Saturday, February 1, 2020

Book Review: 'Living in the Long Emergency: Global Crisis, the Failure of the Futurists, and the Early Adapters Who Are Showing Us the Way Forward' by James Howard Kunstler

How will it end?

Living in the Long Emergency is a fat sandwich of a book. The top piece (of the sandwich) is the expected endtimes scenario collection (what with the author being James Howard Kunstler), in which civilization is well on its way out, mostly of its own doing. In this version, the focus is on the electrical grid, where it rightly should be. The middle (filling) is a collection of biographies of fans of James Kunstler’s blog. They all have their issues, from bad luck to incompetence, and are struggling to keep above water. This section seems to have nothing whatever to do with the first section. The bottom piece comes back to endtimes, more focused on incompetent, incapacitated and disgraced government, via selfish, self-serving political parties. It is closer to the top piece than the filling, but makes little sense following them. From this construct it is impossible to draw a conclusion, and fortunately, Kunstler makes no such attempt.

The electric grid is the weakest link in western civilization. It is a totally unthought-out connecting of electrical generators. Together, they are supposed to be able to share, fill in where needed and shut down locally to prevent damage from spreading. History has shown otherwise, as local faults have caused failovers that black out huge sections of the country, sometimes for days. Worse, no one is even pretending the system is being attended to, with upgrades, replacements or new facilities. No one is building nuclear power plants to replace the overage, existing ones, for example. Shortages can therefore be increasingly expected. But worse still is the vulnerability to sabotage. Facilities can be bombed, or more easily fried from the comfort of a laptop half a world away. Unfortunately, on top of all this, the plants are all unique. There are no building or system standards imposed by government. So if a station seizes up, it could take years for new generators to be custom built, shipped in (from overseas since the USA no longer has those facilities or even skills) and installed. If the whole northeast, say, gets fried, the orders for new generators would back up for years. And there would be no electricity in the interim.

This might play into the back to nature and sustainability movements Kunstler looks fondly upon, but it would mean the end of civilization regardless. Organic farming would solve nothing. Man has become so totally dependent on electricity that nothing at all would function without it. Gas could no longer be pumped, not that it could be manufactured or delivered. Credit cards would not work, paychecks would not be deposited, phones could not be charged, natural gas would not flow, nor would water. Trash would not be picked up, streets would be fearfully dark. Elevators? Ha! Facebook? Please. Houses could not be heated, save for cutting, chopping and burning wood, which could not be delivered unless dragged by horses. Food shortages would occur in less than a week as wholesale deliveries would cease, store freezers and coolers would not function, and neither would cashier stations. No one would go to work because there would be no point and no pay. And no way to make the normally 75 minute commute. No one would have access to their money. On the brighter side, Kunstler says economic collapse would forestall collapse from Artificial Intelligence, which Man is hellbent on implementing as soon as possible.

The biggest grid threat would be an electromagnetic pulse (EMP). That would not only seize up every generator, but every electric motor in every appliance from alarm clocks to cars. They would all have to be replaced, a total impossibility without electricity. An enemy capable of exploding a device in the air (delivering the pulse) would be all that is needed to stop the country cold. No invasion necessary, no prisoners of war, no home casualties. That is a very real endtimes scenario, without waiting for the sun to swell or a galaxy to intersect ours, or for global warming to upset everything. We can do this ourselves, right now.

So it is very odd that the next section of the book is about a bunch of people who have long, twisted paths to little or no success in getting their lives on track. They marry and separate, change jobs frequently, move a lot, strike out on their own, start blogs and podcasts, and struggle. They’re all fans of Kunstler’s, and he contacts them and meets them for the first time so he can interview them in person, the old-fashioned way. Tying this back to a world without electricity is not even attempted.

The final section is mostly a rant against the total ineffectiveness of government, consuming itself in pointless politics, and at no point serving the populace it pretends to.

There is talk of techno narcissism, by which we ignore our position and role in the ecological system at our peril. And also the principles of adaptation vs mitigation, in which smarter folks try to fit in rather than carve out a forced compromise with nature, which is mostly what people do. This is because of overinvestment in complexity (via Joseph Tainter) by which Man is evolving to ever more complex states, rather than natural evolution, which tends towards elegant simplicity. Kunstler helpfully lists the endless stupidity of geoengineering, where impossibly expensive geeky solutions to natural phenomena (induced by Man) would make things ever so much worse when they fail. The diminishing returns of this fiendish complexity are a recipe for total collapse in Tainter’s view. Many can see it already, and many more see it coming soon.

These last insights are the best in the book. Had it been organized around them, it would have made a far better impact.

Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of David Wineberg. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.