Thursday, May 1, 2008

The Long Emergency

The Long Emergency by James Howard Kunstler is a sobering view of a post- 'peak-oil' America. 'Peak-oil' refers to the point in time when the maximum rate of global petroleum production is reached, after which the rate of production enters its terminal decline. Basically, the point when we've pumped out more than half of the oil that has ever been created. There are many estimations for when this will occur, as there are many factors that make it nearly impossible to predict. For instance, it is in the producer's best interest to keep their reserves secret...Saudi Arabia has maintained that they have around 260 billion barrels, but that figure has not changed in 40 years. Sure, we can keep finding new reserves and creating new technologies that allow us to reach oil that was previously uneconomical...but this cannot go on forever. Kunstler takes a rather pessimistic view, saying the peak will occur between 2000 and 2010.

This means we have used about half of all the oil that was ever created...great, right? That sounds like we have plenty of time. The only problem is the world uses a bit more oil these days than it has in the past, actually a lot more. In fact we've used 25% of all the world's reserves in the past decade. The author estimates at current trends, we have about 35-40 years left of oil...the oil that is the hardest to get...and if it takes more input energy than you get out, it is not a winning proposition. Bottom line, we WILL run out of oil someday, it's only a matter of when.

The problem with this, we soon realize, is that our entire way of life - modern western civilization - has been created and subsidized by copious amounts of cheap energy. Contemplate the rise of technology after the discovery of oil...kerosene lamp, car, plane, transistor, computer, space flight...all within about 100 years. When this cheap source of energy is expended, what happens? Perhaps a regression to a time prior to the industrial revolution? Unfortunately, there is no inherent guarantee that human advancement will continue; especially in a continuous, unbroken, upward slope. There have been regressions in the past; mighty and advanced civilizations have faltered before...

The optimist in us all believes that some magic technology will rescue us, perhaps some alternate fuel that is in the works right now. The author does a pretty good job of systematically raining on the parade of every legitimate alternate fuel source. Natural Gas, Hydrogen, Fuel Cells, Coal, Hydroelectric, Solar, Wind, Synthetic Oil, Thermal Depolymerization, and Nuclear are all discussed and largely discounted.

After a few chapters discussing how he feels global warming is going to get us and how the global economy is destined to fail and how the suburbs are the bane of human existence, he hits us with his view of life in America without cheap oil: The Long Emergency.

I'm not going to ruin the ending, you'll have to check it out for yourself. I will just say that the book is very pessimistic, and at times it seems as though he is relishing the thought of his post-apocalyptic existence. The biggest problem with the book is that I can't really find too many faults with his logic (he was wrong about Y2k, however). Peak oil is either upon us now, or will be in our lifetime. Any alternative that we currently have is either more expensive or has other major drawbacks. I feel it may come down to not 'if'; but 'when', and 'how severe'. I highly recommend this book. While I don't think (and certainly don't hope) the future will be as dire as depicted; I do think there are some important insights to be gleaned concerning overall trends that could be instrumental in making sound long-term decisions: where to live/retire, employment, investing, etc. These insights can also be leveraged in everyday decision making: what we eat, what we buy, who we buy from, etc.; that may lessen or even prevent The Long Emergency. But you don't have to take my word for it...head down to your local library and check it out for yourself.

Edit: The first 90 pages can be found here.

Until next time...

1 comment:

Daniel Plainview said...

So, ladies and gentlemen... if I say I'm an oil man you will agree.