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.


25 Responses to “Radical Retrenchment”

  1. Dan Staley

    In my view, this author’s work makes me look at things in a different way as well.

    As Aldo Leopold said: “Having an ecological education means living in a world of wounds”, reading Kunstler’s opinions makes one live in a built environment of wounds. The GF wants to move to a different neighborhood – I need a big enough yard to grow food, but I don’t want a cr*ppy neighborhood like Kunstler decries.

  2. Matt the Engineer

    I haven’t read the book yet. I do think this is a reasonably good primer discussing the issues (note the creepy survival gear ads on the left).

  3. Josh Mahar

    I think I can handle all of this except for one thing: no more coffee! Are there any locally producible caffeine sources we can start growing en masse soon?

  4. Patrick S

    I don’t like Kunstler. He is impossibly negative, counting on counting on consistent failure for the next century.

    Of course our society will collapse if we don’t find a solution to the peak oil problem. But how is this different from the serious problems humans have faced in the past – plague, famine, barbarians?

    We have not always found solutions, but we usually do. And whether we do or not, humans continue to survive. It takes no courage to bet on human failure. I choose to bet on innovation.

  5. Matt the Engineer

    [Patrick] In order to fix the problem, don’t we all need to understand how dire our situation is? It seems that otherwise people will keep sitting on their couches hoping “clean coal” or biodiesel will save us.

  6. tres_arboles

    A little off-topic here, Dan, but a buddy hooked me on these comic strips today:


    Thought you might get a kick out of them given your past cycling posts!



  7. tres_arboles

    Oh, and on-topic, you need to check out the guy from Berkeley that Obama nominated to be Sec of Energy. His research has been focusing on a photovoltaic material that can be painted on any surface. Like the roofs and sides of buildings, etc.

    I enjoy Kunstler’s swagger and energy, and he’s right that a fair number of us have yet to wake up from our petro-driven, consumerist daze, but I think the future’s brighter than he thinks.

  8. Patrick S

    @Matt: It may not be necessary to look at the whole problem at once. For one, it is impossibly difficult to see the whole problem. For two, we’re much better at solving small problems, because we can correct ourselves as we go. We try lots of ideas, even terrible ones like clean coal, and we analyze to see what works.

    Yours is like the defense I usually hear of Kunstler – that we need someone to tell us how bad things will be or we’ll never get around to fixing things. I don’t agree. People are not blind. We see problems coming, and we work on them.

    Furthermore, Kunstler always seems to leave out any hope of solution, presenting us only with the most pessimistic future imaginable. This is why I said that he’s impossibly negative.

    Now, I don’t think he’s completely wrong. Peak oil is going to hurt. But I do think he is wrong to expect nothing but perpetual failure.

  9. Matt the Engineer

    Let’s look at your assumption that we fix the small problems. What about the 18-lane freeway Texas just built, or all of the new highways our country is about to build using the near trillion dollar stimulus?

    Under any peak-oil scenario, this is a sunk cost that is wasted. There is no fuel that will allow us to travel en masse across the country in small rubber-tire based vehicles (well, except coal [shudder]). Yet peak oil is predicted to hit us in the next decade.

    Closing our eyes and hoping that someone else is working on the problem won’t change this construction to electrified rail. And this is just one of the many small problems that will add up to big problems.

  10. LisaB

    I highly recommend “Heat: How to Stop the Planet From Burning”, especially to Patrick because the author goes through all the alternative energy sources and adds it all up to see if we can keep living our lives as they are now, assuming all these alternatives work out. The answer is very clearly, without a doubt, NO. It’s very th0rough and sobering.

    I also tend to agree with Matt… I live in BC where our provincial government is claiming to be the greenest ever and they’ve implemented a carbon tax to prove how serious they are about reducing carbon emissions. Except they’re also implementing the largest highway expansion program in decades, straight up 1970s engineering that will cause sprawl and car-dependence all over the region. We’re still very schizophrenic about our “solutions”. We don’t have time for mis-steps and mis-allocation of resources like that. http://www.350.org for why.

  11. Dan Staley

    Along with Matt’s cogent argumentation,

    we must realize that suburbia and ~3B people on the planet arose due to cheap, available energy.

    3B people. Murrica’s industrial might arose because we were the only ones standing after WWII and cheap energy. Global trade – and the international agreements negotiated (including how countries chose to industrialize and set ag policy) – is dependent upon cheap energy (easy motoring, as K says).

    Cheap energy goes away, and the stuff that props up human population and its infrastructure and method to move the trinkets and other cr*p we buy to prop up our economy goes away.

    No cheap energy means either a hard landing or a soft landing. Going into denial and failing to consider the alternatives (which K imagines) is a recipe for a hard landing. Sounds morally and ethically wrong to me.

  12. joshuadf

    Hmm, that bit about population gets me thinking. World population growth since the 1960s has been driven by the developing countries–a predominantly subsistence farming world. Fossil fuel fertilizers (a.k.a. cheap energy) have contributed, but it’s mostly a simple equation: more children means more hands for labor. The only way to break that cycle is economic justice for poor countries. Perhaps the world economy will collapse, or perhaps it will end up darn beneficial.

  13. Spencer

    Although I haven’t read much of Kunstler’s books and articles what I have read was also found in a lot of other sources and probably most important just by walking around our world with a critical eye. I stopped reading his work in school because he didn’t expand my view on things. That said, I think he is still important and relevant to introduce people to some of the problems we face. Maybe he has improved on his writing getting beyond analysis turning it into synthesis. Since I haven’t read his latest(?) book (and likely won’t) could one of you (Dan) let me know if he suggests solutions or points to directions we can take?

    So far in this discussion I fail to see Matt making a cogent argument. He’s only pointing at problems, “the 18-lane freeway Texas,” “There is no fuel that will allow us to travel en masse across the country in small rubber-tire based vehicles,” while insinuating at a silver bullet solution. That kind of thinking isn’t going to solve problems. To me Patrick makes a better attempt at analyzing, “it is impossibly difficult to see the whole problem,” and developing a hypothesis, “We try lots of ideas, even terrible ones like clean coal, and we analyze to see what works,” toward a solution. He recognizes the complexity of the situation and offers a direction based on what he thinks take advantage of our best skill set. Dan, if Kunstler “imagines” alternatives what are they? Because those are the things we should be discussing. I think we all agree that our current fuel source is in jeopardy.

    I have a friend who is a leader in the biofuels industry. He understands that biofuels will not take care of our fuel consumption. He says a multi-source solution needs to happen with transition fuels to get us off the fossil fuel syringe.

    While I understand the problems Matt points out the reality is we have an infrastructure that is developed around poor technology and we have to unravel decades (maybe centuries) of misguided design and philosophy. In my mind we are decades away from solutions with the most difficult years still ahead of us. We need to focus on corrective planning and development that best utilizes what infrastructures we already have while developing better technology for longer term solutions.

    “Cold Turkey” just won’t work. It causes too much waste as we abandon, in a dogmatic way, yesterday’s technology and resources. We need assimilation and synthesis of ideology and technology as we transgress (not transport) to a new ideology.


  14. Dan Staley

    I agree about the economic justice part, as long as that means that third-world economies do not equal ours. That will triple our current ecological overshoot.

  15. spencer


    are you saying people in developing countries are having children to increase the labor force?

    In addition to economic justice for developing countries there should also be an increase in education. Education is the key to ending poverty, slowing the population rate and giving people a fair chance at not being exploited in general.

  16. joshuadf

    spencer, that is exactly true, just look at a population pyramid for almost any developing country: very heavy on youth. I want to be clear this is not any sort of government policy, it’s instinct on the part of subsistence farmers. As “plenty of hands” transforms into “too many mouths”, however, you see massive slums surrounding cities (in the 19th Century, you saw lot of immigration to America from similar transformations).

    I agree 100% about social services, but I want to see it as part of economic justice. One of the main goals of Jubilee 2000 and successors is to free up debt service money for education and other social services, not to mention the AIDS catastrophe. There are sadly many many educated Africans dying daily.

  17. Spencer

    I’m curious where you heard about farmers in developing countries having children for labor purposes?

    I finished M. Davis’s Planet of Slums. His research stated that most population growth is happening in cities.

  18. joshuadf

    Spencer, that is an excellent question. I’m not sure where I first came across that assertion–perhaps as far back as undergrad (which I can’t believe is over 10 years ago for me now). I may be off base since it’s really a question for a demographer with some hard data to back it up. However, I do think it is compatible with the urbanization trend–more people are born in rural areas and then most move to cities as they realize the opportunities are very limited on the family farm or village. I guess this is a question of fertility growth vs census growth.

  19. Dan Staley

    Most UNEP-WHO programs aim at modernizing rural third-world ag to reduce the birthrate, as the birthrates are driven by two things: culture and labor. Culturally, the kids take care of the parents but there is a child death rate so you need to buffer against that. Laborally, lack of mechanization means manual labor. As in most places in the third world, rural farmers are peasants and the opportunities are few, so the kids tend to migrate to the cities.

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  24. Jim - USA

    America’s biggest single problem is gross misallocation of resources. The biggest wasters are novelty markets, endless division of product masquerading as variety, and low-grade entertainment.

    Go through any shopping mall, or any store for that matter, and look at the insane varieties of novelties and junk consumer products. Within thousands of consumer categories, there are millions of stupid variants whose features and differences have no real value, hence they squander resources and energy. Do I dare bring up the doubly insane varieties of stuff geared exclusively to young women??? How many pairs of shoes do they need??? What’s with all the accessories??? Don’t get me started on the insanely-complicated cars we drive! Because of robotic assembly lines, we actually have very few distinguishable platforms yet, they are multiplied out a thousand different ways with little more than badge engineering to ostensibly distinguish them. All waste and malfeasance!

    The answer is to consolidate consumer products. Make three types of cars and three types of pickups for the consumer market. Big, medium, and small. Six auto companies in each major industrialized nation can build only one of the above platforms. Build them solid and easy to maintain. The Blair Fashion catalog is all any sane woman needs. There’s enough jewelry already in existence to fill the needs of a sane woman for decades! It’s stupid to continue to waste unbelievable amounts of energy to dig the gold and platinum out of the ground to be converted into jewelry. It’s time to shut down the diamond cartels that have caused incalculable evil in Africa. Establish jewelry recycling and resale! Women, you only need 3 or 4 pairs of shoes!!!
    Men only need work clothes and dress clothes and we can get by on that. We can all do very well without 90% of the variety and novelty. Think of the trillions in real wealth that could be created and infrastructure restored from all the lost energy and resources wasted on novelty, fads, low-grade entertainment, and consumer junk.

    Bring some sanity back and we’ll have wealth, energy, and financial health coming out our ears! All of the energy and resources wasted on shopping mall crap and onerous government regulations could have been used to build a huge moon colony and sent us to Mars long ago!

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