Originally published 2010 in the warehouse
If you’ve ever driven or been driven somewhere, used a plastic container or its contents, eaten the produce of a fertilized field, purchased goods transported by airplane, truck or boat – in short, if you’ve done anything except live the life of a feudal peasant all your life, you have been benefitting massively from oil and its derivatives. Just a few of our favourite oil products include gasoline, diesel, naptha, kerosene, ethylene, propylene, benzene, ammonia, methanol, plastics, synthetic fibres, synthetic rubbers, detergents, and chemical fertilisers.
“Life as we know it today would be extremely difficult without crude oil and its by-products,” declares OPEC (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) on its website.
In The Long Emergency, a book I remember making a small media storm upon its release in 2005, author James Howard Kunstler invites us to imagine a world in which oil supply is highly contested, and eventually, a world in which oil might no longer be readily available at all.
We might be closer to this world than we’d like to think. This February, one of the world’s most famous beneficiaries of cheap oil, transportation-tycoon-slash-media-mogul, Richard Branson, the goateed British billionaire, delivered a stern wake-up call to his national government.
“The next five years will see us face another crunch – the oil crunch,” Branson is quoted by The Guardian. “Don’t let the oil crunch catch us out in the way that the credit crunch did.”
Few experts, including Kunstler, foresee any of the current energy alternatives – wind, solar, hydroelectric, etc. – being able to power our economy as effectively as oil. It’s fair to say that oil is our economy’s lifeblood. And as demand for oil ratchets ever upwards, the supply of plentiful and easily-exploited oil will only continue to diminish. At a certain point, the energy required to access the harder-to-reach oil, such as the Alberta tar sands, becomes excessive and no longer economically viable.
Predictions about declining cheap oil coalesce around “Peak Oil Theory,” pioneered by M. King Hubbert, who was a geologist for the United States Geological Survey and, later, chief of research for Shell Oil. Hubbert’s work underpins the arguments in Kunstler’s The Long Emergency. As far back as 1956, Hubbert made the prediction that the domestic oil production of the United States would peak between 1966 and 1972. This peak was the top of a bell curve; after this time, US production would steadily and inexorably decline.
Oil production in the US peaked in 1970 at a rate of 11.3 million barrels per day and has declined ever since. Today the US is a net importer of oil. Hubbert later turned his efforts to predicting the peak of oil production worldwide – a much harder task, since numbers from some sources are difficult, if not impossible, to verify. He predicted the peak would come between 1990 and 2000; subsequently, contemporary experts have placed it at 2005 or 2007.
So are we there yet? According to James Howard Kunstler, we’re “in the zone.”
I talked to Kunstler in early March. After decades as a journalist, including a stint as editor of Rolling Stone magazine, he now lives in the upstate New York town of Saratoga Springs, just off the Interstate 87 that takes you from Montreal to New York City. There are many things about Saratoga Springs that reflect Kunstler’s view of the kind of town that might work well in the post-peak oil future. It has a small, lively, and walkable centre. The buildings are modest in size. It’s the antithesis of NYC, the kind of city for which Kunstler holds out little hope.
“Big places won’t be governable,” says Kunstler. Later he adds, “Skyscrapers are obsolete.”
To embark on the imaginative project Kunstler undertakes is almost an exercise in psychology. For some, this exercise might lead to the conclusion that our society needs collective therapy.
We are victims of a “psychology of previous investment,” Kunstler tells me. That is to say, collectively, we’ve invested so much of our money and so many of our dreams in the current system that we refuse to change it. The consequences of this collective failure aren’t hard to spot. As Canadian cities, just like their American counterparts, agonize over the legacy of decades of building road-intensive infrastructure, with warning signs of decay occurring with discomforting frequency (think only of the collapse of two bridges; the one in Laval that killed five, or the one in Minneapolis-St. Paul that killed 13) we know the world we live in is fragile. Yet we continue to build new highways and suburban subdivisions all the time.
“We’re stuck in the practices of the 20th century,” says Kunstler.
But the 21st century is almost certainly going to catch up to us.
Think about anything that makes enormous demands of energy: car transportation, flying out for a holiday in Mexico, importing cheap shirts from Bangladesh, shipping mangos to Montreal in January, using combine harvesters and gallons of fertilizer to cultivate a cornfield, taking an elevator that will whisk you up 30 floors in mere seconds, riding school buses that burn a tank of fuel just to do one return trip to a school per day – all of this will give way to a life that Kunstler calls “intensely local.” Sprawling suburbs are doomed. Industrial agriculture is finished. Politics, economics and social norms will not endure as we currently understand them.
In his sardonic way, Kunstler tells me what “is likely to happen” next.
“I think it’s unlikely we’re going to respond to these problems intelligently,” he says “We’ll see regional and periodic scarcities starting within the next eighteen months… There’s liable to be a fair amount of conflict.”
The bigger picture, fleshed out in The Long Emergency, is an abandonment of suburbs and big cities, a retreat to small towns that will depend on their local farmland, and a return to an agrarian lifestyle not seen by most people in over one hundred years. We’ll have to relearn old skills, restore our capacity to make locally most of the things we actually need, such as bicycle tires, and figure out thorny issues around land allocation in a world where agriculture will once again be society’s main preoccupation. Kunstler sees little hope for Americans living in sun-scorched, desert regions such as southern California or Nevada. Here in Canada, we might similarly consider how survival might be eked out in a country that, for the most part, is climactically hostile to humans. If we have to return to burning wood to stay warm, how viable will life be in mid-January in Montreal, Calgary, Edmonton, or Winnipeg? At the same time, our working lives will surely change. The life of, say, a PR specialist working on the 28th floor of a gleaming downtown office tower is going to become an anachronism. Any activity not connected to producing food and goods of immediate practical value is likely to be deemed rather pointless.
This is the world Kunstler says we’re likely to inherit, but it is a world that he thinks few people are psychologically ready for. He cites psychologist, Carl Jung, in the opening of his book. “People cannot stand too much reality.”
Only the coming months and years can tell us exactly how much reality we can take.