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Originally published July 20 2007

Book review: The Long Emergency by James Howard Kunstler reveals a bleak future after peak oil

by Mike Adams, the Health Ranger, NaturalNews Editor

"The Long Emergency," by James Howard Kunstler, is a fascinating and timely book that explores the ramifications of the dwindling supply of fossil fuels on our planet. The book begins with a discussion of the concept of "peak oil" -- a term that indicates we've nearly reached the peak production of fossil fuels for energy. After the peak oil point is reached, oil production will decline and the price of oil will naturally rise.

Kunstler points out that not only has oil likely reached a peak in terms of global production that may have occurred in the last two or three years, but at the same time the demand for oil is sharply rising around the world, especially as nations like China demonstrate an increasing appetite for energy consumption. As a result, countries that once seemed to have an unlimited supply of oil, like the United States, are now going to have to compete with nations like China for those limited energy supplies.

He then goes on to discuss the interdependency of our modern-day society on cheap oil. This cheap energy, as Kunstler explains, is responsible for many of the things we take for granted in modern life, including the ability to sustain the population of the world at its current levels. The population explosion over the last century, Kunstler explains, has been fueled by cheap oil.

Oil acts like a helping hand to every individual; it leverages and magnifies the intentions and efforts of societies, allowing, for example, only two percent of the population to engage in farming activities in order to feed 100 percent of the population; whereas a hundred years go, around half of the population engaged in farming. We are able to build our cities, grow our population and businesses, and erect a large international travel infrastructure thanks to cost-effective energy that, according to Kunstler, is likely to start dwindling.

As a result, many things in society we take for granted today may no longer be feasible after the era of cheap oil. For example, simply growing corn requires a tremendous amount of fossil fuel. How do you grow corn, or even transport it, when the era of cheap oil is over? Kunstler believes that the future success of our society will require becoming more localized and community minded. He also points out that big cities in the United States today -- in contrast to their European counterparts -- are designed around the assumption that cheap oil will always be available. Most Americans commute long distances between work, grocery stores, schools and home, and these long commutes are only possible because of cheap oil.

Are we doomed when oil runs out?

I believe that Kunstler is correct in his assessment of the structure of modern society and its dependence on oil. Unless we can cultivate a new source of cost-efficient energy, we are no doubt doomed to roll the clock back to much a simpler time. He convincingly explores the rather startling ramifications of the end of cheap fuel. However, there's one area where I hope the author is incorrect: the search for alternative energy sources. Kunstler refutes the idea that there are any viable replacements for oil, but I believe we may yet find hope in the search for alternative, renewable energy sources.

Nuclear, solar, wind, cold fusion, gas hydrates and many other areas of alternative energy are discussed in the book, and each one is shown to be inadequate in replacing the loss of fossil fuels that seems inevitable. If Kunstler is correct, we are in for a rough ride that would no doubt include a rather sharp population correction. Without inexpensive fuel resources, the world simply cannot support our current population. But I personally believe there is reason to be optimistic about possible alternatives, including large-scale solar, solar / Stirling engine hybrid generators, Concentrated Solar Power farms (CSP), and even possible breakthroughs in alternative science that could lead to new energy sources that are nothing less than miraculous (zero point energy harvesters, for example).

Now, it may be naive to have faith in such developments until they can actually be proven viable, but something tells me that human ingenuity will find a way to overcome the loss of cheap oil, even if it involves doing the exact things described by Kunstler -- riding our bicycles more and greatly reducing our consumption of energy in both residential and commercial environments. To succeed in a post-oil era, we may need to radically alter the zoning of our cities so we can live closer to the businesses we visit on a day-to-day basis, and give up many of the luxuries of modern American life including RVing across the country at six miles per gallon.

Regardless of whether Kunstler is correct about the bad news on dwindling energy supplies, "The Long Emergency" is worth reading. The thoughtful presentation shows that Kunstler has a wide-ranging, well-educated view of what makes society tick. He understands that in this era of mass specialization and dependence, it takes only one wrench in the machine to throw the whole system out of whack, and the end of cheap energy could be that wrench.

If you are not familiar with the concept of extreme interdependence in our global community today, then you may find this book to be one of the scariest you'll ever read. If you think that water magically appears out of your faucets, or food magically appears in the grocery store, or that gasoline just flows out of gas station pumps sort of like water out of a spring in the ground, then this book is going to give you quite a shock. It's going to show you a different side of society, where the interdependence that we take for granted might not remain viable. Whether you believe in the author's conclusions or not, this book makes for excellent reading about the future we may all face if we don't get serious about two things:

1) Reducing our energy consumption through conservation and efficiency measures. (This is part of the reason why I launched and the effort to promote energy-efficient LED lighting products.)

2) Developing renewable energy sources to replace fossil fuels. The most promising are wind, CSP and solar power.

So grab a bicycle. Turn in your old gas banger for a hybrid vehicle or, better yet, a plug-in electric when they become available. And stop driving five miles to the video store to return a DVD that weighs 4 ounces. Go solar!

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