TAC Bookshelf: James Howard Kunstler’s ‘Long Emergency’
Here's what our writers and editors are reading this week.
Addison Del Mastro, assistant editor: I’m reading James Howard Kunstler’s new book, Living in the Long Emergency: Global Crisis, The Failure of the Futurists, and the Early Adapters Who Are Showing Us the Way Forward. It’s been awhile since Kunstler has published a landmark book on the order of the widely read The Geography of Nowhere (1993) and The Long Emergency (2005). These two books have informed much of the popular discussion on issues like the American built environment, peak oil, financialization, and environmental concerns with modern techno-industrial global capitalism.
This new entry fits into Kunstler’s existing body of work, opening with a mild critique of his earlier predictions that haven’t quite panned out before going on to explain why they are still relevant and have only been pushed back a few years. This might sound like a writer holding onto his schtick, but Kunstler delivers. The earliest chunk of the book, for example, explains in some detail why the shale oil/fracking boom is not the game-changer that has been portrayed as in the media. The trends toward declining oil supplies, escalating financial shenanigans to make up for rising energy costs, and other structural problems in the modern economy remain in force. Also, the recovery from 2008 was incomplete and extremely unequal.
Kunstler, like midcentury’s more staid Vance Packard, or like Matt Taibbi today, is one of those writers who comes from a general background but carves out a genuine and unique expertise. Like the latter, Kunstler’s style is also enough to carry a long book. If you’re not familiar, a few lines from just the early section of Living in the Long Emergency are instructive:
“Techno-narcissism has replaced religion for expressing our vested metaphysical hopes and dreams.”
[Early-aughts rising oil prices] “substantially damaged the US economy in ways that have never been fully accounted for in the news media.”
With high initial production rates from shale oil wells, “you got more oil initially, but it depleted sooner—kind of like the gag where the guy wants to make his blanket longer, so he cuts a foot off the top and sews it into the bottom.”
“In this Potemkin economy, stock markets soared while the middle classes fell into an abyss.”
This is classic Kunstler: smart and copious references, wisecracks, and dark, dismaying humor. It does what it intends to do, which is to make our vaunted American way of life look like an absurd, rickety edifice. The book’s second half, the product of numerous interviews and meetings with ordinary people grappling with the decay of American business as usual, gives it an extra oomph. You don’t have to agree with it, but you’ve got to love it.