The Long Emergency

Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century: A five-part video exploration with this author, lecturer, and de facto cultural historian.


James Howard Kunstler says he wrote The Geography of Nowhere, "Because I believe a lot of people share my feelings about the tragic landscape of highway strips, parking lots, housing tracts, mega-malls, junked cities, and ravaged countryside that makes up the everyday environment where most Americans live and work. His latest book, The Long Emergency, published by the Atlantic Monthly Press in 2005, is about the challenges posed by the coming permanent global oil crisis, climate change, and other "converging catastrophes of the 21st Century." He graduated from the State Univerity of New York, Brockport campus, worked as a reporter and feature writer for a number of newspapers, and finally as a staff writer for Rolling Stone Magazine. In 1975, he dropped out to write books on a full-time basis. He has no formal training in architecture or the related design fields. He has lectured at Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Dartmouth, Cornell, MIT, RPI, the University of Virginia and many other colleges, and he has appeared before many professional organizations such as the AIA , the APA., and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. From Orion Magazine Online Video Archives.

PART ONE: How the Hell Did We Get Here? (6:18)
Before trying to figure out how we’re going to get out of the oil mess we’re in, it might help to know a bit about how it all happened. Kunstler offers a casual history of the industrial experience (fossil fuel use), from the 17th century up to the modern period.
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PART TWO: Hubbert’s Curve, and Other Inconvenient Facts (8:11)
On the rise of OPEC and the turbulent 1970s—how it all happened, and what it means for us today.
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PART THREE: Reagan’s Short-Lived “Morning in America” (7:11)

On the 1980s, the 1990s, the “Jiminy Cricket” economy, and an awful lot of wishful thinking about alternative energy.
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PART FOUR: The Twilight of Wal-Mart (and Everything Else That’s Huge) (7:14)

On the symptoms of systemic failure. Without cheap oil for transport, will Wal-Mart be able to maintain its long-distance romance with China? Will FEMA even be able to answer the phone in twenty years?
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PART FIVE: Keeping the Lights On (6:06)

On facing the New Reality. We can begin to envision and to build a post-oil
“American Way of Life.” But are Americans ready? (Are they even listening?)
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Long Emergency Notes du Jour

The price of oil (in the $70s) is about double what it was when The Long Emergency first came out. The colossal edifice of miracle mortgage mischief that led to the housing bubble is now veering toward an unprecedented crash in real estate values and sales. The investment markets are wobbling as shock waves from non-performing loans shake the mile-high stacks of mortgage-backed securities, collateralized loan debt obligations, and all of the other Frankenstein investment instruments creatively engineered in the climactic orgy of cheap energy capitalism. The polar ice caps are toast (pardon the mixed metaphor) but you can apply to Al Gore for more details on climate change. (We're believers.)

In the past couple of years those paying attention to the oil scene have developed a deeper understanding of the oil production picture out there. Virtually all oil producers have made it clear that they are in terminal depletion (that is, past peak) except for secretive Saudi Arabia -- though their production figures speak for themselves, falling from 9.6 million-barrels-a-day in 2006 to 8.4 m/b/d so far in 2007. (And the suspicion is that Saudi Arabia's once-mighty Ghawar oil field is in decline.) The North Sea is in steep decline, ditto Alaska. Russia is verging on a steep production drop. Iran, Venezuela, Mexico, Kuwait, the UAE, are all past peak.

Meanwhile, Something very interesting and rather ominous is resolving out of blizzard of statistics, reports, scenarios, and competing interests in the background. This is the oil export crisis.

It is now apparent that oil exporting nations are seeing their exports falling at a much steeper rate than their production declines. The aggregate global oil production decline is running between 3 to 5 percent annually now, but the export decline is running above 7 percent. In five years, it may be as high as 50 percent. That means the major importing nations (the US, Europe, Japan, China, India) will only be getting half the imports they get now -- and bear in mind that the US imports more than two-thirds of the oil we use.

The poster-child for this problem -- as far as the US is concerned -- is Mexico. 60 percent of Mexico's oil production comes out of a single super-giant field, Cantarell, off the Yucatan in the Gulf of Mexico. Cantarell is the second largest oil field ever discovered (after Saudi Arabia's Ghawar). It came into production relatively late in the oil age and was subject to very aggressive drilling with the latest technology (horizontal bores, gas injections to keep pressure up) with the result that it was only depleted more efficiently. The aggressive production may have also damaged its geologic structure. The net result now is that production out of Cantarell is crashing very steeply, at a minimum of 15 percent a year. That means in six or seven years, Cantarell is finished. However, long before then, Mexico will lose its ability to export oil to the US.

That's going to be a mighty big problem -- or set of problems. For one thing, Mexico is America's number 3 source of oil imports (after Canada and Saudi Arabia). So, in two or three years, we will lose our number three source of foreign oil. By the way, there is no real evidence that "new discoveries" oil "new production" anywhere in the world will offset global production drops.

The Mexican government depends on it's nationalized oil production (Pemex) for 40 percent of its operating revenue. So, what we're also looking at South-of-the-Border is the potential for a lot of economic and political turmoil as the Mexican government loses revenue and loses its ability to maintain its social safety net (which includes food subsidies). The upshot of all this is that the US is likely to see a ramp-up in illegal immigration. The last time there was turmoil in Mexico -- the long revolution that ran from 1913 to 1940 -- one quarter of the Mexican population left, and most of them landed in the US. The population of Mexico then was about 23 million. Now it's over 100 million. If this turmoil escalates into violence, the US may even have a military problem with Mexico.

As this occurs, though, there will be plenty of other trouble with oil resources elsewhere around the world, and that will be reflected in global finance and the condition of national economies. The US consumes close to 20 million barrels of oil a day, and we produce less than 5 million. Something will have to give.

In light of these circumstances, we have a few suggestions for the people of Saratoga to think about:

Perhaps we should examine our assumptions about motor-based tourism. This is the twilight of Happy Motoring. The tourist economy here had better make plans for visitors to get here by other means -- and that pretty much means getting our railroad infrastructure back to a high level of service. We have a new train station, but it is in an extremely awkward location. It will require far better connections to downtown than just the taxi-cab fleet. And the track roadbed between Schenectady and Montreal will require major refurbishing.

We'd better stop investing in parking structures. The future will not be about cars. We know it's hard for people to believe this, but you just have to overcome your incredulity. These massive expenditures for parking will come to be seen as massive misallocations of scarce capital resources.

We will be going through a natural gas scarcity crisis along with the permanent global oil crisis. In the current cycle of development here in Saratoga, developers have made the huge mistake of putting individual gas furnaces in all the new condo units, both office and residential. In a few years, the homeowner's associations of these buildings will face substantial expensive retrofits to put in central heating. We're not sure what we'll be heating with when gas becomes either too expensive or relatively scarce. A simple process of elimination points to coal. We're not even sure that the design of these buildings can accommodate the requisite plumbing or ducting. But they'd better start thinking about this.