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?