Becky's Reviews > The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century

The Long Emergency by James Howard Kunstler
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's review
Aug 05, 11

really liked it
Read in August, 2011

Okay, so you have to read this. Yes, you, person who is reading (or skimming or glancing at) my review. It is mandatory. However you will want to schedule regular hugs from solicitous people who buy you ice cream. I made the poor choice of reading this book while my boyfriend was several states away and could not provide these comforts.

Anyway, I am going to review this book before I read any of the other comments, so as to capture the experience of a relatively educated person who has a tenuous grasp on politics, economics, agriculture, and the physical sciences, and knows even less about manufacturing and energy production.

Throughout most of this book I was impressed at how credible and well-spoken the author is. His central argument - that there is simply no energy source on earth equal to oil - is compelling. As of now I feel at least moderately convinced that the singularity is not coming to save us and we are just going to have to limp along on coal, nuclear, water, solar, and wind, abandoning the aspects of our society that can't be supported by these fuels (i.e., most of them). I am more sanguine than the author in our ability, at least in the developed world, to get these technologies organized and ready to go before oil becomes an untenable fuel, but even if we do manage to built a post-oil world, it will not just be Suburbia 2.0.

I have no idea if his predictions of further war over diminishing oil, land ownership becoming feudalism, the possible collapse of American government, etc. etc. are likely - I think these things are very difficult to foresee and depend on how things unfold. I do think that Kunstler is irrationally down on technology. As long as we have electricity, it's at least conceivable that we can have the Internet, assuming that the infrastructure could be maintained or altered for our post-oil world. A global Internet in a local world would be quite a powerful force for good.

In the last chapter he lost me a little with his discussion of the fate of the U.S. His blase and sweeping characterizations of different regions of the United States were questionable (the South is characterized only by the Sunbelt, but the North isn't characterized by the Northeast megalopolis? What?) As a Northerner who has lived in the South, I completely sympathize with Southerners who were deeply offended by his portrait of the South. Yes, there are a lot of fundamentalists down here, but they do not all go to megachurches and long for violent theocracy. I really do believe that in the majority of cases, the only difference between cranky Sunbelt Southerners and cranky East Coast Northerners in a post-oil world is that the Southerners are more likely to own rifles. There is too much variety to make sweeping statements about regional psychology and destiny.

And goodness, the section on race. I do not believe that Kunstler intended to be offensive, just provocative, but his summary of the future of race relations was bizarrely victim-blaming and had the not-so-underlying message of, "You wacky people of color with your postmodern ideas of white privilege and your violent hip-hop, there will be no time for that nonsense in the Long Emergency." Blaming America's racial tensions on Malcolm X and Jay-Z is just... absurd, and while I can imagine a post-oil world being a place of strong social norms and no room for cultural difference or questioning of authority, this would be a bad thing. Kunstler acknowledges it would be a bad thing when discussing social class, but fails to make the connection to race. If he was going to attempt to address this topic in two pages, he should have done it in a much different way.

Those heartfelt criticisms aside, I think this is a compelling book that does an excellent job describing how we got to this point in history, what kind of world we live in now, and where we might end up. His sum-up of American and global history since industrialization is really fascinating, and his prediction of the sub-prime mortgage crisis (yes, he totally called it in 2005) infuriating.

Anyway, I hope the oil crisis won't be as bad as Kunstler predicts, because I will probably spend a good portion of my life living through it. However, I do look forward to cackling if big-box retail falls to pieces (a future poignant since most of the money here in beautiful Northwest Arkansas is sadly Walmart and J.B. Hunt money). And I admire his assertion that the universe is not a teleological object, that we are not necessarily on a trajectory for bigger and better things, but that we are simply going where we are going in this messy, chaotic, circling universe.
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Becky P.S. It occurs to me that a non-fiction book club would be pretty awesome and much superior to the usual kind with books about sad domestic situations, American hardship, etc. etc. Hmm....

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