Monday, 27 October 2008

the long emergency [w. james howard kunstler]

I am glad I've finished this book. Firstly I'm glad because the first half of it, to its credit, succeded in its pessimistic mission to scare the life out of its readers. Secondly, because this is a book which seems to take more pleasure from its prophesies of doom than the quality of its prose. Lastly, because, in spite of everything, I am pleased to be able to write this on my hangdog laptop, as fireworks flower on a glittering London skyline.

Kunstler's thesis is that the oil is going to run out sooner than we think, and when that happens, the lights are going to go out sooner than anyone is prepared to conceive. There will be no more blogging, he might well have written, with his penchant for emphatic statements. There will be no more lights, no more computers and probably far too many fireworks. The reason the first part of the book is so depressing is because the author is stringent in his arguments and they are convincing. The oil is on its way to running out. Maybe not as soon as he thinks, but even then, the peak oil argument he explains with forthright clarity means that an oil-addicted society will start to unravel long before the last drops are wrung from the planet. All the alternatives we assume are going to come riding to the rescue - nuclear, wind, solar etc - he dismisses as no real substitute for the role our black gold plays in lubricating every aspect of our society. He makes the point that if we don't have the means to transport materials, it's not going to be easy to keep nuclear power plants up and running.

As a consequence, this is a book one hopes politicians and other individuals who probably spend rather a lot of time in powerful cars or burning aviation fuel take note of, and soon. The kind of changes to the way our societies work, which the book implies we need to make sooner rather than later, will need to be initiated by those who control power in our society. Leadership is a commodity that seems to have lost its currency in the modern world, but it will need to be rediscovered if societies are not to implode at the same rate economies are doing at the moment.

As the book goes on, and Kunstler describes a projected breakdown of the United States with more and more relish, you know that he's secretly longing for the day his country returns to something rather closer to the one the Founding Fathers created. There is obviously an up-side to living a quiet, rural existance, with cottage industries making things local societies really need; rather than inhabiting a world where global industries ship products around the world that are far from being essential to our survival as a species. Kunstler's attack on a culture that has turned its land into a sprawling suburban mall complex seems eminently reasonable.

It's always been tempting to run off to the Uruguayan coast and grow my own vegetables, and the thesis of The Long Emergency suggests that this is probably now the wisest course of action. However, for some reason I can't always get my head around, it also feels like it would be a dereliction of duty. If the lights do go out, and the fireworks never stop, (they have just paused, having flourished over Kensington during the writing of this review), notions of society, in a world that has sometimes claimed to have moved beyond it, will become far more important than they are now in these oil-rich days of plenty.

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