Monday, January 28, 2008

James Howard Kunstler’s Long Emergency By: Terry Lowe

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James Howard Kunstler is an American writer currently employed by Rolling Stone magazine. He is the author of The Geography of Nowhere (which we reviewed here), The Long Emergency, among others. He was in town recently as a visiting Fellow of Simon Fraser University, and gave a presentation the other night. I went along to see what he has been thinking about lately.

As far as Kunstler is concerned, the building of North American suburbia was a fifty-year-long experiment that has failed because shortages of oil in the near future will quickly render them unworkable. This failure will have profound effects on the way North American society is organized, and how it should approach its future.

He stated that the world’s oil supply peaked around 1999/2000, and has been declining since. He had facts and figures (duly shown), and the US Department of Energy agrees. The USA currently uses 20 million barrels of oil every day, and this oil (by 2020 or so) will no longer be available. We’d better start thinking about what to do about that, and soon.

That I knew already; please tell me more. Okay, here’s more:

The circumstances of the Long Emergency will require us to downscale and rescale 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. 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.

There is No More Oil, and the Earth is not making any more. It has more urgent things to do as it tries to cope with climate change.

Kunstler did not touch on climate change, referring instead to Al Gore’s well-known work on the topic. He did, though, list a few other predictions:

As oil becomes increasingly unavailable, 30-mile commutes also become undoable. Forget living in the ’burbs and driving off to work each day: it’ll soon cost you $100 in gas each way, and become impossible thereafter.

As sub-prime mortgages continue to collapse, a suburban home will decrease in value, until it becomes a liability. This is now happening all over the USA, in places that were believed to be recession-proof as little as two years ago.

Truckloads of produce from California will not appear in your grocery stores anymore, nor will truckloads of meat from Alberta or Montana. What will you eat? And where will it come from?

Likewise, similar loads (either by truck or by ship) of cheap stuff from China will no longer be delivered to the nation’s shopping malls. What is going to replace that? Will the exurban shopping mall survive?

He spoke about the important need to rebuild (in the USA, at least) a rail system that was pretty much abandoned in the 1950s when interstate highways were built. “The infrastructure’s still there,” he said, “out rusting in the rain.”

His most interesting idea was the simultaneous need to rebuild the also largely abandoned system of inland waterways. He comes from the Hudson River Valley in New York, and has seen entire towns closed down when the shipping business transferred to trucks on the Interstates, and the local factories and mills shut down in favour of cheap stuff from China.

His main idea is that we should go back to doing things the way they were done 60 years ago, before urban landscapes were defined by freeways and commuter traffic reports on the radio. Instead think of a landscape consisting more of farms and cottage industries, connected by rail and, where possible, canals. He thinks that cities would thus be more liveable (without endless suburbs), we’d eat better, and the economy would be healthier and more realistic. It’s a simplistic idea, but I think he finds it attractive (as do I).

Our lives will become profoundly and intensely local. Daily life will be far less about mobility and much more about staying where you are.

Is it possible?

I think it is, given political will and the benefits of selected bits of modern technology. Some Northern European countries are already setting examples. Then too, I’ve also heard people claim that if we could just capture a small percentage of the energy given to us for free every day by the sun, we’d have plenty of energy. Could that be done in 10 years? Probably not. Could it be done in 20 or 25 years? Probably.

Mr. Kunstler is a practiced and engaging speaker. Rather funny, too, referring to suburbs as “asteroid belts,” and saying things like “America today has a railroad system that the Bulgarians would be ashamed of.” What he says is well worth thinking about and, I think, only slightly exaggerated.

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