands while creating new demand for imported oil in the form of electricity and gasoline. Every year of overfishing increases the need for future food imports. Every new car adds to already overcrowded roads on which thousands of gallons of gas are wasted in traffic every year.
Kunstler is quick to point out that the rest of the country will also face many of these problems. The American economy relies heavily on imports from Asia and will suffer when shipping and transportation costs drive the prices of those imports to new highs. Food is trucked around the country, with very few cities able to sustain themselves from nearby agricultural production.
"The destruction of the landscape is very advanced at this point," Kunstler says, "and the eventual result might be somewhat salutary for us. It's hard to imagine how bad it's going to get." Kunstler is aware that his analysis seems extreme to those who have not been following oil trends closely, but maintains that the evidence is on his side. "I tremble when I think of places like Tucson, Phoenix and most of California," he says of the southwest's desert cities. "People are going to be in for some serious hardship."
Future farmers of America
Not everyone agrees with Kunstler's dark forecasts. Many observers, including Henry Curtis of local advocacy group Life of the Land, suspect that there will be no oil crisis, that renewables and other fossil fuels such as natural gas will easily replace oil, and that the whole conversation is driven by oil companies with "other agendas." "Renewables can eliminate our need to import energy, and I suspect they will," Curtis says. "That said, we need to start investing in alternatives now."
In his book, Kunstler outlines a vision for the economy that may emerge when sustainability becomes an imperative. It is a landscape of smaller cities and reclaimed agricultural lands. "The American economy of the 21st century may actually center on agriculture, not information, not high-tech, not 'services' like real estate sales or hawking cheeseburgers to tourists. Farming," he says. And without that agrarian base, the local economy will be powerless to support Hawai'i's population even at current levels. "The Hawaiian economy of the 20th Century," he says, "may very well come to be seen as an historical anomaly."
The government and the military are the state's largest employers, eclipsing even tourism, which many find alarming. "I'd hate to think that [a military economy] is what we're turning Hawai'i into, but that's what we're doing," Curtis says. Perhaps more worrisome is the implication that Hawai'i is already in the process of becoming a welfare state, reliant on an influx of U.S. taxpayer dollars to keep the economy afloat. If exports to the mainland and tourism itself become less viable as a result of a petroleum crisis, that problem could be expected to increase.
Zagar, who has consulted for the Hawai'i Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism on the world oil situation, is cautiously pessimistic.
"The roof doesn't have to fall in," Zagar says, "[but] the situation could run amok and the worse case scenarios -- world war, the collapse of the global economy, the end of air travel as we know it -- are possible if intervention by governments does not happen very soon."
That intervention, Zagar says, should include exploration of all alternatives, mandatory conservation, increased investment in local agriculture and manufacturing, and an overall effort to raise public awareness of the coming changes. "Of the 20 million barrels a day of oil consumed by the U.S. out of a world total of 84 million, 9 million is for gasoline," says Zagar. "Half the new vehicles sold in the U.S. are gas-guzzling SUVs, mini-vans and pickup trucks. How long will it take to change the mindset of the average American to use less and conserve more?"
Zagar is hopeful that governments will step in early enough to avert the most cataclysmic consequences of the oil crisis. " Hawai'i is blessed with solar, wind, geothermal and tidal energy sources," he says, "and should exploit them to the fullest."
By the numbers
Barrels of oil the U.S. consumes in a day: 20 million
Percentage of global oil usage represented by India and China, 1990: 5%
Percentage of global oil usage represented by India and China, 2003: 12%
U.S. oil production in 1970: 11 million per day
U.S. oil production today: 5 million per day
Percentage of Hawai'i's electricity generated from oil: 78%
Percentage of fish Hawai'i imports: 70%
SUBJECT: FUTURE OF CHEAP ENERGY
SOURCE: JUAN WILSON firstname.lastname@example.org
After the Oil is Gone
by Katharine Mieszkowski on 14 May 2005 published in Salon.com
Say goodbye to your suburban house, yoke up that horse, and stand by to repel pirates! Author James Howard Kunstler talks about the dire world of his new book, "The Long Emergency."
Suburbs will collapse into slums. Farmhand will be a more viable career choice than public relations executive. And avoiding starvation will replace avoiding boredom as the national pastime.
Those are just a few of the predictions that James Howard Kunstler makes in his new book. "The Long Emergency" paints a dystopic view of the United States in the wake of what Kunstler dubs the "cheap oil fiesta." It's a future the author insists is not apocalyptic. Calling it the end of the world would be too easy.
No, Kunstler believes the human race will survive as we slip down the other side of Hubbert's Oil Peak. But the high standard of living we've built by gorging on cheap oil will not. America, as a political entity, will be history too.
When will the doom begin? It already has. "There have been no significant discoveries of new oil since 2002," Kunstler says. And the Saudis have screwed up their super-giant Ghawar oil field, long a fossil-fuel font for the U.S. "They have damaged it by pumping enormous amounts of salt water into it; in fact, the field itself may be entering depletion," he says.
A former journalist turned novelist turned social critic, Kunstler is best known for his book excoriating the suburbs, "Geography of Nowhere." Now he foresees the end of the entire artifice of American life, from the suburbs to the interstate highway to Wal-Mart and the global supply chain that supports it.
In Kunstler's world, a teenager will be better off learning how to yoke up a horse-drawn buggy than how to change the oil in a car. Woodshop will be more important than computer literacy. Among Kunstler's predictions: The South will devolve into agricultural feudalism and the Pacific Northwest will be beset by a plague of pirates from Asia. Forget about sleek hydrogen-powered cars coming to the rescue. For that matter, quit tilting your hopes toward wind power.
Kunstler displays a kind of macabre wit about the unpleasantness and strife that await us all. Talking to him is like trying to argue with a prophet. His assertions have a neat way of doubling back to anticipate your critiques. If you express doubt about his views, then you may well be among the deluded masses too addicted to your McSUV and McSuburb to accept the reality that lies ahead.
Salon spoke to Kunstler at his home in upstate New York, mindful that in the future such an hour-long, cross-country telephone call, undertaken so casually, could be a remote luxury, a quaint remnant of a bygone era rich in the splendors of oil.
Plenty of analysts are confident that in coming decades we'll switch from oil to another form of energy, like Europeans switching from burning wood to burning coal when forests became scarce. Why aren't you?
That's been a pattern in the last several hundred years, but it has followed a supply of mineral resources that we've exploited to their logical end. When a society is stressed, when it comes up against things that are hard to understand, you get a lot of delusional thinking.
There are at least two major mental disturbances in the collective American mind these days that can be described with some precision. One is the Jiminy Cricket syndrome -- the idea that when you wish upon a star your dreams come true.
This is largely a product of the technological achievements of the last century, which were themselves a product of cheap energy: namely, things like our trip to the moon, combined with the effects of advertising, Hollywood and pop culture.
We have now become a people who believe that wishing for things makes them happen. Unfortunately, the world just doesn't work that way. The truth is that no combination of alternative fuels or so-called renewables will allow us to run the U.S.A. -- or even a substantial fraction of it -- the way that we're running it now.
There's another mental disturbance that Americans are suffering from. It's the idea that it's possible to get something for nothing -- unearned riches, free energy, perpetual motion -- and it's exemplified by Las Vegas. Combine the Jiminy Cricket syndrome and the idea that it's possible to get something for nothing and you end up with a population that's thoroughly deluded and unable to deal with reality. That's precisely where we're at.
You point out that there are all sorts of ways that we're dependent on oil that we don't think about.
We have evolved a cheese-doodle agriculture system run by large corporations like Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland, which grow immense amounts of corn by using fossil fuels to produce immense amounts of corn-based junk food. The prospects are poor that we will continue living this way. The implications are enormous. We will have to grow much more of our food closer to home.
Also, our national retail chain system -- otherwise known as Wal-Mart and Co., Wal-Mart and wannabes, Wal-Mart and imitators -- is unlikely to survive both the rising costs of oil and far more volatile price fluctuations. Their economic equation requires them to predict the cost of transport because their margins are so razor thin. And they won't be able to anymore.
Remember: These immensely hypertrophic organisms like Wal-Mart are products of the special economic growth of the late 20th century, namely an unusually long period of relative world peace and extraordinarily cheap energy. If you remove those two elements, all large-scale enterprises --corporate farming, big-box shopping, big government, professional sports -- are going to be in trouble.
So, the collapse of the cheap oil fiesta is going to...
I wouldn't call it "collapse." That's the cause of a lot of misunderstanding. What we're talking about is the process of heading down the arch of depletion, not the catastrophic cutoff of oil. Heading down the arch implies that we will not have the normal growth of industrial economies anymore. And that has tremendous implications for capital-finance instruments to produce wealth, namely securities and bonds. All the financial paper in the world is essentially based on the increasing accumulation of wealth.
You argue that we won't know we've hit the global oil peak until a few years after it's happened. There will be hangover.
The rearview-mirror effect.
What will be the first signs of the long emergency?
We're already seeing them. The two clearest signs are serious geopolitical friction and the volatility in the oil markets. A third one, which hasn't quite gotten traction, will be disruptions in the financial markets. But that could happen at any moment.
And the real estate bubble?
Absolutely. The housing bubble is a perverse form of financial behavior. It's a consequence of capital desperately seeking a way to increase in an industrial economy that has ceased to grow. America is no longer producing wealth in the conventional sense. And so the housing bubble is a way for residual capital to produce wealth. But like all bubbles, it's a delusional thing that will probably end in tears.
You write that even the educated minority in the U.S. is clueless about its role in geopolitical problems, like the family in your neighborhood that had a sign in their yard that said, "War Is Not the Answer," and two SUVs in the garage.
Or all my politically progressive friends who drove their SUVs to the peace rallies of 2003.
Why do you think that there's such a disconnect?
Because we haven't been challenged for such a long time. The last challenge we experienced was the OPEC oil disturbances of the 1970s, which thundered through our economy and caused a lot of problems. But they were short-lived and the cheap oil fiesta was able to continue because the final great discoveries of the oil age came online in the 1980s, namely the North Sea and the Alaska North Slope. And that allowed us to go back to sleep for another two decades.
Does the Iraq war presage the kind of resource wars that you see in the future?
The Iraq war is not hard to understand. It wasn't an attempt to steal Iraq's oil. If that was the case, it would have been a stupid venture because we've spent hundreds of billions of dollars occupying the place, not to mention the lives lost. It was not a matter of stealing the oil; it was a matter of retaining access to it. It was an attempt to stabilize the region of the world that holds two-thirds of the remaining oil, namely, the Middle East.
We opened a police station in the Middle East, and Iraq just happened to be the best candidate for it. They had a troublesome dictator. They were geographically located between Iran and Saudi Arabia. So we went to Iraq to moderate and influence the behavior of the two countries --Iran and Saudi Arabia -- that are so important to us. We desperately wanted the oil supplies to continue coming out of them in a reliable way. So the Iraq venture was all about stabilizing the Middle East. It raises the obvious question: How long can the U.S. hope to occupy unfriendly nations? The answer is, not forever.
Why do you skewer Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute, who promotes the idea of a futuristic hypercar, which would get 100 miles per gallon?
I regard Lovins hypercar venture as a stupid distraction, if for no other reason that it tends to promote the idea that we can continue being a car-dependent society. Clearly we can't, no matter how good the gas mileage is. I wrote three other books about the fiasco of suburbia before I even got a bug up my ass about the energy issues.
What's wrong with trying to make a more efficient car?
I'm not against efficient cars. I'm against the idea that somebody in Amory's position would focus on cars at the expense of something else like promoting walkable communities. The New Urbanist movement, for example, was campaigning for a much more intelligent response to suburbia at around the same time. And the solutions that they were promoting made a lot more sense than underwriting the continuation of the suburban fiasco. I think that this was perhaps an unintended consequence of Lovins' venture. It shows the limits of our imagination.
Is your basic critique of renewable energy that wind, solar and biomass all depend, to some extent, on fossil fuels?
That's one critique. I'm not trying to militate against them. We are going to use them. But we're not going to run the interstate highways and Disney World on them. Suburbia is not going to run on biodiesel. The easy-motoring tourist industry is not going to run on biodiesel, wind power and solar fuel. The point I would repeat is this: We don't know whether we can fabricate the components for these things absent a fossil-fuel economy.
My beef with the alt-fuel people is not the renewable or alt-fuel ideas themselves. Sooner or later, there's no question we're going to have to rely on them. For me, it's an issue of scale. As far as I can tell, we're much more likely to use these things on a very small neighborhood or town basis.
We're going to have to make tremendous readjustments in every aspect of how we live. Let me give you an example. One of the main characteristics of the suburbs is that everyone can lead an urban life in a rural setting. But land is simply not going to be available for suburban development anymore. So what we're going to see in the years ahead is the return of a much firmer distinction between what is urban and what is rural, between what's the town and what's the country. Because we're going to have to grow so much more of our food close to home, we're going to have to value rural land differently than we have for the past half century.
How will this affect our livelihoods?
We will no longer be a nation of public relations executives living 38 miles away from town. The future that I see tells me that the larger cities will be in big trouble and the action will be in the smaller cities and smaller towns. They will have resilience. It will be very important to live close to places that have viable agriculture, and the places where this is not possible are going to be in trouble.
The huge suburban metroplexes like New York and Chicago are not going to function very well. They're products of the oil age. They are oversupplied with skyscrapers and mega-structures that have poor prospects in a society with scarce energy. We will see a painful contraction in these places.
The Southwest is going to be real trouble. And the problem of contracting big cities will be real. I would also hasten to point out that many of them have already entered an advanced state of contraction: Detroit, St. Louis, Kansas City, Milwaukee, Des Moines, Louisville and Cincinnati. The list is very long of cities that have been in contraction for quite a bit of time. The difference, of course, is that they have been enjoying hyper-mega-growth in their suburbs, and that's going to stop.
What kind of reaction have you been getting when you say we're better off learning how to operate a horse-drawn plow than becoming a P.R. executive?
To put it mildly, a lot of people have trouble processing these ideas.
What if you put it not so mildly?
It tends to conflict with their picture of reality.
Do they take you seriously?
There is a good term for this and I hasten to point out that I did not invent it, although I couldn't tell you who did. It's really what's called "an outside context problem." It's so far from our normal realm of experience that we are collectively having a hard time processing it. In fact, we can't process it. Talking about these things tends to induce waves of denial, fear, ridicule.
But a great philosopher said new ideas are often greeted in three stages. First, they're ridiculed. Second, they're violently opposed. And finally they're accepted as self-evident.
What stage do you think that you're in?
I think we're in the ridicule stage, for sure. One thing that I'm predicting is that there will be a vigorous and futile defense of suburbia and all its entitlements, no matter what reality is telling us to do. And this will translate into a lot of political mischief. You can quote me: Americans will vote for cornpone Nazis before they will give up their entitlements to a McHouse and a McCar.
If there is such a massive threat to the American way of life, why are our government and civic institutions unable to foresee it and make any changes to address it?
You will now be enlightened: The dirty secret of the American economy for more than a decade now is that it is largely based on the continued creation of suburban sprawl and all its accessories and furnishings. And if you remove that from our economy there isn't a whole lot left besides hair cutting, Colonel Sanders' chicken, and open-heart surgery.
So it would take down the American economy?
If we had to actually reform the way that we live, or let go of some of it, the losses would be politically untenable. No politician, whether it is the gallant John Kerry or George W. Bush, will go near the issue. They know that if the suburban-sprawl economy is challenged there isn't a whole lot left behind it.
But we're going to have to let those things go, whether we like it or not. Just don't expect to be led through this in an orderly way. The key to understanding what we face is turbulence. We're going through big changes attended by a lot of turbulence, disorder and hardship.
The reason that I called this book "The Long Emergency" is precisely because it describes an interval of trouble. I'm not saying that the world is coming to an end. I'm saying we're going to pass through a period of history that's going to be very difficult. There's a distinction between calling something the apocalypse and calling something an epochal discontinuity.
But won't the political landscape change in reaction? If the lights aren't coming on because natural gas is scarce, don't you think that a lot of the barriers to, say, nuclear power, will drop pretty quickly?
They will shift the political landscape, and the shift will include a great deal of turbulence and mischief. That's precisely why the quixotic attempt to defend suburbia will probably produce a lot of political trouble. Politically, we will try to save it. We will try to take measures, whether that means engaging in more overseas adventures.
What I don't understand is why you're so confident that any political change will be futile.
I think that we've overshot our window of opportunity to have an orderly transition.
It's too late to invest heavily in nuclear energy?
No, we may do that. If we want to keep the lights on after 2020, we may have to seriously consider building more nuclear power plants. But even under the best circumstances, it would take five or 10 years to get them built.
Here is my talk show question: What do you think people should do?
People have to ask themselves about where they're living, whether that place has a viable future. If I was living in the Atlanta suburbs, I would give serious consideration to relocating, ditto Las Vegas or Tucson. If I was a young person, I would rethink my expectations to make public relations my career, or indeed have a corporate future at all. If I was a local politician, I would think very seriously about stopping the sprawl-approval system in my town. And I would turn my attention to local self-sufficiency. The bottom line is this: All these things point to the fact that we're going to have to live a lot more locally and profoundly in the years ahead.
The end of the cheap oil fiesta is going to destroy the suburbs and create a simpler, community-based future?
Let me draw a parallel for you. A lot of people point out that the kind of predictions I've made about the post-oil world seem to resemble the Pentecostal Christian scenario about apocalypse. It happens that I'm not a born-again Christian. My view of the future is no more a matter of anti-suburban religion than it is a matter of being a Christian. It was simply self-evident that the American way of life was moving into a kind of terminal stage, whether you liked it or not. And I think that there will be a lot of benefits for us.
What are the benefits?
I think that we will return to many social relations and social enactments that we lost and that were of great value to us, such as working closely with other people on things that really matter to us.
Like farming, so we can eat?
I'm not saying everybody is going to be a farmer. In the book, I think that I went to great pains to say that we were going to have to reconstruct whole networks of local economic relations and interdependences.
As opposed to the globalized situation we have now?
Yeah. People are working for large entities that they don't care about and that don't care about them. I think that people will be working on things that will tend to be more meaningful, that will tend to have meaning for their neighbors and the places that they live.
One of the great tragedies of the Wal-Mart fiasco has been the destruction of the social and economic roles of businesses in communities. Those roles were pretty complex and created deep webs of culture that we've allowed to be systematically dismantled and destroyed. We're going to get some of them back.
I also think we will cease to be a nation of TV zombies who are merely entertaining ourselves to avoid being bored.
So, much as we may resist, there will be upsides?
Yes. It's possible to boil them down to the idea that we will not be living in the kind of narcissistic isolation that was so pervasive in recent decades. Geopolitically, the world is going to be a larger place. But our individual worlds may become smaller places. American life will be much more about staying where you are than about ceaseless and endless and pointless mobility.
And that will resonate. We're afflicted by so many places that are simply not worth caring about anymore. This is having a tremendous effect on us. It's corroding our spirits. And, if pressed, I would have to say that it's led directly to the idea that it's possible to get something for nothing and if you wish upon a star your dreams come true.
Americans are suffering so much from being in unrewarding environments that it has made us very cynical. I think that American suburbia has become a powerful generator of anxiety and depression. If we happen to let it go, we won't miss it that much. Very few people are going to feel nostalgic about the parking lot between the Chuck E. Cheeses and the Kmart.
Why do you think we resist this transition?
I think the notion behind your question is that we've become so accustomed to leisure and comfort that we're afraid to let them go and enter a world of less comfort and greater toil. I myself am a fairly cheerful person. I made certain choices years ago that have led me to lead a rewarding and purposeful life. At 56 years old, I've already outlived Babe Ruth and Mozart. I've enjoyed the cheap oil fiesta. I barely made a living until I was over 40 years old as a professional writer. I've experienced a moderate amount of hardship myself. And I'm not afraid of it. But I also feel fortunate.
Fortunate for what?
I feel fortunate that I enjoyed the blandishments of modernity. I had hip replacement and root canal. I was able to travel on airplanes. I was able to take cheap food for granted. I went to the movies. I enjoyed rock 'n' roll. And now I'm ready to move on
"The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of the Oil Age, Climate Change, and Other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-first Century"
by James Howard Kunstler published by Atlantic Monthly Press
320 pages, Nonfiction
Editor's note: For a more local take on the "End of Oil" implications check:
Island Breath: Oil - Good to the Last Drop 8/24/04