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The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century
James Howard Kunstler
New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2005
307 pp., $23.00, hardcover
ISBN: 0-87113-888-3

For all of his widely accepted pose as a public intellectual, James Howard Kunstler fails here to achieve any vision for “surviving the converging catastrophes of the twenty-first century,” as his subtitle suggests. Rather, he uses the widely recognized peak in world oil production to further polish his long-time thesis that American suburbia represents “the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world…for a living arrangement that had no future.” That thesis has been well stated previously in his The Geography of Nowhere and Home from Nowhere, but here Kunstler expands his analysis to include the twenty-first century project of globalization, an energy intensive process which he sees to be as ill-advised and unsustainable without cheap energy as suburbanization. This is an entirely defensible position that he illustrates at some length.

Unfortunately, the emphasis here is on the systematic outlining of fateful, if not fatal, human choices during the century-long period of cheap and expanding energy which has just ended, with the implied subtext of the author’s prior wisdom whilst the citizenry was trapped in a “consensus trance.” Certainly, we realize, Kunstler foresaw “the end of industrial growth, falling standards of living, economic desperation, declining food production, and domestic political strife…of a post-oil world.” We have heard him in the past berate the intelligence of eating Caesar salads concocted from ingredients transported thousands of miles to the personal dining table, just as we have heard him propose New Urbanism as a viable and admirable lifestyle. Here, however, we learn only that the future looks bleak, that mankind is its own worst enemy.

After telling us that we have been sleepwalking into the future, Kunstler gleefully awakens us with “news” of a global oil production peak, the geopolitics thereof (Iraq, etc.), the reasons why alternative fuels are chimerical, the impending threats of climate change, epidemic disease, water scarcity, habitat destruction and “the dark side of the industrial age,” running on a “hallucinated economy.” Awake, we are forced to confront the false hope of “the hippie platform” of “mystical incunabula,” to recognize that “while Nixon tergiversated” around Watergate the United States lost its historical position as the world’s swing oil producer, and to realize that the world has slipped from our grasp, leaving us a choice between “anarchy or autarky.”

The universe in which that choice is to be made looks pretty grim, even if you have successfully ensconced yourself in a small town in upstate New York, as the author has. Calling upon the premises of William Catton’s Overshoot, a seminal text of the radical environmental community for a quarter-century, Kunstler finds our situation to be ultimately entropic, engaged with the spending down of energy of all kinds and “its translation into negative by-products.” Among those negative by-products, evidently, are people themselves. Much like Robert Kaplan and others who see an internecine future, Kunstler wastes his book's final chapter, ambitiously entitled “Living in the Long Emergency,” with fears of the “cracker” culture derived from the “deracinated sharecroppers” of the Reconstruction Era in the Atlantic Southeast; of Asian piracy on the high seas and into the ports of the Pacific Northwest; of the “hip-hop saturnalia” of the “black underclass;” and of the “reconquista or Aztlan movement among Mexican nationals living in the United States,” as promulgated recently by University of New Mexico professor, Charles Truxillo, among many others, according to Kunstler. Living outside the continental United States is not considered at all.

Geography and climate rule out the otherwise unthreatened Midwest, leaving only New England and the Middle Atlantic states like New York, the author’s home, as preferred places to weather the long emergency. Imagine the author’s awesome prescience in all of this! Forgive, also, this writer’s evident pique with the book, which offers credible, if familiar, arguments for the impending emergency, while failing to muster enough humanity to grapple with the situation. Kunstler’s final pages here offer fodder for science fiction writers of doomsday variations. Certainly, Philip K. Dick, long deceased, offered more insight into the human aspects of emergency in his classic short stories of the 1950s than this author does today.


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