James Howard Kunstler resents being called "apocalyptic." -- He says, in an interview with Seven Days, that he's just "a fairly cheerful person" looking at a set of bleak facts. -- But hey -- so what if we are "heading into a period of social, political and economic turbulence, which will probably include a lot of hardship" (he compares our situations to that of Europeans in 1913)? -- But it's not as if it's the first time this species has faced hard times. -- It won't be "chaos." -- Rather, "turbulence, disorder, discontinuity and hardship." -- "That's not the end of the world. That's something that the human race has been through many times before." -- It is too bad for Americans that they were involved in building "infrastructure of suburbia," which he sais "can be described as the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world." -- Following the interview is a piece that appeared last month in Rolling Stone, adapted from Kunstler's new book, The Long Emergency (due out in May 2005). ...
By Paula Routly
April 13, 2005
** When cheap oil disappears, says James Howard Kunstler, so will life as we know it. -- "We are heading into a period of social, political and economic turbulence." **
Social critic James Howard Kunstler has railed for years against the twin evils of bad urban design and suburban sprawl. Based in Saratoga Springs, the author of The Geography of Nowhere and Home from Nowhere warns that our beloved cars -- and the subdivided landscape they drive us to -- are leading American culture down a four-lane highway to destruction.
Kunstler's arguments have taken on new urgency in light of what scientists now agree is an impending, and permanent, global energy crisis. His new book, The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the 21st Century (Atlantic Monthly Press, due out in May), imagines life -- and jobs, housing, architecture and transportation -- without access to cheap oil. An excerpt appears in a recent issue of Rolling Stone. [Reproduced below (2)]
Kunstler got a rock-star reception last week at Middlebury College, where he entertained a standing-room-only audience with provocative predications about where our unbridled consumption is likely to land us. An eloquent, funny speaker who is not afraid to use the f-word, Kunstler agreed to a follow-up email interview with Seven Days.
Paula Routly: You've long criticized the housing and transportation policies that drove people from the cities to suburbia after World War II. Now it turns out "Levittown" is not only ugly and soul-killing, but unsustainable. Explain your vision of the "Long Emergency."
James Howard Kunstler: We poured our national wealth into the construction of a living arrangement that has no future -- and the future is now here. The infrastructure of suburbia can be described as the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world. It was deficient and problematic as a human habitat even apart from the question of its sustainability. The way we live in America represents a tragic set of collective and individual choices we made at a particular point in history, the mid-to-late 20th century, when circumstances seemed to suggest there were no limits to our quest for comfort, convenience and leisure. These things turned out to be a poor basis for a value system and for an economy.
So life without oil equals the apocalypse?
Your word, not mine. I rather resent being labeled "apocalyptic." It demonstrates how poorly even journalists understand what we face, which is an epochal discontinuity in the conditions of daily life, not the end of the world. In fact, we don't even face a life without oil, at least not imminently. We face a life without cheap oil, which is a big difference. Specifically, we are heading into a period of social, political and economic turbulence, which will probably include a lot of hardship. That's not the end of the world. That's something that the human race has been through many times before. For instance, the Europeans of 1913 would never have conceived the degree of destruction and vicissitude visited upon their societies by two 20th-century world wars. We're equally blind and clueless about what we are facing.
Since the U.S. reached its peak oil production in 1970, what's happened in terms of geoeconomic power?
The U.S. controlled the oil industry and the markets from the late 1800s until 1970 because we could always pump more and goose up the global supply, moderating prices. We were also the world's leading consumers of oil, so we wanted low prices. After 1970, when U.S. production peaked, other people -- namely OPEC -- enjoyed the position as "swing producers." They controlled prices and markets, not us. They could always pump more, but we couldn't, because our total production was decreasing. The 1970s were therefore very turbulent economically and the U.S. suffered a lot. "Stagflation." Twenty-percent interest rates! High unemployment.
In the 1980s the world's last great oil discoveries, the North Sea and Alaska's North Slope, came into production, softening oil prices. These substantial non-OPEC sources tended to take pricing power away from OPEC. The result was a temporary glut and a decade and a half of still-cheap oil. I regard that period as the final blow-off of the cheap-oil era.
Now, there is reason to believe that the OPEC countries, including Saudi Arabia, may have peaked much earlier than expected, and nobody seems to have pricing control anymore -- no country can open up the valves and increase the supply enough to goose down world prices. Also, the North Sea and Alaska bonanzas are now officially over. Both areas are technically in depletion. In the years 2003 and 2004, there were no significant discoveries of any new oil.
Scientists differ in opinion not on whether global oil production will peak and then fall, but when. Can you talk about this?
The difference of opinion has become nearly insignificant. Kenneth Deffeyes, the Princeton professor and former major oil company geologist, says 2005. Colin Campbell, who was chief geologist (now retired) for Shell, and the French company Total-Fina-Elf, says 2007. Some other guys say 2010. What matters is that the complex systems we depend upon -- especially world finance and the infrastructures of relative peace between nations -- will wobble in anticipation of the peak, and once that happens we're in deep shit.
Did we set up a "police station" in Iraq to put off or delay the inevitable?
That's a fair statement. Our primary mission in Iraq has been to stabilize the region of the world where most of the remaining oil reserves exist. How long this might be possible is hard to say. Secondarily our mission was to moderate the behavior of Iraq's neighbors, Iran and Saudi Arabia. The perceived benefit in all of this was to be able to continue to enjoy a reliable stream of oil imports -- from people who don't like us very much.
I hasten to add that we did not go there to "steal" the oil, as some people imply, but to simply continue to obtain it at market price. In any case, we won't be able to occupy unfriendly nations indefinitely, nor will supplies of Middle East oil last indefinitely. The level of violence will probably rise and fall and rise again. There is a tremendous capacity for political mischief in that part of the world. We may exhaust and bankrupt ourselves engaging with it. The inevitable part of this is that, sooner or later, we will have to come to grips with our extreme dependency on imported oil and the way we live in America.
Even the U.S. Department of Energy has released a report saying that "peak oil" is for real. So why doesn't the government support more initiatives for lessening dependence on fossil fuels?
This is hard for anyone to understand. I have personally not been a Bush-basher myself -- though I didn't vote for the sonofabitch. I tend to hold the American public as being complicit in the cluelessness that afflicts our society regarding the oil and gas issues and how they relate to our way of life. The dirty secret of the American economy for the last two decades is that it is all about the creation of suburban sprawl and accessorizing, furnishing and servicing it.
The public claims that this is what they want: the easy motoring life of the drive-in utopia. They also make a living off it. Subtract that and our economy is about little else besides medicine and hair-cutting. Consequently, our car dependency and oil addiction is a kind of economic racket, a self-reinforcing set of behaviors and habits that we dare not attempt to change -- because if we do, there will be no American economy.
Now, given all that, it is still hard not to view the Bush leadership as extremely irresponsible or craven. There is no doubt that Bush and company understand the peak-oil issue and its implications for our economy and have chosen to not set the tone of a coherent national discussion about how we live. They have acted as enablers to a society that has tremendously self-destructive addictive habits. My own sense is that Bush and the Republican Party will be deeply discredited by their failure to confront the truth of our predicament until it was way too late. Unfortunately, the Democratic opposition has been, if anything, equally irresponsible and clueless. John Kerry said not a damn thing to really challenge the status quo.
The Germans and Brits are paying $5.50 a gallon and their societies are not collapsing. If they can handle $6 gas, why can't we?
The Europeans have very different ways of life and standards of living. They have cars but are not car-dependent, certainly not to the degree we are. They did not destroy their towns and cities. We did. They did not destroy their public transit. We did. They did not destroy local agriculture or the value-added activities associated with it. We did. If Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia got bumped off by a Wahabi maniac tomorrow and the West was put under a new oil embargo, the Europeans would still be able to get around. We would not.
You've been fairly pessimistic about "alternative" or "renewable" sources of energy, too. Is that because they're unfeasible, or that we can't get enough quickly enough?
I have been critical of these things. But mainly because the thinking about them has been so squishy and dumb. You've got Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute promoting what he calls a "hyper-car" for years and years, a car that gets super-great mileage -- say, 100 miles per gallon. Well, guess what the chief consequence of that stupid idea is: It promotes the belief that we can continue indefinitely being a car-dependent nation. Plus, it completely overlooks the tremendous damage that suburbia has done to our collective social lives, including the destruction of the public realm per se.
Mr. Lovins would have spent his time and money much more usefully on something like walkable communities, or being part of the New Urbanism movement. As a general rule, no combination of alt energy or systems to run it will allow us to continue running the U.S. as we have been running it. Virtually all of the bio-fuel schemes require more energy going in than they end up putting out. Hydrogen is essentially a hoax as it has been proposed. I believe the truth is that whatever so-called "renewables" we end up using will be at the extremely small, local scale -- perhaps the neighborhood or even household scale where solar is concerned.
In your remarks at Middlebury you predicted Bush won't finish out his second term because of the "Long Emergency" that's about to begin. Were you joking?
I refer you to my answer a few questions back. I believe that Bush and company will prove to have been so stupendously irresponsible in failing to prepare the public for the hardships we face, that it might be considered an impeachable offense. Yeah, I know Cheney is lurking in the background. He can be impeached too, and so can that fat, useless prick Dennis Hastert [Speaker of the House, R-IL].
In your book you talk about how declining oil reserves will change everything about how we live. What's the first crisis we'll see -- that is, other than oil-driven wars? The oil markets will wobble well before oil becomes scarce. We're already seeing much more volatility in the price. The international financial markets will also prove to be extremely sensitive to the perception that all future industrial growth is at risk without expanding supply of oil and natural gas. The value of a currency -- say, the dollar -- depends on what people think the prospects are of the country that stands behind it.
People around the world will look at our futureless, suburban-sprawl way of life and the economy that goes with it, and they may conclude that America's prospects are not so hot. When that happens, the value of the dollar will tank. That will, of course, have a severe affect on the housing market and the sprawl-building industry. The conclusion is pretty self-evident, I think.
The domino effect of changes in our way of life is staggering to think about. One thing comes to mind is how our relatively recent reliance on computers and the internet will be affected. Despite the advent of wireless technologies, most of us still depend on electricity for access. Any thoughts on this?
We have reason to believe that the electric grid is headed for trouble. Our natural-gas supply situation is actually quite a bit more ominous and immediate than even the oil situation, and a lot of our electricity is made with natural gas. Suffice it to say that the internet is only as good as the electric grid that supports it.
What would cities look like under an oil-crisis scenario?
We'll discover that our largest industrial cities will not work very well in an energy-scarce economy. New York and Chicago pose particular problems because they are so overburdened with skyscrapers, a building type that will soon be obsolete. As a general rule, our industrial cities have assumed a scale that is just unsustainable, and I believe will see a period of painful contraction. Many of these cities are already well advanced in that process: Detroit, St. Louis, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, et cetera -- the list is very long.
Los Angeles has special problems insofar as it is composed mainly of suburban fabric. The giant suburban metroplexes will also generally enter a state of failure. Phoenix and Las Vegas will be faced by additional problems with their water supply. Both will be substantially depopulated, in my opinion. In Las Vegas, the excitement will be over. The action in America will be in the smaller towns that are embedded in a surrounding countryside where agriculture is viable.
So all cash-strapped farmers and land owners should just try to hang on a little longer . . .
We can predict that life is going to become a lot more local, and that food production is going to occupy much more of the center of our economy. What we don't know is what kind of new social relations will form around land ownership. The Long Emergency, as I call this period ahead, will produce a lot of economic losers, people whose vocations are lost forever. Many of them will eventually find a place in food production, but exactly how that will shake out is a very interesting question. Will they sell their allegiance for food or physical security? That implies a kind of neo-feudalism. Will those who have land be subject to confiscations or assaults? During the disorders that accompanied the Black Plague in the 1300s, the countryside of Europe was beset by banditry. Will that happen in America? Hard to say.
What do these coming changes imply for education and employment? Where are the jobs going to be?
I doubt that our centralized schools with their yellow bus fleets will remain in operation many years from now. I imagine that whatever education there is will go not much beyond the equivalent of the eighth grade. I tend to think that many colleges will simply close up, especially the land-grant diploma mills. College, if it continues to exist at all, will once again be an elite activity, not a consumer activity.
As I said above, the Long Emergency will produce a lot of economic losers. Many types of jobs will cease to exist: public relations executive, marketing directors, et cetera. I think work will be very hands-on, and a lot of it will revolve around food production. We will, of course, have to completely reorganize our trade infrastructures, since Wal-Mart and its imitators will not survive the end of the cheap-oil era. The consumerist frenzy will be over. We will have far fewer things to buy.
You've envisioned the human reaction to the energy crisis will be a sociological clusterfuck. What can individuals do to prepare for the coming changes? Find a friend, a nice little spread out in the Green Mountains, a well, a windmill, some solar panels and the right seeds?
The most important thing, in my opinion, is to find a community proximate to viable agriculture -- namely, a town -- and to become a useful member of it. To prepare to be a good neighbor. Not everybody will have the skill or the strength to work in agriculture, and we will certainly need a wide variety of other things to be done. The rural idyll that many people entertain is a highly sentimental one, I'm sorry to say, based on our experience of recent years with cheap oil, easy automobile loans and plenty of electricity. There will be a much clearer distinction between rural and civic lives. In the Long Emergency, those who chose country living had better be prepared to lead rural lives.
Can you seriously foresee a path through the long emergency that will not involve violent social chaos? Will the suburbs be the new inner-city war zones?
I don't like the word chaos because it might tend to exaggerate what we actually face, which, in my opinion, is more properly described as turbulence, disorder, discontinuity and hardship. These things are bad enough, obviously, but they do not necessarily imply chaos and anarchy. I do believe that some places will be worse than other places. I think, for instance, that the Sunbelt will suffer in direct proportion to the degree that it prospered and benefited from the cheap-oil blowout of the past several decades.
Personally, I am a fairly cheerful person. The final question for anybody, whatever social and economic circumstances they find themselves in, is this: Am I leading a purposeful existence? I will be impertinent enough at this point to conclude by wishing us all good luck. We're going to need it.
THE LONG EMERGENCY
By James Howard Kunstler
** What's going to happen as we start running out of cheap gas to guzzle? **
March 24, 2005
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." [Actually, it was T.S. Eliot who famously wrote (not "remarked") this, and what he said was: "Human kind/Cannot bear very much reality" ("Burnt Norton," I, ll. 42-43, in Four Quartets) -- and it's not quite right to call Carl Jung "one of the fathers of psychology" either. Anyway, a better quote from T.S. Eliot for this piece would be this: "There is, it seems to us,/At best, only a limited value/In the knowledge derived from experience./The knowledge imposes a pattern, and falsifies,/For the pattern is new in every moment/And every moment is a new and shocking/Valuation of all we have been. ("East Coker," II, ll. 81-87, also in Four Quartets). --H.B.] 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 2005 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 terrorism.
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 conditions.
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 liability.
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.