Sunday, June 15, 2008

Book Review: The Long Emergency

I hadn’t intended to read "The Long Emergency" by James Kunstler for Green Bean’s challenge, but it came back to the library before my chosen book and so I started it just because. I can’t even remember where I heard of the title or why I put it on reserve, but it was certainly eye-opening.

Before I read it I thought I knew about "peak oil." I knew that at the peak, which is most likely currently upon us, we would have used up half of the earth’s oil and then the price would go up. What I didn’t know was that oil fields follow a predictable production curve in which they produce the most they will ever produce (in barrels/day) at the peak and then they drop off every year after that. Besides that, the oil gets harder and harder to extract until it reaches the point at which it takes more energy to get it than the oil will produce. In 2004, it was projected that we had 37 years of oil left, but even that statistic is misleading since production levels drop off quickly after the peak. Natural gas follows a similar curve and its production is already in decline.

Kunstler makes a pretty good case for why alternative sources of energy won’t bail us out when the amount of oil decreases, so the ramifications of oil’s drop in supply are staggering. He paints a grim picture of the resulting catastrophes (wars, famine, disease) once the world realizes what is happening. The parts of the book that aren’t incredibly dull read like a made-for-TV disaster movie. I’d love to write Kunstler off as a kook for his predictions, but in 2004 he accurately described the 2008 fluctuations in the price of oil, the housing crisis and the recent decision by the airlines to cut back service. He is not an evangelical, but his long-term predictions also are too close to the book of Revelations for comfort. Still, it's awfully hard to predict the future. Let’s hope he’s wrong about a great many things.

For me, the book raised far more questions than it answered.
1. The science that says we will hit a "peak" and then a decline in oil production seems to be very solid. Do our national leaders know about it?
2. If so, why aren't we putting everything we've got into developing new sources of energy?
3. And why are we setting targets for emissions in 2050 when oil is projected to run out before then?
4. Why is it still allowed to build a new power plant that runs on natural gas?
5. For that matter, why do I still get junk mail trying to convince me to convert to natural gas?
6. Do the models for global warming take into account that we’re going to be burning less fossil fuels in the future?
7. Do either of our presidential candidates understand what’s going on?

Have you seen "Apollo 13?" In order to bring the astronauts home safely, scientists work to solve the problems of energy, carbon dioxide levels, water supplies, medical issues, the heat shield, and a hurricane (sound familiar?). In one scene, a scientist breaks into the discussion and insists, "Power is everything... They have to turn it all off, now!" (Otherwise they wouldn't have enough left for re-entry into the earth's atmosphere.)

That’s peak oil, and if we don’t solve that problem, we may not get the chance to solve the others. If the reduction in oil production is a steep curve, we’ll be in for a wild ride. If we discover more oil and we get smarter about preparing for life after cheap oil, it will be easier. But either way, things will change. I don’t recommend "The Long Emergency" for two reasons: the history passages, which are many, are long and overly tedious, and Kunstler’s predictions are depressingly pessimistic and a lot of empty speculation. But I strongly recommend that you learn about peak oil. There’s got to be a better book on the subject. Anybody want to recommend one?


Joyce said...

I read a book called "The End of Oil" that I thought was pretty good. There's no question that it can be a depressing subject, but as I recall, that book does have some suggestions for ways to cope. I personally think emergencies bring out the best in people (not that we should hope for emergencies!), and though it will be tough, I think we will come up with some new ways of thinking and doing. Just call me a cockeyed optimist!!

george said...

Thanks for a fine post to open the subject. See a great DVD "Crude Awakening" for Kunstler plus others. Also the website "The Oil Drum." If humans were rational we wouldn't be fighting wars, wasting oil, and destroying lives and property. Will we gain insight as a species? For optimism see "The Great Turning" by Korten. George

Green Bean said...

Thank you for the review, Donna. I have to admit that my understanding of Peak Oil seems to be in line with what yours was before reading.

I think I'll check out The Greating Turning that George recommended. I'm all into optimism these days - must be rubbing off from Joyce! ;-)

I'm with her, though. I think emergencies do bring out the best in people and that we will find our way out of this mess.

Donna said...

Joyce: I'll have to look for that one. Thanks for being such an optimist!

George: Thanks for your nice comment. And I agree -- we're not very rational, are we? I'm looking into the sources you mentioned. Thanks a lot.

GB: I'm glad I could be of service, saving you from reading this book. :) You've got a great "challenge" going here and I know I'm not the only one who is really, really enjoying it!

CindyW said...

I had a conversation with a mom from my kids' school last week. Somehow we went on to talk about peak oil. She utterly disagreed with me regarding that we were either close or at or past peak oil. She was convinced that there was plenty oil that could drenched the world if the Saudis allowed it. Sure enough, she sited a couple of books to back her up. At the end of the discussion we both agreed that we urgently need to develop alternative energy thought our reasons were completely different.

I think what's confusing about peak oil is there are books written to summarize different theories. People who are leaning one way tend to pick the books to support their leaning. I tend to pick books that project the end of oil. Perhaps I should read books from the other camp just to see if they have any value or truth in them.

Joyce said...

Cyndy, you have a good point. I've always thought people tend to choose to read or listen to material that supports their own thinking. I try to fight that tendency by listening the the BBC, for instance, along with US newscasts, or making sure I read the writings of politicians I probably won't vote for, but it's still hard to do. I just want to support my own thinking! I don't really like to be stretched- it's too much work!

Donna said...

Cindy & Joyce: It's tough to consider other viewpoints, isn't it. I enjoy the op-ed section of the paper and I read carefully the ones I like (those that agree with me!) and I skim or even skip the ones I don't! I'd probably learn more if I did it the other way around.

I'm pretty sure the science that says we'll run out of oil is solid. The biggest arguement seems to be the matter of when. For me, I hope the people that say it will be "later" are right, but I think the people that say "sooner" are closer to the truth. But Cindy's right -- either way we need to develop alternatives!

Joyce said...

Donna, I hope you don't mind but I tagged you over on my blog. Want to give it a whirl?

kale for sale said...

You do such good book reviews! I know nothing about peak oil but realize I better get with it. It is rather depressing though, isn't it. That's never stopped me from reading a book before though.

Good conversation about reading the books or articles that support a specific viewpoint. I think about that too and have a game I play where I consider that only 50% of what I'm reading is accurate. And even at 50% I'm astounded at many of the things I read. I do try to read and listen to other views, which gets confusing.

I love Cindy's experience of coming to agreement with someone having an opposing a veiwpoint. If we only we could put that in a filet sandwich and sell it around the world!