News Brief

The Long Emergency

by James Howard Kunstler. Atlantic Monthly Press, New York, 2005. Hardcover, 316 pages, $23.

The Long Emergency is one of the most sobering—no, frightening—books about the future that you’re likely to come across. Author James Kunstler, whose books

The Geography of Nowhere and

Home From Nowhere take a scathing look at suburbia, paints an even grimmer picture of the decades ahead in his most recent book.

The Long Emergency argues that the world—and especially our nation—has been “sleepwalking into the future,” unaware that the end of cheap oil and the inevitable arc of depletion that awaits us in the coming years will dramatically change all that we have come to expect and depend on in our energy-fueled society: “The American way of life—which is now virtually synonymous with suburbia—can run only on reliable supplies of dependably cheap oil and gas. Even mild to moderate deviations in either price or supply will crush our economy and make the logistics of daily life impossible.” Kunstler argues that the age of cheap oil has “created an artificial bubble of plentitude for a period not much longer than a human lifetime, a hundred years.” While the petroleum picture is grim, natural gas may be in even worse shape, because the drop-off of natural gas production from supply wells is far more rapid than the drop-off of crude oil.

The book reviews the devastations of species extinctions, global climate change, and other environmental damage being leveled on the planet. Like many other writers of late, Kunstler addresses the issue of “peak oil” in great detail (for other books addressing this issue, see


Vol. 13, No. 9). He reviews the history of oil extraction and the politics that surround it—paying significant attention to the political instability of the Middle East and what would happen if, for example, Muslim extremists took over Saudi Arabia.

Kunstler lays out the issues starkly and, unlike the more optimistic views of Amory Lovins and many others, argues that technology isn’t going to ride in like a white knight and save us. He roundly dismisses the potential for increased use of “conventional” fuels such as coal and hydroelectric power, and he argues that the oft-touted solutions of synthetic fuels, shale oil, solar energy, wind power, methane hydrates, and hydrogen are just wishful thinking. He does not dismiss nuclear energy, however, suggesting that “we will have to use nuclear fission as our principal method of generating electricity for some time into the twenty-first century while we scramble to make other arrangements.”

The final, and most troubling, chapter, “Living in the Long Emergency,” describes what a post-petroleum society might look like. Without cheap motor fuels and air conditioning, many areas of the United States will become almost uninhabitable, he argues. Hardest hit will be the dry Western plains and much of the sunbelt. Suburbia as we know it will end, as will the automobile age and companies like Wal-Mart that depend on cheap transportation (see


Vol. 15, No. 1). Globalization will largely cease with a return to local production and control. “The downscaling of America is the single most important task facing the American people,” argues Kunstler. “Producing food will become a problem of supreme urgency,” he says, suggesting that “without the massive inputs of cheap gasoline and diesel fuel for machines, irrigation, and trucking, or petroleum-based herbicides and pesticides, or fertilizers made out of natural gas, Americans will be compelled to radically reorganize the way food is produced, or starve.” Political strife, warfare, and even the breakup of the United States, are not out of the question in Kunstler’s mind.

One wants to find an epilogue in

The Long Emergency that describes how we can reverse these trends and—as many others argue—invent and redesign our way out of the future Kunstler describes, but he doesn’t hand that to his readers. He leaves it for others to prove him wrong.

The Long Emergency is an important book, yet its pessimism is likely to turn many away. Hopefully, like Dickens’ dream of “Christmas Yet to Come,”

The Long Emergency is not a prophesy but rather a warning that can help us change course as we edge into a post-petroleum future.

Published March 1, 2006

Wilson, A. (2006, March 1). The Long Emergency. Retrieved from

Add new comment

To post a comment, you need to register for a BuildingGreen Basic membership (free) or login to your existing profile.