books energy sustainability transition towns

The Long Emergency, by James Howard Kunstler

James Howard Kunstler has a knack for observing the way we live, and imagining what that will mean for the future as current trends unfold. He built his reputation around his theories of suburbia, best described in his book ‘The Geography of Nowhere’, which was required reading on my university course. (See post earlier this week for a summary lecture on suburbs)

‘The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the 21st Century’ is broader in scope, combining peak oil, climate change, economic abstraction and debt, water shortages and health scares. Altogether, the world faces a ‘long emergency’, the slow undoing of our unsustainable society.

It’s not a cheerful proposition, but the inevitable consequences of how we have chosen to live. As oil becomes expensive, international trade will become expensive too. Supermarkets and centralised distribution will be no longer be economically viable. Suburban living and commuting won’t be possible, at least not with private cars. Life for the average American, as this is a US-centric book, will look very different.

Similarly, current water usage is unsustainable, as aquifers are tapped for irrigation. Agriculture has been too dependent on fertilisers, resulting in soil loss. We have created a “technological lock-in”. All our infrastructure is geared around patterns of resource use that cannot go on indefinitely.

Kunstler also joins my club of people who foretold the financial crisis. “By the time you read this, it is very likely that the housing bubble will have begun to come to grief” he writes in 2005. “If large numbers of house owners cannot make their mortgage payments Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and by extension the federal government, would be the big economic losers.” Indeed.

The most useful sections of ‘The Long Emergency’ are at the end, describing a “comprehensive downscaling, rescaling, downsizing, and relocalizing of all our activities.” You could summarise this as a series of trends:

  • Localization: the end of cheap energy will require a reverse globalisation, to local food, local trading, ‘walkable’ towns, and all-round greater self-sufficiency.
  • A new focus on agriculture: Before fossil fuels, 30% of the US population was involved in farming. Now just 1.6% work the land. As fossil fuels are depleted, we’re all going to need more farmers.
  • Old forms of transport: As yet, there is no convincing alternative to oil, and private cars may well be a thing of the past by the end of the century. We could well see a rise in investment in trains and canals instead, and even greater use of animals.
  • Repairing: All consumer goods will become progressively more expensive after peak oil. Consumerism and the throw-away culture will grind to a halt, and we will need to learn to mend, repair, and recycle more.
  • Towns, not cities: “small towns surrounded by productive farmland” will be the best places to live. Suburban houses will be drastically devalued once driving becomes expensive.
  • Vocational training: jobs like marketing, PR, and tourism may gradually lose importance, while skills such as horticulture, carpentry, or animal husbandry would be increasingly in-demand.

Not all of Kunstler’s predictions ring true, like the sections on international epidemics (I would suggest that the chances of global epidemics will be substantially lower in a more localised world), but overall ‘The Long Emergency’ is a realistic and compelling analysis of where we are headed.

  • The Transition Handbook‘ deals with the same issues, with a positive spin, and shows what you can do about it.


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