Saturday, July 5, 2008

Will The Long Emergency lead to the World Made by Hand or will you Profit from the Peak?

My first introduction to the concept of Peak Oil was through a book by James Howard Kunstler, The Long Emergency, that I could not get out of my head for months after I read it. It was another opinionated Kunstler rant but with a clear and powerful synthesis of the major global issues I had been concerned about. He presented a worst case scenario about how things might play out that was unrealistically pessimistic but it motivated me to do more research. Another of his earlier books, Home From Nowhere, was a polemic about suburban sprawl, which he called "the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world" and he called the typical "asteroid belt of strip mall development" surrounding our cities the "national automobile slum."

According to Kunstler, America has been "sleepwalking into the future." When he is at his best, the clarity of his vision is like awakening from sleep and his emotionally powerful and often eloquent rhetoric is backed by hard data and solid research (although he often fails to credit his sources). When he is at his worst, he is ranting, didactic, crude, and prone to using offensive stereotypes and cliches. To get a feel for his style, watch his 20-minute TED talk Dissecting Suburbia. You can see why many people, even those who share his views, think he is a bit over the top. But he is worth listening to for those gems of startling insight.

If I were teaching a course on where we are, how we got here, and how we go forward, the two books above would be candidates for the class reading list to stimulate early discussion. My brother, Bob, in Atlanta is in a book discussion group that is tackling The Long Emergency now and I think that is a great choice for any book club as we attempt to deal with the new reality of rising energy prices, which are just the tip of the iceberg of the perfect storm of change headed our way. The second half of the course would have more solutions-oriented references (see Plan B 3.0 - Brown or Apollo's Fire -Inslee and Hendricks, for example).

So, it was with great anticipation (good and bad) that I opened Kunstler's new novel, World Made By Hand. Union Grove is a fictional town in New York set in the not-to-distant future after the Long Emergency has left us with a post-automobile society. Business, manufacturing, medicine and food production are all local. There are no utilities and no telecommunications. Communication with the outside world is limited to pre-telegraph-era means. A significant portion of the population was wiped out by influenza. Central government is scattered due to a nuclear catastrophe that leveled Washington, DC. Travel is dangerous and the roads have deteriorated to the point where horse-drawn traffic uses the shoulders, not the road beds. Raw materials come from deconstructing abandoned big box stores and excavating the landfills. Warlords control commerce and lawlessness threatens shipping along the river and the tenuous remaining sense of order in Union Grove. Finished products are made by hand. Electricity is intermittent, unless you happen to have your own micro-hydro generator or working windmill. The "wealthy" are large landowners with self-sufficient farming operations and there's plenty of cheap labor to go around, drawn from the ranks of former lawyers, bankers and real estate salesmen.

This could have been a useful thought experiment, and the first few chapters offered a compelling glimpse of a potential alternative future, but Kunstler went too far and his vision is too dark and too flawed to resonate. His characters are poorly developed and the plot is weakened as he meanders into a bizarre science fiction path (is Brother Jobe a giant insect?) that he never develops or resolves. By introducing a nuclear attack and elements of some weird queen bee mysticism at the core of an Amish-like enclave (hive?), we are left trying to decide what caused society to step back to this 1880s Wild West on drugs version of Dystopia Mayberry. I get the impression Kunstler is so fed up with our suburban nation that he dreams of having his own little self-sufficient village enclave where everything is made by hand, but he makes it feel like more of a nightmare than a utopia. I was left with the impression that I wouldn't mind living in a more self-reliant community as long as I didn't have to live anywhere near the dysfunctional characters in this novel.

Read The Long Emergency and discuss it with your Sunday school class and your board of directors. Let the World Made By Hand die on a warehouse pallet so it can be recycled into something more useful and Kunstler can get back to his day job of writing thought-provoking nonfiction.

As author and philosopher Eric Hoffer once said, "In times of drastic change, the learners will inherit the future, while the knowers will find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists." If you are like me and you are trying to learn how to inherit the future and you find your retirement nest egg shrinking as the stock market gets hammered, you may want to peruse another book, How to Profit From the Peak, by Brian Hicks and Chris Nelder. This book is in some ways the opposite of Kunstler's books. While Kunstler thinks the financial markets will collapse, Hicks and Nelder subtitle their book, "The End of Oil and the Greatest Investment Event of the Century." OK, yes, they are a bit over the top in the other direction, perhaps, but what I find compelling about this book is the clarity of their description of what the Peak Oil challenge is and their extensive reference to sources to back up each of their statements.

Their book is divided into three parts: Part 1 - The Crisis in a Barrel, Part 2 - Making Money from the Fossil Fuels That Are Left and Part 3 - Energy After Oil. They make specific stock recommendations, but they also attempt to equip you with the big picture so that you might avoid investing in dead end technology (the hydrogen economy, for example). Ignorance is bliss, but relevance is more sustainable and pays better over the long haul.

I think the true picture of the future lies somewhere between The Long Emergency and How to Profit From the Peak. Read both before you call your broker, buy your next home, or before the next election (especially if you are candidate).

Learning is one investment that will always pay a return.

1 comment:

Kevin said...

I also believe that Kunstler goes too far at times. I haven't read any of his books since "Geography of Nowhere", which I really liked. However, I just don't need to delve into the darker realms. It's bad for my soul.