July 23, 2012

A few notes on reading Jim Kunstler's "Too Much Magic"

I regularly read James Howard Kunstler's "Clusterfuck" blog on Monday mornings, and I'm used to his irreverent hilarity when writing about America's throngs of obese, clueless, Cheez-Doodle chompin', Big Gulp slurpin', NASCAR cheerin', Walmart-shoppin' videophiles.  So I was a little surprised at the rather somber tone of his latest book, Too Much Magic, about the misplaced belief, or hope, that he encounters as he roams around the country, lecturing and attending various forms of Doomsday conferences, that America will pull its (over-abundant) fat from the fire with a last minute technological fix to replace the looming natural resource shortages that lie in the not-too-distant future.

Essentially, the thread of logic which Kunstler delineates centers on the collision course between two main facts of American life: (1) Its car-dependent suburbia (the "Happy Motoring fiesta" he often writes about on the blog) and (2) Peak Oil.  I think that Jim Kunstler has better insight into the Sorrows of Suburbia than any other writer I've encountered.  It's a little uncanny when I read his descriptions.  He has it to a tee, and I know something about the housing tract life, having grown up in a neighborhood you might call the Apotheosis of the California Subdivision beginning in the early 1950's. (Kunstler and I were born in the same year.)  He writes rather movingly of the cultural and aesthetic poverty of such places, which have neither the vitality and vibrancy of true city life, nor the peace and pastoralism of the actual country, which the suburb is meant to simulate in an awful, abstract way.  It's really not surprising to me that the vast swaths of American suburbs have produced so many Gaia-paths, to coin a term, a huge cohort of people with so attenuated a connection to the natural world that they despise and discount the Earth entirely.

Anyway, JHK nails it, the streets of vinyl and particle-board homes, on their 1/4-acre lots, hemmed in by boulevards and strip malls, a flat, featureless terrain in the Geography of Nowhere, as he called it in a book of the same name.  As to Peak Oil, I would say this: I wish the Peak Oil theorists would call it something else, such as the Oil Shortage Crisis.  There is something a little cult-like in the Peakers' way of talking, a little too faith-based.  I get the general idea: Peak Oil refers to that point in time when 1/2 of the commercially-retrievable petroleum has been extracted from the ground, and the 50% that remains is less readily-accessible, more expensive or environmentally destructive to get at, or just not worthe the trouble at all.  But what it really adds up to is that there is going to be an oil shortage.

Right now we're straining at the limits of world production, which for actual, straight-up petroleum is about 84 million barrels per day (84 mm bbl/day), and including all "liquid fuels" that can serve similar purposes, the number is around 102 mm/bbl.  Fossil fuels have been a wonderful source of energy-dense power, essential for practically everything in modern life, so ubiquitous that we forget that without it, the whole operation pretty much shuts down.  Groceries don't get to market, commercial planes don't fly people here and there, crops don't get fertilized, the folks way out in the suburban tracts don't get to work, or to the store or to school, the whole system of international trade of goods suddenly ends. 

The question that doesn't really get answered by Peak Oil theorists is the one most on people's minds: at what point, more or less exactly, will the shortages predicted, or the rising price of oil, cause all these dire consequences to unfold?  I sometimes think, as I may have mentioned before, that from the viewpoint of the Peakers, it just can't happen soon enough.  This is part of my Special Theory of Personal Time Horizon Relativity (I'm not sure that anagrams very well - SPOPTHR).  The essential idea behind SPOPTHR is probably the reason humanity won't do anything about global warming until we've blown past all conceivable tipping points and points of no return.  We're simply not motivated, in an evolutionary, genetically-determined way, to do anything about a problem we are not dealing with as an observable crisis right here and now.  The somewhat bucolic, anodyne world the Peakers would like to see return, and which they envision just on the far side of the End of Suburbia, is something they, themselves, want to enjoy during their lifetimes.  I think this bias creeps into their analysis, although on balance, I think JHK and Dmitry Orlov are definitely right about the eventual outcome.

What maybe we didn't see so clearly was that as the world economies became sluggish, and failed to grow (phenomena related to the scarcity and high price of oil, as Gail Tverberg has shown in the graph above), was that petroleum usage, in the United States and elsewhere, would begin to fall precipitously.  And since the United States alone was using more than 20% of all the crude oil pumped from the Earth on a daily basis, this is a major downturn.

So this delays the moment of reckoning.  Of course, since energy inputs are necessary for economic growth, the economies of the world, particularly in the West, Japan and in the former Soviet bloc, are locked in stagnation, so we wouldn't be getting anywhere while we wait to run out of oil, if we try to follow business as usual.

The smart thing to do, as Kunstler says, is to use the available dense-energy fossil fuels to power a transition to a smaller, localized economy, with mass transit based on the old (not high speed) rail system, buses, walkable towns, bike paths and other sustainable approaches such as localized solar power (rooftop, for example) and wind turbines.  That does make sense. It's possible that the slow-motion collapse of the existing system, brought on by the collision course between unserviceable debts (which require, because of their compounding nature, concomitant exponential growth in GDP), on the one hand; and the gradual awakening to the reality that unavailability of oil is becoming a problem, on the other. 

If things happen less quickly than the Collapsarians envision in their Dark Dreams, say over the next 20 years or so, then some of the nascent tendencies already becoming apparent (local community gardens, small-scale farming, grass-fed ranching, a general return to the land) might have time to take shape.  It's not as dramatic, but it might be workable for the generations to come.

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