The Long Emergency
San Antonio, Texas
    The Long Emergency

"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

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

The Rolling Stone

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 2016 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

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 transport.

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 temporary."

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 out.

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 industrialism.

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, 2016, by James Howard Kunstler, and
reprinted with permission of the publisher, Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
(Posted Mar 24, 2016)
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