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America 2020: Living in the Long Emergency

The U.S. never really recovered from 2008. In fact, we're in the middle of a much bigger crisis than most people have realized.

Living in the Long Emergency: Global Crisis, the Failure of the Futurists, and the Early Adapters Who Are Showing Us the Way Forward, by James Howard Kunstler, (BenBella Press: March 2020), 320 pages.

Global pandemic. Economic meltdown. Skyrocketing unemployment. Racial protests. Rioting and looting. Political dysfunction. Moral panic. Social disorder.

I don’t know about you, but I blame James Howard Kunstler.

In 2005, Kunstler wrote The Long Emergency, one of the most important books for understanding what is going on in the world today. The subtitle of that book was Surviving the End of Oil, Climate Change, and Other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century. When the 2008 economic meltdown hit, those who had read The Long Emergency had a sense of what was happening and were ready for the disorder. The housing bubble, the financial meltdown, and the volatile energy prices all fit Kunstler’s narrative.

I have heard people say that Jim got it wrong, that the economy recovered fully from 2008. We have had an extended period of prosperity, with steady economic growth, low unemployment, and a shale oil revolution that challenged The Long Emergency’s peak oil narrative. Those who read Jim’s work, follow his blog, and listen to his podcast, knew better. A long emergency is, by definition, going to take some time to play out.

That is one of the reasons why, in 2012, after writing the first two parts of a four-part fictional series that illuminated his Long Emergency insights, he wrote Too Much Magic: Wishful Thinking, Technology, and the Fate of the Nation. If you read that book, you could sense Kunstler’s frustration with a country that wanted to believe the recovery narrative so badly they could almost will it into existence. Almost.

As Jim says, reality is a harsh mistress. It is also a patient one.

Too Much Magic was the update to the narrative that many of us needed, but the nation was at peak delusion in 2012. Americans wanted magic. Whether it was the promise of endless energy, painless climate adaptations, a Ray Kurzweil fantasy of a merger of humans and technology, or if we merely wanted to believe that re-electing the nation’s first black president was the penance we needed to move into a period of post-racial harmony, I’m led to understand that Too Much Magic was rather poorly received. Nobody wanted to be told it was all a mirage, one big lie we were telling ourselves.

That is a shame. I remember listening to Kunstler’s podcast at the time. He was obsessed with the crazy social activism on college campuses and how it was threatening free speech, the search for truth, and our society’s moorings with reality. This is way before social psychologist Jonathan Haidt started describing the phenomenon in respectable ways with terminology from his profession. I remember thinking Jim was a little excessive and even curmudgeonly for how dogged he was on this.

Of course, I was wrong. Jim was just way ahead of all of us, as usual.

So, welcome to 2020. This year is why a believer in karma blames James Kunstler for the meltdown that is the final year of this decade. If we were not going to listen to him in 2012, there was no way we were going to make it through another update to The Long Emergency without some of the “emergency” coming to the fore.

Living in the Long Emergency: Global Crisis, the Failure of the Futurists, and the Early Adapters Who Are Showing Us the Way Forward was released in March. It is the book you need to read this year. I did on the empty flight back to Minnesota from Orlando. How poetic. Not only has this frequent flyer not been on a flight, I have not even been out of my hometown since that trip. Long emergency, indeed.

The book gives us an update on where we are in the narrative (spoiler: closer to the end than the beginning). Kunstler explains the insanity of oil markets months before we all witnessed the May meltdown in oil futures, culminating in a negative oil price. He tells us why the Federal Reserve is stuck blowing financial bubbles as a proxy for a productive economy. Again, he does this before all fiscal restraint went out the door in the brrrrr of trillions flowing from the digital printing press.

What you are getting from Kunstler here is the most coherent explanation you will read of the forces shaping America today. His gift has never been in providing deep statistical analysis with a Piketty-esque barrage of data, but rather in constructing a coherent narrative that is, at once, both compelling and obvious when stated. The burden of insight is made easier for the reader by Kunstler’s comfortable prose, an echo of talent honed during his early career writing for Rolling Stone.

What I was not expecting in Living in the Long Emergency, but was delighted to find, were multiple chapters narrating what Kunstler calls “portraits in heroic adaptation.” These are the stories of people he has found over the years that are leading the way into a new version of human existence. For many of us, they would be misfits or outcasts. For Jim, they are early adapters.

Let your guard down a little and you may find yourself in one of their stories. I certainly did with the tale of one man living in my neighboring state of Wisconsin, making a go of farming in a manner my great-great-grandparents, who homesteaded the farm I grew up on, would have found familiar. Kunstler shares stories of a couple adapting to life off the grid, a wanderer of sorts who has found himself a home living in Baltimore, a pair of different people making a go at old-fashioned baking and distilling, and even a white supremacist with a couple of insights to go along with a lot of whacked-out views. This is an odd collection of people, but these are odd times. Their stories help you see the world into which Kunstler senses we are moving.

And at this point, who are we to question Kunstler’s vision? There was a part of me that used to think Jim fashioned himself as a court jester, one of the few people who could speak truth to power using humor as a shield. I was wrong about that and apologized to him. I now find his humor—and Jim can be quite hilarious—to be more of a coping mechanism, a way to deal with the insanity that he is uniquely wired to perceive on behalf of the rest of us. I am thankful he is there.

You should be too. Even if you have not read the other books in this series, you will find critical insight in Living in the Long Emergency. It is the book to get if you want to understand what is happening to us as a society, along with how to cope with these converging emergencies. Hurry, because we are running out of the “long” in this narrative.

Charles Marohn is the founder and president of Strong Towns. This New Urbanism series is supported by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.