Friday, August 29, 2008

james howard kunstler

I just finished the Long Emergency by JHK (published 2005). I don't think I learned anything what I would call news, but JHK has an interesting way of looking at things. And I think this long paragraph pretty much sums up what we're looking at in our peaked oil future:

"The picture is further clouded by the notion of substitutability, a doctrine based on the observation that the sensitive device we call the market seems to call forth new resources as old resources become problematic (usually expressed in terms of higher prices). Hence, when trees grew scarce in England during the Little Ice Age (1560-1850), people there began to use more coal to keep warm, which caused people to dig deeper for it, which called forth the innovation of the steam engine to drain water from the mines so the miners wouldn't drown. However, an interesting positive feedback loop was set in motion. The invention of the steam engine (a magical product of human ingenuity) provoked the invention of other new machines, and then of factories with machines, which prompted the need for better indoor lighting, which stimulated the use of petroleum, which produced brighter light than candles (and was much easier to get than sperm whales), which provoked the development of the oil industry, whose oil was found to work even better in engines than coal did, which led to the massive exploitation of a one-time endowment of concentrated, stored solar energy, which we have directed through pipes of various kinds in an immense flow of entropy, which has resulted in fantastic environmental degradation and human habitat overshoot beyond carrying capacity. It is assumed now that human beings, prompted by the market, will employ ingenuity to discover a substitute for oil and gas, once the price starts to ramp up beyond the "affordable" range. This assumption is apt to prove fallacious because it ignores the fact that the earth is a closed system, while the laws of thermodynamics state that energy can't be created out of nothing, only changed from low entropy to high entropy, and that we have already changed the half of our oil endowment that was easiest to get into dispersed carbon dioxide, which is now ratcheting up global warming and climate change, which might well put the industrial adventure out of business before human ingenuity can come up with a substitute for oil. The solar energy stored for millions of years in oil will now be expressed in higher temperatures, more severe storms, rising sea levels, and harsher conditions for the human species, which, despite its exosomatic technological achievements, remains a part of nature and subject to its laws."

He also says that when the peak oil transition comes, "The loss of hallucinated wealth will be stupendous." I guess when the civilization bubble pops, it'll be a big one.

JHK isn't the most optimistic person I've ever met, and yet he has some hopeful things to say. One is that small town surrounded by farmland is the place survival will be easiest. That many of us will be engaged in farm work and small craft handiwork, by necessity of survival. To me, it means a less mediated world, and I welcome that with open arms. Caring for one's self, family, and community takes a lot of time, and gives a lot of reward, although money has nothing to do with it. It's a different kind of wealth, one that cannot be folded up into an imported imitation leather wallet & put in your back pocket.

Hakim is reading the Geography of Nowhere, about the rise and fall of cars and suburbs, also by JHK, and I am looking forward to that. JHK might be a cranky older guy, but he's also snarky, incredibly insightful, and full of wit. He has a lot of interesting things to say.


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