When the oil runs out

James Howard Kunstler's latest book.

James Howard Kunstler’s latest book.

Americans are ignorant about energy policy. Oh, they can tell you who the panelists are on The Voice, or recite a litany of pop culture references and answers to sports trivia questions, but knowing about peak oil, and even the seriousness of climate change seems lost on a nation that’s grown up with cheap, abundant petroleum.

When I was born, gas was 30 cents a gallon. Cars were big and bulky. No one thought twice about jumping in the car for a trip the IGA for a gallon of milk or a loaf of Wonder Bread. Gasoline was abundant and Happy Motoring was an American birthright.

The 1970s provided a clue that this way of life–oil and gas forever on end–might be worth reconsidering. The oil embargo of 1973 and 1974 was a wake-up call to Americans that the post-WWII economic boom fueled by 30 years of cheap oil and gasoline was about to hit a major pothole in the road. It also was a window into the future of what was to come. Few, however, were able to peer into that fissure and sound the clarion call to a nation awash in the belief of never-ending progress..

A bit of historical context is in order here, and I’m more than happy to supply it.

The first clue that things were going to change came in March 1971. Texas oil producers announced that they had reached peak oil production and that their output would begin to decline.  

By 1973, the United States was consuming 6.3 million barrels of oil per day more than it produced; Japan was consuming 5 million more barrels than it produced; and Europe was consuming 13.1 million more than it produced.  The Middle East countries were exporting more than 20 million barrels every day.  Middle Eastern petroleum reserves were estimated to exceed 316 billion barrels, while those in every other region of the world were estimated to have fallen to less than 50 billion. The Middle East governments were now in control.  

Then came The Yom Kippur War in early October 1973. Egypt and Syria attacked Israel on the Jewish holy day bearing that name. The Soviet Union subsequently began sending arms to Egypt and Syria and President Nixon made the decision to supply Israel with firepower.

In direct response to America siding with Israel, members of the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OAPEC) reduced petroleum production and proclaimed an embargo on oil shipments to the United States and the Netherlands, the main supporters of Israel.

The Yom Kippur War ended in late October, but the embargo and limitations on oil production continued, sparking an international energy crisis.

While the war was over, the embargo caused the price of oil to spike, rising from $3 per barrel to $12. After decades of abundant supply and growing consumption, Americans were now face-to-face for the first time with price hikes and fuel shortages.

Gas lines formed at filling stations around the country. Local, state and national leaders called for measures to conserve energy, asking gas stations to close on Sundays. Homeowners were even asked to defer from putting up holiday lights on their houses.

In addition to causing major problems in the lives of consumers, the energy crisis was a major punch in the solar plexus of the American automotive industry, which had for decades turned out bigger and bigger cars and would now be outpaced by Japanese manufacturers producing smaller and more fuel-efficient models.

In 1979, just six years after the first one, Americans found themselves in the midst of a second major shortage of gas and oil. President Carter became the first American president to speak honestly about the energy issue and what the country could do about it. On July 15, 1979, President Jimmy Carter outlined his plans to reduce oil imports and improve energy efficiency in his “Crisis of Confidence” speech (sometimes known as the “malaise” speech). Americans didn’t want to buy what he was selling and voted him out. President Reagan became the new resident in the White House, removing Carter’s solar panels, and told Americans what they wanted to hear.

Fuel-efficiency became anathema and cars began growing bigger and gas guzzling would become a form of patriotism.

James Howard Kunstler is an iconoclast. He isn’t shy about his views on America’s trajectory to an energy dead end.

Kunstler’s writing and his first book, The Long Emergency, opened my eyes to the seriousness of peak oil and what this means for countries like ours that are so dependent on petroleum, especially the imported variety. Ironically, I read most of the book over one weekend, as Mary and I traveled to Greenville for a relative’s wedding. The irony was that our mode of transportation was a 1984 Pontiac Parisienne, a “land yacht” of a car that I’d picked up for a song from an older resident of Durham. At the time, working on my very first book, I was looking for a cheap car that I could pick up for $1,000 and I fell in love with that behemoth of a car, with its dual barrel carburetor, and the way it hearkened back nostalgically to a different era. I wasn’t so fond of its 15 mpg fuel efficiency, but driving the Parisienne was like stepping into a wayback machine.

Like he did with his first book on peak oil in 2005, Too Much Magic: Wishful Thinking, Technology, And The Fate Of The Nation takes the theme begun seven years ago and brings it up to date, placing it squarely in the laps of readers. While The Long Emergency was speculative, Too Much Magic clearly posits that “the long emergency”–a period of energy and resource shortfalls–has now begun.

The Long Emergency has become a “cult” hit selling 150,000 copies in hardcover, a respectable number for a book like this one. By contrast, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books sell upwards of 25 million copies. For peak oil followers, Kunstler has major league cred.

I will admit that while I admire Kunstler and his ability to generate a wealth of pertinent content relative to energy issues and oil, sometimes his dire predictions border on becoming a polemic, especially when blogging at Clusterfuck Nation. I’m also not a big fan of the seemingly misanthropic orientation of many of his commenters. His books, however, are much more reasoned and pack a wallop, which is why I prefer them. Maybe it’s the difference between 1,500 words and 80,000 words to make your point.

While The Long Emergency seemed heavier on the doom and gloom quotient, this one really resonated with me. Perhaps being seven years down the road and familiarizing myself with the peak oil framework and points of view on that continuum has broadened my understanding. I’ve now been reading writers like John Michael Greer and Dmitri Orlov, to name just two. Both of them have helped me get my head around the possibility of a world where oil is no longer readily available, at least not to the magnitude that it’s been over my life up to this point.

Kunstler does a really good job of walking readers through the abundant facts that the hour is late and we don’t have much more time to keep our heads buried in the sand (tar sands?), thinking somehow that alt energy and technology will rescue us–they won’t.

Consider the following:

  • We are past the peak for global oil production (2005)
  • If you count all forms of energy (natural gas, tar sands-based products, coal-based distillates, we blew past the peak in 2008
  • Our current political volatiliy makes developing a national consensus on energy policy impossible, at least in the near-term
  • This impaired consensus leads us to wishful thinking
  • Happy motoring is just about over

The inability of Americans to think clearly about energy is problematic. I can literally count on one hand the number of people that I know that have any familiarity with peak oil and Kunstler. The rare times that a conversation came up about energy and our energy future, the result was always the same when I mentioned a dumbed down variation on peak oil. The response invariably unanimous has been,“technology will save us.”

Kunstler goes into quite a bit of detail on this theme, this mode of “magic thinking” that’s pervasive in America. It’s chapter 4 in the book and in it, I learned about a man named Ray Kurzweil.

If James Howard Kunstler is a “doomer,“ at least that’s a characterization that some use to marginalize his thinking on energy, then Kurzweil would be the polar opposite at other end of the energy spectrum, positing that technology holds all the answers to future energy shortages and other human dilimmas.

Other than in seeing his name in passing, I knew little to nothing about Kurzweil. Kunstler spends 20 pages detailing Kurzweil’s central premise that I’ll summarize almost word for word, as Kunstler did in Too Much Magic.

Kurzweil believes that human beings will join with Artificial Intelligence (AI) in machines, which will allow us to transcend biology. Kurzweil believes that  Computer AI will grow and multiply exponentially and that will result in humans and human existence being transformed through genetic engineering, nanotechnology, and robotics.

This section of Kunstler’s book scared the hell out of me. Rather than painting him as some scientific lunatic, Kunstler clearly recognizes that Kurzweil’s credentials and his being a “scientific polymath” warrant taking him being taken seriously. Knowing that Kunstler doesn’t suffer fools or crackpot theories made me take his assessment of Kurzweil seriously.

Kunstler obviously respects Kurzweil’s credentials and he places his ideas in the realm of the “major leagues of techno grandiosity.” He goes further in describing Kurzwel’s book, The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology as being to extreme technophiles what Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged is to extreme libertarians. Personally, I found Kurzweil’s virtual world of robots and nanotechnology dystopian.

I actually found my way to Kunstler and his thinking through his book, The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America’s Man-Made Landscape. In that book (written in 1994), Kunstler railed against the suburban build-out that was American life nearly 20 years ago. It’s only gotten worse. Once a critic of suburban, car-dependent sprawl culture, always a critic, and Kunstler doesn’t short change on this in his latest.

He calls American-style suburban living “the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world.” (p. 23) It’s Kunstler’s opinion (backed by a great deal of anecdotal and scientific data) that we’re not going to be able to live this way in a few more years when the restrictions begin with our oil supply.

This section of the book is one of the stronger and more salient parts of Too Much Magic. If a reader went through this section and kept an open mind, they’d begin to see the dead-ends and snake oil salesman quality of so much of the alternative energy crowd’s thinking and their magical belief in algae, or waste byproducts. Even worse, the belief that more mainstream alternatives like solar, wind, and electric cars will magically allow us to keep living like we’re living–with no sense of limits to our American consumer way of life–none of this is grounded in reality or science.

With solar currently representing one-tenth of one percent (that’s .001 for you math kids) of our electricity produced and wind a bit better at 1.25 percent (.0125), this is a mere drop in the bucket compared to oil and coal.

Here’s another factor that gets missed by peak oil/energy neophytes. The materials needed to manufacture the components that generate things like solar power; silver for instance, continue to go up in price. Silver was once $4 per ounce and it now trades consistently between $30 and $40/ounce. The ten-year chart shows a definite trend upwards.

Kunstler ends the book with a strong section on climate change and more important, the climate denial crowd, funded mainly by oil and gas lobby, arguably our most powerful lobbying group in America. The Koch Brothers are part of this crowd and climate-denial is a major tenet of the Tea Party.

All of us are experiencing the changes in our weather–the extremes, catastrophic weather events–yet many still seem incapable or unwilling to make the connection between these and climate change.

This isn’t a warm and fuzzy book, that’s for sure. But at the same time, I think it’s necessary reading. Kunstler has also taken to writing books of fiction about what a post-peak oil world might look like. I plan to read them before the end of 2013. These might be a good peak oil primer for anyone that prefers fiction over the facts, and it might be a more palatable entrée.

If you’re interested in the subject of peak oil and what we’re trending towards over the next 20 years, I’d also highly recommend John Michael Greer’s blog, The Archdruid Report.

5 thoughts on “When the oil runs out

  1. Nice review, Jim. Maybe Kunstler will link to it on his page, and you can get all his fawning admirers from the comments section to come visit you, too. I don’t think he cares for those commenters any more than you do.

    • Thanks, Proustish. Have you read any of Kunstler’s fiction? I’ve added “World Made by Hand” to my ever-growing reading list. I probably won’t get to it ’til summer, which for some reason seems to be my fiction reading season.

      I wouldn’t mind a fraction of Kunstler’s traffic.

  2. Thank you for this review, Jim! Although I follow the public discourse around these issues I haven’t heard about Kunstler until now. Definitely will be ordering his books from our library.
    And Happy (Belated?) Birthday!

    • Marina,

      Thanks for stopping by. Hope all is well with you and the family.

      In addition to Kunstler, I also recommend John Michael Greer’s writing, including is very informative and well-written blog, The Archdruid Report.

Comments are closed.