Hey! Randy

Out of Gas

Posted by heyrandy on August 14, 2009

The Long Emergency James Kunstler Atlantic Monthly Press, 2005 307p, footnotes, no index

The world is running out of oil. What are we going to do? James Kunsler speculates about the situation that will happen as the planet’s supply of petroleum is diminishing.  While he cannot say for sure what will be the effects of global petroleum shortages, Kunsler does offer some interesting and frightening possibilities. We live in an age of cheap oil. The effects of this have been profound.

Cheap oil has lead to an life of affluence and ease for most Americans. That life will change when oil supplies begin to fail. Oil is often thought of as mostly a fuel, gasoline, diesel, and heating oil. It is also a major component in fertilizer. So is natural gas (methane). The coming crisis in fossil fuel resources will have major consequences for the production of food. Can we eat as well as we do if we don’t have the fertilizer?

Kunsler poses many good questions but also paints a picture that may be prematurely bleak. He is a neo-Malthusian. He thinks that the world’s population has been artificially sustained by the influence of cheap oil. Once the cheap oil is gone there will be catastrophe everywhere. He proposes no solution for the supposed overcrowding of the world.

He also holds to man-made global warming.  He admits that the most serious greenhouse gas is water vapor, but still thinks the increase of atmospheric carbon dioxide will cause widespread damage and upheaval. He does not mention the effect the sun has on our atmosphere.

Kunsler makes the mistake of thinking we have a free market economy.  He of course call for more government regulation. He mocks the free market system for not giving us everything by magic. He displays no knowledge of the source of inflation. He is another bigger- government-can-do-it-better-than-smaller-government advocate.

He correctly points out that the largest sources of oil lie in regions that are controlled by the most unstable governments. Those governments are oppressive. They are the ones that have long been supported by the United States government. Once these governments fall, their successors will likely cut off oil supplies to the west. Or not. Here the author fails to see that as much as we need the oil, those countries need the money. New governments need money just as much as their predecessors.

Kunsler also fails to understand that there an invisible subsidy to oil. It is all those financial and military supports we give to ensure that our allies remain in power. If this practice was withdrawn the price of oil would be at its real free market level.  If the price was high enough, there might be a real conservation movement rather than a forced, government mandated one. All of this escapes Kunsler, who has no idea how price drives conservation and innovation.

While Kunsler does make the case that our military presence in the oil producing countries is a source of anger for the local populations, he does not address the larger issue of the worldwide spread of US military bases.  He does not display any notion that the US is a global empire. He also fails to see that this empire is heading the way of all previous empires:  death by inflation through currency debasement.

He does spend time bashing Wal-Mart. Evil Wal-Mart has destroyed American small businesses and so wrecked all of community life. I guess he shops around so he can pay a higher price. He does not mention that many small, long established businesses are still doing well. Neither does he mention that business failure is common in small businesses that take their customers for granted. Don’t expect him to even consider that local governments hamper or even prevent the revitalization of their towns.  Implied in all this is his belief in top down solutions.

Kunsler does do us service by raising the issue of a post cheap oil world, but he does not give much in the way of solutions to the problems. Here he runs out of gas.

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