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The Long Emergency - a book review

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The long emergency book cover

The Long Emergency

By James Howard Kunstler

2005, Atlantic Monthly Press, NY

Reviewed by Dan Gibson



I remember so clearly reading The Long Emergency it seems like it was yesterday. I got the book as part of a promotion by the author and a restaurant in Troy. I wasn’t able to stay for the lecture so I had no idea what the book was about. When I got home that warm May evening in 2005 I started reading and didn’t stop till I had finished. My life was changed.

At first I didn’t believe the major premise: The world will necessarily change dramatically as oil becomes expensive and scarce. After all, if this were so, why wasn’t it on the news every night? Why weren’t there meetings at the highest levels? Why wasn’t anyone doing anything? Who was M. King Hubbert? Was he a fictional device of Kunstler’s twisted mind? Were the footnotes real or was this a work of fiction?

Over the next six months, I read and researched and “discovered” Peak Oil was a concept introduced by a real geo-physicist, M. King Hubbert, that had been around since the 50’s. It is based on mathematical calculations utilizing data known to be incomplete and subjective. I learned that indeed the footnotes were legitimate references to real people, places and events, that Kunstler wasn’t making this stuff up, and that some people have know about Peak Oil for many years. I also learned that not everyone agrees. I determined that using less oil would help mitigate the impact of both Peak Oil and Global Warming, whether or not the predictions are precise I believe them to be accurate; I decided to make helping people reduce their use of oil my day job.

The Long Emergency is a great introductory book to the issues of Peak Oil. It covers the reasoning behind predictions of diminishing oil, a broad spectrum of effects and implications, and it provides a strong argument about why we can’t continue using the amount of oil we collectively do, as Americans.

Kunstler provides detailed studies, on a layman’s level, of how cheap oil caused the world to change dramatically during its hey-day and will cause far flung ramifications as it becomes scarce and expensive. Some of the ground he covers includes:

  • A review of the Oil Embargo of the 70’s, when after U.S. oil production had peaked, OPEC cut us off. How a relatively short reduction in supply had reverberating repercussions; how less oil affected business, affected jobs, and affected price inflation. And he points out that in reality the U.S. obtained 95% of the oil needed from other countries and through circuitous shipping – we suffered all that due to just a 5% reduction!
  • He spends nearly 40 pages on geopolitics and again shows how all the dots are connected, – how oil has factored in many world confrontations and how oil depletion will bring all parties, in particular China and the U.S., to compete for remaining oil supplies.
  • He shares his research to explain why alternative fuels won’t rescue us. He covers the gamut: natural gas; hydrogen; coal; hydroelectric; solar & wind; synthetic oil; thermal depolymerization (yes, that too); biomass; nuclear energy; etc. One of his underlying themes is that technology won’t save us, and here he shows there is nothing of substance in the wings.
  • Environmentally, he starts with “Climate Change” is a better term for “Global Warming.” Then says, “our imminent descent down the slippery slope of oil and gas depletion … will be amplified, ramified, reinforced and torqued by climate change.” And follows with 35 pages of how the two will tango!
  • Next Kunstler turns his attention to economics, industry and growth – growth made possible by cheap oil. Perhaps he over uses his metaphor of entropy, but still it is amazing to see how energy permeates so much of our world.
  • Finally, he turns his eye to the future, to a world living in the long emergency. Now Kunstler is more novelist than historian, but he has given this a lot of thought and his projections, while somewhat dire, are well integrated with what he has already covered.

I’ve since read many other books of this genre (yes, there is such a grouping). Most I selected were more specific, either more technical or because the author had more credentials and oil experience. I have also read Kunstler’s fictional tale, Made by Hand (2008, Atlantic Monthly Press, NY) and enjoyed that too, though enjoyed is probably not the right word. The reasons I still recommend The Long Emergency as an introduction to Peak Oil are primarily because it covers the subject from so many perspectives and balances nicely the human and technical aspects, and thankfully it ends on a personal, slightly hopeful note. I really enjoyed the book; it scared me, but that was not a bad thing, since it has also been a large part of my motivation. 


Dan Gibson is the Reporter and Chief Coordinator of Our Energy Independence Community (www.OEIC.us). Previously he was a participating contractor in NYSERDA’s Home Performance program and a rater in the New York ENERGY STAR Home program. He is currently building a 100% Solar Home. He can be reached at DanG@OEIC.us

Comments on "The Long Emergency - a book review"

  1. OEIC default avatar rwsimon October 27, 2011 at 11:29 am

    There was an eye-opening article in the New York Times in recent days— www.tinyurl.com/oeicoil —that provides a pretty persuasive argument that peak oil is simply not going to happen.  There appear be multiple and abundant new sources of fossil fuels - both conventional and novel - being found around the world.  The net result could well be a significant improvement in the geopolitical balance in the world (at least from our perspective) but, equally likely, potentially disastrous environmental consequences.  Many people are spending a lot of time and energy worrying about what will happen if we run out of oil; perhaps we really have to worry about what will happen if we don’t!

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