Tag: James Howard Kunstler

More reflection on being human!

The voice of reason from James Howard Kunstler.

Yesterday, I published a Post that I called What it is to be human.  It was inspired and based on the compelling film I AM‘ by Tom Shadyac.  As so often seems to happen, shortly after completing yesterday’s Post, an item from Chris Martensen’s Blog caught my eye.

Chris publishes the blog Peak Prosperity and on July 14th Chris had an item featuring James Howard Kunstler.

Let me give you an idea of that item from Chris.

Author and social critic James Howard Kunstler has been one of the earliest, most direct, and most articulate voices to warn of the consequences — economic and otherwise — of modern society’s profligate wasting of the resources that underlie its growth.

In his new book, Too Much Magic, Jim attacks the wishful thinking dominant today that with a little more growth, a little more energy, a little more technology — a little more magic — we’ll somehow sail past our current tribulations without having to change our behavior.

Such self-delusion is particularly dangerous because it is preventing us from taking intelligent, constructive action at the national level when the clock is fast ticking out of our favor. In fact, Jim claims that we are past the state where solutions are possible. Instead, we need a response plan to help us best brace for the impact of the coming consequences. And we need it fast.


James Howard Kunstler

Mr. Kunstler is the author of the very successful book The Long Emergency and his latest book, as mentioned above, Too Much Magic expands on his alarming argument that our oil-addicted, technology-dependent society is on the brink of collapse, ergo that the long emergency has already begun.  His website is here.

Anyway, back to the Chris Martenson’s piece.  Chris goes on to quote Mr. Kunstler, as follows:

[We now live in] this weird, peculiar period in American history when the delusional thinking has risen to astronomical levels — predictably, really — in response to the stress levels that our society feels. And it is expressing itself as sort of “waiting for Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy” to deliver a set of rescue remedies to us so that we can continue running Wal-Mart, Walt Disney World, Suburbia, the U.S. Army, and the Interstate Highway System by other means. That is the great wish out there. It is kind of understandable, because that is the stuff that we have, and people tend to defend the stuff that they have in any given society and the systems and platforms that they run on. But it is probably a form of collective behavior that is not really going to benefit us very much and really amounts to simply wasting our time, and wasting our dwindling resources, and even our spiritual resources when we could be doing things that are a lot more intelligent.

Here is something I have detected as I travel around the country: There is a clamor for “solutions.” Everywhere I go, people say “Don’t be a doomer; give us solutions.” And I discovered that the subtext to all that is they really want solutions for allowing them to keep on living exactly the way they are living now. To keep on running Wal-Mart, and keep on running Suburbia, and keep on running the highway system, and the whole kit of parts. And what that really means is that they are looking for ways to add on additional complexity to a society that is already suffering from too much complexity.

(Read the full article here.)

There is a podcast of the interview with James Kunstler here and also on YouTube, as below.

My own reflection on this item, as with so many other articles, essays and items available to read online, is that the power of the Web is informing and educating millions of people around the world in a way that Governments and the media have failed to so do.

That promises change and, maybe, sooner than we might expect.

The Long Emergency, part two.

The concluding extract from James Kunstler’s powerful book.

Last Friday, I published the first part of the extract that so powerfully articulated the madness of present global policies (especially US policies) with regard to oil.  Let me continue.

The first part finished thus, “Yet, I was not soothed by these thoughts, nor by the free eats, and even the liquor failed to lift me up because I couldn’t shake the recognition that in the short term we are in pretty serious trouble, too.”

There is near unanimity among the scientific community that global warming is happening.  There is also a definite consensus emerging that the term “climate change” may be more accurate than “global warming” to describe what we are in for.  The mean temperature of the planet is going up.  The trend is unmistakable.  Average global land temperature was 46.90 degrees Fahrenheit [Ed. 8.278 °C.] when modern measurements began and had reached 49.20 degrees F [Ed. 9.556 °C.] in 2003.  The rate of change has also increased steadily.  The total increase of 2.30 degrees might seem trivial, but has tremendous implications.  And the rise in temperature happens to correlate exactly with the upward scale of fossil fuel use since the mid-nineteenth century.

It may not matter anymore whether global warming is or is not a by-product of human activity, or if it just represents the dynamic disequilibrium of what we call “nature.”  But it happens to coincide with our imminent descent down the slippery slope of oil and gas depletion, so that all the potential discontinuities of that epochal circumstance will be amplified, ramified, reinforced, and torqued by climate change.  If global warming is a result of human activity, fossil fuel-based industrialism in particular, then it seems to me the prospects are poor that the human race will be able to do anything about it, because the journey down the oil depletion arc will be much more disorderly than the journey up was.  The disruptions and hardships of decelerating industrialism will destabilize governments and societies to the degree that concerted international action – such as the Kyoto protocols or anything like it – will never be carried out.  In the chaotic world of diminishing and contested energy resources, there will simply be a mad scramble to use up whatever fossil fuels people can manage to lay their hands on.  The very idea idea that we possess any control over the process seems to me further evidence of the delusion gripping our late-industrial culture – the fatuous certainty that technology will save us from the diminishing returns of technology.

So for the purposes of this book, the relevant question concerning global warming and climate change is not whether human beings caused  it or whether we will come up with some snazzy means to arrest it, but simply what the effects are likely to be and what they signify about the way we will live later on this century.

This extract from the book was published in 2005, although there is an Afterword included that was published in 2009.  So to bring things more up to date, here’s a video of James Kunstler speaking about peak oil just about a year ago.

In this fourth video in the series “Peak Oil and a Changing Climate” from The Nation magazine and On The Earth Productions, James Howard Kunstler discusses how finance and energy are running neck and neck to fuel the end of advanced industrial civilization.

For more videos in the series, visit The Nation.

Plus for those that are interested in the data of global land-surface temperatures, here’s a two-minute video showing the temperature change over the last 200 years.

For more information about this study visit http://berkeleyearth.org. Berkeley Earth video representation of the land surface temperature anomaly, 1800 to the present. The map of the world shows the temperature anomaly by location over time. The chart at the bottom, shows the global land-surface temperature anomaly. The Berkeley Earth analysis shows 0.911 degrees Centigrade of land warming (+/- 0.042 C) since the 1950s.

The Long Emergency, part one

A reflection on the huge changes facing our global society.

I am reading James Howard Kunstler’s book The Long Emergency.  On the front cover there is a quote from a review in The Independent newspaper, “If you give a damn, you should read this book.”  On the back cover, the quote, “Stark and frightening.  Read it soon.” – Daily Camera.  The quotes are spot on!

Rather than give my own opinion at this stage (I should finish the book first!), let me quote from the opening of Chapter Five, Nature Bites Back.

I was a at a four-day conference called Pop Tech in the seaside village of Camden, Maine, at the peak of the fall foliage season in October 2003, having a pretty good time at the talks, and enjoyiong a series of extravagant dinners – one featuring a free oyster raw bar and gratis Grey Goose vodka – not to mention all the lobsters, steaks, and other products of our bountiful cheap-oil economy.  Then, on Saturday afternoon, a scientist from the University of Washington, Peter D. Ward, got up in the old-time opera house where the conference was held and did a presentation about the life and death of the planet Earth,  Using a series of vivid artist’s renderings delivered on PowerPoint, Ward showed us how, hundreds of millions of years hence, all land animals would become extinct, the green forests and grasslands would broil away, the oceans would evaporate, and eventually our beloved planet would be reduced to a pathetic ball of inert lifeless lint – prefatory to being subsumed in the expanded red giant heat cloud of our baking sun.  Few members of the audience had any appetite for the spread of cookies and munchables laid out for the break that followed.  Personally, I was so depressed that I felt like gargling with razor blades.

The human spirit is remarkably resilient, though.  A few hours later, the horror of it all was forgotten and the conference-goers reported to the next supper buffet with the appetites recharged, happy to scarf more lobster and beef medallions and guzzle more liquor, while chatting up new friends about their various hopes and dreams for the continuing story of civilized life here on good old planet Earth, which, it was assumed, had quite a ways to go before any of us needed to worry about its fate, if ever.

Wasn’t it John Maynard Keynes who famously remarked to a group of fellow economists dithering about the long-term this and the long-term that: “Gentlemen, in the long term we’re all dead.”  Our brains are really not equipped to process events on a geological scale – at least in reference to how we choose to live, or what we choose to do in the here-and-now.  Five hundred millions years is a long time, but how about the mad rush of events in just the past 2,000 years starring the human race?  Rather action-packed, wouldn’t you say?  Everything from the Roman Empire to the Twin Towers, with a cast of billions – emperors, slaves, saviors, popes, kings, queens, navies, rabbles, conquest , murder, famine, art, science, revolution, comedy, tragedy, genocide, and Michael Jackson.  Enough going on in a mere 2,000 years to divert anyone’s attention from the ultimate fate of the earth, you would think.  Just reflecting on the events of the twentieth century alone could take your breath away, so why get bent out of shape about the ultimate fate of the earth?  Yet, I was not soothed by these thoughts, nor by the free eats, and even the liquor failed to lift me up because I couldn’t shake the recognition that in the short term we are in pretty serious trouble, too.

OK, that’s enough for today – I’ll continue this important extract on Monday.  Let me close by inviting you to watch James Kunstler in interview.

20:20 hindsight

One of the great aspects of modern web-based communications is that much of what is said, written and recorded is available to peruse long after the item was ‘broadcast’.

Prof. Ehrenfeld

A few days ago, I introduced Prof. David Ehrenfeld via a short, but stunningly clear, five-minute YouTube video.  I promised to follow that up with more material.

So here’s a book review undertaken by Prof. Ehrenfeld.  The book in question is The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century. James Howard Kunstler. x + 307 pp. Atlantic Monthly Press, 2005. $23.  Here’s the review in full from The American Scientist website.  Read it carefully and ponder that this review goes back to Autumn 2005, about five and half years ago. Great foresight.

James Howard Kunstler begins The Long Emergency with the hope that “the American public will wake up from its sleepwalk and act to defend the project of civilization” while there is still time. “Throughout this book,” he writes, “I will concern myself with what I believe is happening, what will happen, or what is likely to happen, not what I hope or wish will happen.” The reality that our society is currently refusing to face, Kunstler says, is that time is just about up for industrial civilization as we have known it.

Kunstler’s thesis is straightforward: Malthus was right, but cheap oil has postponed the day of reckoning, creating a century-long “artificial bubble of plenitude” and generating a host of intractable problems partly or entirely related to our prolonged energy spending spree. These problems include serious damage to our agricultural infrastructure, global climate change and the reorganization of living places into unsustainable suburbs and cities. Now cheap oil is disappearing fast, leaving only the problems behind.

What sets The Long Emergency apart from numerous other books on this theme is its comprehensive sweep—its powerful integration of science, technology, economics, finance, international politics and social change—along with a fascinating attempt to peer into a chaotic future. And Kunstler is such a compelling, fast-paced and sometimes eloquent writer that the book is hard to put down.

Beginning with the story of Edwin L. Drake, who drilled the world’s first oil well in northwestern Pennsylvania in August 1859, Kunstler takes us through the development of the global oil-based economy of the 20th and early 21st centuries. He carefully traces the origins of the idea, first proposed by geologist M. King Hubbert, that oil consumption by modern industrial society will draw down current and potential supplies in a predictable way. Hubbert’s 1956 prediction of the date of “peak oil” production in the United States (which he put at sometime between 1966 and 1972) was strikingly accurate—the peak occurred in 1970. After Hubbert’s death in 1989, the distinguished petroleum geologists Colin Campbell and Jean Laherrère, Princeton geologist Kenneth Deffeyes, University of Colorado physicist Albert Bartlett and others adapted his model and applied it to global oil production, yielding a prediction that the global peak would occur between 2000 and 2010.

As pointed out by Richard A. Kerr and Robert F. Service in the July 1, 2005, issue of Science, petroleum geologists tend to accept this “pessimistic” prediction of the date when the global peak will be (or has been) reached, whereas “optimistic” dates farther in the future are being advanced primarily by resource economists. Kunstler sides with the geologists, and his fast-paced but detailed discussion of the economics of oil supports this position. In his chapter “Geopolitics and the Global Oil Peak,” he comes to grips with a complex mix of elements: Middle Eastern and Islamic nationalism, terrorism, Chinese industrial growth and the overwhelming problems of Russia, the world’s second-largest producer of oil. These are set against a backdrop of diminishing supply, as one country after another, including Saudi Arabia, passes its oil peak. Kunstler’s explanations of why the Saudis can no longer control world oil prices (they lack the reserves to increase production much beyond what they are already pumping) and of the immense significance of that loss of control are particularly insightful. American politicians have not yet grasped this new reality.

The book’s lengthy discussion of the alternatives to cheap oil that are so beloved by techno-optimists is straightforward and sobering. Kunstler gives all of the alternatives a critical but fair inquiry, from conventional energy sources such as coal and natural gas, through oil shales and tar sands, synthetic oil, renewable energy (including wind, solar and hydroelectric power and biomass), nuclear fission and nuclear fusion, hydrogen, thermal depolymerization (turning organic waste into oil), methane hydrates and even zero-point energy.

Most of these technologies founder on “the classic problem of energy economics: energy returned over energy invested (ERoEI). “The figure in the case of tar sands and oil shale is approximately three barrels of oil produced for every two barrels of oil-equivalent invested. In the case of ethanol produced from agribusiness corn or sugar cane, the ratio may be less than one. Some alternatives, such as methane hydrates, are dangerous to handle. Hydrogen is not a primary fuel: Its production requires considerable energy. Also, because of the low density of hydrogen gas, it must be stored and transported under high compression, or liquefied at very low temperatures, or combined with other compounds. Each of these options costs still more energy, and they introduce an assortment of complications and hazards into the delivery system. Although hydrogen will have its uses, Kunstler says, his verdict is unequivocal: “There is not going to be a ‘hydrogen economy.'” Nor is he sanguine about such far-out schemes as a process for deriving zero-point energy from the dark matter of the universe; he reminds us that “A useful maxim in engineering states that when something sounds too good to be true, it generally is not true.”

Kunstler’s moderate treatment of nuclear power (fission) has angered some environmentalists. I think he makes a good case, however, that during the transition period to a post-petroleum economy, the United States, which produces much of its electricity from a rapidly declining supply of natural gas, will not be as well off as France, which gets 80 percent of its electric power from nuclear energy. Nevertheless, he does not see nuclear power as more than a short-term stopgap. Its ultimate limitations come first from safety issues with regard to plant operations and the disposal of waste fuel (although he points out that coal has cost far more lives than nuclear power, especially in the West). Second is the large amount of oil needed to mine and process nuclear fuel and to build and maintain nuclear plants. And the third, formidable objection Kunstler makes is that “Atomic fission is useful for producing electricity, but most of America’s energy needs are for things that electricity can’t do very well, if at all. For instance, you can’t fly airplanes on electric power from nuclear reactors”—although, as he notes, the U.S. military has tried.

Kunstler describes a host of natural disasters that will interact with the energy crisis to cause social upheaval on a global scale. No country will be exempt, he says. Some of these disasters, such as climate change, are the direct result of our profligate use of cheap energy. Others, including the widespread shortage of fresh water, have been greatly augmented by the drain on resources brought about by the explosion of high-oil-input agriculture, industrialization and changes in living habits. All of those natural disasters, however, including the emergence of new infectious diseases and the re-emergence of old ones, will be much harder to cope with when cheap energy is no longer available. Our efforts will also be confounded by diminishing returns on technology and by “technological regress—the loss of information, ability, and confidence.”

The Long Emergency is more than a list of disasters, present or impending. It is an attempt to understand how we got to where we are. Nearly 100 years of cheap oil have allowed us, even prompted us, to construct an economic and social system that depends utterly (often without our knowledge) on a continuous, never-failing energy subsidy. The system cannot stand on its own feet. It is unstable, lacking internal restraints and negative feedbacks, and most of all it undermines all stabilizing alternatives, such as diverse small businesses and local community support systems. Kunstler’s understanding of history and economics helps him delineate this clearly.

My only complaint about the book is that it lacks an index, which is inexcusable for a text so crammed with names and facts. Kunstler’s use ofentropy as a synonym for social disorder may bother readers who prefer that the term be reserved for discussions of thermodynamics, but an accepted definition of the word is “inevitable and steady deterioration of a system or society.”

One question that most readers of this review will ask is, When will the coming collapse occur? As Kunstler notes, Deffeyes—perhaps not entirely in jest—has predicted on National Public Radio that the global oil peak will occur on Thanksgiving Day, 2005, with “‘an uncertainty factor of only three or four weeks on either side.'” But the closest thing to a hint of Kunstler’s position on the subject is found in his remark in the last chapter that “The denizens of Bergen County, New Jersey, or Fairfield County, Connecticut, today may never believe how desperate their localities may become in 2025.” He is probably wise to be vague. As the great biochemist Erwin Chargaff remarked in his 1978 autobiography, Heraclitean Fire, “On the whole, professional pessimists prove right at the end if one does not hold them too tightly to a time scale.”

The last (and longest) chapter of The Long Emergency is also the most innovative and controversial one. Having made a powerful case that it is too late to avoid serious trauma, Kunstler speculates on what life will be like during the painful transition period, as cheap petroleum wanes. The question is well worth asking, if only to stimulate creative thinking about alternatives to a high-energy lifestyle. The book is not a survivalist tract, but Kunstler argues persuasively that life will be better in some geographic regions of the country than in others and better in some kinds of communities than in others. Factors such as the availability of water, the degree of dependence on automobiles and air-conditioning, the regional tolerance for violence and the persistence of strong communities lead him to conclude that the states of New England, the mid-Atlantic, and the upper Midwest that make up the “Old Union” of the Civil War period, along with the Pacific Northwest, will fare much better than the Southwest, the Rocky Mountain states and the Southeast.

Within each region, however, conditions will not be uniform. Kunstler, whose earlier book The Geography of Nowhere established him as heir presumptive to the intellectual legacy of Lewis Mumford, describes America’s automobile-dependent suburbs as “the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world.” It is the suburbs, he thinks, that will suffer the most during the coming energy crisis. (I concur, having taught the same message in field courses in suburban New Jersey for 30 years.) And cities, with their skyscrapers and total food dependence, will not, Kunstler claims, be far behind the suburbs in misery.

There is much more in the final chapter than I can do justice to in a review: The many topics discussed include, among others, the new economy and new commerce that will accompany the end of oil-dependent consumer culture (he predicts the demise of the chain stores and the rise of scavenging), possible political fragmentation of the nation, changes in education, the end of romantic childhood and changes in race relations. The picture he paints is incomplete—he doesn’t say what will happen to health care, the arts or entertainment in the long emergency—but there is material enough to provoke scientists and laypeople alike into considering what lies ahead.

Kunstler, like George Orwell, understands that being honest about the past and present is the only way to prepare ourselves for an uncertain future. Civilization, he believes, will survive the end of cheap oil, but not without great loss. “How many … familiar things in time may go?” he wonders. “What will abide in our collective memory?” Not all readers will accept his answers to these questions, but I think we must be grateful to him for showing us the need to ask them.

A timely reminder that so very often it is knowing what questions to ask that matters most!