Done with The Long Emergency

I just finished James Howard Kunstler’s book The Long Emergency. Although I enjoyed it, learned a lot from it, and think that Kunstler is correct in claiming that economic collapse is all but inevitable, I’ve decided not to offer it through Cumberland Books and I can’t in general recommend it. The main reason is that structurally the book is a mess, repetitious and meandering, alternately superficial and excessively detailed, not very well documented, and as a result would likely be very confusing to a reader who hadn’t already spent a lot of time thinking about these matters. The essence of Kunstler’s point can be found in his article Making Other Arrangements, which I highly recommend. And I think there is a need for the book that I hoped The Long Emergency would be, a clear and concise statement of the nature of the crisis that doesn’t get lost either in footnotes or rhetoric.

That said, there was much in the book that was good. Kunstler is smart and knowledgeable and able to see the big picture. Many of the culprits he identified (e.g. incorporation, easy credit) I had already suspected, and it was helpful to read his take on how these trends have converged to produce the current crisis. I’ll summarize the points I took away from his writing (both his book and his articles), and leave you to decide whether The Long Emergency might be worth your while. (Note: although his website and some of his articles are thick with profanity, there is none in this book.)

  • Modern industrial living is critically dependent on abundant and cheap energy, namely cheap oil. The excesses of modernity did not come along until cheap oil became available, and will not be possible to continue without it.

  • Cheap oil is more or less gone. We have now consumed half the world’s reserves of oil—the easily accessible and easily refined half. The remaining oil will be much more difficult and costly to obtain, and a good portion of it may never be of use to us. In a few years oil may simply be unavailable to the average person.

  • As Kunstler puts it, the American suburban project is the single biggest misallocation of resources in history, critically dependent on personal automobiles that run on cheap fuel. As cheap oil disappears, so will personal motoring, meaning that remote suburban homes will suddenly become worthless, of no value to people who now need to live close to their jobs and to mass transit stations.

  • None of the currently proposed replacements for cheap oil is likely to be practical. Fossil fuel is a unique energy source, and there is absolutely no reason to expect that technology will provide a suitable replacement by the time we need it, if ever.

  • Big box stores will be the first to go, since they are designed to provide cheap goods transported from 12,000 miles away, an impossibility without cheap oil.

  • Much of the citizenry’s efforts will necessary turn to growing food, both for personal consumption and for sale in what will become a very local economy.

  • There will be a lot of people, mostly in cities, who will not be able to continue working at what they work at now. It isn’t clear what they will work at next, or where they will do it.

  • As the crisis proceeds, the national government will be hard pressed to answer the phones, much less manage a transition to the new way of living. Local government, very local, will be necessary, but it isn’t clear that this will be anything like what currently passes for local government.

  • Americans are likely to remain in denial about the impending transition until (and maybe beyond) the very end, because they have so much invested in the status quo.

My only quibble with Kunstler, a quibble I also have with Wendell Berry, is that I don’t understand their reasons for thinking that small cities or even large towns will be of any value in the new era. I envision the transition as taking us back to 1800 America, just before industrialization had begun to make inroads. American cities were very few at that time, and very small, and even so of questionable value. It may be that large towns or even small cities could be useful things in the new era, but I would like some specifics.

When I was hoping to publish an agrarian magazine, I wanted to devote one of the issues to Y2K. I think the Y2K alarmists were basically right, pointing out correctly that the current system is a house of cards ready to collapse, wrong only in thinking a computer glitch would be the trigger. (Well, I think they were also wrong to emphasize survivalism.) This time there is no mystery about whether the trigger will be pulled; cheap oil is nearly gone, there is no known replacement for it, and the implications of not having cheap oil are easy to trace out.


7 thoughts on “Done with The Long Emergency

  1. I don’t really understand the peak oil theory – or how anyone can claim to know how much of the available oil we’ve used up, but I assume some actual research has gone into and it’s not just hysterical people making guesses.

    Have you heard the theory posited a few years ago, that petroleum is not actually a fossil fuel, but that it is created by the friction between the earth’s crust and mantle? If this is true, then it looks like there would a virtually endless supply of petroleum.

    But even if that’s the case, I still think that our economy can’t go on forever. Like the author of “The Collapse Gap” said, this kingdom will collapse someday – they all do some time or other.

  2. Kelly,

    I think the knowledge of oil reserves is acknowledged to be pretty accurate. The peak oil fellow, M. King Hubbert, predicted back in 1950, based on then-current knowledge, that U.S. oil production would peak in 1970, and that is exactly when it peaked.

    He later used his model to predict that global oil would peak in 2000. The discovery of the North Sea oil pushed the peak another five years out, and there are increasing indications that the global peak actually did happen in 2005. There are many good reasons, both practical and political, that the oil producing countries should be increasing their output, yet global production has been constant since 2005. And it is becoming clearer that the biggest producing fields (Saudi Arabia, Mexico, the North Sea) are played out. No new fields of any significance have been found for many years, and the oil companies aren’t even looking anymore.

    Kunstler briefly mentions the theory about petroleum being a constantly renewing resource, but only to say, whether it is true or not, there is no particular reason right now to believe it. He surveys the rest of the possibilities and comes to the same conclusion—although it could happen that one of them pans out and saves us, there is no reason to think that any of them will.

  3. Rick,

    why do you believe the Y2Kers were wrong to emphasize survivalism? Clarification for me may lie in your definition of survivalism. Would you mind sharing?



  4. Doug,

    Looking back at Y2K I have the impression (which may be wrong, since I was only vaguely familiar with what folks were doing to prepare) that the survivalists emphasized hoarding way over subsistence. I think hoarding is wrong because (1) it is presumptuous, like the man who built new and bigger barns only to find out his soul was required that very night; (2) it is not sustainable—once the hoarded supplies are gone, you are back at the beginning; (3) it makes it difficult for you to help your neighbor. But those who live at a subsistence level are (1) depending on the grace of God for their daily bread; (2) in a position that can be sustained indefinitely; and (3) able to help their neighbors on an ongoing basis, both by sharing the fruit of their labor (since more is always on the way) and by teaching them how to provide for themselves.

    Certainly economic collapse can lead to some amount of lawlessness. Russia has that problem, and in the Dark Ages it was so bad that people ended up turning over their property to lords who would in turn protect them, the beginning of the feudal system. I don’t disagree that a man should be prepared to protect his family and property, but I think those preparations should be made at a community level as well as an individual level.

  5. Rick,

    Thanks for your thought-filled response. As far as I understand it, I agree with you.

    Thanks again,


  6. What a thought-provoking post! I like your succinct summary of Kunstler’s conclusions, unnerving as they are. I’m relatively new to simple-living’s philosophy, but am really intrigued by the idea of a “new new” agrarianism.

    I’m a suburbanite, but I have pulled back to a job in my community specifically to reduce both my consumption and my away-from-home commitments. Surrounded as I am by million-dollar homes owned by people who commute a minimum of twenty miles to Atlanta, I can’t help but wonder what these areas will look like if, as Kunstler suggests, the bottom falls out of the American economy and the suburban experiment goes further awry. My guess is that we’ll find the Frankenstein analogy more than apt, and be hard-pressed to avoid dying at the hands of the monster we’ve created.

    On the other hand, repurposing some these McMansions and big-box stores into something useful for the community presents some very interesting possibilities for living in the next 50 years.

    Thanks again. Looking forward to ordering some books from you soon!

  7. Can’t agree with your assessment of Kunstler’s book being “structurally the book is a mess, repetitious and meandering, alternately superficial and excessively detailed…” Kunstler’s undertaking is one of the shining and brilliant examples of contemporary rhetoric, stylistics and structure included. Although I would have loved to see an Index at the end, no objections here.

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