Last week local news anchors announced gas prices would hit four dollars a gallon this summer. This is in Georgia, the state with some of the lowest gas taxes in the US. This also assumes that the current freedom riots in Egypt don’t move on to the streets of Saudi Arabia. That is not an impossible scenario by any means and if they do, all bets are off as far as the price of oil is concerned. I predict that, after hitting four dollars a barrel, they will settle back down to $3.20 next fall and three dollars a gallon will be the new cheapest base price we ever see, until the next spike.
The spiraling price of gas, weird weather, and reading a chance quote on Face Book, led me to the works of John Howard Kunstler, the author of four non fiction books, two novels, and a play dealing with a post-industrial future, as well as nine other earlier novels. Kunstler also has a website and blog. He began with two books of Architectural and social criticism; “The Geography of Nowhere” and “City in Mind,” both criticizing the presumptive lack of both style and lifestyle in suburban America.
I completely agree with his assessment that suburban life is psychologically alienating and culturally barren. Most architecture built in the past 60 years has been either a grotesque nostalgic caricature, or some version of ugly Modernist monstrosity. I think he is correct as well in suspecting that at least part of the catalyst for crumbling social infrastructure and loss of manners and civility has been caused by an urban infrastructure that destroys a sense of community and inspires contempt rather than affection. Our public spaces give us little substance to inspire our best behavior, or even a greater vision of our collective self.
One novel idea that he explores in City in Mind is that our current love of “green space,” and the insistence that the cure for our social ills is empty lots full of “nature” is inspired by our subconscious loss of confidence that development can be anything but disappointing. Green Space becomes the only alternative to the further spread of ugly depressing buildings. The effectiveness of many of our parks and green spaces is debatable and much of it is little more than a waste of space but Nothing is preferable to the pathetic quality of the “something” that might otherwise take it’s place.
Unfortunately, Kunstler’s third book, “The Long Emergency,” renders the earlier two nearly irrelevant. If it is correct, the time for urban renewal is already drawing to a close. The Long Emergency addresses the end of the industrial phase of civilization due to Peak Oil and Climate Change. Unfortunately, both of these concepts are complicated to understand, easy to obfuscate, and cannot be proven until it is too late. Even those experts who believe in the concept of peak oil (virtually all do) freely admit that we will only conclusively know we are there by looking back several years after we have passed the peak and are seeing the decline.
Since annual oil production varies and small, though comparatively insignificant new fields are being found and new wells are being dug, identifying the particular year where we have reached maximum capacity is difficult at best, however there is some evidence and a growing consensus that it may have been in 2006 and few experts put it further away than 2020, with exceptions of denialists, who apparently think that the earth is rather like a large cordial cherry with a thin crust of rock concealing a core floating in a sea of crude oil.
Even when the peak is reached, there will still be roughly half the oil left in the producing fields. Among other things this means that oil company spokes-people are not lying when they say that we have enough oil left in the ground to power the world for 100 years. What they are not saying is that getting that oil out of the ground will rapidly become more difficult, more expensive, and, rather like slurping the last drop of soda from a cup of ice with a straw, getting every bit is impossible. When oil was first discovered in the U.S. the return on drilling was 20 barrels for every barrel expended in the effort, now it takes the equivalent of one barrel of oil to extract two, any return less than that is pointless.
Recent economic developments have rendered the whole argument a mute point. It does not matter whether the wells are “half full or half empty” when the important question is, “is there enough to go around?” The answer to that is a resounding “No!” Energy usage in the developing nations of Asia, primarily China and India increased more than 25% between 2002 and 2007, from 3000Mtoe per year to 4000Mtoe. At their current growth rate, they will hit 5000Mtoe next year. Even Big Oil executives can hardly bring themselves to pretend that energy production can increase to meet this need.
We have reached a limit beyond which only drastically rising prices and shortages will reign in usage. In a world in which our entire economy depends on oil that will mean economic recessions, as the cost of producing and transporting goods rises beyond consumers’ ability to buy, and eventually food shortages as the production of fertilizer and insecticides are impacted by a lack of raw material. Not only is much of our food shipped half way around the world, modern agriculture is completely dependant on petroleum derivatives to grow crops. Starving people abandon the bonds of civilization.
In The Long Emergency, Kunstler addresses the future impact an oil shortage will have on the economy and society. After almost a decade as a journalist for publications, including Rolling Stone magazine, Kunstler began writing books and produced seven novels over the next 14 years, before publishing The Geography of Nowhere in 1994. Since then, his commentaries on the dysfunctions of suburbia, and modern urban planning, have become standard reading in architectural schools across the nation.
The Hirsch Report, produced by the U.S. Department of Energy, supports the essence of Kunstler’s predictions and recommended drastic changes to U.S. policies and habits. It predicts that a transition from oil to other fuel sources would take a minimum of twenty years and suggests that dire consequences would accompany the advent of peak oil in the interim.
Kunstler’s books are extraordinarily well written and his arguments well crafted and difficult to refute by any method other than simply ignoring them. In The Long Emergency, Kunstler offers a catalogue of alternative energy sources with reasons why each is likely to fall short of being a satisfactory answer. There have been reoccurring rumors, for decades, of various “magic” inventions being squirreled away in the patent archives of oil companies that could reduce our petroleum use to a pittance. Perhaps these exist. If so, we are at the mercy of oil companies playing Russian roulette with the future as they gamble on how long they can ride their wave of fantastic profits before they unveil our new alternative fuel source.
However, as the Hirch report mentions, there is a simple problem of logistics. In 2007, the Department of Transportation released a figure of 254.4 million passenger vehicles in the U.S. The entire production of passenger vehicles in the world is only a little over 50 million. Meaning that it would take the output of every manufacturer on the planet for close to six years to replace just the cars in the U.S. with new fuel technology, let alone the rest of the world. This does not include tens of millions of commercial transport trucks, as well.
Of course, at some point the declining need for gas represented by these millions of cars would relieve the economic pressure but it is far from clear whether the world economy could remain stable during this transition, or where the fantastic sums of money to fund such a transition would come from. The impact of requiring every family in the U.S. to absorb the cost of even one, let alone several new cars, into their mostly already strained and over indebted budgets could cause a recession of massive proportions. For a significant number this would not be an affordable option even if the cars were available. Even the question itself rests on technology that we do not know to exist.
The World Made By Hand is Kunstler’s first novel to explore in a rational albeit fictional format what a postindustrial world might look like. At the end of The Long Emergency, Kunstler writes that he has moved to a small town in upstate New York, the kind of village that might have some chance of becoming self-sustaining in the years ahead. His novel is set in such a place during a vague future, perhaps ten years after the collapse of the U.S. economy and national social structure that itself happened in perhaps five or ten years of social unrest and economic upheaval.
Like his nonfiction books, his novel is very well written and easy to read. The scenes are vivid, the plot graceful, and the action mostly believable. The most pointed criticism that can be made regarding The World Made by Hand is that it is too idealistic and unrealistic. It is written about an exceptional place. While a small town such as this would certainly have a higher concentration of craft knowledge than most parts of the modern world, and perhaps access to more seed stock, live stock, and the equipment needed to raise them, there are holes in his logic.
Not many small towns have a natural gravity fed reservoir that would run itself with little maintenance and no power source, not to mention the accompanying sewer system that is, in fact never mentioned.. No explanation is given as to how everyone in town acquired wood burning cook stoves and learned how to use them. Surely, by the time these were unavoidably necessary, the production and shipping capacity needed to produce them would have already been in decline, or unavailable. Other than a few vague references no allowance is made for new clothes. Apparently, even after ten or fifteen years, people still have wearable garments and there is still a remaining supply of commercial fabric to be scrounged up and traded for.
On the other hand, Kunstler manages entirely believable plot twists to bring together the cultures of a traditional rural village, a religious cult, a neo feudal plantation, and a tribe of neo primitive bikers and quasi-criminals. He artfully and subtly plays them off against each other. My only complaints about this aspect of his story is that he underplays the likely violence of the biker gang, while the religious cult is inflected with a surprising and improbable paranormal aspect that leads the novel to conclude with a somewhat disappointing deus ex machina ending that escapes the rather obviously problematic resolution of several situations that have developed in the story.
Kunstler’s idealism is only forgivable in light of the fact that he is writing a book that he obviously hopes will be read and given serious consideration. If he had written an honestly realistic account it would have been too depressing to read and almost too depressing to even believe. As it is, his vision of the future is grim.
His fictional town of Union Grove was the kind of village that is the epitome of a mythological 19th century rural America. A quaint quiet picturesque town full of generous, upright, kind hearted people. During the 20th century, it evidently continued to prosper attracting its share of tract houses, strip malls, and (a Kunstler favorite) “fry pits,” and yet remaining the kind of place that people living in cities dream of escaping to.
In Kunstler’s tale, it has rather miraculously returned to a rural Eden, albeit one with a token undercurrent of poignant nostalgia. Many characters express their over all preference for their new world. While justice and the rule of law in a world that exists in a default anarchy is a major pivotal theme in the plot, it is one that is never resolved and the tribe of outlaws acts more like a pack of unruly yard dogs, occasionally snapping at the children and pissing on the floor, than the lawless, raping and pillaging, brigands that they would certainly be capable of being, if not very likely to be.
It is when they do begin acting like the outlaws that they are, that the plot devolves into weird suggestions of paranormal coincidences and then shrugs off the entire problem with a convenient end. The unspoken logical implication is that while things have been somewhere between not good and bad, they are about to get a whole lot worse.
Beneath the thin surface of Kunstler’s pretty impressionistic painting of rural life is a purgatory of monotonous drudgery in the struggle to survive, shrouded in perpetual threats both known and unexpected, circumscribed by incestuous gossip and the claustrophobic lack of mobility or news of a world outside the narrow confines of the immediate area. Even minimal comforts, let alone luxuries, are few and repetitive days of drudgery are only broken by the all too frequent occurrence of tragedy or, at best, pathetically amateur attempts at entertainment.
Those who died without knowing it in the bomb blasts that destroyed Los Angeles and Washington DC, or even relatively quickly from the “Mexican Flu,” before the novel begins were certainly the lucky ones. While Kunstler imbues his major characters with the optimistic can-do attitude that is almost de rigueur in a parable of American survival, it is hard to imagine any but the rare few achieving such a state of optimism in real life, although the literal future of the human race may depend on the ability of those who can.
Kunstler says he wanted to write a hopeful senario about the future as a contrast and alternative to the claasi “Mad Max” post-apcolyptic drama. Unfortunately, once one strips away the improbable aspects of his novel and adds in the things that he ignores one is left with a life that very few modern urban people would find even marginally comfortable, much less, enjoyable.
Those who doubt this should do an inventory of what resources can be found in an area of about 50 miles around where you live. Those would be things one might find imported and available. An area of say ten miles, at most would define one’s social community, although those within a mile would be one’s primary social circle. Anything not grown and/or produced in that area would be gone forever. How would you live through a winter without electricity, natural gas, running water, or grocery stores? That would be the crucial test of your quality of life.
Kunstler has written a sequel to World Made By Hand called The Witch of Hebron. He apparently has two further novels planned. I have little desire to read them. Having read The Long Emergency and World Made By Hand, it is no surprise to me that the majority of the American people are in denial about the fragile foundation of our Industrial Civilization. In fact, it would be a surprise if they were not! On the other hand, simply ignoring a very likely future of our world does nothing to stop it from coming true.
There does not appear to be much of anything that can be done at this point to avoid disaster. Like the pilot of a passenger jet without engines or the captain of an ocean liner headed for an iceberg dead ahead, we can watch the end inexorably approaching but nothing but a literal miracle from God will change our fate. Like Icarus flying towards the sun, our wings are melting and our hubris, if the glories of man in the 20th century really are such, will send us plummeting into the abyss.
There is little hope at all that the pleasures and luxuries of life in the late twentieth century can be maintained for more than a few decades at most, probably far less. The only question is whether we can catch our selves, as his characters have in a lifestyle equal to early Victorians or perhaps even late Renaissance, or whether we will slide all the way back to the Dark Ages. Either way, all of our arts and culture will be lost. Limited mobility and the struggle to simply survive will render them luxuries that we can’t afford to maintain.
Given the little hope that seems evident, and the fact that the only things that may prove to be our salvation are in the hands of a very few who may or may not prove trustworthy, the only thing we can do is be thankful for what we have now. Live every day to it’s fullest. Even the most common pleasures like a cup of morning coffee may be a memory in our lifetime. Stop to notice things, big and small; go to the trouble, take the time, and make the effort to insist that “not bad is not good enough,” at least for now, while it can be better.