[Paleopsych] Rolling Stone: The Long Emergency

Premise Checker checker at panix.com
Sun Apr 3 18:21:30 UTC 2005

Subject: RollingStone.com: The Long Emergency : Politics

[Whatever happened to the long boom? Entrepreneurs and businessmen will 
make adjustments, as long as they are free to do so. From a transhumanist 
perspective, it isn't energy that matters so much as the new technologies 
that will make us of it. The really cool stuff that's coming doesn't use 
much energy, anyhow.]

    What's going to happen as we start running out of cheap gas to guzzle?

    A few weeks ago, the price of oil ratcheted above fifty-five dollars a
    barrel, which is about twenty dollars a barrel more than a year ago.
    The next day, the oil story was buried on page six of the New York
    Times business section. Apparently, the price of oil is not considered
    significant news, even when it goes up five bucks a barrel in the span
    of ten days. That same day, the stock market shot up more than a
    hundred points because, CNN said, government data showed no signs of
    inflation. Note to clueless nation: Call planet Earth.

    Carl Jung, one of the fathers of psychology, famously remarked that
    "people cannot stand too much reality." What you're about to read may
    challenge your assumptions about the kind of world we live in, and
    especially the kind of world into which events are propelling us. We
    are in for a rough ride through uncharted territory.

    It has been very hard for Americans -- lost in dark raptures of
    nonstop infotainment, recreational shopping and compulsive motoring --
    to make sense of the gathering forces that will fundamentally alter
    the terms of everyday life in our technological society. Even after
    the terrorist attacks of 9/11, America is still sleepwalking into the
    future. I call this coming time the Long Emergency.

    Most immediately we face the end of the cheap-fossil-fuel era. It is
    no exaggeration to state that reliable supplies of cheap oil and
    natural gas underlie everything we identify as the necessities of
    modern life -- not to mention all of its comforts and luxuries:
    central heating, air conditioning, cars, airplanes, electric lights,
    inexpensive clothing, recorded music, movies, hip-replacement surgery,
    national defense -- you name it.

    The few Americans who are even aware that there is a gathering
    global-energy predicament usually misunderstand the core of the
    argument. That argument states that we don't have to run out of oil to
    start having severe problems with industrial civilization and its
    dependent systems. We only have to slip over the all-time production
    peak and begin a slide down the arc of steady depletion.

    The term "global oil-production peak" means that a turning point will
    come when the world produces the most oil it will ever produce in a
    given year and, after that, yearly production will inexorably decline.
    It is usually represented graphically in a bell curve. The peak is the
    top of the curve, the halfway point of the world's all-time total
    endowment, meaning half the world's oil will be left. That seems like
    a lot of oil, and it is, but there's a big catch: It's the half that
    is much more difficult to extract, far more costly to get, of much
    poorer quality and located mostly in places where the people hate us.
    A substantial amount of it will never be extracted.

    The United States passed its own oil peak -- about 11 million barrels
    a day -- in 1970, and since then production has dropped steadily. In
    2004 it ran just above 5 million barrels a day (we get a tad more from
    natural-gas condensates). Yet we consume roughly 20 million barrels a
    day now. That means we have to import about two-thirds of our oil, and
    the ratio will continue to worsen.

    The U.S. peak in 1970 brought on a portentous change in geoeconomic
    power. Within a few years, foreign producers, chiefly OPEC, were
    setting the price of oil, and this in turn led to the oil crises of
    the 1970s. In response, frantic development of non-OPEC oil,
    especially the North Sea fields of England and Norway, essentially
    saved the West's ass for about two decades. Since 1999, these fields
    have entered depletion. Meanwhile, worldwide discovery of new oil has
    steadily declined to insignificant levels in 2003 and 2004.

    Some "cornucopians" claim that the Earth has something like a creamy
    nougat center of "abiotic" oil that will naturally replenish the great
    oil fields of the world. The facts speak differently. There has been
    no replacement whatsoever of oil already extracted from the fields of
    America or any other place.

    Now we are faced with the global oil-production peak. The best
    estimates of when this will actually happen have been somewhere
    between now and 2010. In 2004, however, after demand from burgeoning
    China and India shot up, and revelations that Shell Oil wildly
    misstated its reserves, and Saudi Arabia proved incapable of goosing
    up its production despite promises to do so, the most knowledgeable
    experts revised their predictions and now concur that 2005 is apt to
    be the year of all-time global peak production.

    It will change everything about how we live.

    To aggravate matters, American natural-gas production is also
    declining, at five percent a year, despite frenetic new drilling, and
    with the potential of much steeper declines ahead. Because of the oil
    crises of the 1970s, the nuclear-plant disasters at Three Mile Island
    and Chernobyl and the acid-rain problem, the U.S. chose to make gas
    its first choice for electric-power generation. The result was that
    just about every power plant built after 1980 has to run on gas. Half
    the homes in America are heated with gas. To further complicate
    matters, gas isn't easy to import. Here in North America, it is
    distributed through a vast pipeline network. Gas imported from
    overseas would have to be compressed at minus-260 degrees Fahrenheit
    in pressurized tanker ships and unloaded (re-gasified) at special
    terminals, of which few exist in America. Moreover, the first attempts
    to site new terminals have met furious opposition because they are
    such ripe targets for terrorism.

    Some other things about the global energy predicament are poorly
    understood by the public and even our leaders. This is going to be a
    permanent energy crisis, and these energy problems will synergize with
    the disruptions of climate change, epidemic disease and population
    overshoot to produce higher orders of trouble.

    We will have to accommodate ourselves to fundamentally changed

    No combination of alternative fuels will allow us to run American life
    the way we have been used to running it, or even a substantial
    fraction of it. The wonders of steady technological progress achieved
    through the reign of cheap oil have lulled us into a kind of Jiminy
    Cricket syndrome, leading many Americans to believe that anything we
    wish for hard enough will come true. These days, even people who ought
    to know better are wishing ardently for a seamless transition from
    fossil fuels to their putative replacements.

    The widely touted "hydrogen economy" is a particularly cruel hoax. We
    are not going to replace the U.S. automobile and truck fleet with
    vehicles run on fuel cells. For one thing, the current generation of
    fuel cells is largely designed to run on hydrogen obtained from
    natural gas. The other way to get hydrogen in the quantities wished
    for would be electrolysis of water using power from hundreds of
    nuclear plants. Apart from the dim prospect of our building that many
    nuclear plants soon enough, there are also numerous severe problems
    with hydrogen's nature as an element that present forbidding obstacles
    to its use as a replacement for oil and gas, especially in storage and

    Wishful notions about rescuing our way of life with "renewables" are
    also unrealistic. Solar-electric systems and wind turbines face not
    only the enormous problem of scale but the fact that the components
    require substantial amounts of energy to manufacture and the
    probability that they can't be manufactured at all without the
    underlying support platform of a fossil-fuel economy. We will surely
    use solar and wind technology to generate some electricity for a
    period ahead but probably at a very local and small scale.

    Virtually all "biomass" schemes for using plants to create liquid
    fuels cannot be scaled up to even a fraction of the level at which
    things are currently run. What's more, these schemes are predicated on
    using oil and gas "inputs" (fertilizers, weed-killers) to grow the
    biomass crops that would be converted into ethanol or bio-diesel
    fuels. This is a net energy loser -- you might as well just burn the
    inputs and not bother with the biomass products. Proposals to distill
    trash and waste into oil by means of thermal depolymerization depend
    on the huge waste stream produced by a cheap oil and gas economy in
    the first place.

    Coal is far less versatile than oil and gas, extant in less abundant
    supplies than many people assume and fraught with huge ecological
    drawbacks -- as a contributor to greenhouse "global warming" gases and
    many health and toxicity issues ranging from widespread mercury
    poisoning to acid rain. You can make synthetic oil from coal, but the
    only time this was tried on a large scale was by the Nazis under
    wartime conditions, using impressive amounts of slave labor.

    If we wish to keep the lights on in America after 2020, we may indeed
    have to resort to nuclear power, with all its practical problems and
    eco-conundrums. Under optimal conditions, it could take ten years to
    get a new generation of nuclear power plants into operation, and the
    price may be beyond our means. Uranium is also a resource in finite
    supply. We are no closer to the more difficult project of atomic
    fusion, by the way, than we were in the 1970s.

    The upshot of all this is that we are entering a historical period of
    potentially great instability, turbulence and hardship. Obviously,
    geopolitical maneuvering around the world's richest energy regions has
    already led to war and promises more international military conflict.
    Since the Middle East contains two-thirds of the world's remaining oil
    supplies, the U.S. has attempted desperately to stabilize the region
    by, in effect, opening a big police station in Iraq. The intent was
    not just to secure Iraq's oil but to modify and influence the behavior
    of neighboring states around the Persian Gulf, especially Iran and
    Saudi Arabia. The results have been far from entirely positive, and
    our future prospects in that part of the world are not something we
    can feel altogether confident about.

    And then there is the issue of China, which, in 2004, became the
    world's second-greatest consumer of oil, surpassing Japan. China's
    surging industrial growth has made it increasingly dependent on the
    imports we are counting on. If China wanted to, it could easily walk
    into some of these places -- the Middle East, former Soviet republics
    in central Asia -- and extend its hegemony by force. Is America
    prepared to contest for this oil in an Asian land war with the Chinese
    army? I doubt it. Nor can the U.S. military occupy regions of the
    Eastern Hemisphere indefinitely, or hope to secure either the terrain
    or the oil infrastructure of one distant, unfriendly country after
    another. A likely scenario is that the U.S. could exhaust and bankrupt
    itself trying to do this, and be forced to withdraw back into our own
    hemisphere, having lost access to most of the world's remaining oil in
    the process.

    We know that our national leaders are hardly uninformed about this
    predicament. President George W. Bush has been briefed on the dangers
    of the oil-peak situation as long ago as before the 2000 election and
    repeatedly since then. In March, the Department of Energy released a
    report that officially acknowledges for the first time that peak oil
    is for real and states plainly that "the world has never faced a
    problem like this. Without massive mitigation more than a decade
    before the fact, the problem will be pervasive and will not be

    Most of all, the Long Emergency will require us to make other
    arrangements for the way we live in the United States. America is in a
    special predicament due to a set of unfortunate choices we made as a
    society in the twentieth century. Perhaps the worst was to let our
    towns and cities rot away and to replace them with suburbia, which had
    the additional side effect of trashing a lot of the best farmland in
    America. Suburbia will come to be regarded as the greatest
    misallocation of resources in the history of the world. It has a
    tragic destiny. The psychology of previous investment suggests that we
    will defend our drive-in utopia long after it has become a terrible

    Before long, the suburbs will fail us in practical terms. We made the
    ongoing development of housing subdivisions, highway strips,
    fried-food shacks and shopping malls the basis of our economy, and
    when we have to stop making more of those things, the bottom will fall

    The circumstances of the Long Emergency will require us to downscale
    and re-scale virtually everything we do and how we do it, from the
    kind of communities we physically inhabit to the way we grow our food
    to the way we work and trade the products of our work. Our lives will
    become profoundly and intensely local. Daily life will be far less
    about mobility and much more about staying where you are. Anything
    organized on the large scale, whether it is government or a corporate
    business enterprise such as Wal-Mart, will wither as the cheap energy
    props that support bigness fall away. The turbulence of the Long
    Emergency will produce a lot of economic losers, and many of these
    will be members of an angry and aggrieved former middle class.

    Food production is going to be an enormous problem in the Long
    Emergency. As industrial agriculture fails due to a scarcity of oil-
    and gas-based inputs, we will certainly have to grow more of our food
    closer to where we live, and do it on a smaller scale. The American
    economy of the mid-twenty-first century may actually center on
    agriculture, not information, not high tech, not "services" like real
    estate sales or hawking cheeseburgers to tourists. Farming. This is no
    doubt a startling, radical idea, and it raises extremely difficult
    questions about the reallocation of land and the nature of work. The
    relentless subdividing of land in the late twentieth century has
    destroyed the contiguity and integrity of the rural landscape in most
    places. The process of readjustment is apt to be disorderly and
    improvisational. Food production will necessarily be much more
    labor-intensive than it has been for decades. We can anticipate the
    re-formation of a native-born American farm-laboring class. It will be
    composed largely of the aforementioned economic losers who had to
    relinquish their grip on the American dream. These masses of
    disentitled people may enter into quasi-feudal social relations with
    those who own land in exchange for food and physical security. But
    their sense of grievance will remain fresh, and if mistreated they may
    simply seize that land.

    The way that commerce is currently organized in America will not
    survive far into the Long Emergency. Wal-Mart's "warehouse on wheels"
    won't be such a bargain in a non-cheap-oil economy. The national chain
    stores' 12,000-mile manufacturing supply lines could easily be
    interrupted by military contests over oil and by internal conflict in
    the nations that have been supplying us with ultra-cheap manufactured
    goods, because they, too, will be struggling with similar issues of
    energy famine and all the disorders that go with it.

    As these things occur, America will have to make other arrangements
    for the manufacture, distribution and sale of ordinary goods. They
    will probably be made on a "cottage industry" basis rather than the
    factory system we once had, since the scale of available energy will
    be much lower -- and we are not going to replay the twentieth century.
    Tens of thousands of the common products we enjoy today, from paints
    to pharmaceuticals, are made out of oil. They will become increasingly
    scarce or unavailable. The selling of things will have to be
    reorganized at the local scale. It will have to be based on moving
    merchandise shorter distances. It is almost certain to result in
    higher costs for the things we buy and far fewer choices.

    The automobile will be a diminished presence in our lives, to say the
    least. With gasoline in short supply, not to mention tax revenue, our
    roads will surely suffer. The interstate highway system is more
    delicate than the public realizes. If the "level of service" (as
    traffic engineers call it) is not maintained to the highest degree,
    problems multiply and escalate quickly. The system does not tolerate
    partial failure. The interstates are either in excellent condition, or
    they quickly fall apart.

    America today has a railroad system that the Bulgarians would be
    ashamed of. Neither of the two major presidential candidates in 2004
    mentioned railroads, but if we don't refurbish our rail system, then
    there may be no long-range travel or transport of goods at all a few
    decades from now. The commercial aviation industry, already on its
    knees financially, is likely to vanish. The sheer cost of maintaining
    gigantic airports may not justify the operation of a much-reduced
    air-travel fleet. Railroads are far more energy efficient than cars,
    trucks or airplanes, and they can be run on anything from wood to
    electricity. The rail-bed infrastructure is also far more economical
    to maintain than our highway network.

    The successful regions in the twenty-first century will be the ones
    surrounded by viable farming hinterlands that can reconstitute locally
    sustainable economies on an armature of civic cohesion. Small towns
    and smaller cities have better prospects than the big cities, which
    will probably have to contract substantially. The process will be
    painful and tumultuous. In many American cities, such as Cleveland,
    Detroit and St. Louis, that process is already well advanced. Others
    have further to fall. New York and Chicago face extraordinary
    difficulties, being oversupplied with gigantic buildings out of scale
    with the reality of declining energy supplies. Their former
    agricultural hinterlands have long been paved over. They will be
    encysted in a surrounding fabric of necrotic suburbia that will only
    amplify and reinforce the cities' problems. Still, our cities occupy
    important sites. Some kind of urban entities will exist where they are
    in the future, but probably not the colossi of twentieth-century

    Some regions of the country will do better than others in the Long
    Emergency. The Southwest will suffer in proportion to the degree that
    it prospered during the cheap-oil blowout of the late twentieth
    century. I predict that Sunbelt states like Arizona and Nevada will
    become significantly depopulated, since the region will be short of
    water as well as gasoline and natural gas. Imagine Phoenix without
    cheap air conditioning.

    I'm not optimistic about the Southeast, either, for different reasons.
    I think it will be subject to substantial levels of violence as the
    grievances of the formerly middle class boil over and collide with the
    delusions of Pentecostal Christian extremism. The latent encoded
    behavior of Southern culture includes an outsized notion of
    individualism and the belief that firearms ought to be used in the
    defense of it. This is a poor recipe for civic cohesion.

    The Mountain States and Great Plains will face an array of problems,
    from poor farming potential to water shortages to population loss. The
    Pacific Northwest, New England and the Upper Midwest have somewhat
    better prospects. I regard them as less likely to fall into
    lawlessness, anarchy or despotism and more likely to salvage the bits
    and pieces of our best social traditions and keep them in operation at
    some level.

    These are daunting and even dreadful prospects. The Long Emergency is
    going to be a tremendous trauma for the human race. We will not
    believe that this is happening to us, that 200 years of modernity can
    be brought to its knees by a world-wide power shortage. The survivors
    will have to cultivate a religion of hope -- that is, a deep and
    comprehensive belief that humanity is worth carrying on. If there is
    any positive side to stark changes coming our way, it may be in the
    benefits of close communal relations, of having to really work
    intimately (and physically) with our neighbors, to be part of an
    enterprise that really matters and to be fully engaged in meaningful
    social enactments instead of being merely entertained to avoid
    boredom. Years from now, when we hear singing at all, we will hear
    ourselves, and we will sing with our whole hearts.

    Adapted from The Long Emergency, 2005, by James Howard Kunstler.

More information about the paleopsych mailing list