Review of James Kunstler's book: "The Long Emergency"

by David S. Lawyer mailto:dave@lafn.org

2006 (minor revision April 2007)

1. Introduction

2. Hyperbole and Other Errors

3. Oil Depletion Comments

4. Omission of the Financial and Manufacturing Problems of the U.S>

5. Wrong on Railroads

6. Favorable Comments

7. Concluding Remarks


1. Introduction

This book, (Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century by James Howard Kunstler, 2005, 307 pages) is a doomsday scenario of the possible eventual results of society's wasteful and extravagant consumption of oil and other fossil fuels. Kunstler correctly recognizes that overpopulation is also a cause.

A book like this is sorely needed, but unfortunately, Kunstler has produced a book bloated with hyperbole and other errors. It also fails to back up most of its controversial assertions with references. At the same time, the general thesis of the book is, in my opinion, likely correct and I tend to agree with the summary of the book printed on the book flaps, except for the statement that the book is "authoritative". It's a shame that a book on such an important topic will be rejected by many due to its obvious exaggerations and questionable conjectures.

I personally believe that the increasing scarcity of energy resources, along with huge debts (both government and private) and increasing foreign trade deficits will results in a severe depression to the economy of the United States. Due to the depleted state of our both our resources and our manufacturing industry, it will be very difficult (if not impossible) to recover from such a depression. This is what Kunstler calls the "long emergency".

Bear in mind when reading my critique that I agree with Kunstler on most major points, especially about the likelihood that no advanced technology will emerge in time to save us from our fate. So let's start with some examples of hyperbole (or "hype") and other errors.

2. Hyperbole and Other Errors

p.1 line 15: "... we are now headed off the edge of a cliff. Beyond that cliff is an abyss of economic and political disorder on a scale that no one has ever seen before." A depression, or even a famine, can happen without political and economic disorder. Economic decline and political change are likely, but "disorder"? And in the past there has been some pretty terrible events if one considers the famines and plagues that swept across Europe in the middle ages. What about past civilizations that totally collapsed? For example, the ones described in the recent book: "Collapse".

p.2 line 4: "I predict that we are entering an era of titanic international military strife over resources." and p.3 line 28: "The decline of fossil fuels is certain to ignite chronic strife between nations contesting the remaining supplies. These resource wars have already begun. There will be more of them."

The Iraq war is sometimes claimed to be mainly about oil, but the reason the US gave for invading Iraq was that they had weapons of mass destruction which they claimed not to have. And apparently Iraq's claim was correct and we wrongfully invaded. Even if they did have such weapons, this invasion would have been in violation of the United Nations Charter without UN Security Council sanctions. In the recent book "State of Denial" by Bob Woodward (2006) he claims from interviews of various people involved in the decision to go to war with Iraq, that it was about moral reasons: bringing democracy to Iraq and elimination of weapons of mass destruction. Thus it wasn't about oil, unless it was a secret motive which Woodward didn't hear about. But the people he talked to revealed so much negative information about the decision making process and about President Bush, who strongly supported going to war, that one would expect that if the oil motive was discussed, it would have been revealed to him.

p.3 line 19: "Even mild to moderate deviations in either price or supply [of oil and gas] will crush our economy and make the logistics of daily life impossible." Right now in mid 2006 we have a least a moderate increase (deviation) in the price of gasoline (now at about $3/gallon). But it hasn't crushed the economy. It does and will have a significant negative impact on the economy but life still goes on pretty much as it did before the run-up in price.

p.6 line 25: When discussing the Malthus suggestion of "moral restraint" for limiting population growth: " `moral restraint', i.e. the will to postpone marriage or forgo parenthood (from a perhaps antiquated notion that the ability to support a family might enter into anyone's plans for forming one)". The ability to support a family certainly does effect many people's decision regarding starting a family (especially for having children). For example, birth rates in the U.S. dropped during the great depression in the 1930's. In Russia, the children born per woman dropped to 1.28 in 2005 due to the severe depression resulting from the demise of the Soviet Union in 1990.

p.9 end of 3rd par.: "Global warming will contribute to conditions that will shut down the global economy." With ships likely reverting to sails and some railroads operating with electricity generated by hydroelectric power, the global economy may wind up much diminished by not "shut down". Global warming will likely improve conditions for human habitation in existing cold climates so it's not all bad (but likely more bad than good).

p.11 line 17: Regarding the global 1918 flu epidemic: "That flu, ... affected the outcome of World War I, toppled three dynasties (the Hohenzollerns in Germany, the Hapsburgs of Austria, and the Romanovs of Russia), and set the course of the world toward fascism, communism, and the Second World War." If this is true, why don't the history books say so? The flu epidemic hit with full fury in the last few months of 1918, but the Russian revolution which toppled the Romanov dynasty happened in 1917 before the flu epidemic. Germany's losing of the war (the armistice was in Nov. 1918) resulted in the other dynasties toppling. But the flu hit both sides in the war and was likely not decisive in the allied victory over Germany. Where are any references to support Kunstler's claim?

p.12 last 3 lines: Regarding importing a la Wal-Mart "The ability to globalize industrial manufacturing this way stimulated a worldwide movement to relax trade barriers that had existed previously to fortify earlier comparative advantages." Actually, these earlier trade barriers often created new artificial comparative advantages rather then fortified existing ones. If one nation has a comparative advantage for a certain good, there is no need for any trade barrier in order to export that good.

p.14 last 3 lines" "The Soviet fiasco had proven that a state without property laws or banking was just another kind of scaled-up social Ponzi scheme running on cheap oil and slave labor." A Ponzi scheme? The material success of the Soviet Union was real. They constructed and electrified a railroad system which carried a volume of freight equal to the total railroad freight volume of the rest of the world. Of course plans that require quantity rather that quality produce goods of inferior quality which was widely recognized during the Soviet "glasnost" period.

p.15 line 7: "since the 1970s, all monies,... floated on a collective hallucination of relative value, rather than being pegged to a fixed medium of value, such as gold." Money which is not backed by real value still seems to work since people accept it in exchange. Calling this "hallucination" is hyperbole.

p.15 line 27: Regarding the moving of production to other countries (globalism). "It was also like a convoluted liquidation sale of the accrued wealth of two hundred years of industrial society for the benefit of a handful of financial buccaneers, ..." But production moved to areas of low labor costs benefited retailers and their numerous shareholders. Overall, the effect is negative but to say it just benefited a "handful" is hyperbole.

p.16 line 27: "For instance, conditions over the past two decades made possible the consolidation of retail trade by a handful of predatory, opportunistic corporations, of which Wal-Mart is arguable the epitome." The corporations sought out the lowest cost goods which turned out to be imported goods. Would not any profit maximizing company behave in the same way? This has resulted in lower cost to the consumer (but also resulted in very detrimental trade deficits). "Predatory" is likely hyperbole.

p.19 line 14: "The state-of-the -art mega suburbs of recent decades have produced horrendous levels of alienation, loneliness, anomie, anxiety, and depression." If they are so bad, why do people choose to live there? I think that "horrendous" represents hyperbole.

p.17 line 6: "Markets will close as political turbulence and military mischief interrupt trade relations." Markets are more likely to contract due to financial collapse of the US due to other countries unwillingness to loan us money and buy our assets. The US went thru a 10+ year depression of the 1930's without "military mischief" and even the current "military mischief" of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars don't seem to be closing markets.

p.18 line 2: Regarding the fate of suburbia. "Nor is a jolly Green Giant going to come and pick up the millions of suburban homes on their half-acre lots on cul-de-sac streets in the far-flung subdivisions and set them back down closer together to make civic environments?" Why is it better to have them closer together? If they are on half-acre lots, these lots may be used for growing food during the long emergency for the people that live there.

p.21 line 4: "But I don't doubt that the hardships of the future will draw even the most secular spirits into an emergent spiritual practice of some kind." Why? If there is a benevolent god, why did he allow this long emergency to happen. During the great depression of the 1930s there was no massive turning to religion (except superficially by the homeless in order to get aid from religious organizations --and that's still happening today).

p.22: Regarding the early 1900's: "How amazing it must have been to witness everyday life improving so dramatically, and how this procession of marvels must have induced people to think that the human race was moving toward exactly the sort of perfection that the Enlightenment philosophers had promised." While it's claimed elsewhere that these philosophers believed in the perfectibility of man, it's hyperbole to say that they promised it. With the horrors of World War I starting in 1914, it's unlikely that relatively many people thought we were moving towards perfection.

p.23 line 19: "Everything characteristic about the condition we call modern life has been a direct result of our access to abundant supplies of cheap fossil fuels." Well, suppose that fossil fuels were not so abundant. Let's say we only had 10% of what we actually have. Now if we could have keep population growth down so that the population was only 10% of what it is today, we could have all the wasteful characteristics of today's modern life. But if instead of negative population growth we had conserved energy by say heavily taxing energy and building workers housing next to their workplaces (perhaps under socialism), etc. then we could still have modern life with computers that would only use a fraction of the energy today's desktops need. Such computers are easy to make, just look at the high energy efficiency of laptops as compared to desktops. So many of the characteristic of modern life could still have been provided even if we had far less amounts of fossil fuels.

p.23 line 22: "Fossil fuels rescued us from the despotic darkness of night." "Despotic ?" I think of the wonder of being outdoors at night far away from the city lights under the moon and stars. It's a beautiful sight to behold and not at all "despotic". Well, it's nice to be able to read at night but hydro-electric power could do this also if it were frugally used.

p.24 line 9: "... the global oil production peak. This is the point at which we have extracted half of all the oil that has every existed in the world ..." Wrong! It's actually the point at which we have extracted half of the oil for which it will be economically feasible to extract. Abandoned oil fields always have lots of oil still left in the underground rock but it's not economically feasible to extract it. Once depletion reaches an extreme level, it may require more energy to extract the remaining oil than the energy the oil will give when used as a fuel. As a result, a lot of oil from old oil fields is destined to remain "locked" in the ground.

p.24 line 16: Regarding the alleged half of the oil remaining in the ground after the mis-defined "peak" has been reached. "Much of the remaining half is difficult to extract and may, in fact, take so much energy to extract that it is not worth getting, ..." Not so if Kunstler has used the correct definition of "peak". With "peak" correctly defined, the remaining half of the oil will be economical to extract and will indeed be extracted and thus be "worth getting". The effect of this error by Kunstler is to greatly (and erroneously) decrease the oil reserves of the world.

p.26 line 22: "When we think about it at all, most Americans seem to believe that oil is superabundant, if not limitless." In a survey several years ago most people thought that we needed to find ways to avoid importing so much oil such as by improving efficiency. Now this wouldn't be necessary if oil in the US were superabundant. So the majority of Americans likely don't believe it's superabundant. Can Kunstler point to some survey that agrees with his statement?

p.39 line 20: "The United States remained the world's leading oil producer and exporter for much of the twentieth century. ... World War II left American preeminent in the oil business for a quarter-century afterward." It turns out that except for importing 6.6% of our oil around 1920, we were a net exporter until after World War II which ended in 1945. By 1950 we were importing about 9% of our oil and this percentage drifted upward from then on. By 1970 (a "quarter-century" after World War II) we were importing about 22% so this is not exactly "preeminent" as Kunstler claims. (See the book: "Energy in the American Economy" p.86 Table 22: Production and Consumption of Oil, Five-year Intervals 1860-1955. For 1950-present see "Transportation Energy Data Book" (annual) Table "United States Petroleum Production, Imports and Exports, 1950-2004", etc.

p.40: Regarding American cities by the 1950's: "They were short on amenity, overcrowded, and artless. Americans were sick of them and saw no way to improve them." Historically, people moved from the rural areas to cities partly because the cities had better amenities. This was likely also true around 1950. The arts flourished in the cities. How can Kunstler say they were "artless"?

There are likely very many additional examples of error and hyperbole beyond page 40 but I was so disgusted with the book at this point that I didn't document them further. In fact, he just skimmed over much of the remaining text.

3. Oil Depletion Comments

The problem of oil depletion is not a new one and John Ise in his 1926 book "The United States Oil Policy" stated that he thought it was wrong to use petroleum as a fuel. I think the quality of Ise's book was an order of magnitude better than Kunstler's book (written about 80 years later).

There was also some concern about oil depletion back in the 1950's. For example, when I was in college studying engineering in the mid 1950's someone was seriously considering changing her major field to solar energy because of this. The university I went to allowed engineering students to declare any major field they wished, even it there were no formal classes offered in that area.

4. Omission of the Financial and Manufacturing Problems of the U.S>

The subtitle of the book: "Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century" implicitly implies that the book should include a significant discussion of the dire financial state of the U.S. economy. But it doesn't. The US faces the very serious problems of rising debt, foreign trade imbalance and projected rising costs of social security (including Medicare). There has been a lot written about these problems and they are so severe that they could result in the financial collapse of the United States, which is able to pay it's current bills only with the infusion of money from foreigners to the tune of over $2 billion a day. How will we manage it when government bills become much higher as large numbers of baby-boomers retire and draw more social security, Medicare, etc. and as our oil supplies become even more depleted and we attempt to import even more oil (we now import over 2/3 of it)?

For a country that needs to import increasing quantities of oil and other goods, the responsible way to pay for it is to manufacture goods for export. But except for building new houses and buildings, our manufacturing base has seriously deteriorated. Look at the labels of goods in stores and you'll notice that not too much is being made in the U.S.A. anymore. This includes oil of course, but oil is only part (and a big part) of the larger problem which Kunstler's book seems to mostly ignore.

5. Wrong on Railroads

On p. 266: "An obvious answer to the decline of the car-and highway system would be to revive the American railroad network ..." and on p. 267: ".. as trains are exceedingly efficient for moving people and freight."

But in reality, railroads are not much more energy efficient than automobiles for moving people because they are so heavy as I've shown in Rail vs. Auto Energy Efficiency. My historical studies also tend to support this conclusion (see references in the above article).

Kunstler is mostly right about good energy efficiency of moving freight by rail instead of truck. See Rail vs. Truck Energy Efficiency. Except for cases of low density goods, rail freight is significantly more energy-efficient than hauling by truck.

Kunstler promotes rail electrification as being of significant help. But it would not help that much. The Soviet Union did a huge amount of railway electrification and found that the energy efficiency of electric traction isn't much better that the energy efficiency of diesel traction. See my website http://www.lafn.org/~dave/trans/rail/electric_rr.html

An advantage of electric railroads is that you have a wider choice of fuels. As petroleum becomes scarce, you can generate electricity (to power trains) by coal and make global warming even worse since burning coal releases more CO2 per unit of heat content. Hydro-electric power resources are mostly all being used and we would have to decrease electricity consumption by over 90% in order to be able to say that trains were running on hydro-electric power. Other so called "renewable" options for generating electricity may use about as much fossil fuel energy as would be the case if one directly used the fossil fuel to generate electricity. On p. 267 Kunstler states "The trains could be powered by electricity produced at nuclear power plants." True, but what about the unsolved problems of waste disposal and what about the fossil fuel energy required for the nuclear power?

On p. 265 regarding the demise of the electric interurban railways in the U.S.: "The story of the conspiracy by General Motors and other companies to destroy the U.S. interurban system is well documented." He should have said that the myth is well documented. Interurban streetcars were on the decline and being replaced by buses well before General Motors (GM) entered the picture. So GM was convicted of using monopoly practices to sell their own buses for replacement of streetcars instead of using competitive bidding for buses. But this had little to do with the demise of the interurban rail lines which often took a lot longer than the auto to travel on from door-to-door. The fact that the auto was often over twice as fast to make trips with, had everything to do with the demise of the interurban lines as well as their slow operation over city streets on parts of their routes. But the interurban lines might have been of future use and in the reviewer's opinion, probably should not have been dismantled.

See The Great GM Conspiracy Legend

6. Favorable Comments

Overpopulation is a major cause of our problems and this has been recognized by Kunstler in Chapter 1 (about p. 10). That's great! On p. 11, 3rd par. he says that regimes "might be tempted to deploy designer viruses against their own masses ..." to kill off surplus population. He has been wrongfully criticized for this, where the critic has failed to quote the phrase "might be tempted". Such critics imply that Kunstler said this will happen when he actually only implied that it is possible but perhaps unlikely. If one is "temped" to do something, one doesn't necessarily do it. And Kunstler isn't even claiming that people will be tempted to do this but makes the weaker claim that they "might" be tempted.

7. Concluding Remarks

As you can see, I only got a little over 10% of the book read but found so many things wrong that I didn't have the time nor inclination to read more. I think that this book is very important since other authors don't talk so bluntly about the stark consequences of what I would call the forthcoming permanent depression (and Kunstler calls the long emergency). But due to it's inaccuracies and exaggerations, you had better know a lot about the topics he presents and read it bearing in mind that the author is constantly using hyperbole. I would suggest getting his book from a library (as I have done) instead of buying it.