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Thursday, March 31, 2005

The Long Emergency

James Howard Kunstler writes in Rolling Stone about peak oil and America's prospects for the future. His conclusions are pretty much in line with those of Richard Heinberg, Michael Ruppert, and others. The American economy of the future will be labor-, not energy-intensive; it will be local, not global; and the chance of serious violence is large.

Kunstler says a couple of things I totally agree with:
America is in a special predicament due to a set of unfortunate choices we made as a society in the twentieth century. Perhaps the worst was to let our towns and cities rot away and to replace them with suburbia, which had the additional side effect of trashing a lot of the best farmland in America. Suburbia will come to be regarded as the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world. It has a tragic destiny. The psychology of previous investment suggests that we will defend our drive-in utopia long after it has become a terrible liability.
I totally agree with that. The few serious efforts towards automotive energy conservation in this country in the past 30 years have focused on fuel economy, all while sprawl has relentlessly increased drastically the total number of miles driven. The current American landscape is an energy nightmare.
America today has a railroad system that the Bulgarians would be ashamed of. Neither of the two major presidential candidates in 2004 mentioned railroads, but if we don't refurbish our rail system, then there may be no long-range travel or transport of goods at all a few decades from now. The commercial aviation industry, already on its knees financially, is likely to vanish. The sheer cost of maintaining gigantic airports may not justify the operation of a much-reduced air-travel fleet. Railroads are far more energy efficient than cars, trucks or airplanes, and they can be run on anything from wood to electricity. The rail-bed infrastructure is also far more economical to maintain than our highway network.
I think Kunstler is a bit harsh on the prospects of alternative fuels:
Virtually all "biomass" schemes for using plants to create liquid fuels cannot be scaled up to even a fraction of the level at which things are currently run. What's more, these schemes are predicated on using oil and gas "inputs" (fertilizers, weed-killers) to grow the biomass crops that would be converted into ethanol or bio-diesel fuels. This is a net energy loser -- you might as well just burn the inputs and not bother with the biomass products.
I agree that biofuels probably offer no hope for keeping us driving to the extent we do today. But to say they're "predicated" on using fertilizers and weed-killers isn't quite right. While today most biodiesel probably comes from industrially-grown soybeans and most ethanol from industrially-grown corn, this doesn't have to be the case. Especially in the case of biodiesel, the inputs can come from a wide variety of plants, including weeds and algae. The plants don't have to be fertilized, watered or sprayed. (I hope to learn more about the energy balance and prospects for biodiesel in the upcoming Michigan Biodiesel Bus Tour on April 11, which is FREE, BTW.)

Kunstler's Rolling Stone article is a preview for his soon-to-be-released book, The Long Emergency.