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Energy

The Get-Ready Men

The cheap oil will end one day. What about civilization?

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.”

The internal logic of the argument is persuasive, and one reads all the books with white knuckles. Oil has seeped into every nook of our existence. At the most basic level, we need oil to grow our food, particularly as we have moved to large-scale, fertilizer-dependent agriculture, and we need oil to get that food to our communities.

Things might be simpler if our appetites were limited to food. But the range of our activities has broadened considerably, and oil supports almost all of them. We need oil to make most of the things we use every day – from plastic to the roads we drive on – and, more importantly, to get them from the hands of cheap laborers and into our big box stores, to which we drive in large cars, of course. Oil now satisfies about 40 percent of our energy needs, and about two-thirds of it we burn in motors, going places and moving things or sitting in traffic.

Kunstler does not believe the United States will survive as we know it but will instead break down into autonomous, isolated regions. The fun is certainly over in the desert United States. According to Kunstler, cities like Las Vegas – dependent on cheap air conditioning, air travel, and good highways – will wither into dust. Around the country, a trip to town will become a day’s excursion, a trip to the nearest large city a journey of several days, and a trip across the country nearly unthinkable.

The suburbs – which Kunstler calls “the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world,” and for which he seems to reserve a special contempt – will become particularly miserable places, devolving into wastelands of abandoned McMansions, empty Wal-Marts, and disintegrating asphalt. We will not be able to heat our 5,000-square-foot houses, if we can get to them, and we will not be able to fill the box stores with Chinese goods, or to resurface the roads, which we won’t be using much in any case.

As for the rest of the world, Europe may fare slightly better, having to some extent preserved the small, agriculture-friendly, locally focused communities that Kunstler believes will dominate the post-oil world. But overall, the strife will be biblical: “Australia and New Zealand may fall victim to desperate Chinese adventuring….The coastlines of all nations may become prey to a new species of stateless freebooting raiders….The Pacific coast of North America will be especially vulnerable to raids emanating from the disintegrating nations of Asia.” Poor nations will never develop but will seem unexceptional among “the hardship and chaos that will become common elsewhere.”

These predictions of collapse all presuppose that we cannot be saved by alternative energy sources. Kunstler dismisses alternative energy as a “mirage” and belief in it as “a holdover from the techno-miracle cavalcade of the twentieth century.” He does his best to demolish any hope for natural gas, solar and wind power, coal, hydroelectric power, biomass, or nuclear power. Though he succeeds in provoking thought, he does not quite convince the optimist that we are doomed.

He discounts natural gas as a long-term solution, and with good reason, for it suffers from most of the same reserve problems as oil, compounded by problems of getting it from the field to the user. But he does undervalue it as a “bridge” supply, a form of energy that might be used to help us make the transition to the next source. And the scarcity of bridge power is crucial to many of his assumptions about whether we will have enough energy to build the next generation of sources.

He is doubtful about solar power, too, pointing out that the infrastructure to obtain it, as it exists today, relies on the petroleum economy in a number of ways, not least for the plastic that goes into batteries and photovoltaic-cell arrays. Ditto for wind turbines, which require a fair amount of machinery, currently petroleum based, for their installation. Objections like this – where Kunstler asks, could we survive on the output of this source alone? – are raised frequently and are certainly the weakest point in his argument.

Meanwhile, many knowledgeable optimists have yet to dismiss the potential of either solar or wind: companies like GE and Boeing have been making major investments in solar energies for years, even renewing interest in and work on once marginalized technologies like the Stirling engine, which could run on concentrated solar heat. Wind, too, has turned some corporate heads: Goldman Sachs, for instance, recently acquired Houston-based Zilkha Renewable Energy, which builds wind farms. Still, as Kunstler points out, solar and wind are very inefficient compared with burning petroleum products and possibly unsuited to running a public transportation network, much less the car-based system we have now.

Coal is already producing about half of our electricity, and though most agree that it is in good supply, Kunstler is dubious about the numbers. The environmental cost of burning it is also, as Kunstler notes, extreme: beyond coal’s contribution to global warming and other, more local forms of air pollution, it is hard to dismiss the large-scale leveling of landscapes. As for synthesizing oil from coal or, for that matter, extracting it from shale and tar sands, it can happen; but the high cost and the limited return on the energy invested are not likely to allow anything like the enormous economic expansion of the last century. Nor, given the likely outcome of continued global warming, should we be overly encouraging of coal conversion. But neither does this mean that the slow-moving work on clean coal will never bear fruit.

Kunstler is skeptical, too, about hydroelectric power – which is much cleaner – on the grounds that we will not be able to maintain the infrastructure for building dams without our cheap oil. And though hydroelectric power meets about 10 percent of our electricity needs today, Kunstler believes that room for growth is limited, as many of the best dam sites are already taken. Again, Kunstler is assuming the worst case. It is quite possible, for instance, that we will build and maintain dams with equipment that runs on expensive oil, if we can, or with some kind of coal-powered steam shovel, if we must.

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.

Scary Stuff
The Long Emergency:Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century 
By James Howard Kunstler
Atlantic Monthly Press 2005, $23.00

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