Radical Retrenchment

[ Achtung: tediously brooding and self-absorbed blog post ahead. ]

OK, so I read The Long Emergency and it’s been seriously messing with my fragile little head. It’s not like I never heard of peak oil before, but Kunstler makes the case like a sledge hammer.

For me, it’s been that rare sort of book that forces you to interpret everything a little differently. As I move around the city in my normal routine, I find myself involved in this little internal dialog about if that building, or that piece of infrastructure, or that social institution is going to survive in the post-oil age.

(e.g: This morning on NPR, right after the announcement of 15,000 layoffs at Alcoa, there was a cheerful little report on the national consumer electronics show in Las Vegas. Could there possibly be a better example of a product/location so utterly incongruous with the post-oil future?)

And then there are also the massively difficult big questions the book forces:

Should we reconsider nuclear power? What if it comes down to the choice between a dead electrical grid or dealing with nuclear waste? Assuming we would choose the later, shouldn’t we be starting new nuke plant construction immediately?

Will we have the resources and societal stability to build alternative energy infrastructure when oil becomes scarce? Wind turbines are gigantic metal structures. Photovoltaics are fabricated in a highly energy-intensive process. Nuke plants, ditto but more so.

What are the implications of peak oil on greenhouse gas emissions? Isn’t it likely that peak oil itself will cause a bigger reduction in GHG emissions than we could ever hope to achieve with cap and trade or carbon taxes?

…only if we don’t go on coal binge, that is. If energy becomes critically scarce, how will we possibly avoid resorting to coal, and how, under such strained economic conditions, can we possibly expect that we’ll be able to afford the additional expense of making it “clean”?

Will the whole sustainable urban density movement end up being a total bust when we discover that our diminished resources and infrastructure are incapable of sufficiently supporting huge concentrations of people? Is it time to start looking for a well laid out traditional town surrounded by lots of productive farmland?

Cascading failure, anyone? Perfect storm perfected? To me, one of Kunstler’s most compelling points is that the complexity and interconnectedness of our systems will render them far less reliable and resilient in the face of the big changes brought on by peak oil. Give the system enough little pokes (higher energy costs) in enough places and down it all comes crashing. Or put another way, which car would Mad Max drive: a drive-by-wire BMW controlled by multiple microprocessors, or a 1973 Plymouth Valiant with a carburated slant-six?


At least I’m not the only one obsessing: Over at the Oil Drum, this vision of “radical retrenchment” after peak oil has received 383 comments. It’s a good read and mirrors many of Kunstler’s views, minus the cocksure, apocalyptic attitude.


But then again… this piece over at Grist cites reports estimating that: (1) solar thermal plants covering less than 1% of the world’s deserts could supply the world’s total energy demand, and (2) wind power on available sites could supply five times the world’s total energy demand.

And Obama intends to double alternative energy production in the U.S. over the next three years.