Kunstler’s argument against biomass is that making it in useful quantities requires massive industrial farming powered by…cheap oil. There is some truth here. But biomass advocates are more sanguine, arguing that fuel could be produced from naturally fecund prairie grasses, among other things. And as former assistant secretary of energy Dan Reicher has pointed out, biomass production inherently reduces the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere: plant life, after all, consumes carbon dioxide.
Kunstler is slightly bullish on the usefulness of one form of biomass, wood – with a chilling caveat. He expects it will heat our homes nicely in the absence of cheap oil and that, consequently, the “future deforestation of North America (and Europe) could be as rapid and dramatic as the extermination of the American bison in the decades after the Civil War.”
That leaves nuclear, as Kunstler and so many others have been noticing lately (see Stewart Brand’s “Environmental Heresies” in our May 2005 issue). Still, Kunstler accepts nuclear power’s ascension reluctantly, unsure as in other cases that we will be able to maintain a nuclear infrastructure using nuclear power alone and doubtful that we will be able to convert that power into a transportation system anywhere near as massive as the one we now have. But even if the large four-wheel-drive truck may someday be an obsolete method of picking up milk, that does not mean we will be back on horses: even the mass-transit-averse U.S. has had reasonable success with electric trains.
Overall, Kunstler’s tapestry of destruction assumes a race of much more limited flexibility and creativity than history shows humanity to be. He could be right, of course; and given our behavior in the past hundred years, there may be a perverse satisfaction in agreeing with his assessments of our capabilities and our future. But more likely we will muddle through as we almost always have, flourishing here, waning there, and surprising ourselves, perhaps undeservedly.
It seems more realistic to assume that as the price of oil continues to rise, rather than focusing myopically on oil technology, we will try a number of other options at once, looking with our usual expediency for an easy solution that does not kill us, at least for the moment. We may end up with inefficient solar panels on our roofs, kicking electricity back in to the grid in a trickle; a somewhat more efficient biomass plant at the end of the block; and a transportation system running on fuel cells charged with electricity from nuclear plants. Las Vegas may even get off the hook, harnessing the geothermal resources of the West. And none of this takes into consideration improvements in how efficiently we consume energy.
Most of all, despite its urgency, Kunstler’s book reminds us how modern man is scared by his own inventions. We’ve been expecting to die by our own hand at least since Hiroshima, and even younger readers may share relief at having somehow escaped the ravages of a nuclear winter, a homemade dirty bomb, and a world-destroying clerical error in January 2000.
In My Life and Hard Times, James Thurber describes a citizen in his childhood town of Columbus, OH: the Get-Ready Man. The Get-Ready Man drove a car with a door in the back and liked to shout at people as he drove, using a megaphone. His warning was always the same: “Get Ready! Get read-y…! The worllld is coming to an End!” Kunstler and the others may join the Get-Ready Man in the annals of doomsday prophets, and the Peak Oil Apocalypse may get filed along with Y2K under “false alarms and other diversions.” Even now, it may be dismissed by some with laughter. But it ought to be nervous laughter.
The Long Emergency:Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century
By James Howard Kunstler
Atlantic Monthly Press 2005, $23.00