James Howard Kunstler
"The Long Emergency"
Transcription of Audio Interview, October 1, 2005
Surviving the End of the Oil Age, Climate Change, and Other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century"
Editor's Note: We have edited the interview in this transcription for clarity and readability. The original audio interview may be heard on our Ask The Expert page.
JIM PUPLAVA: My guest this week is James Howard Kunstler. He’s an author; he’s written several books: The Geography of Nowhere; Home From Nowhere, and The City in Mind: Notes on the Urban Condition. He’s written a new book called The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century. He’s been a contributor to the New York Times Sunday Magazine and op-ed page. He’s also written on environmental and economic issues.
James, in your book, you have a quote from Carl Jung which says “people cannot stand too much reality.� Your book challenges the world we live in and have taken for granted.
JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: Well, I suppose it does. I had to live with a lot of these ideas for quite a few years, so to me they weren’t that out of the box, but I’m finding out from readers who write to me that they find it very startling and unsettling. [1:22]
JIM: We’re headed into uncharted waters, into a world we’re not prepared for. This is a time you call "the long emergency." Your book looks not only at what is happening, but what will happen or what is likely to happen. What led you to write The Long Emergency?
JAMES KUNSTLER: I had written several books about what I refer to as the fiasco of suburbia. And I had undertaken that originally as really a work of social criticism, and it led quickly to a kind of economic discussion, and before too long you are faced with the issue of the energy that it takes to run this suburban living arrangement in America. And this is apart from the whole issue about whether suburbia is a pleasant environment, or whether people like it, or whether it’s good for us socially. The question of how we run our country and how we run our society, and run our economy is really about as fundamental as you can get.
And another thing I think is important in this, for me: I covered the 1973 OPEC oil embargo as a young newspaper reporter, and it made a huge impression on me, to see the kind of disorder that could be introduced into a system when you remove the most crucial resource, or at least made the delivery and price of it unstable, and it was a huge disruption in American life. And I think there was a sense at the time that something had really changed and would not ever get back to the way it had been before, and we were wrong about that. In fact, we did return to a kind of status quo for quite a while, and in a way I think we went back to sleep. And now we’re faced with a global version of the 1973 oil embargo. This isn’t going to be an embargo, this is going to be a crisis. And it’s going to be a worldwide energy crisis; it’s going to thunder through our lives and the economies of nations, and it’s going to change everything about how we live. [3:38]
JIM: To the skeptics out there, who have seen and heard Cassandras before, what would you say to them today?
JAMES KUNSTLER: One of the common complaints is that mankind has faced this problem many, many times before, and every time we seem to run out of one form of energy we always come up with something else. And the fact of the matter is this has only really happened a couple of times, in Western life especially. And by that I mean around the 16th Century we began to have trouble with wood in Northern Europe, and that stimulated the use of coal, and there was a lot of it in England especially. And coal eventually ramped up into the use of the steam pump, and the engine for pumping the water out of coal mines so they could get the coal out, and that eventually morphed into the steam engine for locomotion, and that really launched the industrial revolution. And about seventy years after the Industrial revolution really got under way in earnest, we started drilling for oil, and we discovered there was quite a bit of it, and that it was even more powerful an energy supply than coal was, and it was a liquid and it was easy to transport. It was superior to coal in every way. At that point, we made the transition from coal to oil, and you see this especially around the turn of the century � end of the 19th Century, turn of the 20th Century � where whole systems like the British Navy begin to convert from coal to oil, and railroad systems convert from coal burning steam locomotives to oil driven engines, and so on. And that really launches the great robust phase of the industrial revolution in the 20th Century.
Now, the point I’m trying to make here � probably in too windy of a way � is that this transition really only happens twice: from wood to coal and from coal to oil. It’s not like it’s something the human race has done thirty times; there isn’t this enormous precedent for overcoming every case of a resource problem. In fact, anybody who’s a reader of Jared Diamond’s book Collapse, or Joseph Tainter’s book The Collapse of Complex Civilizations, understands that there have been many societies that ran into trouble with their primary resources, and essentially folded up. So, when people say I’m being a Cassandra, or crying wolf, and that we will come up with some miracle fuel to replace oil, or some combination of alternative systems, I greet that with a lot of skepticism. I think it’s unlikely. [6:41]
JIM: Your book spells out a radical transformation of the political and economic landscape. But specifically, you talk about the end of globalism. You can’t take an international economics course today, or international finance, and they’re talking about the new global age. You also talk about the end of cheap energy, and more importantly, as similar books you’ve written in the past, the end of suburbia. Those are the kind of things I don’t think the world is ready for right now, at least for many Americans.
JAMES KUNSTLER: The United States isn’t ready for it. Clearly, our political leadership is not ready for this problem that we have with suburbia. And the problem with suburbia can be stated pretty plainly: it has no future. It is a living arrangement which has no future. It represents the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world, and we’re probably not going to be able to use it as an armature for everyday life very far into the future. And then we’re going to be stuck with it as a tremendous liability. The whole suburban fiasco implies some other things: it entails a psychology of previous investment, which is very powerful; and this psychology of previous investments prevents us from being able to think about reforming the suburban living arrangement, or letting go of it, or moving onto something else, because we have put so much of our 20th Century wealth into this way of life. And so I think among other things, we’re going to see a tremendous battle to maintain the entitlements of the suburban dream, and we will go to extreme delusional limits in the defense of it; and it will be an act of futility, but we’re probably going to do it anyway. [8:41]
JIM: You’re seeing a bit of that today, right now, in New Orleans, you would have to question, after a city gets wiped out by a hurricane, gets flooded for the second time, why do you want to build another city on this flood plain? Is that some of a similar thinking?
JAMES KUNSTLER: Well, you know, I would have to add this to the New Orleans story: I’ve said in the book The Long Emergency, that we will see a definite contraction in American cities, in the industrial metropolis of the 20th Century type that most of our cities represent. And many of them are already in an advanced state of contraction. You know, if you go to St. Louis, or Cleveland, or Detroit, or Kansas City, or Akron, or Pittsburgh � the list is very long � these cities are to some extent or another hollowed out at the core. I think what we’re going to see is that the 21st Century city � the hyper-, mega-industrial colossus � is really something that probably is not going to continue to be needed the way we’ve needed it. And we’re also going to see a reversal of the two hundred year trend of people moving from the country to the city, and from the small towns to the city. I think we’re going to see people leaving the cities, and going to the small towns and the countryside. And for this reason: the whole problem with fossil fuels, and in particular natural gas and oil � with agriculture � tends to suggest that we’re not going to be able to grow food the way we’ve been doing it the last 100 years, we’re really going to have to make other arrangements. We’re not going to be able to continue pouring oil and natural gas based inputs onto the soil, and producing these enormous amounts of corn, and turning them into Cheese Doodles and Pepsi-Cola; that whole way of farming is going to be over with. And also, the tremendous transportation issues that are associated with it: the 3000 mile Caesar salad. You know, most of the food on our tables travels thousands of miles, and we’ve been able to do that because oil has been cheap, and this is coming to an end. The implication of that is we’re probably going to have to grow more food close to home, and the parts of the country by the way where that’s not possible are going to be regions that find themselves in deep trouble. Some of these places are pretty obvious: places like Phoenix, and Tucson, and Las Vegas. I think they will be substantially depopulated. They may even be contested territory with Mexico for a while. But ultimately, those parts of the country will not support substantial populations of any ethnic mix, whether it’s Americans � Anglos, Mexicans or anybody. They’re going to have additional problems on top of their food supply problems and their fuel problems; they’ll have additional problems with water, and with air-conditioning. You can draw some conclusions on which parts of the country are liable to be successful.
And there are many layers to this, but the whole business of growing our food is really going to come much closer to the center of American life, I think. And I think we will see much larger numbers of people becoming involved and becoming employed with agriculture in one way or another, or the value added activities associated with it.
JIM: You know, one event I don’t think the world is ready for � and this is getting back to your idea of suburbia and globalism, which is based on cheap energy � is peak oil: our modern world with all of its wonderful technology runs on cheap fossil fuels. I don’t think people realize, Jim, that at $64 a barrel, you’re paying 19 cents for a pint of gasoline. I can’t walk into a store � last week I had a Slurpee, it cost me a buck and that was just ice and colored water with sugar!
JAMES KUNSTLER: That’s true, oil is still remarkably cheap. I think that there are some shocks coming in the months ahead that may break the complacency that we’ve seen in the American public. One is obviously the whole gasoline pump price thing that has started, and really ramped up again since the hurricanes hit, in the early Fall, late Summer. But another thing that’s lurking in the background is the cost of natural gas, especially as it relates to home heating: half the houses in America are heated with natural gas. And the price of natural gas is now about 400% higher than it was in 2002. It was under $3 a unit � which is 1000 cubic feet � in 2002, and now it’s up in the neighborhood of $12, and pushing towards $15, and some commentators are even saying that $20 a unit may not be out of the question by the time we get to Christmas. This will be such a shock to the American public that it’s almost indescribable. I think more people may freeze in the upper Midwest this Winter than were killed by the two hurricanes in August and September. A lot of people are going to have trouble keeping their houses warm, paying for their heat, and I think the weak, the infirm, people with compromised immune systems, I think some of them are going to be really challenged to stay alive this Winter. And it’s going to have a tremendous effect on the way we think about energy. It doesn’t necessarily mean we’re going to start making some of the right choices. [14:49]
JIM: That brings up a question, because looking at the US today, it’s obvious, I think, that we’ve learned nothing from the last energy crisis. Our energy infrastructure has been neglected; we import 60% of our energy needs; we’ve outsourced a good portion of our manufacturing base. The US economy is totally dependent on what looks like � at least as we examine the last decade or more � asset bubbles, one of which is your suburbia. Politicians, I think Jim, don’t want to tell the voters the truth, instead they look for someone to blame as we play the blame game.
JAMES KUNSTLER: And the truth is that the dirty secret of the American economy, for at least a decade, is that it is increasingly all about the creation of ever more suburban sprawl, and its accessories: the strip-malls, the big box pods, the real estate rackets, the generation of ever more mortgages on a really sloppy basis. The decay in mortgage lending standards in America is a book in itself; it’s such an amazing thing. And then of course, the mortgages representing this tremendous basket of debt is then rolled over and resold and bundled into tradable financial instruments � to become part of the global finance scene in the form of, essentially, casino bets on things like derivatives. So the suburban sprawl racket has really been the underpinning of the economy for quite a while. One of the interesting things we’re seeing now, I believe, is that because of the high gasoline prices this Fall, and because of the prospect of ominous natural gas heating prices, and heating oil prices, there must be people all over America who are now making individual decisions not to buy that new suburban 3,000 sq. ft. McHouse, 27 miles outside Atlanta, or 34 miles outside San Diego. People who are making these choices not to commute those huge distances, or not to buy a house they don’t think they can heat. And those choices are going to add up, and I think it will put an end to the supernatural housing bubble that has been driving the economy. [17:30]
JIM: When we take a look at energy, one thing that has gained a lot of prominence with writing like yours, Matt Simmons, and the work of Ken Deffeyes, is peak oil. Do you believe in peak oil?
JAMES KUNSTLER: Well, it’s not a religion. It’s a pretty simple idea. And yes, I believe it. I do not believe that the earth has a creamy nougat center of petroleum. I believe that the models that have been devised to show how much oil was out there, and how much we’ve been able to get are pretty accurate, and the numbers, especially the productions figures, and the sales figures � we know how much oil is being consumed on a daily, weekly basis � it’s very clear. It’s a little bit less clear how much oil is out there in reserve, but we have a pretty clear picture from most of the producers. It’s only a few producers like Saudi Arabia that we’re not quite sure about, and that picture is beginning to resolve too.
So, yes, I believe in peak oil, and I believe we’re probably closer to it than the group that thinks we’re closer rather than further away: we’re in the zone. [18:46]
JIM: This creates a problem because if we take a look at energy itself, particularly oil, there’s nothing that matches it, at least for power, versatility, transportability. As I look at oil’s replacement, I don’t see, at least as I examine the energy structure out there today, a silver bullet.
JAMES KUNSTLER: There’s a lot of wishful thinking out there, and a lot of people would like there to be a silver bullet. This is something I refer to as the Jiminy Cricket syndrome: the idea that when you wish upon a star your dreams come true. And this is part of the whole bundle of delusions that are now kind of rampant in this country. I think any time you get a society that’s really under stress the way ours is, the delusions really ramp up. And there’s a tremendous wish that we can run our system � our easy motoring, drive-in utopia � on some other substance, if oil becomes a problem. And there are even young, idealistic kids who think we’re going to run the interstate highway system and Walt Disney World on soybean oil or biofuel, or biodiesel, or some other thing. I think they’re going to be very disappointed. I don’t believe any combination of alternative fuels, or systems for running them, will allow us to run things the way we’re accustomed to running them in America, or even a substantial fraction of them. All of them share the same central liability, which is that it takes more energy to get these things in play � whether it’s biodiesel, or hydrogen, or solar, or wind � than you get from the energy that these things produce. So, they start out with that fundamental problem, and in some cases the problems become more elaborate � you know, the whole hydrogen picture � in addition to the fact that you get less energy from the hydrogen than you put into producing it, you have all kinds of other liabilities: it’s very different from oil; it’s hard to move; hard to transport; hard to store; extremely explosive. We can make hydrogen, and we can create prototypes of cars that will run on it, but can you do that for 60 million cars? No, we’re not going to do that, it’s not going to happen.
When I go and give a college lecture, people get up in the audience, during the question and answer period, and they say things like, “Oh, you’re so pessimistic, you don’t have any solutions.� And it’s true, I don’t have any magic bullets myself. I don’t offer any magic bullets, but I think that there are intelligent responses to what we’re faced with, and they’re pretty straight forward. There’s nothing really that abstruse about them. For instance, we are probably going to have to downscale everything we do in everyday life. We’re probably going to have to resize, and right size, and rescale all of our activities, from farming, to the way we do schooling, to the distances that we live from things, to the way we conduct retail trade, from the way we conduct manufacturing. And we can do these things. But we’re not prepared to think about them. Let me give you an example by the way, if we were really serious about preparing for the changes and challenges that we face, the first thing we’d probably do is restore the US passenger railroad system. There’s practically nothing else that we can do that would have as great an impact on our oil use and our consumption than restoring passenger railroad service to a level that’s common in virtually all other countries in the civilized world. We have a railroad system that the Bulgarians would be ashamed of. And the fact that we’re not even talking about it shows me how unserious we are. And I’ll be right out in front with you, I’m a registered Democrat � I’m not a conventional liberal, I’m pretty much a sort of centrist, conservative Democrat � but it amazes me that the Democratic Party, in opposition to the Republican establishment � if we can call it that � has not even raised this issue, and it’s one of the things that’s leading me to think that the Democrats are going to find themselves in the museum of extinct political parties along with the Whigs, because they are being so lame.
So, the intelligent response will be to downscale American life: to reestablish public transit in many forms; to recreate local and regional networks of economic interdependency, which have many virtues on top of the fact that you don’t have to be reliant on other nations’ most valuable resources. The local networks of economic interdependency that we used to have in this country were systematically destroyed, and along with them went the social roles that people enjoyed, and which were so crucial to the health of our communities that went along with the economic roles they played. You know, virtually every small town in America, with very few exceptions of a few tourist towns are totally gutted, they’re ghost towns. They are in just sad, terrible, depressing, deplorable conditions. These places used to be supported by a class of people, many of them merchants, people who did business, locally and regionally. They often owned two properties in town: they owned the building they did their business in; and they owned their house. They took care of these properties; they took care of the people who worked for them; they had to look after them to some extent because they had to live shoulder to shoulder with them. And this has all been systematically destroyed. It’s the kind of thing that we will have to rebuild; it’s a tremendous task that faces us; and it’s something that we’re not prepared to think about at all. So, I hope we can wrap our minds around this problem, and start really applying ourselves, instead of just sitting back and wishing for Santa Claus to deliver a miracle, alternative fuel to replace oil. [25:18]
JIM: How do you think we got ourselves in this mix? If you look at the energy statistics � and this has always amazed me � peak oil discoveries were reached in the 1930s in the US, globally they were reached in the 1960s, and if you look at � I think it’s Exxon-Mobil that publishes a report each year � since 1985, we’ve failed to replace the oil we consume each year, so it’s been two decades now, and then miraculously, in 1988 all the members of OPEC suddenly double and triple their oil reserves, with no announcements of major oil discoveries. Why do you think that was never discovered? If I was an automobile manufacturer, designing a gas guzzling car, I think I would want to know about the supply of energy.
JAMES KUNSTLER: Yeah, well OPEC got away with it because many of their oil companies were nationalized, and the numbers about their total reserves of oil were state secrets, and there was simply no way we could go in and see what they were. At that point, we had also become more or less dependent on them, in a kind of sick relationship that led us to try to coddle our relations with them, and we tried to desperately do everything we could to not make them angry at us, because we didn’t want a repeat of 1973. So, we didn’t push them. And so the result was we haven’t known what Saudi Arabia’s true reserve numbers are for 30 years, since Aramco was nationalized. And we’ve been essentially whistling past the graveyard, hoping that their numbers were right. Of course, the OPEC members had a big incentive to misreport their reserve numbers upward, because if they had more reserves their production quotas were raised, and they were able to sell more oil and therefore have more income. And so they had every reason to lie about their reserves, and they probably did. [27:36]
JIM: If we take that, and we’ve interviewed all the experts on both sides of this peak oil issue, and one of the things I think Simmons did is make a most convincing case, because if you look at all the oil demand models, whether you’re looking at the IEA, or the US government, they have these demand models going up and this miraculous supply of oil that comes on stream as the price of oil and demand goes up. But the thing I’m seeing is, everywhere you’re looking at we’ve got supply bottlenecks and constraints. Jim, you and I know that you can’t build a refinery overnight, you can’t build a pipeline, you can’t build a power plant, you can’t convert from fertilizer based agriculture overnight, so we’ve got a big transition period coming here that I think is going to be forced on us.
JAMES KUNSTLER: Yes, and that is sort of the essence of my book, The Long Emergency, which is that even if we do manage to overcome this problem by some miracle, there’s still going to be an interval of turbulence and disorder, economic, political, perhaps military between the time we get into trouble with fossil fuels, and the time it resolves one way or the other. You know, about those bottlenecks, there are problems at every level: at the discovery level there haven’t been any significant discoveries of oil anywhere in the world in the past 3 years of any significant size fields; at the refining level which is where they get to deal with the product that exists, we’re very short of refineries, with poor prospects of building new ones. And the reason for that too is pretty straightforward and simple: refineries are very expensive investments, and the oil companies are aware they are in a twilight industry that doesn’t have a long horizon on it. And they’re not going to make, a one billion, or a two billion dollar investment in a big refinery in Texas or Arizona, or some other place, if they believe they’re in a twilight industry. And so really, what the major oil companies have been doing is buying back their own stock and not making investments in new discoveries, new drilling. They’re not drilling because they realize they’re liable to drill far more dry holes at several million dollars each, than they are to find any significant amounts of oil. And they’re not building refineries because they realize the oil industry doesn’t really have the kind of future that the American people thinks it has. [30:25]
JIM: Once we get to peak oil, in your book, you talk about this really becoming the tipping point when things begin to unravel. Take any economic model for any country, if you can’t get energy and you’re running manufacturing plants, you can throw your economic model out the window. And does the center of civilization hold when this unravels?
JAMES KUNSTLER: That’s a very good question. Perhaps, more to the point, I think what we can expect, long before we’re even over the peak of peak oil � and that will be a peak, as people describe it, as a bumpy plateau � we’re going to see the systems we depend on wobble. They will become very unstable, and these are large complex systems that once they go into a speed wobble all kinds of destructive things happen.
Let me give you an example. Global finance depends fundamentally on whatever faith we have that our society can generate future wealth, and when you’re talking about peak oil, you’re talking about a situation where industrial society simply cannot grow anymore because the growth medium � the nutrient for growth � is no longer there. So, the 3-7% a year, supposedly normative growth that we’ve experienced during the 20th Century and beyond the 21st , is not something we can really count on anymore, during normal good times. Well, once that expectation is gone, what happens to all the financial instruments that represent that hope and expectation, that we will generate wealth. These things are markers of that hope, and markers of a certain set of formulaic expectations. And I think we will see those financial markets fly apart when the recognition really starts to sink in, that we are not going to be generating wealth in the way that we have been. Now, in America in the last 10 years or so, clearly a lot of the so-called wealth that we’ve been generating is really hallucinated, you know, when you think about wealth in the form $200,000 mortgages given to people who have no record of ever paying back a loan, and those mortgages being turned into bonds, and those bonds being bundled, and being turned into something else. That kind of economy, one in which people take those loans and buy houses, and bid up the prices of houses because the loans are so easy to get, and then turn around and borrow even more money on the hallucinated appreciation of that asset, you’re starting to get into levels of abstraction that are pretty intense. [33:35]
JIM: Once the world arrives at peak oil, and it really dawns on us that we’re put on an energy diet, Jim, how do we do that and resolve our needs for scarce resources, without heading towards war?
JAMES KUNSTLER: That’s the 64 gazillion dollar question, isn’t it? We’re already involved in a kind of low grade war, and we make no bones about calling it a war. It’s unlike Vietnam, nobody is shrinking from calling the Iraq war, a war. It’s a war! In a paradoxical, ironic way, it’s a less of a war than the Vietnam war was, in the sense that we’re not having battles � our guys are basically being blown up by booby traps and that’s pretty much it, for now.
Now, what are the prospects for the future, that’s the question. You’ve got 3 or 4 major players, or blocs of players, in the world who are liable in one way or another to contest for the remaining oil in the world. Most conspicuously, perhaps, you have the US and China. Now, most of the oil in the world � over two-thirds of the remaining oil in the world � happens to be in the Middle East and Central Asia. China can walk into many of these places if they want to, and I dare say sooner or later they may. Are we going to engage the Chinese army in a land war, in a land locked former Soviet Republic? That’s not an adventure we can feel confident about, and I would doubt we would do that. We are now engaged in Iraq, in occupying an unfriendly nation. My view of the war is not like my fellow registered Democrats’ view of the war. I think it was something, given our lifestyle in America, it was something that we basically had to do, to set up a police station in the Middle East to ensure that we could continue buying this resource. We didn’t go over there to steal their oil. I think that’s really not true. But we were certainly very worried about being able to continue buying it from Iraq and Saudi Arabia, so we set up this police station, over in Iraq, which was the best candidate because it was between two of the most crucial players there: Iran and Saudi Arabia. And we set up this police station to modify their behavior, and influence their behavior. And for a few years it sort of worked, but that’s also a project we can’t feel very confident about, and we have to ask ourselves how long can we occupy these unfriendly countries, and the answer probably is not forever. And what happens when it’s no longer possible, when we’ve bankrupted ourselves, or exhausted our military, or demoralized our military, or are not able to enroll soldiers voluntarily. I think sooner or later, we may have to withdraw into the Western Hemisphere, and when we do what happens to our access to two-thirds of the remaining oil? These are very, very troubling questions. I imagine they are thinking about these things in the Pentagon, and the intelligence agencies, but we’re certainly not talking about them in the newspapers.
Meanwhile, there’s one other thing I hasten to point out: there are other players here. There’s Europe, which has been hanging back for about 5 years since 2001. Europe is a very powerful bloc of nations who are capable of mobilizing. We think of them as being sclerotic and ineffectual, and being composed just of old people who sit around cafes, but in fact Europe is a very powerful bloc of nations, and they have a huge interest in having access to oil. Great Britain enjoyed a twenty year fiesta of cheap oil from its own North Sea fields, but that’s over with now. They’re now, once again, net energy importers. And Europe has been able to hang back; they’ve benefited from America’s exertions in Iraq. And when I say benefited, I mean they continue to get a reliable stream of oil through the Suez Canal, from the Middle East. And so they’re benefiting from the fact that we’re running this police station in Iraq. Sooner or later, they’re going to enter into the picture. There’s Japan: Japan imports 95% of its fossil fuels right now. They’re really kind of desperate for energy, and they manage to buy it and keep themselves running, but what happens if world geopolitics become more disorderly, and shipping lanes become a problem, and Japan can’t get its tankers from the Middle East all the way around into the Pacific. We haven’t had to think about Japan as a military power for 60 years, but they’re capable of becoming one again. And what it comes down to is what happens when these nations really feel they have to defend their survival? Right now, there’s no sense that they’re doing that, but I don’t think we’re really far from the time when all these nations are going to feel their survival’s at stake. [39:18]
JIM: You almost sense a period, Jim, that we may be going as in the 30s, following the depression, conflicts over trade, except for now it could be conflicts over resources, and eventually, as we know, it broke out into a world war. It just seems hard when you have diminishing resources, so critical to the way Western societies are run today, that you can do this peacefully. I see in Asia, the armaments projects that are going on, whether you’re looking at China, Thailand, even Japan, talking about rearming today � the naval buildup in Asia � so in one sense you see some of it going on today, where these nations are starting to say, “you know what, we need a military presence.�
JAMES KUNSTLER: Yes. I couldn’t agree more. It’s a very ominous picture, and of course, now we have nuclear weapons. We don’t really know what may happen with them, it certainly makes everybody nervous knowing that they’re there. In a way, the great struggles of the 20th Century were also, to one extent or another, about energy and about resources. World War II certainly was: Germany was trying desperately to reach out to the Caspian region and Southern Russia and what became the Soviet Republic of Southern Russia, to try to control the oil around there. They had very little oil of their own; they were probably wondering how they were going to run an industrial economy. So, yes, I agree with you. [40:56]
JIM: What happens in the US? Could it change politically to fascism in some way? When the average American wakes up, and finally discovers that the only way he’s going to have any semblance of life the way it used to be is from energy elsewhere, do we get more militant? I mean, you have in your book a chapter, one of your neighbors, I think, had a bumper sticker, that said, “war’s not the answer,� but they had two SUV’s in the drive way. The average American doesn’t understand where gas comes from.
JAMES KUNSTLER: That’s true, and I think we’re going to see a very, very angry American public. This period ahead, that I call the long emergency, is going to produce a lot of economic losers. They’re going to be very angry at the loss of their jobs, at the loss of their incomes, at the loss of their entitlements, or presumed entitlements to the drive-in utopia, to the easy motoring way of life. I think that we will see the American public vote for rather extreme politicians who promise to defend that way of life. I also hasten to add, that unlike a lot of my Democratic cohorts, I don’t regard Dick Cheney as a fascist, or George Bush as a fascist. I didn’t vote for them, but I don’t consider them that. However, Dick Cheney was the guy who said that the American way of life is not negotiable. I think we’re going to see reality negotiating it for us, but before that happens we’re going to try desperately to bargain, in the way people whose lives are threatened try to bargain, and part of the process may be that we’ll turn to extremist politicians. Now, right now, there’s a particular kind of vacuum in America that’s very interesting, and we’re seeing it come out in the hurricane issue, and that is there is a vacuum of action. There is a new perception that George Bush, in particular, and the Federal government in general, has become a big, impotent, ineffectual entity, and I think that will lead sooner or later to a tremendous hunger among the public for a man of action, or a party of action, and that’s what you generally get with fascists, because they are people who believe in authoritarian methods, in which the democratic process is put aside so that you can expedite things. And as we get into the Winter, and Americans begin to suffer from tremendously high heating prices, from really high gasoline prices, we may see some movement into that vacuum. I don’t know who’s going to turn up there.
There is a movement in England that I find interesting to follow, it’s called the British National Party, led by a character named Nick Griffin � I don’t know that much about him. But they are an interesting mix of a kind of an environmental fascist party; they have a very rigorous, and pretty well thought out, energy policy and environmental program that involves things like ramping up public transit, doing everything possible to discourage suburbanization, and excessive car use, but on the other hand they also have a very unsavory, unappetizing side of their party, which is highly fascistic and racialist, and that’s something we could see. And by the way, the British National Party has been very eager to export their ideas to America. Nick Griffin has been over here trying to get something going, a kind of parallel kind of movement over here; it hasn’t happened yet.
But as I said earlier, the Democratic Party is in danger of going extinct from its complete brainlessness, and lack of any idea of about how to mount an opposition. And the Republicans are about to get hooverized by the economic disruptions that we seem to be facing now. So I think between the two of them, there’s going to be quite a vacuum there. [45:20]
JIM: It almost reminds me of the last days of the Roman Republic, before you got the emperors. Historian, David Hackett Fisher, wrote a book called The Great Wave �
JAMES KUNSTLER: Yes, I read that, it’s a great book!
JIM: � Yeah � and he talked about these long wave cycles that would last a century. You would get the population growth, and then you would get this sort of inflation wave that would begin, it would show up in food, energy, and shelter. But in the end, they all ended in some great cataclysm, whether it was the plague, or the wars in Mediaeval Europe, but something happens like that. And it almost seems like Fisher’s long wave history is once again playing itself out.
JAMES KUNSTLER: It may have something to do with human nature, that we are, as some people say, hardwired not to pay attention to our problems, until they become overwhelming. [46:18]
JIM: In your book, and talking about where we go from here in this long emergency, if you were to look back at this country, let’s say over a hundred years ago, it was more rural, smaller towns, self-sufficient. Is this ultimately where we’re heading?
JAMES KUNSTLER: I don’t think we’re going to replay the 19th and 20th Centuries, but as some wag once remarked, “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.� I think there will be some characteristics of earlier times that we will return to. I do think we’re going to see more labor intensive local agriculture. Of course, that entails a whole realm of strange outcomes that nobody is really thinking about. For example, I said earlier that the long emergency is going to produce a lot of economic losers, and many of them will, or may, end up working in farming or agriculture, or food production, in some way. Well, what are the social relations going to be like between those people, many of whom will be formerly middle class people, very pissed off about the loss of their entitlements? What are their social relations going to be with the people who own the land? In earlier times, in other places, when you had that degree of social dissatisfaction, revolutions occurred. People lost their chattels, and wealth, and their land, and they were seized, and classes were overturned and elites circulated. We’re not so special despite all the notions of American exceptionalism, we’re not so special that that couldn’t happen to us.
But getting back to just normal, everyday life, I don’t think we’re going to revive the kind of manufacturing we had in the 20th Century. Even around where I am, the mini rustbelt of the upper Hudson River Valley, most of the factories that were running here, and there were quite a few, most of those factories have been bulldozed now, they’re not even there anymore, even if we wanted to get something going again. I think whatever things we make may be organized on a more of a cottage industry basis. We could certainly do a lot more with hydroelectric, in my part of the world, because we have a lot of smaller rivers where small power stations were decommissioned, and we can get them back into service, and theoretically maybe, have electricity for some time to come. I think we’ll be seeing the use of more working animals: oxen, mules, horses. I’m not saying that engines are going to disappear, but I think we may simply be seeing more of it. I think we will return to certain social forms, and social enactments, that we haven’t had in a long, long time, and they may be very beneficial, because people will be working shoulder to shoulder on things that matter, as opposed to sitting alone, isolated in their cubicles, moving pixels around on a screen. That’ll be a big difference.
I’m not a religious person myself, but I think religion of all kinds, at all levels, is probably going to see quite a revival, and will probably be something that offers structure for the public to organize their lives around, especially in a vacuum of leadership and authority. This does leave open the very strong possibility that we’ll some very extreme religious activity. We already have that in America. But I also think we’ll see a lot of fairly normal religious practice, and especially the social aspects of that: people centering their lives around the organization of churches. And again, I say that as someone who’s not particularly religious myself. So, we’re in for quite a few changes I think. [50:10]
JIM: One thing that’ll change is this world of globalism, let’s say you’re a company, you could be Dell Computer, you could order your supplies from one country, have them shipped to another country where they are assembled, and then put on a boat or an airplane, and shipped to another country for distribution. That seems to me to disappear: the just-in-time inventory.
But you talk about something that I find interesting and that is, if you look at the agricultural revolution that took place in the 70s, especially with agro-fertilizers coming from fossil fuels, and it enabled the modern farm to plow the same acre over and over again, rather than allow the top soil to replenish itself, we just put on these industrial fertilizers. You talked about growing more food locally. You’re not going to have the 3,000 mile Caesar salad, and you’re not going to walk into a store anywhere in the country and see goods on the shelves that you can get all year round that aren’t grown there. But you also talk about a concept of real wealth will be found in farmland, I found that fascinating.
JAMES KUNSTLER: It remains to be seen what real wealth will be found in, but I think we can safely assume that it will come in the form of things that traditionally we’ve associated with wealth, and especially coming off of a period in which wealth was hallucinated, phony, overcooked and oversold. And that’s going to be one of the consequences of our behavior in the late 20th, early 21st Century, don’t you agree? [51:48]
JIM: I think so because a lot of this stuff � the Internet Bubble, where you could have companies that didn’t have sales, or never made money, and they would grow to be, for example, worth billions of dollars compared to companies that made stuff � I think that’s going to disappear. But when it comes down to it, everything that we have � if you want to make something, grow something � it comes from the earth, so having good, productive farmland, or mineral land, I think will once again become the true source of wealth, as it has been throughout all of history.
JAMES KUNSTLER: Yes, that and some other things: precious metals. I’m not a gold bug myself, but I think there are people who make a good case that it’s not a bad thing to be in possession of. I’d add something to your rural land ideas though. You know, one of the characteristics of this period we’re entering in will be tremendous social turbulence, and if you look at other periods in history, for example, the plague years of the 1300s, what you see is really very impressive disorder in the country side, in the rural places, with rampant banditry, and people not really being able to live stable lives, and as a consequence of that, you get falling food production during another crisis, which only aggravates the problem. And I wonder myself about people who are moving out to rural places, thinking they’re going to have a survival bolt hole, and what kind of bargain they’re making for themselves. I myself tend to promote the idea that it’s at least as good, and perhaps a better idea, to think about living in a small town in a cohesive community.
Now, there aren’t that many small towns in America that are in very good shape, but they are there, waiting to be reinhabited, and I think many of them will be, probably in some parts of the country than other. I’m not sure that the small towns of Nebraska are going to be that easy to get back into service, because there’s some question about whether the semi arid parts of the Midwest are really good places for farming in the first place, but I think that the small town maybe becomes the place that the light of civilization can keep burning. And I do think that the cities are going to be in quite a bit of trouble, and the bigger cities are going to be in the most trouble, especially the ones that are overburdened with megastructures and skyscrapers, buildings that are essentially 20th Century experiments that we really don’t know the outcome of yet. We don’t know whether we can run these buildings in the absence of cheap fossil fuels or cheap electricity, and my sense is that they’re probably not going to run too well. There was an article in the New Yorker last year � or maybe even earlier this year � that a lot of people got exercised about, and it made the point that New York City was the most environmental place in the country because you could stack so many people on a small area of land. And that may be true now, under the current conditions, when energy is still relatively cheap, I’m not so sure that’s true going into an era when the equation changes. [55:24]
JIM: Looking at the future, when you talk about where people might live, where areas of the country that would fare better than others, you’re not optimistic about the Southwest, if we take a look at, for example, farming in Arizona it wouldn’t be there if you couldn’t import water over long distances; and certainly when we get to expensive energy, parts of Southern California, you’re not optimistic about it. You like what you call the Old Union, the original areas, explain why.
JAMES KUNSTLER: I’m a little more optimistic about New England, the mid Atlantic states, and the upper Midwest, and partly in distinction to the Sunbelt, because a lot of people intuitively think, that if we get into trouble with energy, “I better move to a warm place because then I won’t have to worry about heating my house.� It’s true that’s going to be an issue, but in distinction to the South, I think there are advantages to the upper Midwest and the Northeast that are probably going to stand better eventually. And I think the South may become a very disorderly place, and when I say that I mean the old South of Dixie, the wet Sunbelt. They have enjoyed a thirty year fiesta in which they benefited hugely from the cheap oil of the last thirty years, and their economies grew extravagantly, and boomed. And I think they’re going to suffer exactly proportionately to the amount they benefited from the last thirty years. They were a group regionally who became middle class relatively late in the game. Now, I realize there a lot of people who moved into Atlanta, and Orlando, and Charlotte, and these other places in the South, from other parts of the country. But there’s also quite an original stock of population, and an original culture there, and I think it tends to include what I call a lot of latent encoded behavior that’s troublesome: romance over hyperindividualism; there’s a romance over guns and firearms and using firearms liberally in the defense of hyperindividualism. And when I say hyperindividualism, I mean the exaltation of the individual’s needs and rights, as opposed to the welfare of a group. And I think that’s exactly what you get in the older parts of the North, is an idea that there has to be some kind of respect for the group and the civic welfare of the commonwealth, and all those ideas that tended to grow out of that region. So, I worry what life in the Sunbelt is going to be like, and I tend to think that people will be better off in the Northeast, and the upper Midwest. The upper Midwest suffered tremendously over the last thirty years, while the Sunbelt has benefited, so there may be quite a reversal there. They also enjoy the benefit of having this marvelous freshwater inland sea � The Great Lakes � which in its own way is a tremendously under utilized resource in the United States, and something that may play quite a part in the reorganization of our national life, if we even have a national life. [58:58]
JIM: What about the Pacific Northwest, where it has good soil?
JAMES KUNSTLER: You know, where you’re talking about the Pacific Northwest, you’re really talking about a fairly narrow band along the coastline, but a lot of it is exceptionally good farmland, like the Willamette Valley in Oregon, and I think that the problem with Pacific Northwest is, all other things being equal, I think they’re going to be subject to a lot of people overwhelming them from California. And I also, as I say in the book, and something I’ve been widely ridiculed for, but I’ll say it again anyway, I think that the Pacific may become a kind of arena for freebooting groups of people using naval vessels from deteriorating Asian nations, to prey on the people who live on the Pacific Rim. And when I say that, think of let’s say, the Philippine, or Indonesian, or Malaysian Navy, and people using their naval vessels to essentially form a new kind of piracy. And I wonder about the safety of people living in places like the Pacific Northwest because of that.
While we encounter problems here in North America, Asia is going to be going through tremendous problems themselves, and it’s going to be a big fight over the assets in Asian nations that are coming apart. So, it’s hard to understate the potential for all kinds of military, or paramilitary mischief. Right now, piracy in the area of the Straits of Malacca and other great shipping lanes of Southeast Asia is at an all time high. This involves the hijacking of gigantic tanker vessels, and things like that. So I think that that kind of activity is liable to spread. People have ridiculed me, saying I’m talking about pirates invading Portland, Oregon and Seattle, and obviously I’m not talking about guys with three-cornered hats and eye patches, with parrots on their shoulders. Instead, think about a 178 foot steel naval vessel, armed with big guns, and even missiles � guys with surface-surface missiles and with automatic rifles. That’s quite a formidable enemy.
JIM: In your defense, I love cruising, and I love sailing, and I’ve been told in the cruising world, especially as you go South of the border here, from Southern California, as you get further South you have to be very careful where you go. Or in the Caribbean, you may not want to be cruising at night because you could be attacked by pirates. So the things that you’re talking about I read about in the cruising world, and I’ve talked to people who’ve had to confront that, so it’s not as wild as some people may criticize.
James, as you’re looking forward, as I see it right now, it seems like as we get into this long emergency that you’re talking about, I just see things from this point forward beginning to accelerate. We’re in the decadal cycle with the weather, where we’re going to see more hurricanes. In fact, I just read in the Browning newsletter, October being ideally set up for the worst part of the hurricane season. Imagine if another one comes through the gulf. And then we’ve got the Winter coming up � weather forecasters are already talking about a very cold Winter, and so we could be seeing the very things you talked about earlier. Is that how you see this thing, just sort of starts picking up momentum, and we’ll just have one shock wave after another, where people I think are just going to be to the point of not wanting to turn on their TV sets?
JAMES KUNSTLER: The effect of the two hurricanes alone has been very, very impressive, and even though we’re a week past the second storm, the reports are not nearly in even about what the damage has been. And we’re still reeling from both of those storms. Yes, I agree with you, the potential for acceleration is very impressive and these tend to have mutually reinforcing effects on each other, and ramifying effects. As I said a little earlier, right now, because of the effect of the hurricane, and the rise in oil and gas prices, there are individuals all over America who are deciding not to buy those houses that they thought about buying back in August and July. And when you add up those choices, they may add up to the end of the housing bubble, and the end of the housing bubble may add up to a lot of people in the financial sector turning around and thinking, “well, you know what, this stream of bundled debt and investment revenue that we’ve been counting on, never coming to an end, seems to be coming to an end, what are we going to do? How are we going to cover our casino bets that we’ve made all over the world?� We seem to be heading into what you yourself have described on your website as a perfect financial storm. [1:04:30]
JIM: Well, I couldn’t agree more. I think at this point the energy of that storm is just gaining force, and I think we’re going to see in the next 12 to 18 months, events unfold that we’ve never seen before, and it’s going to be quite a bit of a shock.
In conclusion, Jim, if you wanted somebody to read your book and walk away with one important point, what would that be?
JAMES KUNSTLER: Oddly enough, it’s something we haven’t talked about. And it has to do with people thinking that we’ll get through this somehow, we’ll come up with something. And in a way, I have my own thoughts about that because I’m basically a cheerful person, and in my own way I’m also an optimistic person. I’m not really a doomy-gloomy guy. And I would leave you with this thought: that the American people have historically been a generous, brave, forward looking, resourceful group, and we’ve shown great courage in the face of adversity before. I think we’ve become kind of a somewhat sloppy and complacent people in the last 25 years or so, but it doesn’t mean we can’t recover a lot of those virtues that are really part of the fiber of our national character. It’s still there and can still be recovered, and I think we’re going to be able to do that. It’s not going to be true for every place and everyone, but I think that’s going to help us a lot. So I have a lot of faith just in our national character, and the better angels of our nature, as Abraham Lincoln said. [1:06:02]
JIM: Well, we’ll end on that positive note. Jim, I want to thank you for joining us on the Financial Sense Newshour. A fascinating book. The name of the book: The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of the Oil Age, Climate Change, and Other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century, a book more valid and relevant today as ever before. I wish you all the best with the book.
JAMES KUNSTLER: It was a pleasure being here with you.
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