“[Kunstler’s] undiluted, tell-it-like-it-is style is a potent mix of George Carlin humor and wit wrapped around an incisive Chomsky-like comprehension and understanding.”
– Thomas Wheeler, Baltimore Chronicle
“We may be on the road to disaster, but at least we’re still in the driver’s seat.”
– Greg Stacy, Orange County Weekly Date: October 31st, 2007
Place: Little Theater
4:30: Screening of The End of Suburbia
6:00: Discussion of The End of Suburbia and q&a with Dr. Steven Lang, Social Science
6:30: Special evening program: FilmMatic’s Halloween Havoc screening of The Toxic Avenger
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Readings “It’s the End of the World as We Know It,” Thomas Wheeler 4
“Running on Empty: The End of Suburbia and the future slums of Irvine,” Greg Stacy 6
“The Long Emergency,” James Howard Kunstler 7
Sample questions for discussion, writing, and research 1. In his article, “It’s the End of the World As We Know It,” Thomas Wheeler writes,
At the Earth Summit in 1992, George H.W. Bush forcefully declared, ‘The American way of life is not negotiable.’ That way of life requires a highly disproportionate use of the world's nonrenewable resources. While only containing 4% of the world population, the United States consumes 25% of the world's oil. (4)
The same problem was once framed in a different way by George Kennan, a national policy advisor to whom Mr. Bush awarded the Medal of Freedom in 1989:
We have about 50% of the world's wealth, but only 6.3% of its population. In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security.
By what methods is our current president, George W. Bush, attempting to preserve the “American way of life” by addressing the depletion of nonrenewable resources such as oil? Do you think he can continue to carry out such methods “without positive detriment to our national security”? Why or why not?
2. In his film review, Greg Stacy writes, “The End of Suburbia: Oil Depletion and the Collapse of the American Dream explains how America is about to go all Mad Max on us. The simple truth is we are literally running out of gas” (7). With the expression “go all Mad Max,” Mr. Stacy is alluding to The Road Warrior, a science-fiction film about the end of civilization, directed by George Miller (who is also the director of November’s “Save the Earth!” screening, Happy Feet). Find a modern-day idea, invention, discovery, or event that was first imagined in a science-fiction novel, story, or film. How does the real thing compare to the science-fiction version?
3. In “The Long Emergency,” James Howard Kunstler says:
No combination of alternative fuels will allow us to run American life the way we have been used to running it, or even a substantial fraction of it. The wonders of steady technological progress achieved through the reign of cheap oil have lulled us into a kind of Jiminy Cricket syndrome, leading many Americans to believe that anything we wish for hard enough will come true. (9)
Name at least five alternatives to oil that Kunstler mentions, and explain why he believes that none of them will “allow us to run American life the way we have been used to”. Do you find his reasoning persuasive? Can you find flaws in his argument?
4. Mr. Kunstler says that “[s]mall towns and smaller cities have better prospects than the big cities, which will probably have to contract substantially. The process will be painful and tumultuous” (12). Name at least five regions of the Continental United States that Mr. Kunstler says will be affected in different ways by oil depletion, and explain why he is more pessimistic or more optimistic about each of them. Do you agree with his reasoning? Can you find flaws in his argument?
5. Ending his essay on a note of odd lyricism, Mr. Kunstler says,
If there is any positive side to stark changes coming our way, it may be in the benefits of close communal relations, of having to really work intimately (and physically) with our neighbors, to be part of an enterprise that really matters and to be fully engaged in meaningful social enactments instead of being merely entertained to avoid boredom. Years from now, when we hear singing at all, we will hear ourselves, and we will sing with our whole hearts. (13)
In his speculative description about what life might be like in the America of the future, what does Mr. Kunstler appear to imply about American life as he sees it now? Do you agree with this implication? Why or why not?
Wheeler, Thomas. “It’s the End of the World as We Know It.” Baltimore Chronicle.
August 3, 2004.
A simple fact of life is that any system based on the use of nonrenewable resources is unsustainable. Despite all the warnings that we are headed for an ecological and environmental perfect storm, many Americans are oblivious to the flashing red light on the earth's fuel gauge. Many feel the "American way of life" is an entitlement that operates outside the laws of nature. At the Earth Summit in 1992, George H.W. Bush forcefully declared, "The American way of life is not negotiable." That way of life requires a highly disproportionate use of the world's nonrenewable resources. While only containing 4% of the world population, the United States consumes 25% of the world's oil. The centerpiece of that way of life is suburbia. And massive amounts of nonrenewable fuels are required to maintain the project of suburbia.
The suburban lifestyle is considered by many Americans to be an accepted and normal way of life. But this gluttonous, sprawling, and energy-intensive way of life is simply not sustainable. Few people are aware of how their lives are dependent on cheap and abundant energy. Are these Americans in for a rude awakening? In a fascinating new documentary, "The End of Suburbia: Oil Depletion and the Collapse of the American Dream," the central question is this: Does the suburban way of life have a future? The answer is a resounding no.
The film opens with the quote, "If a path to the better there be, it begins with a full look at the worst." You'd think from that opening we're in for a very depressing flick. Not so. Despite the serious subject matter, the documentary is actually quite engaging and entertaining. Not only is it informative for those already familiar with the issues but it's also quite accessible and enlightening for the uninitiated. It serves as great introduction and a real eye-opener for people who are largely unfamiliar with the topic of energy depletion and the impact it will have on their lives and communities.
"The End of Suburbia" marshals an impressive array of evidence that the growing energy demands of the "American dream" in suburbia will eclipse our planet's ability to provide it. The suburban way of life will soon become economically and ecologically impossible to maintain. We will see the inevitable collapse of the suburban lifestyle and the end of the American Dream. And it will happen within our lifetimes.
How bad will it get? Put it this way. We are looking at the mother of all downsizings.
For those who are familiar with the issues of peak oil and resource depletion, the usual suspects are here. They include Richard Heinberg, Michael Klare, Matthew Simmons, Michael C. Ruppert, Julian Darley, Dr. Colin Campbell, and Kenneth Deffeyes, among others. All of these individuals provide valuable information and insights concerning the coming energy crisis and the impact it will have on the lives of people on the North American continent.
But the standout star of the film is author and critic of contemporary culture, James Howard Kunstler. The sometimes humorous and always entertaining presence of Kunstler is prominent throughout the documentary--and for good reason. He grabs your attention. He explains in refreshingly blunt, easy-to-comprehend language that suburbia is screwed. His undiluted, tell-it-like-it-is style is a potent mix of George Carlin humor and wit wrapped around an incisive Chomsky-like comprehension and understanding. With Kunstler you get an intellectually penetrating person armed with a functioning bullshit detector wrapped up in an intensely candid New York attitude. Kunstler has a blog on the web he calls "The Clusterfuck Nation Chronicles" (kunstler.com). Need I say more?
Kunstler calls the project of suburbia "the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world" and says "America has squandered its wealth in a living arrangement that has no future." You immediately get the idea he's not exactly a fan of suburbia. How and why did this happen?
"The End of Suburbia" outlines the seemingly rational and logical impulse behind the project of suburbia, tracing the beginnings to the late 19th century when it was originally envisioned as an antidote to city life and an escape from the hideous aspects of industrialism. Modern suburbia traces its beginnings to just after World War II when the suburban project took off with a massive housing boom and the increasing dominance of the automotive industry. This car-centered suburban project ended up being the template for the massive development of the second half of the 20th century. That project was wrapped up, packaged, and sold to the American public as "The American Dream."
"The End of Suburbia" points out that the rise of the suburbs was made possible by abundant and cheap oil. It allowed for the creation of a system of habitation where millions of people can live many miles away from where they work and where they shop for food and necessities. And there is no other form of living that requires more energy in order to function than suburbia. But the voracious and expanding energy needs of our industrial society, our insane consumer culture, and the affluent suburban lifestyles are brushing up against the disturbing reality of finite energy resources.
The biggest impact will be felt by those who currently live in the sprawling suburbs of North America. The end of cheap oil will signal the end of their way of life. Frankly, many of the things we take for granted will come to an end. "The End of Suburbia" makes clear that the effects of energy depletion go way beyond paying more at the pump. It will literally get down to the question of how you will feed yourself and your family.
Although the documentary mostly avoids the gloom and doom of some peak oil theorists, it does occasionally touch on some of the darker aspects of fossil fuel depletion, notably how it will impact food production. The film briefly looks at the energy-intensive process needed to bring food to supermarkets. Our modern industrial agriculture relies heavily on petroleum for pesticides and natural gas for fertilizer, not to mention the energy used in planting, growing, harvesting, irrigating, packaging, processing and transporting the food. It stands to reason that if suburbia is going to collapse, it also means this centralized model of agriculture will collapse too.
"The End of Suburbia" shows how the suburban way of life has become normalized and reveals the enormous effort currently put forth to maintain it. On a foreign policy level, it means continued aggressive attempts to secure access to the remaining reserves of oil on the planet in order to prop up and maintain the increasingly dysfunctional and obscene suburban lifestyle. But "The End of Suburbia" makes it crystal clear that suburban living has very poor prospects for the future. Any attempt to maintain it will be futile. There will eventually be a great scramble to get out of the suburbs as the global oil crisis deepens and the property values of suburban homes plummet. Kunstler asserts that the suburbs will become "the slums of the future."
What about alternative sources of energy? "The End of Suburbia" points out that no combination of alternative fuels can run and maintain our current system as it is now.
What about hydrogen, you ask? The film does a great job of shooting down the hysterical applause for hydrogen. The idea of a hydrogen economy is mostly fantasy. Hydrogen is not a form of energy. It is a form of energy storage. It takes more energy to make hydrogen than you actually get from hydrogen. Same with ethanol. It is a net energy loser. It takes more gasoline to create and fertilize the corn and convert it to alcohol than you get from burning it. When you look at all the conceivable alternatives the conclusion is there is no combination of any alternatives that will allow us to continue consuming the way we do.
What is in our future? The consensus is the suburbs will surely not survive the end of cheap oil and natural gas. In other words, the massive downscaling of America--voluntary or involuntary--will be the trend of the future. We are in for some profound changes in the 21st century. The imminent collapse of industrial civilization means we'll have to organize human communities in a much different fashion from the completely unsustainable, highly-centralized, earth-destroying, globalized system we have now. There will need to be a move to much smaller, human-scale, localized and decentralized systems that can sustain themselves within their own landbase. Industrial civilization and suburban living relies on cheap sources of energy to continue to grow and expand. That era is coming to an end. One of the most important tasks right now is to prepare for a very different way of life.
While "The End of Suburbia" doesn't provide any easy answers, it does provide a much-needed look at the reality of the situation many in North America will be facing in the coming years. For that reason, "The End of Suburbia" is one of the most important must-see documentaries of the year.
Stacy, Greg. “Running on Empty: The End of Suburbia and the future slums of Irvine.”
Orange County Weekly. September 16, 2004.
It is the Southern California of some decades hence. Beneath a sky heavy with the lingering toxins of generations past, Irvine has fallen to ruin. The suburbs have become weedy slums, and streets once bustling with SUVs are now ominously quiet. Food is also in short supply, and desperate people are doing desperate things to feed their families. Is this the plot of some new, postapocalyptic thriller? Don’t we freaking wish. No, this is the far-too-likely future that all of us face. Apocalypse could just be coming to your neighborhood sooner than you think, and it won’t take World War III to make it happen.
With a minimum of lefty hysterics, the new documentary The End of Suburbia: Oil Depletion and the Collapse of the American Dream explains how America is about to go all Mad Max on us. The simple truth is we are literally running out of gas.
It isn’t news to most of us that oil is a non-renewable resource. We all remember those scratchy movies they showed us in elementary school in which cheerful cartoon dinosaurs explain the basics of fossil fuels. Many of us are even vaguely aware that fossil fuels are supposed to run out sometime in our lifetimes, but we’ve always assumed the government will cook up some sort of viable alternative fuel before things get really dire. Well, we would do well to remember that the government was supposed to have brought peace to the Middle East by now.
The End of Suburbia explains how hydrogen and ethanol, the two energy sources currently being widely touted as potential replacements for oil, simply won’t be able to keep up with the power demands of the world’s ever-increasing population; in fact, it takes more energy to create hydrogen than you’ll ever get from the stuff. Don’t believe W’s hype: there is really nothing in the works that will keep the world’s engines humming as loudly as oil has, and it’s unlikely we’ll come up with anything that will sustain us in the lifestyle to which we’ve grown accustomed. There will be a time of skyrocketing oil costs, increasingly bloody wars over resources and worldwide economic collapse, and eventually all the oil will dry up and the industrial age will grind to a halt. But hey, at least we won’t have to worry about those long commutes anymore, huh?
Directed by Toronto filmmaker Gregory Greene, who leads a post-screening discussion locally, The End of Suburbia isn’t quite as glum as it perhaps sounds. The film has a certain dark wit, and we’re not left to think humanity’s doom is simply inevitable. We may be on the road to disaster, but at least we’re still in the driver’s seat. A few sensible ideas for how we can possibly save our selves from our gristly fate are presented. These ideas do involve a lot of hard choices, sacrifice and self-control—things we Americans seem to get worse at all the time—but there’s still room for optimism. Perhaps these dire circumstances will force us into that communal utopia the hippies were always babbling about, a new age of healthy, responsible living and consciousness expansion and lots of groovy loose sex. . . .
Hmm. If you need me, I’ll be out in my garage, revving my car’s engine for a few hours. Just doing my part to burn off the last of that dinosaur sludge and get this goddamn Age of Aquarius started already.
Kunstler, James Howard. “The Long Emergency: What’s going to happen as we start
running out of cheap gas to guzzle?” Rolling Stone. March 24, 2005.
A few weeks ago, the price of oil ratcheted above fifty-five dollars a barrel, which is about twenty dollars a barrel more than a year ago. The next day, the oil story was buried on page six of the New York Times business section. Apparently, the price of oil is not considered significant news, even when it goes up five bucks a barrel in the span of ten days. That same day, the stock market shot up more than a hundred points because, CNN said, government data showed no signs of inflation. Note to clueless nation: Call planet Earth.
Carl Jung, one of the fathers of psychology, famously remarked that "people cannot stand too much reality." What you're about to read may challenge your assumptions about the kind of world we live in, and especially the kind of world into which events are propelling us. We are in for a rough ride through uncharted territory.
It has been very hard for Americans -- lost in dark raptures of nonstop infotainment, recreational shopping and compulsive motoring -- to make sense of the gathering forces that will fundamentally alter the terms of everyday life in our technological society. Even after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, America is still sleepwalking into the future. I call this coming time the Long Emergency.
Most immediately we face the end of the cheap-fossil-fuel era. It is no exaggeration to state that reliable supplies of cheap oil and natural gas underlie everything we identify as the necessities of modern life -- not to mention all of its comforts and luxuries: central heating, air conditioning, cars, airplanes, electric lights, inexpensive clothing, recorded music, movies, hip-replacement surgery, national defense -- you name it.
The few Americans who are even aware that there is a gathering global-energy predicament usually misunderstand the core of the argument. That argument states that we don't have to run out of oil to start having severe problems with industrial civilization and its dependent systems. We only have to slip over the all-time production peak and begin a slide down the arc of steady depletion.
The term "global oil-production peak" means that a turning point will come when the world produces the most oil it will ever produce in a given year and, after that, yearly production will inexorably decline. It is usually represented graphically in a bell curve. The peak is the top of the curve, the halfway point of the world's all-time total endowment, meaning half the world's oil will be left. That seems like a lot of oil, and it is, but there's a big catch: It's the half that is much more difficult to extract, far more costly to get, of much poorer quality and located mostly in places where the people hate us. A substantial amount of it will never be extracted.
The United States passed its own oil peak -- about 11 million barrels a day -- in 1970, and since then production has dropped steadily. In 2004 it ran just above 5 million barrels a day (we get a tad more from natural-gas condensates). Yet we consume roughly 20 million barrels a day now. That means we have to import about two-thirds of our oil, and the ratio will continue to worsen.
The U.S. peak in 1970 brought on a portentous change in geoeconomic power. Within a few years, foreign producers, chiefly OPEC, were setting the price of oil, and this in turn led to the oil crises of the 1970s. In response, frantic development of non-OPEC oil, especially the North Sea fields of England and Norway, essentially saved the West's ass for about two decades. Since 1999, these fields have entered depletion. Meanwhile, worldwide discovery of new oil has steadily declined to insignificant levels in 2003 and 2004.
Some "cornucopians" claim that the Earth has something like a creamy nougat center of "abiotic" oil that will naturally replenish the great oil fields of the world. The facts speak differently. There has been no replacement whatsoever of oil already extracted from the fields of America or any other place.
Now we are faced with the global oil-production peak. The best estimates of when this will actually happen have been somewhere between now and 2010. In 2004, however, after demand from burgeoning China and India shot up, and revelations that Shell Oil wildly misstated its reserves, and Saudi Arabia proved incapable of goosing up its production despite promises to do so, the most knowledgeable experts revised their predictions and now concur that 2005 is apt to be the year of all-time global peak production.
It will change everything about how we live.
To aggravate matters, American natural-gas production is also declining, at five percent a year, despite frenetic new drilling, and with the potential of much steeper declines ahead. Because of the oil crises of the 1970s, the nuclear-plant disasters at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl and the acid-rain problem, the U.S. chose to make gas its first choice for electric-power generation. The result was that just about every power plant built after 1980 has to run on gas. Half the homes in America are heated with gas. To further complicate matters, gas isn't easy to import. Here in North America, it is distributed through a vast pipeline network. Gas imported from overseas would have to be compressed at minus-260 degrees Fahrenheit in pressurized tanker ships and unloaded (re-gasified) at special terminals, of which few exist in America. Moreover, the first attempts to site new terminals have met furious opposition because they are such ripe targets for terrorism.
Some other things about the global energy predicament are poorly understood by the public and even our leaders. This is going to be a permanent energy crisis, and these energy problems will synergize with the disruptions of climate change, epidemic disease and population overshoot to produce higher orders of trouble.
We will have to accommodate ourselves to fundamentally changed conditions.
No combination of alternative fuels will allow us to run American life the way we have been used to running it, or even a substantial fraction of it. The wonders of steady technological progress achieved through the reign of cheap oil have lulled us into a kind of Jiminy Cricket syndrome, leading many Americans to believe that anything we wish for hard enough will come true. These days, even people who ought to know better are wishing ardently for a seamless transition from fossil fuels to their putative replacements.
The widely touted "hydrogen economy" is a particularly cruel hoax. We are not going to replace the U.S. automobile and truck fleet with vehicles run on fuel cells. For one thing, the current generation of fuel cells is largely designed to run on hydrogen obtained from natural gas. The other way to get hydrogen in the quantities wished for would be electrolysis of water using power from hundreds of nuclear plants. Apart from the dim prospect of our building that many nuclear plants soon enough, there are also numerous severe problems with hydrogen's nature as an element that present forbidding obstacles to its use as a replacement for oil and gas, especially in storage and transport.
Wishful notions about rescuing our way of life with "renewables" are also unrealistic. Solar-electric systems and wind turbines face not only the enormous problem of scale but the fact that the components require substantial amounts of energy to manufacture and the probability that they can't be manufactured at all without the underlying support platform of a fossil-fuel economy. We will surely use solar and wind technology to generate some electricity for a period ahead but probably at a very local and small scale.
Virtually all "biomass" schemes for using plants to create liquid fuels cannot be scaled up to even a fraction of the level at which things are currently run. What's more, these schemes are predicated on using oil and gas "inputs" (fertilizers, weed-killers) to grow the biomass crops that would be converted into ethanol or bio-diesel fuels. This is a net energy loser -- you might as well just burn the inputs and not bother with the biomass products. Proposals to distill trash and waste into oil by means of thermal depolymerization depend on the huge waste stream produced by a cheap oil and gas economy in the first place.
Coal is far less versatile than oil and gas, extant in less abundant supplies than many people assume and fraught with huge ecological drawbacks -- as a contributor to greenhouse "global warming" gases and many health and toxicity issues ranging from widespread mercury poisoning to acid rain. You can make synthetic oil from coal, but the only time this was tried on a large scale was by the Nazis under wartime conditions, using impressive amounts of slave labor.
If we wish to keep the lights on in America after 2020, we may indeed have to resort to nuclear power, with all its practical problems and eco-conundrums. Under optimal conditions, it could take ten years to get a new generation of nuclear power plants into operation, and the price may be beyond our means. Uranium is also a resource in finite supply. We are no closer to the more difficult project of atomic fusion, by the way, than we were in the 1970s.
The upshot of all this is that we are entering a historical period of potentially great instability, turbulence and hardship. Obviously, geopolitical maneuvering around the world's richest energy regions has already led to war and promises more international military conflict. Since the Middle East contains two-thirds of the world's remaining oil supplies, the U.S. has attempted desperately to stabilize the region by, in effect, opening a big police station in Iraq. The intent was not just to secure Iraq's oil but to modify and influence the behavior of neighboring states around the Persian Gulf, especially Iran and Saudi Arabia. The results have been far from entirely positive, and our future prospects in that part of the world are not something we can feel altogether confident about.
And then there is the issue of China, which, in 2004, became the world's second-greatest consumer of oil, surpassing Japan. China's surging industrial growth has made it increasingly dependent on the imports we are counting on. If China wanted to, it could easily walk into some of these places -- the Middle East, former Soviet republics in central Asia -- and extend its hegemony by force. Is America prepared to contest for this oil in an Asian land war with the Chinese army? I doubt it. Nor can the U.S. military occupy regions of the Eastern Hemisphere indefinitely, or hope to secure either the terrain or the oil infrastructure of one distant, unfriendly country after another. A likely scenario is that the U.S. could exhaust and bankrupt itself trying to do this, and be forced to withdraw back into our own hemisphere, having lost access to most of the world's remaining oil in the process.
We know that our national leaders are hardly uninformed about this predicament. President George W. Bush has been briefed on the dangers of the oil-peak situation as long ago as before the 2000 election and repeatedly since then. In March, the Department of Energy released a report that officially acknowledges for the first time that peak oil is for real and states plainly that "the world has never faced a problem like this. Without massive mitigation more than a decade before the fact, the problem will be pervasive and will not be temporary."
Most of all, the Long Emergency will require us to make other arrangements for the way we live in the United States. America is in a special predicament due to a set of unfortunate choices we made as a society in the twentieth century. Perhaps the worst was to let our towns and cities rot away and to replace them with suburbia, which had the additional side effect of trashing a lot of the best farmland in America. Suburbia will come to be regarded as the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world. It has a tragic destiny. The psychology of previous investment suggests that we will defend our drive-in utopia long after it has become a terrible liability.
Before long, the suburbs will fail us in practical terms. We made the ongoing development of housing subdivisions, highway strips, fried-food shacks and shopping malls the basis of our economy, and when we have to stop making more of those things, the bottom will fall out.
The circumstances of the Long Emergency will require us to downscale and re-scale virtually everything we do and how we do it, from the kind of communities we physically inhabit to the way we grow our food to the way we work and trade the products of our work. Our lives will become profoundly and intensely local. Daily life will be far less about mobility and much more about staying where you are. Anything organized on the large scale, whether it is government or a corporate business enterprise such as Wal-Mart, will wither as the cheap energy props that support bigness fall away. The turbulence of the Long Emergency will produce a lot of economic losers, and many of these will be members of an angry and aggrieved former middle class.
Food production is going to be an enormous problem in the Long Emergency. As industrial agriculture fails due to a scarcity of oil- and gas-based inputs, we will certainly have to grow more of our food closer to where we live, and do it on a smaller scale. The American economy of the mid-twenty-first century may actually center on agriculture, not information, not high tech, not "services" like real estate sales or hawking cheeseburgers to tourists. Farming. This is no doubt a startling, radical idea, and it raises extremely difficult questions about the reallocation of land and the nature of work. The relentless subdividing of land in the late twentieth century has destroyed the contiguity and integrity of the rural landscape in most places. The process of readjustment is apt to be disorderly and improvisational. Food production will necessarily be much more labor-intensive than it has been for decades. We can anticipate the re-formation of a native-born American farm-laboring class. It will be composed largely of the aforementioned economic losers who had to relinquish their grip on the American dream. These masses of disentitled people may enter into quasi-feudal social relations with those who own land in exchange for food and physical security. But their sense of grievance will remain fresh, and if mistreated they may simply seize that land.
The way that commerce is currently organized in America will not survive far into the Long Emergency. Wal-Mart's "warehouse on wheels" won't be such a bargain in a non-cheap-oil economy. The national chain stores' 12,000-mile manufacturing supply lines could easily be interrupted by military contests over oil and by internal conflict in the nations that have been supplying us with ultra-cheap manufactured goods, because they, too, will be struggling with similar issues of energy famine and all the disorders that go with it.
As these things occur, America will have to make other arrangements for the manufacture, distribution and sale of ordinary goods. They will probably be made on a "cottage industry" basis rather than the factory system we once had, since the scale of available energy will be much lower -- and we are not going to replay the twentieth century. Tens of thousands of the common products we enjoy today, from paints to pharmaceuticals, are made out of oil. They will become increasingly scarce or unavailable. The selling of things will have to be reorganized at the local scale. It will have to be based on moving merchandise shorter distances. It is almost certain to result in higher costs for the things we buy and far fewer choices.
The automobile will be a diminished presence in our lives, to say the least. With gasoline in short supply, not to mention tax revenue, our roads will surely suffer. The interstate highway system is more delicate than the public realizes. If the "level of service" (as traffic engineers call it) is not maintained to the highest degree, problems multiply and escalate quickly. The system does not tolerate partial failure. The interstates are either in excellent condition, or they quickly fall apart.
America today has a railroad system that the Bulgarians would be ashamed of. Neither of the two major presidential candidates in 2004 mentioned railroads, but if we don't refurbish our rail system, then there may be no long-range travel or transport of goods at all a few decades from now. The commercial aviation industry, already on its knees financially, is likely to vanish. The sheer cost of maintaining gigantic airports may not justify the operation of a much-reduced air-travel fleet. Railroads are far more energy efficient than cars, trucks or airplanes, and they can be run on anything from wood to electricity. The rail-bed infrastructure is also far more economical to maintain than our highway network.
The successful regions in the twenty-first century will be the ones surrounded by viable farming hinterlands that can reconstitute locally sustainable economies on an armature of civic cohesion. Small towns and smaller cities have better prospects than the big cities, which will probably have to contract substantially. The process will be painful and tumultuous. In many American cities, such as Cleveland, Detroit and St. Louis, that process is already well advanced. Others have further to fall. New York and Chicago face extraordinary difficulties, being oversupplied with gigantic buildings out of scale with the reality of declining energy supplies. Their former agricultural hinterlands have long been paved over. They will be encysted in a surrounding fabric of necrotic suburbia that will only amplify and reinforce the cities' problems. Still, our cities occupy important sites. Some kind of urban entities will exist where they are in the future, but probably not the colossi of twentieth-century industrialism.
Some regions of the country will do better than others in the Long Emergency. The Southwest will suffer in proportion to the degree that it prospered during the cheap-oil blowout of the late twentieth century. I predict that Sunbelt states like Arizona and Nevada will become significantly depopulated, since the region will be short of water as well as gasoline and natural gas. Imagine Phoenix without cheap air conditioning.
I'm not optimistic about the Southeast, either, for different reasons. I think it will be subject to substantial levels of violence as the grievances of the formerly middle class boil over and collide with the delusions of Pentecostal Christian extremism. The latent encoded behavior of Southern culture includes an outsized notion of individualism and the belief that firearms ought to be used in the defense of it. This is a poor recipe for civic cohesion.
The Mountain States and Great Plains will face an array of problems, from poor farming potential to water shortages to population loss. The Pacific Northwest, New England and the Upper Midwest have somewhat better prospects. I regard them as less likely to fall into lawlessness, anarchy or despotism and more likely to salvage the bits and pieces of our best social traditions and keep them in operation at some level.
These are daunting and even dreadful prospects. The Long Emergency is going to be a tremendous trauma for the human race. We will not believe that this is happening to us, that 200 years of modernity can be brought to its knees by a world-wide power shortage. The survivors will have to cultivate a religion of hope -- that is, a deep and comprehensive belief that humanity is worth carrying on. If there is any positive side to stark changes coming our way, it may be in the benefits of close communal relations, of having to really work intimately (and physically) with our neighbors, to be part of an enterprise that really matters and to be fully engaged in meaningful social enactments instead of being merely entertained to avoid boredom. Years from now, when we hear singing at all, we will hear ourselves, and we will sing with our whole hearts.
Booklet editing, design, and study questions by Sigmund Shen