Wednesday, June 11, 2008

A Book That Will Kick You In The Balls

I am a reader; I always have been, as anyone who knows me or has known me would attest to. However, it is very, and I mean very, rare for me to get totally absorbed in a book. I mean "totally absorbed" as in not eating, holding off sleep and the other things that I've been doing (mainly, looking for a summer job, taking a summer online class and teaching myself Spanish). I believe the last book where this had happened was "World War Z", an "oral history" of a zombie infestation and invasion of the world. Before that, there were a few books that influenced me and in which I'd read more than a few times, mainly Howard Zinn's "People's History of the United States", and a few of Noam Chomsky's works, primarily the pamphlet-sized ones (like "The Common Good" and "What Uncle Sam Really Wants"). While I'm not a far-leftist and have veered more to the center in recent years, I really appreciate those books for giving me a deeper understanding of the world and asking myself questions that I'd never thought to before.

Anyway, I'm posting all this because I'd just read one of those kinds of books. A book that totally absorbed me for 2 and a half days, to the exclusion of nearly all else. And it's a book that has changed my thinking in terms of our future, perhaps radically. It is a book by James Howard Kunstler, entitled "The Long Emergency." And it's a book I discovered totally by chance. In the library the other day while waiting for my ride, I had a few minutes and decided to look at a magazine that looked remotely interesting. I saw a magazine called MacLean's, which is a Canadian news periodical (I guess it's maybe their "Time" or "Newsweek"). Anyway, the cover was of a man holding a gas pump to his head in lieu of a gun. I always love novel covers like that, and I'm very interested in the escalating costs of gas, so I picked it up and read the cover story. One of the people interviewed was James Kunstler, and I'd read that he's been talking about this and its ramifications for a fairly long time. So I looked him up on the library database, and as it turned out, they had one of his more recent books, published in 2005, called "The Long Emergency." Although I've already started reading a book, "The Kite Runner", I decided to take this out and read it in what little free time I could carve aside for myself.

...But little did I know. I began reading this book on Monday evening, and it hooked me instantly. Kunstler is such a good writer, you can tell he's been at it for a long time, and upon looking at it at first glance, you might dismiss it as alarmist or doomsday. But what made it so scary, and ultimately what got me into it, was that his argument was entirely plausible. Up to this point, I've looked at our rising prices of gas with what I now realize was naivtity. I drummed it up to some conspiracy between the Bush administration and the oil companies. But what it all comes down to is our limited supply of petroleum. And then came another whopper, that dispelled another one of my misconceptions. I've long believed that we should start seriously investigating and researching alternative energy, since our supply of fossil fuels isn't infinite and will run out quite soon due to our massive use of it. But, as Kunstler compellingly argues on scientific grounds, all these ideas being brandied about (from hydrogen to wind and solar, and everything else in between) are little more than a pipe dream. The underlying architecture (for lack of a better term) of these systems would inherently depend on liberal amounts of traditional fossil fuels, which we are in short supply of. And even if we did have the fossil fuels, if we converted to these systems, they would be nowhere near capable of supporting the way of life that we have come to know and grow accustomed to.

He refers to the fallout from passing the global oil peak as The Long Emergency. According to him, life as we currently know it would totally vanish. The biggest change would be our need to grow food. The reason why we have these supermarkets and Super Walmarts in which all this processed food is available to us for low, low prices, was due to cheap oil and natural gas. When we pass this peak, and it's very plausible that we may already have, that way of life would be turned totally on its head. Factory farming by companies like ADM and ConAgra would become extinct. Kunstler feels that one of the top jobs that will be in demand in a near-future America is "farmer". A danger of this, in addition to the quite obvious one that most of us are ill-prepared, at best, to farm land, is that the knowledge of farming, which has acculmated over centuries, has been greatly damaged by the advent of corporate farming.

Another big change would be the death of suburbia. As Kunstler explains here, and in a few of his other books, he believes that the creation of what we have come to know as suburbia is the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world. And its ability to flourish and become accepted as the American way of life up to this point, has been possible due to one thing: you guessed it, cheap fossil fuels. It'd become possible for people to drive long distances from home to work, and wherever else they need to go. Who needs public transportation, or walking? But in an era of lowering production of oil, and increasing demand, prices of gas will continue to rise expotentially and the suburb will go bye-bye.

Kunstler also explains that America, in particular, is ill-suited to deal with this kind of situation. For one thing, we've always had our heads in the sand. We've had oil crises in the past, meaning the 70's, but they didn't last forever, and we continued to "sleepwalk into the future", according to Kunstler. Other culprits are our corporate farming system; a Long Emergency will require our farming to be local. No longer will we be able to eat many apples from Chile, for example. Also, the near-destruction of our public transportation system. I think we're already starting to see that it will be inadequate to deal with our increasing needs. Another thing, the destruction of our local communities by the Walmarts and the other big-box stores. Ironically, those same big-box stores may well be a victim of a Long Emergency.

There are so many things covered in this book, that I can't possibly talk at length about them. Otherwise, I'll never leave. So, if you want to read a really absorbing thing, that will possibly change you, please read this.

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