Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Book Review: The Long Emergency

Originally posted: May 24, 2008

Children know things.

They listen and they see - things we, adults, miss, they don't. They may not have any idea of what they are seeing and probably lack the capacity to logically analyze what it is they've seen, but they know.

When I was a child in the 1970's, I knew that a thing could only get so big and then it couldn't get any bigger. I had observed the phenomenon in practice with balloons. You could only put so much water or air in a balloon before it would burst.

As a child, I applied that practical experience to real-life situations. I knew that the supply of oil was finite, because as we learned in school, it was made from dinosaurs, and so, logically, there was only so much of it.

I knew this.

And, since I was a child in the 70's, I knew that oil was running out for us. I could see. I could hear. I may not have been fully aware (and I'm still not sure about what is actual "memory" versus information I have gleaned since that I might be attributing to memory) of what was happening around me or what the implications of those events to my future were, but I knew that something was happening.

When I reached adulthood in the 80's, I, like most of America, forgot, and I jumped right on that consumer wagon. I went to college and graduated and entered the workforce (which during the mini-recession of the early 1990's wasn't as wide-open as I'd thought it would be for a recent college graduate) ... and started buying my happiness and that of my children.

Deus Ex Machina and I bought our house in 1997, and we were thrilled to discover a few short years later that the value had almost doubled (and we refinanced, cashed out the equity and paid off our out-of-control credit card balance).

A couple of years later, we discovered, again, that the value of our house had increased, and we opened a 2nd Mortgage, Home Equity Line of Credit, Adjustable Rate Mortgage with a really good interest rate. It was about this time that I started remembering what I had learned as a child during the tumultuous 1970's - the party always ends - sometimes badly, and a thing can only get so big before it explodes.

And I started getting really nervous. Two mortgages are bad. One mortgage that's an ARM - bad.

About a year after we opened the HELoC, we refinanced, again, rolling both mortgages into one 30-year fixed-rate mortgage. So, in essence, the house we'd purchased in 1997 on a 30-year mortgage, we now owed three times what we'd paid back then, AND we were still obligated for thirty years. Talk about lack of progress.

But then it happened. The balloon burst ... or as they're calling it the "Housing Bubble." The housing market bubble burst, and a lot of people have lost their homes. I always felt that it could only get so big. I always knew that the value of our house couldn't and wouldn't continue to increase indefinitely. I was pretty sure that our 1500 sq ft cottage-style ranch on a quarter acre would never be worth a million dollars.

According to Kunstler, it's just the beginning of what is going to be a very long process with a lot of weird fluctuations, of prices going up and down, but in a three steps up, one step back kind of way that will keep us believing, for a while, that things aren't as bad as they are.

In 1998, the price per gallon for heating oil was $0.899. Last time we had our tank filled, the cost per gallon was $3.629.But the price didn't rise steadily from under a dollar to almost four. It went up a lot, and fell a little, and went up a lot, and then fell a little, and then shot up, but dropped back down.

It's like with gasoline for our cars - the price goes up, and we all hold our breath, and then just when we start to resolve ourselves that the higher price is here to stay, the price drops down ... just a little ... but just enough to lull us into the belief that things are getting better.

I heard remarked today the belief that the price of heating oil would decrease next winter, because more people were transitioning away from oil to natural gas, electricity or wood, and as such, there would be a glut of oil.

And, maybe. Maybe the price of heating oil will drop a little - down to, say, $3 per gallon* from close to $4 today. That's a savings of a dollar per gallon, which compared to today, will look like a bargain.

But consider ...Maine has seen a 6% decrease in the consumption of gasoline over the last couple of months, but our prices haven't dropped - at all, and in fact, have steadily increased.

The fact is that as a world, we are using 85.6 MILLION barrels of oil per DAY. In short, the world is currently using as much oil as is produced each day. We've already tapped into Europe's Strategic Petroleum Reserves, and the US Congress recently voted to stop stockpiling oil so that more was available to the American public. Even if everyone in the northeast switched to burning wood for heat (and please don't, because our forests couldn't handle that), the demand for oil would still outpace the current and near future production capabilities.

Because it's not just gasoline for our cars or heating oil for our houses where we have a demand for the stuff. Look around you. Everything you see has been touched by oil.


From the food you put into your body to make you not feel hungry (and I won't use the word "nourish", because the nutritional value of said "food" is questionable), to the plastic bottle you drink your Poland Spring water out of, to the computer screen you're looking at as you read my words. Food packaging, deodorant bottles, toothbrush handles, fleece material, fertilizers, pesticides, all non-electric motors, lawn mowers, the crisper drawer in the refrigerator, the bottles that hold the Tylenol capsules, indeed the little dissolving capsules that hold the medicine ... all of it - oil.

Every industry in the United States is DEPENDENT on cheap oil to operate.

This is the information I took away from reading The Long Emergency. I had a lot of sleepless nights, and many nights of fitful, restless sleep this month. I had quite a few nightmares, too.

The implications of the book are terrifying. The world as my parents and my peers (and me) knew it HAS come to an end. It's not "coming" to an end. The end is already here.

Kunstler provides a great deal of historical background and research - things I knew, but only in a child's way of knowing. And it angered me. It angered me, because we could have been a nation of people who were not dependent on oil for our very lives. We could have been developing the infrastructure to move us away from being an oil dependent nation. While we, literally, had oil to burn, we could have been developing new technologies to take the place of cheap oil. Now, it's too late. We no longer have excess oil to burn.

Our leaders have known for a very long time what was happening. Back in 1956, M. King Hubbert a geophysicist, employed by Shell, warned that at some point, the oil would run out. Even before I was born, someone knew that the oil would run out. That the great "party" would be over.

I was very skeptical when I first started reading Kunstler's book. I wasn't impressed with him after watching The End of Suburbia, but having read his tome, I am no longer able to simply discount his assertions, and I can no longer deny that building a national infrastructure around dependency on oil, especially when our political leaders KNEW, and have known for YEARS that oil supplies are not dependable, was a pretty short-sighted, and, yes, stupid thing to do.

The first few chapters of the book left me pretty terrified. I'm still a little worried, but that's because that's what I do. I worry. It's part of what Deus Ex Machina loves about me, and after thirteen years of him loving me for who I am, I'm not about to change ;).

I know, though, that there is very little I can do. I can try to stockpile resources and be comfortable for a little while longer, but at some point, those things will run out, too.

The thing I can do is to learn. I can learn to grow food. I can learn to save seeds. I can learn to mend my clothes. I can learn a new skill that could possibly provide some income for me.

Thing is, while I know that I will see things get bad, I suspect the worst of the transition will happen when I'm too old or just gone. I suspect that those people who will see the worst of "the end of oil" have yet to be born.

But that's where I have hope. Because those people will not have grown up on a diet of MTV, Little Debbie's Oatmeal Creme Pies and Mountain Dew, SUVs and CAFO meat. Those people will have been raised by people like my daughters, who are learning to grow their own food, and save seeds, and mend clothing, and knit, and conserve, and do without.

So, where do we go from here?

I can't answer that for anyone else, but as for me ...I'll be staying in my suburban home - two miles from the town center, five miles from Deus Ex Machina's job, six and a half miles from the grocery store, seven miles from my best paying client and twelve miles from my daughters' dance school - and homesteading my quarter acre.

We'll learn to be more self-sufficient and less dependent on oil for heat and transportation.

We'll not only enjoy an increasingly more local diet, but we'll also be patronizing more local, smaller, independent shops, where we'll pay higher prices, but the flip-side will be that we'll learn to live with less - which isn't necessarily a bad thing.

In short, we'll keep doing what was set in motion two years ago when I saw The Good Life for the first time, and that is moving toward a less "cluttered" life.

I do recommend this book. It didn't change my life, but it did convince me that my current path is the one best traveled ... for me.



    This one just made me think of you. Enjoy.

  2. Yeah!!! Glad to see you back, Wendy!

    Hope y'all are having a lovely week, and that the weekend is fantastic!

  3. Oh we all love the Good Life!
    It's great fun to watch but the ideas linger. My kids have been watching the show since early childhood so it's interesting to see how easily they accept that something like this is possible - even if I choose to shelter them a bit from the concept of its eventual necessity.