Book Review: The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century, by James Howard Kunstler


Reviewed by Bruce Rhodes


August 30, 2005


If this is the truth about the future, you'll want to know about it


This is the most sobering book I've ever read. If you want to be confronted with just how bad things could get as humanity consumes the remaining fossil fuel supplies, take a deep breath and read this book. The end of life as we know it may not need to stem from a nuclear war or from a major natural disaster; rather, it could well arise from our love affair with the increasingly popular and ultimately fatal suburban lifestyle that, to be sustained, demands excessive amounts of infrastructure and vast quantities of cheap energy.

I lost sleep most nights during the week I read The Long Emergency, and am still troubled by its grim, yet plausible predictions for the future. North Americans are literally sleepwalking into the future. Most citizens are incapable of conceiving how current lifestyles that rely on cheap oil and polluting without bearing all of the consequences could lead to total economic collapse and profound social upheaval within a generation or two.

Author James Howard Kunstler predicts that as oil and natural gas become increasingly scarce and expensive, the US will have no choice but to burn through its remaining coal supplies, with great environmental costs. Nuclear power, if jurisdictions can afford to build reactors, may prolong our energy-intensive way of life for a while. Beyond this, we may be limited to burning firewood to stay warm. Kunstler holds out little hope for alternative energy sources replacing our fossil fuels; solar, wind, geothermal and biomass will provide only a fraction of the energy we use today, and hydrogen is faced with so many storage and distribution issues that it will never take hold as all of its enthusiasts would like.

Kunstler predicts that material standards of living will go down for virtually everyone in North America. We will, out of necessity, consume less energy, live much more locally, and be heavily tied to the land as we make the procurement of food our single biggest activity. Air travel will all but disappear. Wal-Marts and other large-scale enterprises will collapse. Federal governments may be unable to operate, and may become irrelevant as local stewardship of resources becomes the thing that really matters to most people.

Those who are likely to be best off (or should I say the least worst off) will be residents of small towns near to farmland, without a ring of modern subdivisions to separate homes from arable land. Examples of such communities are found in upstate New York, where the author lives. Skills in demand will include animal husbandry and farming, the ability to repair things, and carpenters. People willing to collaborate and build networks locally stand the best chance of getting what they need to survive, if not live a decent, albeit slower, life.

I highly recommend this book. Politicians, and those responsible for formulating public policy, would do well to be exposed to this cold, brutal picture of future reality. For what it's worth, Kunstler is not alone with his bleak assessment: Canada's Dr. David Suzuki said that the prospects for humankind are akin to a handful of people travelling in a car at 100 miles per hour toward a brick wall, while they argue over who gets to sit in which seat.

The good news is that Kunstler's future, if it is to unfold, will not do so tomorrow. We'll have years to prepare for it. The bad news is that so few people detect, let alone respond to, the signals that suggest that our current energy-intensive way of life is not sustainable. I believe that the future as depicted in this book is inevitable; however, we could, were we not so selfish and independent-minded, postpone the arrival of that unwanted future, likely by decades. Unfortunately, I don't see human beings collaborating to forestall these unwanted circumstances, so I have begun to think through the steps that my family and I will take in the next few years to make our time on this planet as decent as possible. Key questions are: where ought we to live? What skills will we be able to barter? In what form should we keep our wealth (a basement full of boxes of candles and gold wafers kept in a safety deposit box may have more staying power than shares in big corporations)? I have no answers yet, but I am working on it.