James Howard Kunstler
- As modern interpolators might say, the bubonic plague winnowed down Europe’s population to a scale more congenial with its resource base. After that big first wave of the disease, [the] land was cheaper and human labor better rewarded. Eventually, more food got around. Incidentally, the plague provoked nostalgia for the classical antiquity of Greece and Rome, especially among the scholars of Florence, launching the extravaganzas of the Renaissance [which led to the Age of Exploration and the Scientific Revolution], the Enlightenment [which led to the Industrial Revolution which, in turn, led] […] eventually [to] our own pageant of techno-supremacist Modernity.
- "Dance Macabre," May 18, 2020.
- […] Life is tragic and history won’t shed a tear for us if we make poor collective decisions, or adopt beliefs that are inconsistent with reality.
- "The Old American Dream Is a Nightmare," March 9, 2011.
- We've achieved a global human population of about 7 billion as of this writing. Peak human population will surely lag... peak oil and peak mineral resources until these conditions express themselves as food shortages. This means that the human population will continue to rise for a while, even as we begin to encounter these... strict resource limits. It’s not possible to estimate how much the population will increase because the relationship between energy and mineral resources and food production is a very fragile equation, subject to any number of discontinuities. To these, add the complications of weather disasters arising from climate change, including drought, the spread of plant diseases, and so forth. This lagging further rise in human population will only make the inevitable contraction more acute once food shortages begin. Anyway, 7 billion already amounts to a human population overshoot in relation to the planet earth’s [sic] ecology. We're putting a strain on everything the earth has to offer us. While the combination of peak stuff and 7 billion humans is forcing the issue, ...the truth is that circumstances will now determine what happens, not policies or personalities.
- Too Much Magic (2012), p. 10.
- An overwhelming majority of scientists who have looked into the matter agree that global warming is underway and is probably caused by people burning fossil fuels. This is the meta-fact hovering over all the details. After all, in [mining and] burning so much coal, oil, and gas we've released [a fraction of] 460 million years of sequestered carbon into the atmosphere in a mere two hundred years. There are consequences for doing this. The trajectory of climate problems has gotten only more severe since I discussed the issue in The Long Emergency in 2005. Greenhouse gas emissions have exceeded predictions. The IPCC report expects a sea level rise of at least three feet by 2100; James Hansen of NASA says possibly seventeen feet. If that is the case, there would be no need to argue over the finer points of how many square miles in the Netherlands would be underwater [...] along with Bangladesh, many Pacific islands, most of Florida, and the Mississippi River Delta, Houston, Jacksonville, Key West, and thousands of other places. [We need to] remember [that] most of the people on the planet live near the world’s seacoasts.
- Too Much Magic, p. 203.
- It’s getting harder to conceal the deaths and injuries caused by the vaccines, including a striking drop in fertility and the permanent damage to millions of people’s immune systems that will lay them low with cancer, neurological illness, and cardiovascular disease in the months ahead.
- How Low Can You Go?, 2022
World Made by Hand (2008)Edit
Kunstler, James Howard. World Made by Hand. New York, NY: Grove Press, 2008. Print. ISBN 978-0-8021-4401-0.
- In the early twenty-first century farming had all but died out here. We got our food from the supermarket, and not everybody cared where the supermarket got it as long as it was there on the shelves. A few elderly dairymen hung on. Many let their fields and pastures go to scrub. Some sold out to what used to be called developers, and they'd put in five or ten poorly build houses. Now, […] there were far fewer people, and many houses outside [the] town were being taken down for their materials. Farming was back. That was the only way we got food.
- Chapter 1, p. 5
- We lived more by the sun than by the clock, but I did own a clock. It was an eight-day windup console clock which I kept on the mantel in the living room, and it was the only timepiece in the house that worked anymore.
- Chapter 4, p. 20
- Living by the clock was an old habit that died hard. Not much that we did required punctuality, but people still wanted to know what time it was.
- Chapter 4, p. 20
- The racket was coming over what used to be our public radio station, WAMC out of Albany, but the familiar [...] voices [...] were long gone. Some febrile evangelist was railing from the Book of Revelation.
- Chapter 4, p. 20
- I switched on the television on the outside chance that something might come through. Nothing had been on for years. The local network affiliates withered away after the national network of cable channels went out until there was nothing.
- Chapter 4, p. 20–21
- I searched the FM band but there was nothing besides other pious pleaders, and they didn't come in too well. The AM band offered about the same thing, only with worse reception, nothing remotely describable as news, and no music because commercial entertainment as we knew it was no more, and its handmaiden, advertising had gone with it.
- Chapter 4, p. 21
- I had one of those steel thermal mugs you carried everywhere with you as a kind of signifier of how busy, and therefore how important you were.
- Chapter 4, p. 22
- It was obvious there would be no return to [what we used to call] "normality." The [resource-intensive] economy wouldn't be coming back. Globalism was over. The politicians and generals were failing to pull things together at the center. We would not be returning to Boston. The computer industry, in which so many hopes had been vested, was fading into history.
- Chapter 4, p. 24
- In a world that had become a salvage operation, the general supply evolved into Union Grove's leading industry. When every […] useful thing in town had been stripped from the Kmart and the United Auto, the CVS drugstore, and other trading establishments of the bygone national chain-store economy, daily life became a perpetual flea market centered on the old town dump.
- Chapter 5, p. 28
- We regarded opium as a godsend. It did not develop into an illicit trade, though. There was no legal prohibition, no police running around trying to suppress drugs, driving up the price artificially, and no marketing system. There were no distant markets to send it to because shipping anything was slow at best and often unreliable, and travel was something you just didn't do anymore. Anybody could grow their own poppies or buy raw opium paste from one of the growers. Farmers made more money growing raspberries or asparagus. They grew poppies as a public service. A few people took to smoking opium, but those with an extremely apathetic attitude toward survival tended not to last long in the new disposition of things.
- Chapter 5, p. 30
- Children [...] had sat in those very box buildings under buzzing fluorescent lights listening to their science teachers prattle about the wonders of space travel and gene splicing and how we were all going to live to be a hundred and twenty-five years old in "smart" computer-controlled houses where all we had to do was speak to bump up the heat or turn on giant home theater screens in a life of perpetual leisure and comfort. It made me sick to think about. Not because there's something necessarily wrong with leisure or comfort, but because that's where our aspirations ended. And in the face of what had […] happened to us, it seemed obscenely stupid.
- Chapter 6, p. 33–34
- Motion is a great tranquilizer.
- Chapter 6, p. 34
- Few dogs were around anymore. Some had been eaten during the hunger that followed the flu in the spring of that year. People didn't talk about it; it was so demoralizing.
- Chapter 7, p. 36
- Jesus [...] look how we live? I'm […] a serf.
- Chapter 7, p. 37
- You could argue people are generally better off now mentally than they were back then. We follow the natural cycles. We eat real food instead of processed crap full of chemicals. We're not jacked up on coffee and television and [...] advertising all the time. No more anxiety about credit card bills.
- Chapter 7, p. 37–38
- We all knew the apparatus of justice had dissolved.
- Chapter 12, p. 57
- As the world changed, we reverted to social divisions that we'd thought were obsolete. The egalitarian pretenses of the high-octane decades had dissolved, and nobody even debated it anymore, including the women of our town. A plain majority of the townspeople were laborers now, whatever in life they had been before. Nobody in town called them peasants, but in effect, that's what they'd become. That's just the way things were.
- Chapter 21, p. 101
- Waterford began its existence as the gateway to the Erie Canal system, the first stretch of which was built to bypass several waterfalls on the Mohawk River.
- Chapter 28, p. 137
- I remembered Albany [...] as just another down-on-its-luck small American city that had sacrificed its vitality to a whirring ring of homogenous suburbs.
- Chapter 29, p. 140
- We're building our own New Jerusalem up the river. It's a world made by hand, now, one stone at a time, one board at a time, one hope at a time, one soul at a time.
- Chapter 29, p. 142
- Whatever the other failures of the U.S. government were, it had managed to print an excess of dollars which, combined with the collapse of trade and communication, had severely eroded the currency's value.
- Chapter 30, p. 146
- I lay awake [...] listening to the rain drip from the eaves and thinking of the big map that hung from the top of the chalkboard in my primary school in Wilton, Connecticut, so many years ago, back in the days of cars, television, and air-conditioning. The states on this map were muted tones of pink, green, and yellow. Over it hung the flag that we pledged allegiance to every single morning. "One nation under God, indivisible..."
- Chapter 31, p. 150
- I'd been carrying [my Ruger .41 Magnum] so many days that I had almost forgotten it was there. This was the kind of world we now lived in.
- Chapter 36, p. 171
- I argued that […] human[s] […] should have known it was in trouble, [...] given how insane our way of life had become. Minor quit blowing into his harmonica long enough to say that John D. Rockefeller and the Bush family had made a deal with the Devil going back all the way to the 1900s.
- Chapter 38, p. 181
- Could we even pretend the law still existed? Or was it something you made up now, as the occasion required?
- Chapter 38, p. 181
- The essence of politics was to not act on your impulses.
- Chapter 42, p. 199
- There's real strangeness in this world of ours. Back in the machine times, there was so much noise front and back, […] it kept us from knowing what lies behind the surface of things.
- Chapter 55, p. 262
- It was more possible that […] human[s] […] possessed some spark of divinity that was worth cultivating than that a mysterious being was up there in the ether somewhere with anthropomorphic qualities of goodness and mercy running the whole show.
- Chapter 65, p. 315–316
- We were content to be undisturbed in our little backwater, Union Grove, Washington County, in a place once called the Empire State, where the Battenkill runs into the Hudson River.
- Chapter 65, p. 317
The Long Emergency (2005)Edit
Kunstler, James Howard. The Long Emergency. New York, NY: Grove Press, 2005. Print. ISBN 978-0-8711-3888-0.
- It has been [...] hard [...] to make sense of the gathering forces that will fundamentally alter the terms of everyday life in [...] society. Even after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, that collapsed the twin towers of the World Trade Center and sliced through the Pentagon, [...] [we are] still sleepwalking into [an uncertain] [...] future. We have walked out of our burning house, and we are now headed off the edge of a cliff. Beyond that cliff is an abyss of economic and political disorder on a scale that no one has ever seen before. […] The national government will prove to be so impotent and ineffective in managing the enormous vicissitudes we face that the United States may not survive as a nation in any meaningful sense but […] will devolve into a set of autonomous regions.
- Chapter 1, p. 1.
- It is no exaggeration to state that reliable supplies of cheap [and easy-to-find hydrocarbons like] oil and natural gas underlie everything we identify as a benefit of modern life. All the necessities, comforts, luxuries, and miracles of our time [...] owe their origins or continued existence in one way or another to cheap fossil fuel. Even our nuclear power plants [...] depend on cheap [...] [hydrocarbons] for all the procedures of construction, maintenance, and extracting and processing nuclear fuels. The blandishments of cheap oil and gas were so seductive, and induced such transports of mesmerizing contentment, that we ceased paying attention to the essential nature of these miraculous gifts from the [deep] earth: that they exist in finite, nonrenewable supplies, unevenly distributed around the world. To aggravate matters, the wonders of steady technological progress under the reign of oil have tricked us [...] to believe that anything we wish for hard enough can come true. These days, even people in our culture who ought to know better are wishing ardently that a smooth, seamless transition from fossil fuels to their putative replacements [...] lies just a few years ahead. [...] This is a dangerous fantasy. The true best-case scenario may be that some of these technologies will take decades to develop–meaning that we can expect an extremely turbulent interval between the end of cheap oil and whatever comes next. A more likely scenario is that new fuels and technologies may never replace fossil fuels at the scale, rate, and manner at which the [industrial] world currently consumes them.
- Chapter 1, p. 2–3.
- What is [...] not comprehended about this predicament is that the developed world will begin to suffer long before the oil and gas [...] run out. The American way of life [...] can run only on reliable supplies of dependably cheap [hydrocarbons like] oil and gas. Even mild to moderate deviations in [...] supply will crush our economy and make […] daily life impossible. Fossil fuel reserves are not scattered equitably around the world. They tend to be concentrated in places where the native peoples don’t like the West in general [...], places physically very remote, places where we realistically can exercise little control [...]. [...] We can be certain that the price and supplies of fossil fuels will suffer oscillations and disruptions in the period ahead [...]. [...] The decline of fossil fuels is certain to ignite chronic strife between nations contesting the remaining supplies. These resource wars have already begun. There will be more of them. They are [...] likely to grind on and on [...]. They will only aggravate a situation that, in and of itself, could bring down civilizations. The extent of suffering [...] will certainly depend on how tenaciously we attempt to cling to obsolete habits, customs, and assumptions–for instance, how fiercely [...] [we] decide to fight to maintain suburban lifestyles that simply cannot be rationalized any longer.
- Chapter 1, p. 3.
- [Thomas] Malthus was certainly correct [that demand will outstrip supply], but [...] [hydrocarbons] [...] skewed the [supply-demand] equation over the past [two] hundred years while the human race has enjoyed an unprecedented orgy of [a fraction of] nonrenewable condensed solar energy accumulated over eons of prehistory. The “green revolution” in boosting crop yields was minimally about scientific innovation in crop genetics and mostly about dumping massive amounts of fertilizers and pesticides made [...] of [...] [petroleum] onto crops, as well as employing irrigation at a fantastic scale made possible by abundant oil and gas. The cheap oil age created an artificial bubble of plenitude for a period not much longer than a human lifetime, a hundred years. Within that comfortable bubble, the idea took hold that only grouches, spoilsports, and godless maniacs considered population hypergrowth a problem, and that to even raise the issue was indecent. [...] As oil ceases to be cheap and the world reserves arc toward depletion, we will indeed suddenly be left with an enormous surplus population [...] that the ecology of the earth will not support. No political program of birth control will avail. The people are already here. The journey back to non-oil population homeostasis will not be pretty. We will discover the hard way that population hypergrowth was simply a side effect of the oil age. It was [more of] a condition [without a remedy], not a problem with a [direct] solution. That is what happened, and we are stuck with it.
- Chapter 1, p. 8.
- We are already experiencing huge cost externalities from population hypergrowth and profligate fossil fuel use in the form of environmental devastation. Of the earth’s estimated 10 million species, 300,000 have vanished in the past fifty years. Each year, 3,000 to 30,000 species become extinct, an all-time high for the last 65 million years. Within one hundred years, between one-third and two-thirds of all birds, animals, plants, and other species will be lost. Nearly 25 percent of the 4,630 known mammal species are now threatened with extinction, along with 34 percent of fish, 25 percent of amphibians, 20 percent of reptiles, and 11 percent of birds. Even more species are having population declines. Environmental scientists speak of an “omega point” at which the vast interconnected networks of Earth’s ecologies are so weakened that human existence is no longer possible. This is a variant of the die-off theme […], but it does raise grave questions about the ongoing project of civilization. How long might the Long Emergency last? […] Of course, after a while, an emergency becomes the norm and is no longer an emergency.
Global warming is no longer a theory being disputed by political interests, but an established scientific consensus. The possible effects range from events as drastic as a hydrothermal shutdown of the Gulf Stream—meaning a much colder Europe with much-reduced agriculture—to desertification of major world crop-growing areas, to the invasion of temperate regions by diseases formerly limited to the tropics, to the loss of harbor cities all over the world. Whether the cause of global warming is human activity and “greenhouse emissions,” a result of naturally occurring cycles, or a combination of the two, this does not alter the fact that it is having swift and tremendous impacts on civilization and that its effects will contribute greatly to the Long Emergency.
- Chapter 1, p. 8-9.
- The high tide of the [...] [industrial] age also happened to be a moment in history when human ingenuity gained an upper hand against the age-old scourges of disease. We have enjoyed the great benefits of antibiotic medicine for [...] a half-century. Penicillin, sulfa drugs, and their descendants briefly gave [hu]mankind the notion that diseases caused by microorganisms could, and indeed would, be systematically vanquished. Or, at least, this was the popular view. Doctors and scientists knew better. The discoverer of penicillin, Alexander Fleming, himself warned that antibiotic misuse could result in resistant strains of bacteria.
The recognition is now growing that the victory over microbes was short-lived. They are back in force, including [...] old enemies such as tuberculosis and staphylococcus in new drug-resistant strains. Other old diseases are on the march into new territories, as a response to climate change brought on by global warming [caused by the burning of fossil fuels]. In response to unprecedented habitat destruction by humans and the invasion of [what we call] wilderness, the earth [sic] itself seems to be sending forth new and much more lethal diseases, as though it had a [...] protective immune system with antibody-like agents aimed with remarkable precision at the source of the problem: Homo sapiens.
- Chapter 1, p. 9–10.
- At the same time, the world is overdue for an extreme influenza epidemic. The last major outbreak was the 1918 Spanish influenza, which killed fifty million [and possibly more, as we will not know the real numbers] people worldwide and changed the course of history. […] Disease will certainly play a larger role in the Long Emergency than many can now imagine. An epidemic could paralyze social and economic systems, interrupt global trade, and bring down governments. […] At the very least, the Long Emergency will be a time of diminished life spans for many of us, as well as reduced standards of living–at least as understood within the current social context. Fossil fuels had the effect of temporarily raising the carrying capacity of the earth. Our ability to resist the environmental corrective of disease will [...] prove to have been another temporary boon of the [...] [industrial] age [...]. So much of what we construe to be among our entitlements to perpetual progress may prove to have been a strange, marvelous, and anomalous moment in [...] history.
- Chapter 1, p. 11–12.
- The so-called global economy was not a permanent institution, [...] but a set of transient circumstances peculiar to a certain time: the […] fossil fuel era. […] Factories could be started up in Sri Lanka and Malaysia, where swollen populations furnished trainable workers willing to labor for much less than those back in the United States or Europe. Products then moved around the globe in a highly rationalized system, not unlike the oil allocation system, using immense vessels, automated port facilities, and truck-scaled shipping containers at a minuscule cost-per-unit of whatever was made and transported. Shirts or coffeemakers manufactured 12,000 miles away could be shipped to Wal-Marts all over America and sold cheaply. […] Meanwhile, among economists and government figures, globalism developed [...] [as] an intellectual fad. Globalism allowed them to believe that burgeoning wealth in the developed countries, and the spread of industrial activity to formerly primitive regions, was based on the potency of their own ideas and policies rather than on cheap [and easy-to-find hydrocarbons like] oil. […] [An] overlooked [fact] is that [Margaret] Thatcher’s success in reviving England coincided with a fantastic new revenue stream from North Sea oil, as quaint old Britannia became energy self-sufficient and a net energy-exporting nation for the first time since the heyday of coal. Globalism then infected America when Ronald Reagan came on the scene in 1981. Reagan’s ‘supply-side” economic advisors retailed a set of fiscal ideas that neatly accessorized the new notions about free trade and deregulation, chiefly that massively reducing taxes would […] result in greater revenues as the greater aggregate of business activity generated a greater aggregate of taxes even at lower rates. (What it […] generated was huge government deficits.) […] The rise of computers, in turn, promoted the fantasy that commerce in sheer information would be the long-sought replacement for all the played-out activities of the smokestack economy. A country like America, it was now thought, no longer needed steelmaking or tire factories or other harsh, dirty, troublesome enterprises. Let the poor masses of Asia and South America have them and lift themselves up from agricultural peonage. America would outsource all this old economy stuff and use computers to orchestrate the movement of parts and the assembly of products from distant quarters of the world, and then sell the stuff in our own K-marts and Wal-Marts, which would become global juggernauts of retailing. […] It was also like a convoluted liquidation sale of the accrued wealth of two hundred years of industrial society for the benefit of a handful of financial buccaneers, with the great masses relegated to a race to the bottom as the economic assets are dismantled and sold off, and their livelihoods are closed […]. That this development was uniformly greeted as a public good by the vast majority of Americans, at the same time that their local economies were being destroyed—and with them, myriad social and civic benefits—is one of the greater enigmas of recent social history. In effect, Americans threw away their communities […] to save a few dollars on hair dryers and plastic food storage tubs, never stopping to reflect on what they were destroying.
- Chapter 1, p. 12-16.
- [Globalism's] demise will coincide with the end of the cheap-oil age. For better or worse, many of the circumstances we associate with globalism will be reversed. Markets will close as political turbulence and military mischief interrupt trade relations. As markets close, societies will turn increasingly to import replacement[s] for sheer economic survival. The cost of transport will no longer be negligible in a post-cheap-oil age. Many of our agricultural products will have to be produced closer to home, and [...] by more intensive [...] labor as oil and natural gas supplies become increasingly unstable. The world will stop shrinking and become larger again. Virtually all [...] the [...] relationships [...] that we have taken for granted as permanent will be radically changed [...]. Life will become intensely and increasingly local.
- Chapter 1, p. 17.
- America finds itself nearing the end of the cheap-oil age having invested its national wealth in a living arrangement—suburban sprawl—that has no future. When media commentators cast about struggling to explain what has happened in our country economically, they uniformly overlook the colossal misinvestment that suburbia represents—a prodigious, unparalleled misallocation of resources. This is quite apart from its social, spiritual, and ecological deficiencies as an everyday environment. We constructed an armature for daily living that simply won’t work without liberal supplies of cheap oil, and very soon we will be without both the oil needed to run it and the wealth needed to replace it. Nor are we likely to come up with a miraculous energy replacement for oil that will allow us to run all this everyday infrastructure even remotely the same way.
In any case, the tragic truth is that much of suburbia is unreformable. It does not lend itself to being retrofitted into the [...] mixed-use, smaller scaled, more fine-grained walkable environments we will need to carry on daily life in the coming age of [...] reduced motoring. [...] Instead, this suburban real estate [...] will enter a phase of rapid and cruel devaluation. Many of the suburban subdivisions will become the slums of the future. […] The seasons […] will continue with the great cycles of contraction and expansion, and at some point, in the future, who knows how many years distant, some of these cities in a land once called [the United States of North] America may be robust and cosmopolitan in ways that we can’t imagine now, any more than a Roman of A.D. 38 might have been able to imagine the future London of the Beatles.
- Chapter 1, p. 17–18.
- In the Long Emergency, some regions of the United States will do better than others and some will suffer deeply. Places that benefited disproportionately during the cheap-oil blowout will find themselves steeply challenged when those benefits, and the entitlement psychology that grew out of them, are withdrawn in the face of new, austere circumstances. The so-called Sunbelt presents extraordinary problems. This is not a good time to begin thinking about moving to Phoenix or Las Vegas. Parts of the Southwest may be significantly depopulated, starved for energy, and thirsting for water that depended on cheap energy. Other parts may become contested territory with Mexico. The prospects for disorder in the southeastern states is especially high, given the extremes of religiosity, hyperindividualism, and a cultural disinhibition regarding violence. The social glue holding communities and regions together will be severely strained by the loss of amenities presumed to be normal.
[…] We have lived through as a narrative episode in a greater saga of human history. The industrial story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. It begins in the mid-eighteenth century with coal and the first steam engines, proceeds to a robust second act climaxing in the years before World War I, and moves toward a third act resolution now that we can anticipate with some precision the depletion of the resources that made the industrial episode possible. As the industrial story ends, the greater saga of [hu]mankind will move on into a new episode, the Long Emergency. This is […] a self-evident point, but throughout history, even the most important and self-evident trends are often completely ignored because the changes they foreshadow are simply unthinkable. That process is sometimes referred to as an “outside context problem,” something so far beyond the ordinary experience of those dwelling in a certain time and place that they cannot make sense of available information. The collective mental static preventing comprehension is also sometimes referred to as “cognitive dissonance,” a term borrowed from developmental psychology. It helps explain why the […] public has been sleepwalking into the future.
The Long Emergency is going to be a tremendous trauma for […] human[s] […]. It is likely to entail political [and social] turbulence every bit as extreme as the economic conditions that prompt it.
- Chapter 1, p. 19-20.
- Whole ideologies had to be constructed to account for being modern and to explain it.
- Chapter 2, p. 22.
- Everything characteristic about the condition we call modern life has been a direct result of our access to abundant supplies of cheap fossil fuels. Fossil fuels have permitted us to fly, to go where we want to go rapidly, and move things easily from place to place. Fossil fuels rescued us from the despotic darkness of the night. They have made the pharaonic scale of building commonplace everywhere. They have allowed a fractionally tiny percentage of our swollen populations to produce massive amounts of food. They have allowed us to develop industries of surpassing ingenuity and to push the limits of what it even means to be human to the strange frontier where man imagines himself into a kind of machine immortality.
All of the marvels and miracles of the twentieth century were enabled by our access to abundant supplies of cheap fossil fuels. Even the applied technology of atomic fission, which came along at mid-century, would have been impossible without fossil fuels, and may be impossible to continue very long into the future without them.
The age of fossil fuels is about to end. There is no replacement for them at hand. These facts are poorly understood by the global population preoccupied with the thrum of daily life, but tragically, too, by the educated classes in the United States, who continue to be by far the greatest squanderers of fossil fuels. It is extremely important that we make an effort to understand what is about to happen to us because it will have earth-shaking repercussions for the way we live, the way the world is ordered, and on whether the very precious cargo of human culture can move safely forward into the future.
- Chapter 2, p. 23.
- Because the oil peak phenomenon […] cancels out further industrial growth of the kind we are used to, its implications lie radically outside […] economic paradigm. So, the oil peak phenomenon has been discounted to about zero among conventional economists, who assume that “market signals” about oil supplies will inevitably trigger innovation, which, in turn, will cause [something] new […] to materialize and enable further growth. If the market signals are not triggering innovation, then the problem must be overstated and growth under the oil regime will resume—after, say, a normal periodic downcycle. This is obvious casuistry, but casuistry can be a great comfort when a problem has no real solution. […] Our investment in an oil-addicted way of life […] is now so inordinately large that it is too late to salvage all the national wealth wasted on building it, or to continue that way of life more than a decade or so into the future. What’s more, as we have outsourced manufacturing to other countries, the entire U.S. economy has become more […] dependent on continued misinvestment in […] suburbia and its accessories. No politician wants to tell voters that the American Dream has been canceled for a lack of […] resources. The U.S. economy would disintegrate. So, whichever party is in power has tended to ignore the issue, change the subject, or spin it into the realm of delusion.
- Chapter 2, p. 28.
- Fossil fuels are a unique endowment of geologic history that allow human beings to artificially and temporarily extend the carrying capacity of our habitat on the planet Earth. Before fossil fuels—namely, coal, oil, and natural gas—came into general use, fewer than one billion human beings inhabited the earth. Today, after […] two centuries of fossil fuels, and with extraction now at an all-time high, the planet supports six and a half billion people. Subtract the fossil fuels and the human race has an obvious problem. The fossil fuel bonanza was a one-time deal, and the interval we have enjoyed it in has been an anomalous period of human history. It has lasted long enough for the people now living in the advanced industrialized nations to consider it […] normative. Fossil fuels provided for each person in an industrialized country the equivalent of having hundreds of slaves constantly at his or her disposal. We are now unable to imagine a life without them—or think within a different socioeconomic model—and therefore we are unprepared for what is coming.
- Chapter 2, p. 30-31.
- Oil and gas were generally so cheap and plentiful throughout the twentieth century that even those in the lowest ranks of the social order enjoyed its benefits—electrified homes, cars, televisions, [and] air conditioning. Oil is an amazing substance. It stores a tremendous amount of energy per weight and volume. It is easy to transport. It stores easily at regular air temperature in unpressurized metal tanks, and it can sit there indefinitely without degrading. You can pump it through a pipe, you can send it all over the world in ships, you can haul it around in trains, cars, and trucks, you can even fly it in tanker planes and refuel other airplanes in flight. It is flammable but has proven to be safe to handle with a modest amount of care by people with double-digit IQs. It can be refined by straightforward distillation into many grades of fuel—gasoline, diesel, kerosene, aviation fuel, heating oil—and into innumerable useful products—plastics, paints, pharmaceuticals, fabrics, [and] lubricants.
Nothing really matches oil for power, versatility, transportability, or ease of storage. It is all these things, plus it has been cheap and plentiful. […] The lack of these qualities is among the problems with the putative alternative fuels proposed for the post-cheap-energy era. Cheap, abundant, versatile. Oil led the human race to a threshold of nearly godlike power to transform the world. It was right there in the ground, easy to get. We used it as if there was no tomorrow. Now there may not be one. That's how special oil has been.
- Chapter 2, p. 31.
- After World War II, the American public made two momentous and related decisions. First was the decision to resume the project of suburbanization begun in the 1920s and halted by the Great Depression and war. By the 1950s, the prevailing image of city life was Ralph Kramden’s squalid tenement apartment on television’s The Honeymooners show. Suburbia was the prescribed antidote to the dreariness of the hypertrophied industrial city—and most American cities had never been anything but that. They were short on amenity, overcrowded, and artless. Americans were sick of them and saw no way to improve them. Historically, a powerful sentimental bias for country life ruled the national imagination. As late as 1900, the majority of U.S. citizens had lived on farms and American culture was still imbued with rural values. As far as many Americans were concerned in the 1950s, suburbia was country living. There was plenty of cheap, open rural land to build on outside the cities, and as soon as mass-production house builders like William Fevitt demonstrated how it might be done, suburbia would be thoroughly democratized—country living for everyone. That suburbia turned out to be a disappointing cartoon of country living rather than the real thing was a tragic unanticipated consequence, which I have described in my previous books.
- Chapter 2, p. 40.
- After 1945, America's position in the world vis-a-vis oil was special and privileged, perhaps to a degree that remains less than fully appreciated. Europe, having fought over distant supplies of oil in two world wars and suffered hugely, never became complacent about it, as reflected in Europeans' compact living arrangements and their high luxury taxes on gasoline. But America, having won those wars and possessing substantial reserves of oil in situ, became overconfident to a dangerous degree about its oil future. When a geologist named M. King Hubbert announced in 1949 that there was, in fact, a set geological limit to the supply of oil that could be described mathematically, and that it didn't lie that far off in the future, nobody wanted to believe him. Hubbert was not a lightweight. Before World War II, he had taught geology at Columbia University and worked for the United States Geological Survey. His theoretical work on the behavior of rock in the earth's crust was highly regarded and led to innovations in oil exploration. Stretching from 1903 to 1989, Hubbert's whole life took place during the high tide of the oil era, and he played a large part in developing its science. But he was a visionary who dared to imagine the final act of the oil drama.
By the mid-1950s, as chief of research for Shell Oil, Hubbert had worked up a series of mathematical models based on known U.S. oil reserves, typical rates of production, and apparent rates of consumption, and, in 1956, he concluded that the oil production in the United States would peak sometime between 1966 and 1972. Hubbert also demonstrated that the rate of discovery would plot out a parallel path as the rate of production, only decades earlier. Since discovery of new fields in the United States had peaked in the 1930s and declined remorselessly afterward, despite greatly improved techniques in exploration, the conclusion was obvious. Production declines would follow inexorably, Hubbert predicted, despite improved drilling and extraction methods. After this point of maximum production, or "peak," U.S. oil fields would enter a steady and irreversible arc of depletion. He displayed this information in a simple bell curve. The peak was the top of the curve. Nobody took "Hubbert's curve" seriously. His was a lone voice in a nation that was having too much fun cruising for burgers to imagine what really lay down the road.
The extraordinary rate of discovery in other parts of the world during the 1950s and 1960s reinforced American complacency, because it tended to suggest that more oil could always be found elsewhere, especially in third-world places where compliant peoples would be happy to benefit from its development. Proven world reserves, Yergin writes, had increased from 62 billion barrels in 1948 to 534 billion in 1972, almost all of it outside the United States (and the communist nations), and more than 80 percent of it in the Middle East. A twenty-year glut of oil developed. The Soviets were giving it away literally at half market price because it was one of the few things, they could sell to get hard currency. A small amount of fungible foreign crude found its way into U.S. markets, but for most of the 1950s and 1960s, a complex system of import quotas kept most foreign oil out of the U.S. market, while domestic production operated well below capacity. Because the global oil industry was dominated at the time so overwhelmingly by American companies, their market allocation systems, and their technical expertise, there was an unrealistic assumption by Americans that these favorable conditions would continue indefinitely. This sense of invulnerability was reinforced when, following the stunning Israeli victory over Egypt in the Six-Day War of 1967, Saudi Arabia attempted to orchestrate an embargo against nations that supported Israel. America's surplus production capacity, its ability to just pump more oil as needed, allowed the West to work around Arab sanctions. The embargo fizzled. Within a few years, though, everything changed.
U.S. oil production proceeded to peak in 1970 —though the peak was not detected until the following year, when lower figures started to come in. Peak production in 1970 was 11.3 million barrels a day. That would be the highest level ever, and production would fall by several percentage points a year ever after. (By the mid-1980s total U.S. crude production fell under 9 million barrels a day and is currently under 6 million.) Meanwhile, in 1970, aggregate U.S. demand would cross the line of total U.S. production. Surplus capacity was gone. Hubbert's prediction had been absolutely correct. Two more years of denial, confusion, and inaction followed (aggravated by the national preoccupation with the growing fiasco in Vietnam and the Watergate scandal), and then the United States received a very upsetting wake-up call: the OPEC oil embargo of 1973.
The crisis occurred for a very simple reason: The United States had lost pricing power over globally traded oil because, having passed peak, it was pumping its oil at the maximum rate. What's more, as the United States passed peak, net imports rose swiftly from 2.2 million barrels just before peak to 6 million in 1973. Suddenly the United States was importing roughly a third of its oil. Without surplus capacity, the ability to open the valves and flood the market with "product," the United States had ceded control of world oil prices to somebody else who still did have surplus capacity. That "somebody else" was the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), led by Saudi Arabia.
- Chapter 2, p. 42-44.
- The 1973 Yom Kippur war was the precipitating incident of the OPEC embargo. On October 6, Egyptian and Syrian forces caught the Israeli military off-guard on the most solemn Jewish holiday, when many soldiers were home with their families. Because the Arab-Israeli dispute was commonly viewed as yet another cold war proxy battle, the United States and its allies naturally lined up behind Israel against the Soviet-sponsored aggressors. Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat implored the Saudis and other Muslim states to use the “oil weapon” against Israel’s allies. On October 12, the Saudi-led OPEC demanded of the various Western companies doing business in the Middle East, including Aramco, a 100 percent increase in the posted price of their cartel's oil. The companies stalled for time. On October 16, the Persian Gulf region OPEC members broke off negotiations with the Western oil companies and announced that thereafter they would set prices themselves. On October 17, the Israelis gained the upper hand on the battlefield, thanks in large part to aggressive American resupply efforts, and began to push the Egyptians back across the Sinai Peninsula and the Syrians out of the Golan Heights. The same day, the Arab oil ministers announced an oil embargo on the United States, while increasing prices by 70 percent to western Europe. Overnight, the price of a barrel of oil to these nations rose from $3 to $5.11. On October 19, President Richard M. Nixon announced a military aid package for Israel. The following day, Saudi Arabia retaliated by announcing a total cutoff of oil exports to America.
- Chapter 2, p. 45-46.
- A UN ceasefire ended hostilities on October 22, 1973, but the OPEC embargo against the United States remained in force while the organization further increased the price per barrel to the rest of the world. What followed was an interesting case study in network breakdown and cascading failure. In fact, the embargo never actually achieved a shutoff of OPEC oil imports to the United States. All but about 5 percent of the needed supply found its way to America by a circuitous route as allocations to other nations were surreptitiously redirected. But the base price of a barrel of oil did eventually more than quadruple by the time the embargo was called off in March 1974. And the price rise, alone staggered the West and Japan. Already at that time, public transit was a thing of the past and about 85 percent of Americans drove to work every day.
- Chapter 2, p. 46.
- Oil is the world's most critical resource. Without it, nothing works in industrial civilization as currently configured. Few people dispute the idea that the world will eventually run out of oil, and there is a broad recognition that it will happen [...].
- Chapter 3, p. 64.
- The total planetary endowment of conventional nonrenewable liquid oil was [...] two trillion barrels before humans started using it [and possibly more, as most of it was used to protect the Earth's crust]. Since the mid-nineteenth century, the world has burned through [...] one trillion barrels of oil, [...] representing the easiest-to-get, highest-quality liquids. [...] Oil has enabled the [post-War] population explosion.
- Chapter 3, p. 66.
- The denial about [the] global peak in the United States is already fierce, as investments in car-dependent, oil-addicted infrastructure are greater here than in any other nation and Americans consider their way of life a God-given entitlement. […] The economic [...] [struggle] among [...] all nations, [...] will be considerable and is certain to lead to increasingly desperate competition for diminishing supplies of oil [and every other resource].
- Chapter 3, p. 68.
- […] With China becoming a presence by necessity in the region, we would be back in a cold war again, or something worse, contesting with a rival world hegemon, this time over […] resources, not [just] ideology.
- Chapter 3, p. 84.
- In the chaotic period around the peak oil event, China will not be without extraordinary problems of its own, starting with enormous population pressures, and moving on to massive environmental degradation and the incubation and spread of epidemic diseases, including deadly influenzas associated with factory farming as well as accelerated AIDS infection […]. The severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak was a preview of coming attractions. On top of these vicissitudes will be added the severe economic hardship entailed when an economically strapped America (and the rest of the West) can no longer sop up the many products of China's tremendous industrial capacity. This would produce widespread unemployment in China, possibly leading to political turmoil of a kind not seen since the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s.
- Chapter 3, p. 85.
- Eventually, […] [we] will have to contend with the problems of the Long Emergency: the end of industrial growth, falling standards of living, economic desperation, declining food production, and domestic political strife. A point will be reached when the great powers of the world no longer have the means to project their power any distance. Even nuclear weapons may become inoperable, considering how much their careful maintenance depends on other technological systems linked to our fossil fuel economy.
- Chapter 3, p. 98.
- To some degree, all […] the non-fossil fuel energy sources […] depend on an underlying fossil fuel economy. You can’t manufacture metal wind turbines using wind energy technology. You can’t make lead-acid storage batteries for solar electric systems using any known solar energy systems.
- Chapter 3, p. 100.
- The belief that “market economics” will automatically deliver a replacement for fossil fuels is a type of magical thinking like that of the cargo cults of the South Pacific.
This age-old tendency of humans to believe in magical deliverance and to wish for happy outcomes has been aggravated by the very technological triumphs that the oil age brought into existence. Technology itself has become a […] supernatural force, one that has demonstrably delivered all kinds of miracles within the memory of many people now living […]. There's no question that technology has prolonged life spans, relieved misery, and made everyday life luxurious for a substantial lucky minority. […] A hopeful public, including leaders in business and politics, views the growing problem of oil depletion as a very straightforward engineering problem of exactly the kind that technology and human ingenuity have so successfully solved before, and it, therefore, seems reasonable to assume that the combination will prevail again. There are, however, several defects in this belief.
One is that we tend to confuse and conflate energy and technology. They go hand in hand but they are not the same thing. The oil endowment was an extraordinary and singular occurrence of geology, allowing us to use [a fraction of] the stored energy of millions of years of sunlight. Once it's gone it will be gone forever. Technology is just the hardware and programming for running that fuel, but not the fuel itself. And technology is […] bound to the laws of physics and thermodynamics, which both say you can't get something for nothing, and there is no such thing as perpetual motion. All of this is to say that much of our existing technology simply won't work without petroleum, and without the petroleum "platform" to work off, we may lack the tools to get beyond the current level of fossil-fuel-based technology. Another way of putting it is that we have an extremely narrow window of opportunity to make that happen. In the meantime, here are the problems with the various alternative fuels, based on what we know now.
- Chapter 3, p. 101-102.
- Natural gas […] is not as versatile as gasoline, but it does a lot of tasks beautifully. Gas is the feedstock—the raw material—for a wide array of chemicals, pharmaceuticals, and plastics. Ninety-five percent of the nitrogenous fertilizers used in America are made […] of natural gas, and so it has become indispensable to U.S. agriculture.
- Chapter 3, p. 103.
- Both the mining and the washing [of hydrocarbons] require huge amounts of energy, and it has been proposed that any commercial exploitation of the Alberta tar sands would take 20 percent of Canada’s total natural gas production. In the long run, it might not be worth expending the energy from gas to get the energy from the tar sands. If oil from the tar sands themselves were used to process more tar sands, the return would be three barrels of oil for every two consumed. […] In the early days of conventional oil in Texas, the ERoEI formula was very favorable, around twenty to one. The oil was found close to the surface on dry land in temperate places easy to work in, and it gushed out of the ground under its own pressure. […] Going a bit further, the fundamental equations that support all gigantic […] organisms, […] may no longer obtain, and human life would have to reorganize its activities on a different basis. Also, once these complex systems and their subsystems halt their operations, restarting them may range from difficult to impossible […].
- Chapter 3, p. 108.
- Roman architecture would have been impossible without the complex socioeconomic platform of [the] empire. The medieval social platform for northern European life was less elaborate and […] less complex. Compare these two historical cases with the complexity of social and economic organization that allows oil to be extracted from the ground, refined to gasoline, transported six thousand miles, and used in a highly engineered, fine-tuned machine called a car, [to be] driven on a six-lane freeway. If the social and economic platform fails, how long before the knowledge base dissolves? Two hundred years from now, will anyone know how to build or even repair a 1962 Chrysler slant-six engine? Not to mention a Nordex 1500 kW wind turbine? […] The existing knowledge in basic physics and chemistry is so widespread that it is likely to persist quite a while into the future and provide a foundation for doing more with less than, say, the people of the eighteenth century were able to do with their more limited knowledge.
- Chapter 4, p. 130.
- Fossil fuels allowed the human race to operate highly complex systems at gigantic scales. Renewable energy sources are not compatible with those systems and scales. Renewables will not be able to take the place of oil and gas in running those systems. The systems themselves will have to go. Even many “environmentalists” and “greens” of our day seem to think that all we have to do is switch inputs. Instead of running all the air conditioners of Houston on oil- or gas-generated electricity, we'll use wind farms or massive solar arrays; we'll have super-fuel-efficient cars and keep on commuting over the interstate highway system. It isn’t going to happen. The wish to keep running the same giant systems at [a] gigantic scale using renewables is the heart of our illusions about solar, wind, and waterpower.
- Chapter 4, p. 131.
- We surely will have to reform our land-use habits and the oil-based transportation system that has allowed us to run our car-crazy suburban environments. We'll have to drastically change the way we grow our food and where we grow it. [The] social organization may be quite different in the decades ahead. Features of contemporary life that we have taken for granted [...] may fade into history. Politics that evolved to suit the [...] [industrial age] may morph beyond recognition [...].
- Chapter 4, p. 141.
- Our brains are really not equipped to process events on the geologic scale—at least in reference to how we choose to live, or what we choose to do in the here and now. Five hundred million years is a long time, but how about the mad rush of events in just the past 2,000 years [of written history] starring the human race? Rather action-packed, wouldn’t you say? Everything [that was recorded in written form] from the Roman Empire to the Twin Towers, with a cast of billions—emperors, slaves, saviors, popes, kings, queens, armies, navies, rabbles, conquest, murder, famine, art, science, revolution, comedy, tragedy, genocide, and Michael Jackson. Enough going on in a mere 2,000 years to divert anyone’s attention from the ultimate fate of the earth [sic], you would think. Just reflecting on the events of the twentieth century alone could take your breath away, so why get bent out of shape about the ultimate fate of the earth? Yet I was not soothed by these thoughts [...] because I couldn’t shake the recognition that in the short term we are in pretty serious trouble, too.
- Chapter 5, p. 148.
- […] Global warming [...] happens to coincide with our imminent descent down the slippery slope of [...] [hydrocarbon] depletion, so that all the potential discontinuities of that epochal circumstance will be amplified, ramified, reinforced, and torqued by climate change. If global warming is a result of human activity, fossil fuel-based industrialism, [...] then it seems [...] the prospects are poor that […] human[s] […] will be able to do anything about it, because the journey down the oil depletion arc will be much more disorderly than the journey up was. The disruptions and hardships of decelerating industrialism will destabilize governments and societies to the degree that concerted international action [...] will never be carried out. In the chaotic world of diminishing and contested [...] resources, there will simply be a mad scramble to use up whatever [...] people can manage to lay their hands on. The very idea that we possess any control over the process seems to be further evidence of the delusion gripping our [...] culture [...].
- Chapter 5, p. 148–149.
- [...] Abrupt climate change may be normal in the planet's history, or, to state it differently, that the earth's [sic] climate is inherently very unstable.
- Chapter 5, p. 149.
- Without the Gulf Stream, Britain, France, the Low Countries, and Scandinavia would have a climate like Labrador’s, colder by 20 °F (−7 °C) in annual mean. The Gulf Stream has been likened to an oceanic conveyor belt. The force of the warm water flowing north has been described as equal to the volume of seventy-five Amazon rivers.
- Chapter 5, p. 153.
- According to the IPCC, sea levels rose by ten to twenty centimeters during the twentieth century and are currently rising by about two millimeters a year, which is at the upper range of the rate of rise for the last century. With global warming accelerating, this is apt to increase. The accepted prediction is that sea levels will rise during the twenty-first century by about fifty centimeters, or a little under two feet, though some scientists predict a full meter. […] One-sixth of the people in the world live in coastal zones within one meter of sea level. This is the […] outside context problem so alien to contemporary experience that the public and its leaders can really find no way to process the information and figure out what to do about it—and for the excellent reason that it is not a problem with a direct solution. It is more a condition without a remedy. If the major shipping ports […] end up being submerged, humankind will just have to work around it. The disruptions to world trade might be epochal, gigantic, […] [and] tragic. It seems obvious that […] human[s] […] will simply have to adjust, even if that means adjusting to a new reality of severely lower expectations in living standards, comfort, and amenity. […] When the time comes, […] [we] will just have to move to higher ground.
- Chapter 5, p. 162.
- Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson warns that China's current program to mitigate huge population increases with gigantic water projects may have dire consequences. Irrigation and other withdrawals have already depleted the Yellow River, which, starting in 1972, has run bone-dry part of the year in Shandong province, where one-fifth of China's wheat and one-seventh of its corn is produced. In 1997, the river stopped flowing for a record 226 days. The groundwater levels of the northern China plains have plummeted. The water table in major grain-producing areas is falling at the rate of five feet a year. Of China's 617 cities, three hundred already face water shortages. Of China's approximately 23,000 miles of major rivers, 80 percent no longer support fish life. The Xiaolangdi dam project now underway along the Yellow River in north China is exceeded in size only by the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze in South China. In addition, the Chinese government intends to siphon water from the Yangtze […] and send it over by a canal system to the Yellow River and Beijing, respectively. When it is running, the Yellow River is already one of the most particle-laden in the world. Because of that, it is estimated that the Xiaolangdi dam would silt up within thirty years of completion. The […] project is reminiscent of another centrally planned mega-project that ended in grief: the Soviet Union's scheme to drain the Aral Sea to irrigate gigantic cotton farms in Kazakhstan. The project turned one of the world's largest inland bodies of fresh water into [a] salty desert. The potential for calamity in China is therefore huge as it skirts a range of forces presented by the Long Emergency, any one of which, or some combination, could send it reeling over its tipping point: the effects of global climate change, competition for [every resource including] oil, extremes of pollution, disease, and war, either with its neighbors or internally. Despite the current veneer of prosperity and stability, China has tremendous potential for political chaos. As Wilson fearlessly points out, the pressure on China's agriculture and water resources is intensified by the predicament shared by many countries: runaway population growth [caused by industrialization]. Population growth rates may be mitigated […] from culture to culture by economic advance (which tends to lower reproductive rates by channeling women into the workplace), but economic development produces other not-so-benign consequences. Developing [systems like] nation[-state]s invariably increase their energy use [as they grow complex]. More cars are used, more electricity [is] generated, [and] more greenhouse emissions [are] sent into the atmosphere. In the Long Emergency, […] “there will only be two types of nations: the over-developed and those which will never develop.” China may represent an amalgamation of those two conditions in one nation-state.
- Chapter 5, p. 163–164.
- Like China, the United States is divided […] in half between wet and dry. Though the human population of the United States is proportionately much smaller than China's, the amount of effort America has expended on manipulating habitats and altering terrain is as impressive in its own way as China's birthrate. Especially significant is the stupendous amount of paving laid down in the United States during the past hundred years. It prevents rain from being absorbed as groundwater and sends it instead into rivers, and […] into the ocean. The effect of this is the inability of water tables and wetlands to recharge and the diminishing ability of the terrain to support life. In the United States, only 2 percent of the country's rivers and wetlands remain free-flowing and undeveloped. As a result, the country has lost more than half of its wetlands.
- Chapter 5, p. 165.
- Climate change, competition for water, and polluted water sources will also be exacerbated by failures in the electric grid caused by oil and gas supply disruptions. Even if water is available, localities may lack the power to push it through their treatment plants and municipal pipes.
- Chapter 5, p. 166.
- Fifty years of easy living with the miracle of antibiotics was a major contributor to the hubris that gripped the industrial nations in the early twenty-first century. Smallpox was eliminated except in strategic laboratory samples. Measles was conquered. Sexually transmitted diseases that used to leave people maimed and crazy were cured with one visit to the doctor. Many tropical diseases seemed to be on the wane as immunology and pharmacology bolstered widespread progress in sanitation and nutrition. The vanquishing of disease represented a [...] meta-victory by [hu]mankind over a much greater set of enemies than the parochial combatants of our geopolitical wars. Indeed, these great advances of medical science against disease took place against the backdrop of war. The United States emerged victorious from the last [...] world war, having defeated manifest political evil, armed with penicillin and sulfa drugs. The postwar antibiotic miracle contributed to a false sense of security in the public and a sense of [...] omnipotence [...].
By the 1960s, the dream of defeating death itself began to seem as plausible as the dream of landing on the moon. Even our architecture reflected it. The sterile boxes of corporate headquarters in New York City, the retort-like museums going up in our cities, looked like nothing so much as pieces of laboratory equipment, tributes to our prowess in science. […]
Then along came AIDS and a horrible host of other new illnesses, and a resurgent gang of old adversaries such as tuberculosis, malaria, and staphylococcus, now resistant to our wonder drugs, and that glow of hubris began to darken into the sick, greenish aura of postmodern ironic angst […] The few decades of medical triumphalism, of polio shots and surefire cures for the kinds of infections that routinely killed our ancestors, will someday seem like a golden age of good health. In the Long Emergency, mortality will return with a vengeance. In fact, falling life spans will characterize this period as much as anything.
There are four basic categories of diseases that pose different kinds of threat[s] to the American public: (1) the new diseases, including AIDS, SARS, bovine spongiform encephalopathy ("mad cow disease"), and "designer" bugs developed in labs; (2) the old standard diseases with developed immunity to antimicrobial drugs; (3) invading vector-borne exotics moving into new territory, such as dengue fever, malaria, West Nile virus, and Lyme disease; and (4) viral epidemic influenzas. Some diseases apply in more than one category.
A major cause of this disease activity is the massive and effortless transportation of people and goods around the world, and at the bottom of that, of course, has been cheap oil […] [which] makes it possible for an airplane to carry live Asian mosquitoes to the Caribbean, where those mosquitoes have unleashed dengue fever, or for a person infected with SARS to travel from China to Toronto in a day's time, or for someone to carry AIDS from Johannesburg to Atlanta. As the Long Emergency proceeds, and globalism winds down, this kind of travel and traffic will decrease, but much of the damage has already been done. West Nile virus and dengue fever are already established in places where they had not previously been. They are probably there to stay. If anything, global warming will now likely extend their range.
AIDS has already made the crucial genetic leap from being a disease established in apes in a wild backwater of Africa to now being a public health catastrophe on every continent of the globe, with no cure in sight. In 2004, roughly 40 million people worldwide were infected with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that causes AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome). Among them are 2.5 million children. AIDS is the leading cause of death in Africa and the fourth leading cause worldwide. The infection is spreading at a doubling time of 5.7 years. AIDS is especially problematic because it takes such a long time to actually kill its victims. Typically, symptoms of immune system failure will take seven to ten years to present from the time of actual infection with HIV. That affords tremendous opportunity for the organism to spread. Even if by some miracle all transmission of HIV stopped tomorrow, many people would still become ill for decades to come. […]
In the United States, deaths from AIDS had slowed due to anti-retroviral drugs. But by 2004 roughly three-quarters of newly infected HIV cases were showing resistance to one or more of these drugs. The virus has an impressive ability to adapt to new conditions. Affluent America was exceptional, in that so many HIV cases could even be treated with expensive courses of drugs, which typically cost thousands of dollars a year. Since the drug regimens were complex, there were also significant numbers of patients who did not take their pills correctly, which gave the virus opportunities to adapt and become resistant. In parts of the world with the highest rates of infection […] the vast majority of HIV-infected persons are so poor, or so cut off from public health services, that drug therapy is out of the question.
[…] The social devastation accompanying the epidemic in Africa is a preview of what is liable to happen in other parts of the world as the Long Emergency gathers momentum. The trajectory of the disease in Africa has left a series of countries in brokenness and anarchy. Sub-Saharan Africa may be significantly depopulated […].
To date AIDS has spread primarily by means of sexual contact or by the sharing of unsterilized needles by drug users. In China, the disease is believed to have reached takeoff through poorly run blood collection programs via the reuse of needles among poor peasants who routinely sold their blood for subsistence income. But in that country, the means of transmission is now increasingly a result of sexual practices and drug injection, as in the rest of the world. The Chinese government has aggressively suppressed information about the epidemic for reasons that are both political and cultural. The rapid spread of AIDS will heavily tax the economies of large and dynamic countries such as China and India, whereas in Russia the public health system had already substantially broken down with the demise of the Soviet bureaucracy. Russia, with its decrepit infrastructure, imploded industrial economy, tattered social safety net, and demoralized citizenry, is the prototype for the fate of industrial societies of the Long Emergency.
There are no signs that the AIDS epidemic is leveling off. With its doubling period of 5.7 years, AIDS is on a collision course with the coming disruptions of global oil supplies to perfectly synergize into widespread social turbulence. As the struggle over the remaining oil and gas intensifies, larger numbers of economic losers will be created, and those economic losers will be underfed, ill-housed, poorly doctored, badly informed, badly behaved, and subject to plummeting life expectancies.
- Chapter 5, p. 167–170.
- Despite miraculous advances in medical technology, genetic typing, and immunology, [...] [we] are not much better prepared for a severe flu epidemic than they were for the 1918 outbreak. Epidemic influenza is extremely difficult to counteract. Flu vaccines developed in any given year are notoriously ineffective against new strains that come along the following year. It takes seven months or more to create, test, manufacture, and distribute a vaccine developed in direct response to a new virus, and by that time the disease can burn through global populations. If a pandemic broke out today, hospital facilities would be overwhelmed. Nurses and doctors would be infected along with the rest of the population.
- Chapter 5, p. 173.
- Operation Dark Winter employed a cast of volunteers […] to act out roles following a script in which a terrorist released smallpox in one eastern U.S. city. The result was sobering to an extreme. The public health system virtually collapsed. Hospitals degenerated into chaos. Smallpox spread to twenty-five states and overseas. The national stockpile of vaccines proved to be deeply inadequate. The exercise was called off after four days from the sheer exhaustion of the participants, while the fictional epidemic was still spreading.
- Chapter 5, p. 176.
- The germ theory, which emerged in the late nineteenth century, focused the world's attention on the specific agents responsible for [...] diseases, but the [physical,] social and ecological contexts are equally important, and these are now coming more prominently into play with world population well beyond the limits of the earth's [sic] [...] [optimum] carrying capacity and with climate change [...] in progress. [...] Ecological [...] [pressures], rapid changes in land use, penetration of formerly inaccessible habitats, and disturbed migration routes can lead to the appearance or diffusion of a disease. While we may be able to identify [some, if not all] the microorganisms involved, we can be helpless in the face of it, and our behavior may still promote its spread.
- Chapter 5, p. 177.
- [...] The disturbance of global oil markets as the permanent energy crisis begins is liable to interrupt global commerce and global travel. Fewer […] will fly [...]. However, these same energy problems will surely reduce crop production, which would lead to reduced food aid to desperate populations [...], which would then lead to compromised immune systems and the [...] [invasion] of poor, hungry, and [...] unhealthy people [...]. This is an obvious recipe for conflict and woe. Where the refugee camps [are] set up, [the] disease will surely follow.
- Chapter 5, p. 178.
- The attrition of global populations by disease[s] may be unavoidable. Some [...] may regard it as the inevitable revenge of nature against the hubris of a human species arrogantly exceeding the carrying capacity of its habitat. Some may regard it as a moral victory against wickedness. Some may view it in the therapeutic mode as a positive development for the health of the planet. Many self-conscious "humanists" have militated for the goal of reducing population growth —though most of them would have [...] preferred widespread birth control [using contraceptive methods like the birth pill and condoms, ironically made from cheap oil] to a die-off. But that kind of thinking might have been just another product of the narcotic comfort of cheap oil, as merely stabilizing the earth’s population at current levels (or even 1968 levels) would arguably still have left humanity beyond the earth’s carrying capacity. Apart from these issues of attitude and ethics, however, a major decline in world population, or change in demographic profiles, is apt to have profound and strange repercussions on everyday life.
- Chapter 5, p. 178.
- A contemplation of these circumstances that occurred seven hundred years ago gives us an idea of what to expect in the Long Emergency. One big difference is that now we can see it coming. However, we [...] flatter ourselves to think that we are above this kind of general catastrophe—because our [...] prowess during the [...] [industrial age] was so marvelous that all future problems are (supposedly) guaranteed to be solved by similar applications of ingenuity. This was certainly the consensus among the scientists, computer geniuses, and biotech millionaires [...]. They were uniformly uninterested in the issues of the global oil peak and natural gas depletion and utterly convinced that the industrial societies would be rescued by hydrogen, wind power, and solar electricity, all to be figured out by their cohort techno-geniuses in [...] time. If there is anything we have been stupendously bad at in the preceding century of wonders, it is recognizing the diminishing returns of our [...] [technological] prowess. Some of our greatest achievements, [...] have produced dreadful diminishing returns [...]. This persistent failure or weakness [...] negates the value of our ability to see what's coming. [...] Rather than [...] progress, we are more likely to see [...] the loss of information, ability, and confidence.
- Chapter 5, p. 181.
- Many individual immune systems will be compromised by the hardships of the Long Emergency and disease will seize the opportunities presented, as it always has. AIDS ought to be especially worrisome, because even when people have lost everything, they still have sex. That may be all many people will have, and it will get them in a lot of trouble. Besides, as already suggested, the resourceful HIV bug may find an even more efficient means of transmission through countless random acts of mutation. Millions [and perhaps billions] of human beings are going to die. […] The attrition is apt to continue for much longer than the Black Death raged in the Europe of the fourteenth century,because under the regime of cheap [hydrocarbons like] oil the carrying capacity of our earthly habitats was exceeded by orders of magnitude, and we have farther to go to return to the solar carrying capacity-of our home places. Some home places, such as the deserts of Arabia and the American West, will support only minuscule numbers of people without the benefits of fossil fuels. Of course, there will be no compensations for the loss of those nonrenewable resources. Also, because of the […] human contribution to global warming, this climate change might well be much more severe and longer-lasting than the blip of the early 1300s, or even the Little Ice Age of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
- Chapter 5, p. 182.
- As hunger and hardship increase, the world may see more than one wave of more than one disease. If and when an influenza pandemic emerges, for instance, many AIDS sufferers will succumb, but people infected with the AIDS precursor, HIV, will still survive influenza and AIDS will march on. India, for example, was among the hardest-hit nations in the 1918 flu pandemic. Today it has among the highest rates of AIDS infection. The age-old human enemies, tuberculosis, malaria, cholera, streptococcus, and other members of the familiar gang will be on hand with new immunity to the old techno-tricks of the [nineteenth and] twentieth centur[ies]. Even after these diseases may have spent themselves for a while, climate change [which in turn could create new diseases] will still be with us. Nobody really knows where that is taking us, though we do know that the human race has endured more than one ice age in the past.
- Chapter 5, p. 182–183.
- The current urban population of the world […] is greater than the entire population of the world in 1960. Seventy-eight percent of the urban dwellers in the so-called developing world live in slums. From the West African littoral to the mountainsides of the Andes to the banks of the Nile, the Ganges, the Mekong, and the Irrawaddy, new gigantic slums spread like immense laboratory growth media, waiting to host epidemic disease cultures. Lagos, Nigeria, for example, grew from a city of 300,000 in 1950 to over ten million today. But Lagos, writes Mike Davis, "is simply the biggest node in the shanty-town corridor of 70 million people that stretches from Abidjan to Ibadan: probably the biggest continuous footprint of urban poverty on earth." Most of the world's new, exploding slums have only the most rudimentary sanitary arrangements, open sewers running along the corridor-like "streets." In the slums of Bombay, there is an estimated one toilet per five hundred inhabitants. Currently, two million children die every year from waste-contaminated water in the world's slums. The enormity of this urban disaster is poorly comprehended in advanced nations like the United States, where the drinking water is still safe and even the poor have flush toilets connected to real sewers. But the slums of the world will […] be the breeding ground of the next pandemic, and chances are, once it is underway, the […] nations will not be spared.
- Chapter 5, p. 183.
- The entropic mess that our economy has become is the final blowoff of […] industrialism. The destructive practices known as "free-market globalism" were engendered by our run-up to and arrival at the world oil production peak. It was the logical climax of the oil "story." It required the breakdown of all previous constraints […] to maximize the present at the expense of the future and to do so for the benefit of a very few at the expense of the many. […] Free-market globalism became the reigning orthodoxy […], challenged only by cranks wearing nose-rings at the very margins of society. The moment that the world recognizes the passing of the oil production peak as a reality, globalism will be dead both in theory and practice.
- Chapter 6, p. 185.
- Globalism was operated by oligarchical corporations on the gigantic scale, made possible by cheap oil. By “oligarchical” I mean that power was vested in small numbers of people running large organizations who were not accountable for their actions to many of the people who were subject to those actions. By “corporation,” I mean a group enterprise given the legal status of a “person,” with “rights,” but in fact devoid of any human qualities of ethics, humility, mercy, duty, or loyalty that would constrain those rights. As Wendell Berry put it, “a corporation […] is a pile of money to which a number of persons have sold their moral allegiance… It can experience no personal hope or remorse. No change of heart. It cannot humble itself. It goes about its business as if it were immortal, with the single purpose of becoming a bigger pile of money.
- Chapter 6, p. 186.
- The free-market part of the equation referred to the putative benefit of unrestrained economic competition between individuals, and because corporations enjoyed the legal status of persons, they were assumed to be on an equal footing with other persons in a given locality. Thus, Wal-Mart was considered the theoretical equal of Bob the appliance store owner, and if Bob happened to lose in the retail competition because he couldn't order 50,000 coffeemakers at a crack from a factory 12,000 miles away in Hangzhou, and receive a deep discount for being such an important customer, well, it wasn't as though he hadn't been given the chance.
- Chapter 6, p. 187.
- Cheap oil had allowed populations to explode in precisely those parts of the world that had had, for millennia, a high infant mortality rate and modest life expectancy. Cheap oil was behind the "green revolution" that increased the food supply in the nonindustrial world. Oil was also behind many of the medicines and preventives that had neutralized […] diseases. Now, suddenly, most of those children […] survived, grew up, and produced more children who survived and grew up, and over the course of the twentieth century, the global populations hurtled into extreme numerical overshoot. Populations were, in effect, eating oil, notably in [the form of] food exports from the United States, where agribusiness had completely taken over from agriculture. Local farmers in Africa, Asia, or South America couldn’t compete with corporate Archer Daniels Midland’s oil-and-gas-based grain crops and U.S. government subsidies. There was no point in even bringing their hardscrabble crops to market when sacks of cheap American wheat sat on the docks of Pusan or Colombo. Farmers in those places felt that they had no choice but to migrate to the city and find some other way to get by. The only comparative advantage that these people possessed was their willingness to work for next to nothing. Cheap oil and free-market globalism turned comparative advantage into a new kind of feudalism, with the corporations as the lords and the overabundant locals as the serfs. And then, when the comparative advantage of cheap labor […] of one place, […] was superseded by the cheaper labor […] of another place, […] the corporations just moved their operations.
- Chapter 6, p. 187–188.
- The idea of comparative advantage works when there is a complex local economy intact in the background of each trading partner’s specialized item of production, with a variety of social roles and occupational niches to support the long-term project of community. But a locality geared to doing only one thing for export is […] a slave system based on the extractive economics of mining. […] One group had all the cheap labor, and another group had all the capital, and for a while, one group made all the things that the other group “consumed.” Thus, comparative advantage became, for a time, a con game strictly for the benefit of large corporations, which ended up enjoying all the advantages while the localities sucked up the costs.
- Chapter 6, p. 188.
- The corporations benefiting from this regime often had no physical home of their own, even in their country of origin—and not a few American corporations had moved their official address to Caribbean pseudo nations, where the banking and tax laws were more agreeable. The corporations had no allegiance to any […] place or the people of that place, so the destruction they wreaked was as manifest in the ravaged towns of Ohio and upstate New York as in the environmental degradation of China. America was hardly immune to the consequences of free-market globalism. In effect, the American heartland was overtaken by a new […] corporate colonialism, emanating from our own culture, but no less destructive than the imposition of foreign rule.
- Chapter 6, p. 188–189.
- Did Americans sell out their towns, their neighbors, the memory of their ancestors, and the future of their grandchildren because they were helplessly in thrall to the blandishments of a cheap-oil economy? I honestly don’t know, though I tend to view the outcome as the result of many collective bad choices made by the public and its leaders. But were those choices inescapable? Certainly, the process was insidious and played out over several generations.
- Chapter 6, p. 189-190.
- Inefficient economies are much more complex than efficient ones. Complexity itself can be deceiving. […] Complexity constrains entropy flows with checks and balances. What we take to be man-made artificial complexity (technology) is, paradoxically, a simplification process that increases flows by editing away inefficiencies. [Because our limited knowledge prevents us to process events on the geologic scale, we think that] The ecology of a prairie will keep the soil active and healthy indefinitely [but for how long?], while the ecology of a fossil-fuel-subsidized cornfield will leach the soil of useful nutrients and physically erode it in less than a human lifetime. [We think that] The ecology of a pond, with its diverse hierarchies of life and multitude of biological niches and food chains, is much more complex than the Crown Point, New York, trout hatchery with its monoculture offish, its inputs of manufactured fish food, and its staff of attendants cleaning waste out of the cement hatchery impoundments. The natural pond also has more chance of continuing indefinitely into the future [but for how long?]. The built-in constraints of inefficient […] economies reduce the flow of potential, often to the point where systems based on inefficient economies last for geologic epochs, not just a few decades in the case of a fish hatchery. Everything that we identify with nature takes the form of inefficient systems. Biogenic or living systems are self-stabilizing. They are self-buffered. Small differences are dampened out. Entropy is stalled within them. They exhibit negative feedback tending toward long-term stability [but for how long?]. Call this condition "negative entropy." Everything we identify with the man-made substitutes for natural bio-economies, that is, technologies, tends toward positive feedback, which is self-amplifying, self-reinforcing, and destabilizing, featuring the removal of constraints to entropy flows and leading to the certain eventual destruction of that system. Call this condition "positive entropy."
- Chapter 6, p. 191-192.
- There have to be limits. If we project “housing starts” ninety-nine years forward at current rates, there wouldn’t be a single buildable quarter-acre lot left in the world. Not a few economists would rationalize this outcome by declaring that [in] ninety-nine years from now we will have colonies on the moon or Mars or under the Sea of Cortez. Or that technology coupled with human ingenuity will solve the problem some other way, […] by genetically reengineering human beings to be one inch tall or booting all our consciousnesses into computer servers where unlimited numbers of virtual people could dwell in unlimited virtual environments of endless cyberspace.
More likely, we will remain confined to the planet Earth. Economic growth that has appeared normative and desirable during the story of industrialism is already becoming pathogenic in an economy showing more […] signs of positive feedback and accelerating positive entropy manifesting as damage to the biosphere. High entropy becomes particularly problematic in an economy utterly dependent on a few […] special commodities: oil, natural gas, coal, and uranium. It becomes especially relevant when the limits to those commodities become tangible, as is now the case as we approach the global oil production peak and the actual depletion (thirty years past peak) of the North American natural gas endowment. But the collective imagination of the public cannot process the notion of a nongrowth economy, even though the limits to growth are visible all around us in everything from the paved-over suburban landscapes to the steeply rising gas prices, to played-out aquifers, to the death of the Atlantic cod fishery. We are not capable of conceiving another economic way. We are hostages to our own system.
- Chapter 6, p. 192-193.
- It is assumed now that human beings, prompted by the market, will employ ingenuity to discover a substitute for oil and gas, once the price starts to ramp up beyond the “affordable” range. This assumption is apt to prove fallacious because it ignores the fact that the earth is a closed system [for matter], while the laws of thermodynamics state that energy can’t be created out of nothing, only changed from low entropy to high entropy, and that we have already changed the half [or perhaps a fraction] of our [planet's] oil endowment that was easiest to get into dispersed carbon dioxide, which is now ratcheting up global warming and climate change, which might well put the industrial adventure out of business before human ingenuity can come up with a substitute for oil. The [fraction of] solar energy [that was] stored for millions of years in oil [and was easy to extract] will now be expressed in higher temperatures, more severe storms, rising sea levels, and harsher conditions for the human species, which, despite its […] technological [and scientific] achievements, remains a part of nature and subject to its laws.
- Chapter 6, p. 194.
- Money is a wonderful thing. It started out in human history as hard currency, generally gold or silver. These are commodities that are deemed to have intrinsic value but also act as a means of abstractly representing wealth accumulated out of other real commodities. Relatively little hard currency ever circulated freely in the preindustrial world. In that world, most wealth was actual, existing in the form of land, palaces, fleets of boats, bolts of cloth, barrels of grain, standing timber, herds of cattle, and so forth. These were generally things that could be traded, and exchanges of these items were often facilitated through the medium of gold or silver, hence the term "medium of exchange." Hard currency could also be acquired by theft or plunder, though that did not necessarily affect its value. Note that the value of [the] hard currency is transcultural. Gold and silver had high value to the Europeans, the Chinese of the Sung dynasty, the Inca, the Aztecs, the ancient Egyptians, and the California Forty-niners.
The industrial experiment took the idea of currency (money) to the next level of abstraction — as hard currency can represent actual goods, so paper currency can represent hard currency and actual goods. As trade increased and took place over ever-greater distances, paper promises to pay hard currency began to steadily take the place of the hard stuff itself, which was cumbersome, hard to lug around in large quantities, and subject to theft in transit. So, to streamline these trades, all kinds of certificates were used as equivalents to hard currency: individual IOUs, bills of lading, letters of credit from rich people, [and] promissory notes issued by guilds. In time, the use of paper certificates became […] more normative and conventionalized. Protocols of exchange were established. Institutions were created to process them. This process of managing monetary affairs—of wealth abstracted in [a] paper—was called finance.
- Chapter 6, p. 195.
- […] The […] oil-fueled boom that energized the suburban expansion of the 1920s brought turmoil and trouble to the farm economy. Thirty percent of the U.S. population still lived on farms in the 1920s. U.S. farmers had done well during World War I, exporting grain to a Europe that had become a shell-blasted battlefield. By the early 1920s, though, Europeans were able to feed themselves again. Meanwhile, the introduction of the tractor and the mechanization of farming in the United States led quickly to [the] massive overproduction of grain. Unable any longer to pawn off the surplus on Europe, America suffered a crash in grain prices. The farm depression, which preceded the financial depression by half a decade, was a self-reinforcing feedback loop. As the market prices of corn and wheat plunged, farmers desperately tried to make up for low prices by producing more, which the domestic markets could not absorb, leading to even greater surpluses and more depressed prices.
- Chapter 6, p. 204.
- By the mid-1920s, the great wave of immigration suddenly ended. The National Origins Act of 1924 and other measures set new highly restrictive immigration quotas that cut new admissions to 2 percent of each nationality from the 1890 census. This choked off what had been a constant half-century-long demographic subsidy of ever more customers for U.S. manufacturers.
- Chapter 6, p. 205.
- Finance came to be viewed as a productive activity itself rather than a means to promote production. The public was no longer buying stock to invest in enterprises that would pay dividends over time, but merely because one could get rich from buying and selling stocks. As more people bought in, stock prices climbed still higher—a dangerous positive feedback loop.
- Chapter 6, p. 205-206.
- In America, after the crash of 1929, the loss of faith in various forms of credit represented by abstract instruments of finance translated into a persistent lack of money— that is, a means of exchange — and the institutions devised to create it stood in disrepute. People could buy very little. Business stagnated. Companies would not hire workers when there was so little demand for products. It was a vicious cycle and it had vicious side effects. Another way of looking at the financial debacle of the 1930s is an ecological view such as William Catton’s metaphor of the industrial economy as a “detritus ecosystem.”
Catton argues that the human race living off the “drawdown” of nonrenewable fossil fuel resources is the equivalent of the algae in a pond enjoying a temporary rush of nutrients in one brief season. Catton’s analogy can be applied and extended to clarify the Great Depression in the context of ecological economics. After the crash of 1929, something […] definitely changed in America. But the puzzling part is that the “nutrients in the form of cheap oil — the plenty” Roosevelt spoke of — still flowed. So why did the economic environment become so intractably unhealthy? From an ecological view, the Great Depression represented the effects of severe socioeconomic pollution” produced by the oil-fueled boom of the 1920s, and this “pollution” had the effect of “poisoning the financial ecosystem and consequently killing off financial “organs” that people had come to depend on in order to “thrive” (i.e., to grow wealthy and reproduce). Specifically, the “pollution” killed off the organs that generated credit and turned it into money. This systemic “pollution” of the financial ecosystem harmed the industrial environment enough to temporarily quash any further exuberant “growth.” There was no human die-off but there was a die-off of expectations and a reduction in [the] carrying capacity of the U.S. economy.
Is it fair to say that the by-product of zealous oil use literally converts into such an abstract form of "pollution" capable of poisoning what amounts to a social consensus? This must return us to the idea of entropy. Entropy is the spending down of energy and its translation into negative by-products. Not all of them are physical or material. Air pollution is one expression of entropy. But so is social disorder. So is [the] institutional breakdown. Bodily death is another. These negative by-products of entropy can become interchangeable as entropy progresses, depending on any combination of variable conditions and circumstances. A careful reading of twentieth-century history would bear this out. In the modern era, entropy has been expressed in conditions as seemingly unrelated as war, industrial pollution, pornography, mass political murder, the shattering of a consensus about the value of money, and incompetent parenting. The introduction of high entropy into a given system is profoundly destabilizing in many ways. Entropy […] moves in mysterious ways.
- Chapter 6, p. 208-209.
- The entropy produced in World War II was much more widespread and profound than that of World War I. In World War I the action had taken place […] entirely on rural terrain, classic battlefields. In World War II, much of the warfare was urban. The long-range bomber had reached a high stage of refinement in the twenty-plus years between world wars. None of the major capitals had been damaged in World War I. In World War II, hundreds of towns and cities were destroyed in Europe and Asia. Berlin was reduced to gravel; London was badly mutilated; and, of course, Hiroshima and Nagasaki became radioactive ashtrays. The casualties of World War I had been enormous, astonishing, [and] appalling beyond civilized peoples’ wildest dreams, but the victims had been overwhelmingly soldiers. The casualties in World War II were overwhelmingly civilians and in much greater aggregate numbers.
- Chapter 6, p. 212–213.
- American life, with its twin engines of suburbanization and factory production of consumer goods for the […] world, became so quickly and obviously successful that a new consensus formed supporting the value of the dollar and its paper accessories in capital markets, chiefly stocks, and bonds. This is not to say that the securities markets boomed in the 1950s and 1960s—it took until then just to recover the value levels of the pre-1929 crash—but stocks and bonds did regain respectability, [and] legitimacy. Those who had lived through the Great Depression, meaning virtually all the men who had served in the wartime army, had very modest expectations about the role of finance in the postwar economy. In the 1950s and 1960s, Americans bought stocks for the annual dividends they paid, not to flip them for a quick profit. In fact, share prices remained […] very flat during this period. The whole notion of investment was different than it would become later in the twentieth century. In the 1950s and 1960s, stock and bond values were linked much more directly with the successful production of real goods. General Motors derived its profits and paid its dividends on the basis of auto sales, not as today, primarily from leveraging interest rates and other abstract numbers' games removed from the actual making of products. In sum, the public attitude about the role of finance was extremely conservative. Finance was not an “industry” per se, but a set of institutions designed to keep the idea of money and its accessories credible, […] to allow real industries to function.
- Chapter 6, p. 215.
- Banking also regained respectability after the calamities of the 1930s. Federal deposit insurance, which had been instituted in the depths of the Great Depression, and only for deposits under $2,500, was raised to $10,000 in 1950, and the middle class was induced to feel confident about keeping its money in banks again. Interest rates remained modest, but so did inflation. The influx of savings made money available in capital markets to invest in new ventures. It was real money derived from work already done, pay already earned, true capital. Before the great orgy of mergers and consolidation that began in the 1970s, retail banking was […] local and community-centered. Bankers made loan decisions based on firsthand knowledge of projects going on in their communities—not, as today, based on bundling and selling clumps of mortgages for generic suburban developments they have never laid eyes on.
- Chapter 6, p. 216.
- The rebellion of the hippies […] based itself on the notion that abundance was a natural entitlement, and one could "drop out" of an insecure, deadly, and frightening industrial culture to live off the fat of the land. It was inescapably a jejune philosophy, fraught with contradictions. For the hippies, the natural order of things included items such as stereo record players, electric guitars, motor vehicles for adventuring around the country, cheap bulk whole grains, and other products of an oil-intensive industrial way of life. The hippie platform […] with all its mystical incunabula, rested on the platform of “normal” American life and would have been impossible without it.
- Chapter 6, p. 217.
- At the start of the oil glut, a climactic set of economic relations took shape led by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (and joined eagerly by President Reagan and his advisors) that would be called “globalism.” It was not so much a new idea as the logical and inevitable result of mature self-organizing systems elaborating themselves under the influence of renewed, immense energy inputs—the ultimate cheap-oil way of doing business in the closed system [in respect to matter] that is the planet Earth. It entailed the maximization of short-term profit and the minimization of care for future generations. It was the ultimate generator of entropy.
- Chapter 6, p. 219.
- In America, globalism meant the accelerated dismantling of the nation's manufacturing base and its reassignment to other countries where labor was dirt cheap and environmental regulations did not apply. It also meant the ramping up of a “service economy” or, more properly, the myth of a service economy to replace the old manufacturing economy. […] It was […] absurd. It was like the old joke about the village that prospered because the inhabitants were all employed taking in each other’s laundry. In fact, far fewer actual things of value were being created in the service economy. […] It was assumed, for instance, that computers […] boosted productivity. Much of that gain was either illusory or fraught with collateral social and economic losses of other kinds. Companies that reported higher productivity were shedding employees like mad and the entire ethos of work in America was being transformed from one of [the] people having secure careers and permanent positions with reliable companies to one of institutionalized insecurity for […] everyone below top management in a new general atmosphere of Darwinian corporate ruthlessness—under the rubric of "free-market competition."
- Chapter 6, p. 220.
- What one also saw in the America of the 1980s and 1990s was commoditization and conversion of public goods into private luxuries, the impoverishment of the civic realm, and, to put it bluntly, the rape of the landscape—a vast entropic enterprise that was the culminating phase of suburbia. The dirty secret of the American economy in the 1990s was that it was no longer about anything except the creation of suburban sprawl and the furnishing, accessorizing, and financing of it. It resembled the efficiency of cancer. Nothing else really mattered except building suburban houses, trading away the mortgages, selling the multiple cars needed by the inhabitants, upgrading the roads into commercial strip highways with all the necessary shopping infrastructure, and moving vast supplies of merchandise made in China for next to nothing to fill up those houses. The economy of suburban sprawl was a systemic self-organizing response to the availability of inordinately cheap oil with ever-increasing entropy expressed in an ever-increasing variety of manifestations from the destruction of farmland to the decay of the cities, to widespread psychological depression, to the rash of school shooting sprees, to epidemic obesity. Americans didn’t question the validity of the suburban sprawl economy. They accepted it at face value as the obvious logical outcome of their hopes and dreams and defended it viciously against criticism. They steadfastly ignored its salient characteristic: that it had no future either as an economy or as a living arrangement. Each further elaboration of the suburban system made it less likely to survive any change in conditions, most particularly any change in the equations of cheap oil. It wasn't until the traumas of the 1970s that the finance sector mutated from being an adjunct of the industrial economy to becoming an “industry” in its own right helping to “drive” the economy. Among the distortions and perversions engendered by the “stagflation” economy was the rise of corporate cannibalism in the form of “creative” mergers and acquisitions, specifically hostile takeovers, the aggressive use of voting stock shares to gain control of companies that did not wish to sell, with the subsequent filleting and sell-off of assets, and discarding of the bones and offal (employee payrolls and obligations, careers, livelihoods, communities).
- Chapter 6, p. 222–223.
- In the face of the things like the dot-com meltdown, the LTCM scare, the Enron scandal, and other disasters that eroded the notional value of financial paper, homeownership itself was now turned into a magical generator of unearned riches for both borrowers and lenders. It was consistent with the Las Vegas-ization of the national moral sense, chiefly the increasingly popular belief at every level of American life that it really was possible to get something for nothing. Anyone could see this in the easy public acceptance of gambling as okay and the proliferation of casinos everywhere in the land. Not even the evangelical Christians seemed to mind. There is no such thing as intrinsic value in a house. A huge percentage of the public has now put its net worth into something that […] isn't an investment. Apart from false econometrics of rising house valuations and the leverage that affords for raising cash within the context of the current lending rackets, a house is much more of a consumer product than an investment, especially the kind of houses built in recent decades in America, namely stapled-together boxes made of particle board and plastic cladding that require continual reinvestment in petty cash and labor for upkeep, and will probably not hold their value, even if well cared for, because of poor locational choices. A house on a one-acre lot in a subdivision in Loudoun County, Virginia, thirty-two miles from downtown Washington, […] a magnificent thing to behold today, with a soaring lawyer-foyer entrance, a restaurant-grade kitchen, and an inground pool out back. But if there is less gasoline to power up the fleet of cars necessary to service it, and no natural gas to heat the thousand-square-foot cathedral-ceilinged lawyer foyer, then chances are that the house is going to be a liability rather than an asset.
- Chapter 6, p. 229.
- The supernaturally low-interest rates provoked an orgy of buying and the orgy of buying bid up the prices of the houses, and as the prices of the houses levitated, the owners entered another new and strange zone of hallucinated wealth accumulation using the latest contrivance: the refinanced mortgage. Re-fi's allowed house owners to use their houses as though they were automatic teller machines. Say a person bought a house in 1999 for $250,000 and the house was appraised in 2003 at $400,000; that person could refinance with a substantial "cash out" privilege, converting the imagined increase of value into disposable income, which could then be used to buy motorboats, home theater plasma TV screens, or trips to Las Vegas. Refinancing prestidigitated an estimated $1.6 trillion for the American economy over a five-year period, and much of that "money" was deployed purchasing "consumer" goods—mostly made outside the United States. From 1999 to 2004 […] a third of all house owners indulged in cash-out re-fi mortgages. […] Behind every extravagant cash extraction lay the belief that at some future date the house would be worth a lot more than the re-fi price and could be readily flipped.
- Chapter 6, p. 231.
- After the mid-1990s, there was hardly a technical distinction to be made anymore between high-risk borrowers and everybody else in the casino atmosphere of [North] America[n] society. No one was at risk anymore because in the something-for-nothing economy it was impossible to be a loser. Or so went the herd thinking. […] It is […] likely that the housing bubble will have begun to come to grief.
- Chapter 6, p. 232.
- The failure of the GSEs would make the S&L fiasco of the 1980s look like a bad night of poker. The failure of the GSEs would pose a far graver situation than the LTCM flameout. It could easily bring on cascading failures that might jeopardize global finance. This time, the […] public would feel the pain.
- Chapter 6, p. 233.
- If the folks who lived along this highway put in gardens to make up for the escalating inadequacies of an industrial farming system starved for fossil fuel “inputs,” would they be able to feed themselves? Did any vernacular knowledge survive in a populace conditioned to think that food came from the supermarket? Did they know anything about cabbage loopers, powdery mildew, or anthracnose? Would they be able to prevent catastrophic crop loss? How would they defend their crops against deer, rabbits, [and] woodchucks? Would any of them know how to build a garden wall or even a fence? Where would they get fencing material? Would they have to sit out among the potato hills and the bean rows at night with loaded shotguns? And what would they do for light when they heard something munching out there? Would they know how to keep chicken, sheep, [and] cattle, including breeding and birthing them?
- Chapter 7, p. 237.
- Because […] systems are self-organizing in the face of circumstance, the big questions are how much disorder must we endure as things change, and how hard will we struggle to continue a particular way of life with no future? […] The U.S. economy of the decades to come will center on farming, not high-tech, […] “information,” or “services,” or space travel, […] tourism, or finance. All other activities will be secondary to food production, which will require much more human labor.
- Chapter 7, p. 239.
- [Everything, and not just] all human enterprise can tend toward diminishing returns and unsustainability, but some modes have far more long-term prospects than others and some are socially suicidal, even in the short term. Many civilizations, from the Sumerians to the Maya, have faltered when overinvestments in the scale and complexity of food production produced ruinous diminishing returns. On American farms in the early 1800s, the balance between calories expended and calories produced as [the] food was about even. This occurred as tools reached a high stage of refinement but before machines replaced human labor and traditional knowledge. It implies a distinction between tools and machines, between work done with tools and work done by machines. Production improved while entropy was kept to a minimum. Under the current industrial farming system, it takes sixteen calories of “input” to produce one calorie of grain, and seventy calories of input to produce one calorie of meat. A hundred years ago, just before the introduction of […] fossil fuel-based technologies, more than 30 percent of the American population was engaged in farming. Now the figure is 1.6 percent. The issue is not moral, academic, or aesthetic. […] It’s a matter of those ratios being made possible only because cheap oil and automation made up for so much human labor. We did what we did in the twentieth century because we could. Of course, not all farm labor amounts to slavery or serfdom. Depending on how farming is organized, it can result in a very satisfactory way of life and rewarding social relations. Agriculture in the United States was organized very differently in Pennsylvania and South Carolina 150 years ago, and not simply because of climatic differences.
Farmers had quickly become addicted to a new debt system of annual operation, mortgaging their farms to raise cash to pay for new machinery and fertilizer—literally betting the farm on a good crop. With prices chronically depressed, mortgages could not be paid off. Farm foreclosures soared in the mid-1920s. Another unanticipated consequence of mechanized farming was the destruction of [the] soil. The tractor and its implements were machines that no one had previously experienced before, and it was some time before farmers noticed the insidious effects of soil compaction, rutting, and erosion that occurred. This would combine a few years later with an extended drought to produce the additional hardship of the Dust Bowl.
- Chapter 7, p. 241.
- The energy disruptions of the Long Emergency are going to remind us that the skyscraper was an experimental building form. These structures operated successfully during the twentieth century when there was plenty of cheap energy, and after that, they became a problem. Economic disruptions will put an end to many of the large-scale enterprises that remain in our cities, and the megastructures that were built for them. There will be no need for headquarters of national companies because, without cheap energy, continental-scale activities will no longer exist. The companies that service the giant corporations in areas like advertising, marketing, and public relations will also wither. Even operations such as the national media and, yes, book publishing as it is currently organized, may not survive in a nation short of energy, crippled in transport, sinking in production and trade, challenged in food production and distribution, and plagued by political crisis.
- Chapter 7, p. 253.
- The lucky suburbanites will be the ones with the forethought to trade in their suburban McHouses for property in the towns and small cities and prepare for a vocational life doing something useful and practical on the small scale.
- Chapter 7, p. 256.
- Wal-Mart will not be able to profitably run its “warehouse on wheels” when the price of oil fluctuates chronically. […] We will never again experience the explosion of products, choices, and nonstop marketing that characterized the late twentieth century. The public may look back on the big-box shopping era with deep and mournful nostalgia, but we are apt to discover that happiness is still possible without the extraordinary advertising-driven compulsive materialism of recent decades. We will still have commerce. We will have [a] trade. There will be shopping. We will have […] medium of exchange. But we are not going to live in a perpetual blue-light special sale of cornucopian wretched excess.
- Chapter 7, p. 257.
- Even if we can’t get all the tools and the products we currently enjoy, we will retain a lot of basic knowledge that the people of Jefferson’s day just didn’t have. For instance, we will still understand that infections and many diseases are caused by microorganisms, not bad air, phases of the moon, or evil spells and that knowledge alone confers powerful advantages in daily living.
- Chapter 7, p. 258.
- Large-scale corporate enterprise has brought humankind much material comfort in two centuries but at the price of fantastic unintended consequences (externalized costs) ranging from the destruction of local communities to climate change. Large-scale corporations will be vulnerable to the collapse of capital formation markets that must accompany the end of the cheap oil fiesta. Corporate enterprise can certainly be reorganized on the small, local community scale, but it will not be the same as General Motors. Corporate enterprise in the Long Emergency may revert to being more public in nature and far less sovereign in power. There may be one exception: The most visible […] corporate organization that might survive the Long Emergency may be the church. Whether Catholic or Pentecostal or something new we haven't seen yet; the church won't have to rely on oil supplies. Organized religion doesn't have to traffic in awkward material products, only in beliefs, and it can operate at many scales simultaneously. Because American culture is constitutionally allergic to religious governance, we may have problems if churches are the only large organizations left standing—that is, assuming we still have the same constitution.
- Chapter 7, p. 259.
- We should […] conclude that the abandoned big-box structures will not last more than one generation under any circumstances. […] The same thing can be said about malls, strip malls, and chain restaurant buildings. Eventually, they will be the salvage yards and mines of the future.
- Chapter 7, p. 261.
- One final thing worth noting on the subject of rail: From 1890 to about 1920, American localities managed to construct hundreds of local and interurban streetcar lines that added up to a magnificent national system (independent of the national heavy rail system). Except for two twenty-mile gaps in New York state, one could ride the trolley lines from New England clear out to Wisconsin. The story of the conspiracy by General Motors and other companies to destroy the U.S. interurban system is well documented. The salient point, however, is how rapidly the system was created in the first place, and how marvelously well it served the public in the period before the automobile became established.
- Chapter 7, p. 268-269.
- It's hard to imagine a more purposeless activity than [an] American-style high school in our time. […] The public questions its basic premises or mode of operation any more than the public questions the economy of suburban sprawl. But [the] high school in our time amounts to little more than daycare for virtual adults in which some learning might incidentally take place, much of it of dubious value.
- Chapter 7, p. 271.
- The Southwest also faces increasing friction with adjoining Mexico. This is not a racist provocation but a description of reality. No other first-world country has such an extensive land frontier with a third-world country. The income gap between the United States and Mexico is greater than that between any other two contiguous countries in the world.
- Chapter 7, p. 275.
- In any case, it is human nature to consider a place “home” if you were born there, […] have family there, or have spent some portion of your life there, and people are naturally reluctant to leave home. I daresay that many Americans now living in the Southwest will not be disposed to understand what is really happening—that the carrying capacity of their home region has been suddenly and drastically reduced—and they will hunker down hoping for a return to better times.
- Chapter 7, p. 279.
- After air conditioning became widely affordable, southerners hardly went outside anymore, unless it was in a motor vehicle. Anything about southern vernacular architecture that once had been graceful in adapting to the climate was cast aside for the pleasures of air conditioning and [the] cheapness of construction.
- Chapter 7, p. 283.
- The Long Emergency will cause unprecedented social and economic dislocation, and the outcome may be a world we would barely recognize. The [...] egalitarian society we knew in the [...] twentieth century may become drastically more hierarchical as large numbers of desperate people place themselves in the service of those who control land, especially following a period of anarchy. Under such harsh conditions, the weaker individuals will sell their allegiance in return for security.
- Chapter 7, p. 286–287.
- The gigantic smear of suburbia that runs […] without interruption from north of Boston through Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Baltimore, Washington, and northern Virginia is not going to be a happy place.
- Chapter 7, p. 291.
- The circumstances of the Long Emergency will be the opposite of what we currently experience. There will be hunger instead of plenty, cold where there was once warmth, effort where there was once leisure, sickness where there was health, and violence where there was peace. We will have to adjust our attitudes, values, and ideas to accommodate these new circumstances and we may not recognize the people will soon become or the people we once were. In a world where sheer survival dominates all other concerns, a tragic view of life is apt to reassert itself. This is another way of saying that we will become keenly aware of the limitations of human nature in general and its relation to ubiquitous mortality in particular. Life will get much more real. The dilettantish luxury of relativism will be forgotten in the boneyards of the future. Irony, hipness, and cutting-edge coolness will seem either quaint or utterly inexplicable to people struggling to produce enough food to get through the winter. In the Long Emergency, nobody will get anything for nothing.
- Chapter 7, p. 303.
- I’m aware of having already lived more than a half-century through the greatest fiesta of luxury, comfort, and leisure that the world has ever known. I enjoyed central heating, air conditioning, cheap airfares, cable TV, advanced orthopedic surgery, and computers.
- Chapter 7, p. 304.