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The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century


The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century Cover

ISBN13: 9780802142498
ISBN10: 0802142494
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Sleepwalking into the Future

Carl Jung, one of the fathers of psychology, famously remarked that ?people cannot stand too much reality.? What you?re about to read may challenge your assumptions about the kind of world we live in, and especially the kind of world into which time and events are propelling us. We are in for a rough ride through uncharted territory.

It has been very hard for Americans?lost in dark raptures of nonstop infotainment, recreational shopping, and compulsive motoring?to make sense of the gathering forces that will fundamentally alter the terms of everyday life in technological society. Even after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, that collapsed the twin towers of the World Trade Center and sliced through the Pentagon, America is still sleepwalking into the future. We have walked out of our burning house and we are now headed off the edge of a cliff. Beyond that cliff is an abyss of economic and political disorder on a scale that no one has ever seen before. I call this coming time the Long Emergency.

What follows is a harsh view of the decades ahead and what will happen in the United States. Throughout this book I will concern myself with what I believe is happening, what will happen, or what is likely to happen, not what I hope or wish will happen. This is an important distinction. It is my view, for instance, that in the decades to come the national government will prove to be so impotent and ineffective in managing the enormous vicissitudes we face that the United States may not survive as a nation in any meaningful sense but rather will devolve into a set of autonomous regions. I do not welcome a crack-up of our nation but I think it is a plausible outcome that we ought to be prepared to face. I have published several books critical of the suburban living arrangement, which I regard as deeply pernicious to our society. While I believe we will be better off living differently, I don?t welcome the tremendous personal hardship that will result as the infrastructure of that life loses its value and utility. I predict that we are entering an era of titanic international military strife over resources, but I certainly don?t relish the prospect of war.

If I hope for anything in this book, it is that the American public will wake up from its sleepwalk and act to defend the project of civilization. Even in the face of epochal discontinuity, there is a lot we can do to assure the refashioning of daily life around authentic local communities based on balanced local economies, purposeful activity, and a culture of ideas consistent with reality. It is imperative for citizens to be able to imagine a hopeful future, especially in times of maximum stress and change. I will spell out these strategies later in this book.

Our war against militant Islamic fundamentalism is only one element among an array of events already under way that will alter our relations with the rest of the world, and compel us to live differently at home?sooner rather than later?whether we like it or not. What?s more, these world-altering forces, events, and changes will interact synergistically, mutually amplifying each other to accelerate and exacerbate the emergence of meta-problems. Americans are woefully unprepared for the Long Emergency.

Your Reality Check Is in the Mail

Above all, and most immediately, we face the end of the cheap fossil fuel era. It is no exaggeration to state that reliable supplies of cheap oil and natural gas underlie everything we identify as a benefit of modern life. All the necessities, comforts, luxuries, and miracles of our time?central heating, air conditioning, cars, airplanes, electric lighting, cheap clothing, recorded music, movies, supermarkets, power tools, hip replacement surgery, the national defense, you name it?owe their origins or continued existence in one way or another to cheap fossil fuel. Even our nuclear power plants ultimately depend on cheap oil and gas for all the procedures of construction, maintenance, and extracting and processing nuclear fuels. The blandishments of cheap oil and gas were so seductive, and induced such transports of mesmerizing contentment, that we ceased paying attention to the essential nature of these miraculous gifts from the earth: that they exist in finite, nonrenewable supplies, unevenly distributed around the world. To aggravate matters, the wonders of steady technological progress under the reign of oil have tricked us into a kind of ?Jiminy Cricket syndrome,? leading many Americans to believe that anything we wish for hard enough can come true. These days, even people in our culture who ought to know better are wishing ardently that a smooth, seamless transition from fossil fuels to their putative replacements?hydrogen, solar power, whatever?lies just a few years ahead. I will try to demonstrate that this is a dangerous ­fantasy. The true best-case scenario may be that some of these technologies will take decades to develop?meaning that we can expect an extremely turbulent interval between the end of cheap oil and whatever comes next. A more likely scenario is that new fuels and technologies may never replace fossil fuels at the scale, rate, and manner at which the world currently consumes them.

What is generally not comprehended about this predicament is that the developed world will begin to suffer long before the oil and gas actually run out. The American way of life?which is now virtually synonymous with suburbia?can run only on reliable supplies of dependably cheap oil and gas. Even mild to moderate deviations in either price or supply will crush our economy and make the logistics of daily life impossible. Fossil fuel reserves are not scattered equitably around the world. They tend to be concentrated in places where the native peoples don?t like the West in general or America in particular, places physically very remote, places where we realistically can exercise little control (even if we wish to). For reasons I will spell out, we can be certain that the price and supplies of fossil fuels will suffer oscillations and disruptions in the period ahead that I am calling the Long Emergency.

The decline of fossil fuels is certain to ignite chronic strife between nations contesting the remaining supplies. These resource wars have already begun. There will be more of them. They are very likely to grind on and on for decades. They will only aggravate a situation that, in and of itself, could bring down civilizations. The extent of suffering in our country will certainly depend on how tenaciously we attempt to cling to obsolete habits, customs, and assumptions?for instance, how fiercely Americans decide to fight to maintain suburban lifestyles that simply cannot be rationalized any longer.

The public discussion of this issue has been amazingly lame in the face of America?s post-9/11 exposure to the new global realities. As of this writing, no one in the upper echelon of the federal government has even ventured to state that we face fossil fuel depletion by mid-century and severe market disruptions long before that. The subject is too fraught with scary implications for our collective national behavior, most particularly the not-incidental fact that our economy these days is hopelessly tied to the creation and servicing of suburban sprawl.

Within the context of this feeble public discussion over our energy future, some wildly differing positions stand out. One faction of so-called ?cornucopians? asserts that humankind?s demonstrated technical ingenuity will overcome the facts of geology. (This would seem to be the default point of view of the majority of Americans, when they reflect on these issues at all.) Some cornucopians believe that oil is not fossilized, liquefied organic matter but rather a naturally occurring mineral substance that exists in endless abundance at the earth?s deep interior like the creamy nougat center of a bonbon. Most of the public simply can?t entertain the possibility that industrial civilization will not be rescued by technological innovation. The human saga has indeed been amazing. We have overcome tremendous obstacles. Our late-twentieth-century experience has been especially rich in technologic achievement (though the insidious diminishing returns are far less apparent). How could a nation that put men on the moon feel anything but a nearly godlike confidence in its ability to overcome difficulties?

The computer at which I am sitting would surely have been regarded as an astounding magical wonder by someone from an earlier period of American history, say Benjamin Franklin, who helped advance the early understanding of electricity. The sequence of discoveries and developments since 1780 that made computers possible is incredibly long and complex and includes concepts that we may take for granted, starting with 110-volt alternating house current that is always available. But what would Ben Franklin have made of video? Or software? Or broadband? Or plastic? By extension, one would have to admit the possibility that scientific marvels await in the future that would be difficult for people of our time to imagine. Humankind may indeed come up with some fantastic method for running civilization on seawater, or molecular organic nanomachines, or harnessing the dark matter of the universe. But I?d argue that such miracles may lie on the far shore of the Long Emergency, or may never happen at all. It is possible that the fossil fuel efflorescence was a one-shot deal for the human race.

A coherent, if extremely severe, view along these lines, and in opposition to the cornucopians, is embodied by the ?die-off? crowd.* They believe that the carrying capacity of the planet has already exceeded ?overshoot? and that we have entered an apocalyptic age presaging the imminent extinction of the human race. They lend zero credence to the cornucopian belief in humankind?s godlike ingenuity at overcoming problems. They espouse an economics of net entropy. They view the end of oil as the end of everything. Their worldview is terminal and tragic.

The view I offer places me somewhere between these two camps, but probably a few degrees off center and closer to the die-off crowd. I believe that we face a dire and unprecedented period of difficulty in the twenty-first century, but that humankind will survive and continue further into the future?though not without taking some severe losses in the meantime, in population, in life expectancies, in standards of living, in the retention of knowledge and technology, and in decent behavior. I believe we will see a dramatic die-back, but not a die-off. It seems to me that the pattern of human existence involves long cycles of expansion and contraction, success and failure, light and darkness, brilliance and stupidity, and that it is grandiose to assert that our time is so special as to be the end of all cycles (though it would also be consistent with the narcissism of baby-boomer intellectuals to imagine ourselves to be so special). So I have to leave room for the possibility that we humans will manage to carry on, even if we must go through this dark passage to do it. We?ve been there before.

The Groaning Multitudes

It has been estimated that the world human population stood at about one billion around the early 1800s, which was roughly about when the industrial adventure began to gain traction.** It has been inferred from this that a billion people is about the limit that the planet Earth can support when it is run on a nonindustrial basis. World population is now past six and a half billion, having more than doubled since my childhood in the 1950s. The mid-twentieth century was a time of rising anxiety over the ?population explosion.? The marvelous technological victory over food shortages, including the ?green revolution? in crop yields, accelerated that already robust leap in world population that had begun with modernity. Dramatic improvements in sanitation and medicine extended lives. Industry sopped up expanding populations and reassigned them from rural lands to work in the burgeoning cities. The perceived ability of the world to accommodate these newcomers and latecomers in a wholly new disposition of social and economic arrangements seemed be the final nail in the coffin of Thomas Robert Malthus, the much-abused author of the 1798 ?An Essay on the Principle of Population as It Affects the Future Improvement of Society.?

Malthus (1766?1834), an English country clergyman educated at Cambridge, has been the whipping boy of idealists and techno-optimists for two hundred years. His famous essay proposed that human population, if unconstrained, would grow exponentially while food supplies grew only arithmetically, and that therefore population growth faced strict and inevitable natural limits. Most commentators, however, took the math at face value and overlooked the part about constraints. These ?checks? on population come in the form of famine, pestilence, war, and ?moral restraint,? i.e., the will to postpone marriage or forgo parenthood (from a perhaps antiquated notion that the ability to support a family might enter into anyone?s plans for forming one, or even that society could influence such choices). Malthus?s essay has been mostly misconstrued to mean that the human race was doomed at a certain arbitrary set point, and the pejorative ?Malthusian? is attached to any idea that suggests that human ingenuity cannot make accommodation for more human beings to join the party on Spaceship Earth.

Interestingly, Malthus?s essay was aimed at the reigning Enlightenment idealists of his own youth, the period of the American and French Revolutions, in particular the seminal figures of William Godwin and the Marquis de Condorcet. Both held that mankind was infinitely improvable and that a golden age of social justice, political harmony, equality, abundance, brotherhood, happiness, and altruism loomed imminently. Although sympathetic to social improvement, Malthus deemed these claims untenable and thought it necessary to debunk them.

In recent times, population pessimists such as Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb (1968), Lester Brown of the Worldwatch Institute, and other commentators who predicted dire consequences of overpopulation by 1980, were supposedly shown up by the failure of dire events to occur; this led a new generation of idealists (including cornucopians such as economist Julian Simon) to proclaim that hypergrowth was a positive benefit to society because the enlarged pool of social capital and intellect would inevitably lead to fantastic new technological discoveries that would in turn permit the earth to support a greater number of humans?including social or medical innovations that would aid eventually in establishing a permanently stabilized optimum human population.

I would offer a different view. Malthus was certainly correct, but cheap oil has skewed the equation over the past hundred years while the human race has enjoyed an unprecedented orgy of nonrenewable condensed solar energy accumulated over eons of prehistory. The ?green revolution? in boosting crop yields was minimally about scientific innovation in crop genetics and mostly about dumping massive amounts of fertilizers and pesticides made out of fossil fuels onto crops, as well as employing irrigation at a fantastic scale made possible by abundant oil and gas. The cheap oil age created an artificial bubble of plenitude for a period not much longer than a human lifetime, a hundred years. Within that comfortable bubble the idea took hold that only grouches, spoilsports, and godless maniacs considered population hypergrowth a problem, and that to even raise the issue was indecent. So, I hazard to assert that as oil ceases to be cheap and the world reserves arc toward depletion, we will indeed suddenly be left with an enormous surplus population?with apologies to both Charles Dickens and Jonathan Swift?that the ecology of the earth will not support. No political program of birth control will avail. The people are already here. The journey back to non-oil population homeostasis will not be pretty. We will discover the hard way that population hypergrowth was simply a side effect of the oil age. It was a condition, not a problem with a solution. That is what happened and we are stuck with it.

*, an Internet site started by Jay Hanson, popularizing the ideas of many who believe that the Industrial Age is a terminal condition of humankind.

* Historian Paul Johnson?s notion of ?the Modern? commencing around the end of the Napoleonic Wars is a good benchmark. See Johnson, The Birth of the Modern, New York: Harper, 1991.

Copyright © 2005 by James Howard Kunstler.

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novacop923, April 13, 2012 (view all comments by novacop923)
Think of not as a "book" but, simply, a "source"!,

Like reading Bruce Sterling[*] and Cory Doctorow[**], reading Kunstler one gets the sense that most other "critics" are, sadly, stuck in "first gear"!

Who could've predicted the 2008 economic crash? Um ... anyone who dissected the housing market bubble in 2005, or read a book about someone who did! [HINT HINT!]

Precious-sounding protests to the contrary, human "ingenuity" is NOT what's going to be found to be "lacking" in the times ahead -- but, simply, human "scope" to deal with the very real -- and hardly "scalable" (to use a crucial Kunstler word) -- problems that've been taking root under our feet since, well, before most of us were born!

As Thomas Pynchon says in "Against the Day", "It was the end of something--if not his innocence, at least of his faith that things would always happen gradually enough to afford time to do something about it in."

You've been WARNED, kids! (No hard feelings, or nothin' ... but we're all gonna get to know our "friends & neighbors" real well REAL soon!)
[*] "Tomorrow Now: Envisioning the Next 50 Years," say, or "The Hacker Crackdown: Law And Disorder On The Electronic Frontier," or even his novel, "Distraction"
[**] "Content: Selected Essays on Technology, Creativity, Copyright, and the Future of the Future," say, or "Context: Further Selected Essays on Productivity, Creativity, Parenting, and Politics in the 21st Century," or even his novel, "Little Brother"
The Hacker Crackdown: Law And Disorder On The Electronic Frontier,
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james dulemba, January 1, 2010 (view all comments by james dulemba)
Kunstler's book is representative of the key issue of the decade--energy. It traces the root causes of our energy problems, and what will happen to society should we not do anything about it. Some rather interesting solutions are already being tried.
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(1 of 2 readers found this comment helpful)
james dulemba, January 1, 2010 (view all comments by james dulemba)
Kunstler's book is representative of the key issue of the decade--energy. It traces the root causes of our energy problems, and what will happen to society should we not do anything about it. Some rather interesting solutions are already being tried.
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(1 of 2 readers found this comment helpful)
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Product Details

Kunstler, James Howard
Petroleum industry and trade
Industries - Energy Industries
Government - U.S. Government
Public Policy - Environmental Policy
Political Science-Public Policy - Environmental Policy
Climate and civilization
Petroleum as fuel -- United States.
Politics-United States Politics
Politics - General
Edition Description:
Trade Paper
Publication Date:
9 x 6 in 13 oz

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History and Social Science » Politics » Politics of Oil
History and Social Science » Sociology » Future Studies
Science and Mathematics » Environmental Studies » Climate Change and Global Warming
Science and Mathematics » Environmental Studies » Energy
Science and Mathematics » Environmental Studies » General
Science and Mathematics » Geology » Petroleum Geology
Science and Mathematics » Physics » Meteorology

The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century Used Trade Paper
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Product details 336 pages Grove Press - English 9780802142498 Reviews:
"Publishers Weekly Review" by , "The indictment of suburbia and the car culture that the author presented in The Geography of Nowhere turns apocalyptic in this vigorous, if overwrought, jeremiad. Kunstler notes signs that global oil production has peaked and will soon dwindle, and argues in an eye-opening, although not entirely convincing, analysis that alternative energy sources cannot fill the gap, especially in transportation. The result will be a Dark Age in which 'the center does not hold' and 'all bets are off about civilization's future.' Absent cheap oil, auto-dependent suburbs and big cities will collapse, along with industry and mechanized agriculture; serfdom and horse-drawn carts will stage a comeback; hunger will cause massive 'die-back'; otherwise 'impotent' governments will engineer 'designer viruses' to cull the surplus population; and Asian pirates will plunder California. Kunstler takes a grim satisfaction in this prospect, which promises to settle his many grudges against modernity. A 'dazed and crippled America,' he hopes, will regroup around walkable, human-scale towns; organic local economies of small farmers and tradesmen will replace an alienating corporate globalism; strong bonds of social solidarity will be reforged; and our heedless, childish culture of consumerism will be forced to grow up. Kunstler's critique of contemporary society is caustic and scintillating as usual, but his prognostications strain credibility." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Review" by , "[The Long Emergency's] central message — that the country will pay dearly unless it urgently develops new, sustainable community-scale food systems, energy sources, and living patterns — should be read, digested, and acted upon by every conscientious U.S. politician and citizen."
"Review" by , "Cant-filled and overwrought: a crying-wolf approach to real but largely addressable issues, long on jeremiads but absent of remedies."
"Review" by , "Credit Kunstler with an energetic argument, but whether he has achieved his stated goal — waking up an ostensibly somnolent public — via his relentless and alarmist pessimism remains to be seen."
"Review" by , "As brilliant as it is baleful...and we disregard it at our peril."
"Review" by , "Funny, irreverent, and blunt."
"Review" by , "The book succeeds as an accessible primer to a looming crisis that could end the American way of life."
"Review" by , "If you express doubt about his views, then you may well be among the deluded masses too addicted to your McSUV and McSuburb to accept the reality that lies ahead."
"Review" by , "If you give a damn, you should read this book."
"Synopsis" by , The depletion of nonrenewable fossil fuels is about to radically change life much sooner than anticipated. This title describes what to expect after the honeymoon of affordable energy is over, preparing readers for economic, political, and social changes of an unimaginable scale.
"Synopsis" by ,
A controversial hit that sparked debate among businessmen, environmentalists, and bloggers, The Long Emergency by James Howard Kunstler is an eye-opening look at the unprecedented challenges we face in the years ahead, as oil runs out and the global systems built on it are forced to change radically.
"Synopsis" by ,
James Howard Kunstler's The Long Emergency was an underground hit, going into nine printings of the hardcover edition. His shocking vision for our post-oil future caught the attention of environmentalists and business leaders and was the subject of much debate, stimulating discussion about our dependence on fossil fuels. Now in paperback, with a new afterword, The Long Emergency is set to reach an even larger audience.

The last two hundred years have seen the greatest explosion of progress and wealth in the history of mankind, much of it based on the exploitation of cheap, nonrenewable fossil-fuel energy. But the oil age is at an end. Life as we know it is about to change radically, and much sooner than we think. The Long Emergency tells us just what to expect after we pass the point of global peak oil production and the honeymoon of affordable energy is over, preparing us for economic, political, and social changes of an unimaginable scale. Riveting and authoritative, The Long Emergency is a devastating indictment that brings new urgency and accessibility to the critical issues that will shape our future, and that we can no longer afford to ignore.

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