Friday, November 16, 2007

The Long Emergency

Surprisingly enough, I found the book rather more heartening than disheartening.

The way I read it, Kunstler's main argument is that current technology is not adequate to sustain our current level of energy consumption. Honestly, I thought his discussions on technology were interesting but also represent some of the weakest points of the book. His recourse to sarcasm when discussing the limitations of some alternative technologies betrays the shaky rational grounding of the arguments in those sections. I'd have to go back to the book to actually find the sections I'm thinking of here, but there are moments when he falls back on trying to make something look laughable rather than taking it apart logically.

I think, too, he fails to consider two really salient points when it comes to current technology: a) we don't necessarily know what potentials have already been discovered and are being suppressed by the oil industry, which let's face it, is a far more evil empire than Monsanto, a company that alone has managed to suppress all kinds of science; and b) these fields are notoriously underfunded, and not just kinda underfunded, but ridiculously underfunded when compared with research budgets for defense, for example, never mind direct military budgets. The 5% increase that Bush requested back in his State of the Union for alternative energy funding is pittance compared to what defense projects receive from the DOE and the DOD for research with even a slight potential somewhere in the distant future for military application.

None of that takes into account the idea that necessity is the mother of invention. As long as we can continue the cheap ride fossil fuels offer, there's little cultural incentive to develop and switch to alternative energy sources. I think as the oil dries up and becomes more expensive, corporations will begin pumping more money into research. Will that money be there to reallocate, or will big business be caught with its pants down? Well, that's an interesting question I think. Being the closet conspiracy theorist that I am, I don't think corporate greed is stupid enough not to cover its own a$$. Although neither do I think free market is a panacea, but I do think money will follow power in what ever way it can.

What Kunstler did seem to say that I found somewhat heartening is that electricity is not nearly the problem as oil currently is, as it accounts for only a small percentage of our culture's total energy use. His basic argument is that our lights will likely stay on, but we won't be able to drive. Of course, that's a gross oversimplification, but that's the general gist of it. That's not to say that the impossibility of driving, not to mention the impact of oil depletion on petroleum-dependent industries, won't have huge ramifications for life as we know it and potentially on the availability of electricity as well. Surely it will. The big question is how gradual that change will be and how able we are as a culture to adapt to those changes.

Kunstler describes some very interesting convergences of potential disasters, but personally I think much of what the doom and gloomers talk about depends on several converging worst-case scenarios. Sure a nexus of war, famine, and disease could happen on Katrina-disaster and worse proportions, but life tends to be somewhat less extreme than that. I do tend to believe that the changes will be gradual enough to allow people to adapt, and adaptability and problem-solving are two of our greatest strengths as a species. Will 6 billion people adapt? Probably not, and surely we'll see a rise in poverty as well as drastic decline in the standard of living as the true costs of living fall on the developed world like a ton of bricks. Other parts of the world are more likely to go on living as they have for hundreds of years.

At the moment, I'd argue that the single biggest problem we're facing in terms of adaptation is the American government's steadfast refusal to acknowledge there is a significant problem combined with the artificially low prices of gasoline in this country. Compare a US gallon of premium gasoline this month at the pump for $3.33 to the Netherland's $8.39 or Britain's $7.87 or Germany's $7.97 ( Add to that the insistence that biofuels like ethanol are the magic bullet, and there's an interesting shift of government subsidies for gmo corn as Monsanto climbs into bed with the fuel companies. What proponents of biofuels fail to consider is the vast petroleum input required to produce the ding dang corn in the first place. Sure the ethanol could conceivably be used to power all those big machines, but what about the vast amount of petroleum-based fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides needed for the corn fields, not to mention the petroleum necessary to produce all that big equipment in the first place. Why not consider producing ethanol from hemp, which is a cellulose-dense plant that takes fewer resources to grow and produces more per acre, potentially lowering the current disparity of energy in/ energy out of corn and other sources, which is highly controversial in the first place ( Because that would constitute a double-whammy against agribusiness and the Puritanical powers that be.

As far as climate changes, again I think that a lot of the gloom and doom is based on worst-case scenario kind of thinking and much of what I've read seems to indicate that Europe will be hardest hit by changes in the Gulf Stream. The way I figure it, Maryland could be the next Georgia or the next Vermont, neither of which is too drastic. Another ice age is pretty dramatic, and most sources say the loss of thermohaline circulation is likely to result in temperature variations of about 10-29° F based on past numbers, but even that would likely be offset by the overall effects of global warming thus mitigating those temps. We're also far enough inland where we live that we won't be affected directly by rising water levels, though that could improve our water tables. So that doomsday scenario doesn't trouble me all that much.


Madeline said...

How clearly stated and wise. I am glad to hear that you are not one of the most extreme of the "doom and gloomers". I may be looking through rose-colored glasses but I don't see the point in living in worst-case-scenario based fear. But being aware is important. Thanks for the synopsis.

Walter Jeffries said...

I would be more worried about global cooling, which they used to tell us we were headed for back in the 1970's. The predicted one meter rise in sea levels is not as worrisome as glaciers advancing and drought that would be caused by their locking up the fresh water.

As to the level of technology issue and sustainability of current society, these writers are talking about the urban level of society in the first world. Many of us, make that most of us don't use that level of resources. The cities are not sustainable. Yes, but most rural areas are. We may yet see a shift back to rural living as a result.

In the end, the problem is self correcting and the Earth is not in danger. This species too shall pass.