We will run out of cheap oil, either now or later. The most pessimistic disciples of the late geologist M. King Hubbert believe that production will peak somewhere between 2000 and 2010. Others suggest that production may top out a few decades after that.
What will happen next is unknown, but an increasing number of the peak-oil handicappers share the dark beliefs of James Howard Kunstler, who predicts that alternative energy sources will never meet our needs and that we are in for a “rough ride through uncharted territory,” which will take us “off the edge of a cliff” and thence into “an abyss of economic and political disorder on a scale that no one has ever seen before.” The sprawl of metaphors is characteristic of Kunstler, who in The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century adds a relentless, scary, and entertaining voice to the rising alarm about life after the cheap oil is gone.
Prophets have been warning Americans of the terrible things in store for decades, but Kunstler joins a fresh corps whose numbers seem to have been increasing as quickly as the price of gas. The past two years have seen books with titles like Paul Roberts’s The End of Oil, Richard Heinberg’s The Party’s Over, Tom Mast’s Over a Barrel, and David Goodstein’s Out of Gas and a film called The End of Suburbia by Gregory Greene, to name a few, and to leave out their long and unsettling subtitles, most of which approximate Roberts’s choice, which is On the Edge of a Perilous New World. These authors may someday join the ranks of the dated alarmists – Jeremy Rifkin, among countless others, issued similar warnings in Entropy in 1980 – but then again, they may be right. One may demonstrate that the alarm rings too often and too soon, but that does not mean that danger will never come.
Kunstler’s predictions may seem excessively dire to many, but a significant number of people are paying attention and getting ready. His book has been hovering in the top 1,000 on Amazon.com for months, and the topic of peak oil has gained traction beyond the encouraging environment of the Internet. In the past 18 months, 82 groups with about 2,000 registered members in cities around the world have been organized through Meetup.com to discuss the issue. At a recent meeting of the 100-member New York forum, participants were quoting Kunstler repeatedly – during, for instance, a discussion of where to move after the crash.
Our particular problem, Kunstler and his colleagues continually remind us, is that we have built a world based on the ready availability of cheap energy. The apocalyptic catch, though, in their view, is that oil was a “one-shot deal,” and there will never be another power source as easy to extract, as portable, and as powerful. When the oil dries up, writes Kunstler, “all bets are off against civilization’s future.”