The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century
By James Howard Kunstler Atlantic Monthly Press, 2005, 307 pp., hardcover $23. Humpty Dumpty sits on a wall, parties, and has a great time. He’s completely oblivious to warnings of danger, and leaning too far back. We all know what happens next. According to James Howard Kunstler, human civilization is Humpty Dumpty, and the party is the 200-year-old age of fossil fuels, which brought economic bounty and technological wonders that previous generations couldn’t imagine. The drop off the wall is the other side of the peak oil phenomenon, which is coming in 1 or 5 or 10 or 30 years, depending on which expert you ask. Peak oil is when the world passes the 50 percent point in oil depletion, and oil goes from plentiful and cheap to scarce and expensive. The Long Emergency has little if any useful discussion of urbanism beyond Kunstler’s trademark riff on the evils of sprawl, but the book is bound to be widely read by new urbanists, many of whom are fans of his acerbic prose. His previous nonfiction books, Geography of Nowhere, Home from Nowhere, and The City in Mind, are new urbanist classics. Kunstler is a leading pessimist of our age, and peak oil is the ultimate canvas for his worldview. The picture he paints is not pretty. Many new urbanists will be put off by his dire predictions, and some may be offended by his utter lack of political correctness. I found the latter refreshing. Kunstler skewers nearly everyone. One exception is the Amish, who for the past two centuries have gone on living mostly as if the oil age did not exist. They and others who are keeping traditional crafts and knowledge alive will have a lot to teach us on the downside of the peak, Kunstler believes. The book is mostly about energy, the effect of energy on civilization, and what happens when a shift occurs in the energy source. Kunstler makes a point that is not well understood — energy is distinct from technology, which won’t save mankind from the hardships of having less energy to burn. The timing of the book is good — the news is filled with stories of high fuel prices. While fuel prices remain high, The Long Emergency will likely have an audience. If oil drops back below $30 or $40 a barrel, Kunstler may be dismissed as a crackpot — even if he is right about many things in the long run.