A Foretaste of James Howard Kunstler’s Long Emergency
The COVID pandemic allows us a preview of what techno-industrial collapse would look and feel like.
James Howard Kunstler, whose first nonfiction book, The Geography Of Nowhere, came out the same year as the founding of the Congress for the New Urbanism, has struck gold—or, you might say, oil—again. His latest book, Living In The Long Emergency, came out just in early March, a matter of days before stay-at-home orders came down across the nation. If 2008 was one little preview of the long emergency—a long, semi-permanent contraction in techno-industrial economic activity—the coronavirus crisis, and the weaknesses in governments, global institutions, and supply chains that it has pinpointed, is another preview. And a more ominous one.
Throughout the long and decadent 2010s, as the commentariat increasingly moved to the few places in the country that were actually experiencing a post-2008 “recovery,” one could imagine that the long emergency, like Margaritaville, is a state of mind. But that’s suddenly gotten a lot harder.
Let’s get it out of the way early: the temporary, and bizarre, phenomenon of negative oil prices has very little to do with the larger phenomenon of peak oil, which refers to the slow but inexorable depletion of easily extracted oil reserves. Among Kunstler’s most interesting claims is that the financialization of the economy is tied to peak oil: as cheap energy dissipates, we increasingly turn to borrowing, i.e. taking a cut of assumed future wealth into the present. Financial wizardry, in other words, has momentarily replaced cheap oil. If it becomes clear that the imagined wealth does not exist in the future, the entire scaffolding of the global industrial economy will collapse.
For fans of Kunstler, none of this is new. What is new is the bulk of Living In The Long Emergency, which consists of interviews, mostly with longtime correspondents or commenters on Kunstler’s long-running blog, pungently titled “Clusterfuck Nation.”
The skeptical reader may notice that most of these folks have little to do with the long emergency per se; they are the kind of people who in the 19th century might have joined utopian communities and in the 1960s might have fled their parents’ ranch houses for a hippie commune or a stint with the Whole Earth Catalog. Not all of them even describe their work as rooted in the fear of coming long-term postindustrial decline. Most are deeply intelligent and idiosyncratic. A couple—to put it bluntly—are cranks. One is even a mass-transit-supporting, Buddhist, white nationalist. But perhaps the times finally match their inclinations. It is possible that these people, almost all with some upheaval in their childhoods or marriages, and all with a yearning for more than the rat race and the getting-and-spending economy, have some unique insight into our moment.
They are not, notably, conventional environmentalists or Malthusians. (One is even “agnostic” on the question of anthropogenic global warming.) Their sometimes inchoate critiques of industrial modernity, like Kunstler’s, are rooted in something deeper. Their environmentalism thinks in terms of systems and emergent phenomena and complexity, not technocratic and bureaucratic tinkering. It sees little real difference between industrial capitalism and industrial communism, or between LEED Gold Certified office towers and impossibly complicated deepwater drilling rigs. They all understand, whether it’s preserving agricultural land or building homesteads by hand, that a sustainable society cannot live off its capital. It is possible to live both opulently and paycheck-to-paycheck. That is, of course, the model of our economy.
There is a back-to-the-land, counterculture vibe to much of this, but there is also something deeply localist, traditional, and small-c conservative about it. One homesteader explains that every farm field without rocks was prepared by someone in a previous generation, by removing every rock by hand. There is so much backbreaking human labor, so much slowly accumulated wealth, latent in things we have inherited, thoughtlessly destroyed and swapped with much more efficient—and much more fragile—replacements.
There is a hint of what you might call determinism in Kunstler’s style of analysis. He suggests, for example, that Aztec rituals of human sacrifice emerged from issues of population overshoot. This can sound as though it absolves people of moral agency. But to deny structural explanations completely is a kind of woolly-headed mysticism. It assumes that people, alone of all the animals, have no external motivations, that virtue and vice reside in the ether and not in the real world.
One could descend into endless debate over this, or over the likelihood of Kunstler’s economic and ecological predictions coming true, but it is more interesting to consider the long emergency thesis in light of the coronavirus pandemic. For one, it has starkly exposed, on a smaller scale, the point that Kunstler has made for well over a decade: the economy relies on massive amounts of consumption, made affordable through incredibly complicated supply chains and financial finangeling, all with an assumed backdrop of endless cheap energy. The share of economic activity rooted in real, productive activities is almost certainly shrinking.
The urgency of reopening the economy is real. But this is not an argument for reopening the economy; it is an argument for an economy that can be slowed down for a few weeks without going off the rails. If the entire system of global trade and finance is contingent on constant and ever-increasing consumption, lightweighed and optimized and rendered so efficient that the slightest disruption pulls a thread and unravels the whole thing, then the problem, quite simply, is the entire system of global trade and finance. If we can learn the lesson that assembling a $10 toaster from a just-in-time supply chain spanning 20 nations is not a metaphysical imperative but an insane policy choice, this virus will have taught us something important for the future.
If this sounds like a prelude to standard technocratic leftism, then you’ll really need to give Kunstler a close read. He does not propose political revolution or 75 percent green energy by 2030 or the colonization of Mars or world government. Kunstler looks for no deus ex machinas from the techno-utopians or the socialists or even the greens. Rather, he suggests that we are facing cold, hard problems that we will have no choice but to deal with on their own terms. There is something bracing and refreshing about being told that what we want is immaterial, that asking the economy to start humming again or for oil to again cheaply and copiously gush out of a hole in the ground is like hurtling towards the sun and demanding that it not be so hot.
Perhaps Americans have become so accustomed to affluence and material comfort, to thinking of politics as nothing more than mental and rhetorical sparring, that we can no longer as a people conceive of problems of this nature. There is, in some circles, a quasi-supernatural belief that America, or the modern techno-industrial world order, has vanquished scarcity and deferred death, and that this state of affairs is somehow permanent and guaranteed. It is no surprise, really, that tech-heavy hyper-capitalism is now morphing into the alt-religion of transhumanism.
For Kunstler, all of this is a fever dream, the lunatic rantings of a deposed king, the hallucinations of banquets in the mind of a man succumbing to starvation. But perhaps we will not literally starve; perhaps we can salvage the best of the modern era, like advanced medicine and electronics.
And perhaps, like so many potential catastrophes, the real-life resolution will be rather anticlimactic; the distiller producing whiskey with grain he grows himself will blossom into a network of local distillers that replaces the industrial model. Other industries will follow suit. The big corporations will adjust their business models just enough to muddle on through. One technocratic semi-solution would be to deregulate the business process for small entrepreneurs. Perhaps a stable, soft, glide path to something simpler than global industrial capitalism is possible. In any case, America has always managed to achieve whatever we put our mind to. Our failures, most of the time, are failures not of ability but of political will. Our next heroic feat may be to discover synthetic petroleum or to commercialize fusion power. But it also might be something less glamorous and more easily achieved: to learn to live happily and productively with less. As Kunstler says, the future has mandates of its own.
In one of his more depressing blog posts, in the wake of the Sandy Hook school shooting, Kunstler wrote:
The physical setting of American life, composed of a failing suburban sprawl pattern for daily living—the perfect set-up for making community impossible—obliterates the secondary layer of socialization beyond the family. This is life in the strip-mall wilderness of our country, which has gotten to be mostly where people live. Imagine a society without families and real communities and wave your flag over that.
This critique runs through all of Kunstler’s work, from The Geography of Nowhere to Living in the Long Emergency. It seems fitting to end by noting that Kunstler is, in fact, an American patriot. But his patriotism is for a vanished America: one of intermediating institutions and self-reliant communities and regional networks of commerce and slow, incremental wealth building and knowledge accumulation in our institutions and places. To be this sort of patriot is something like being a Catholic sedevacantist; to believe simultaneously that Catholicism is true and that Catholicism is no longer Catholicism.
But unlike with claims of religion or metaphysics, we do not have to wonder whether our preferred America really exists. It is our duty, if we believe in it, to build it. And Kunstler and his merry band of cranks and doomsayers and quirky entrepreneurs are showing us the way.