Are You Ready for the Energy Crash?

While most of us are preoccupied with the astronomical price of gasoline, a far bigger energy catastrophe is brewing that will make pricey gas seem like a walk in the park. It's "peak oil" -- the term for the period after which global oil and natural gas demand outstrips supply and the prices for these commodities become too volatile for modern society to function. (For a primer on the topic, a good place to start is Hubbert's peak oil theory.)

One writer, James Howard Kunstler, has been particularly passionate -- some might say over-the-top -- about peak oil. In his latest book, "The Long Emergency," Kunstler addresses our stark looming reality square in the face and analyzes the consequences. While many of the scenarios he describes -- the prospect of millions of Americans stranded in suburbia forced to preside over their economic decline as their once normal auto-dependent lives become unattainable luxuries -- are no doubt valid, his tone has struck me as overly apocalyptic, verging on some kind of fetish for him; that the content of what he was writing about mattered only as much as it offered Kunstler the opportunity to prophesize The End, pleasing himself as he killed the hopes of his audience.

So I was curious to hear what Kunstler would say at the Local Energy Solutions conference in New York City last month. Aside from Kunstler, I knew what to expect from the rest of the speakers at the conference -- ideas and information about how we can best cope after the energy crash.

Perhaps what was so striking about the speakers and attendants at the conference was their almost angelic goodness and optimism -- even though by all rights they are among the most knowledgeable about the scale of the challenge facing our petro-dependent society, and would have the most cause to make a run for all those abandoned cabins constructed in the Yukon after the Y2K nonapocalyptic anticlimax.

There was Julian Darley, director of the Post-Carbon Institute speaking as softly as a kindergarten teacher about the need to develop currencies based on locally produced energy and decrease our reliance on our society's "flesh-based" diet.

There was Henry Gifford, an expert on "boiler, steam, and hydronic heating systems, water pressure boosting systems, and ventilation systems," calmly discussing how the office buildings and homes we use today are pissing away our natural resources at a rate that left me reeling.

Yet while I can't dispute the need for massive improvements in the energy efficiency of our buildings and the necessity to localize food production to deal with our coming energy crisis, the biggest obstacle to change seems to be cultural inertia. Most of us are zooming along blissfully in exactly the wrong direction: building more freeways, more malls, more auto-dependent housing developments, increasingly grotesque and demeaning commercial enterprises sucking the meaning out of our lives and American society as a whole. It's the collective insanity of our society that makes it possible for us to drive, consume and build freeways as though we could go on forever.

It was on that topic that Kunstler delivered his lecture, on what he called the "psychological dimension" of what's needed to get things going on the right track, which he said is "as important as the geological dimension."

I half expected Kunstler to say that the conference was pointless, that there was no hope for a society that needed to change its energy consumption if it were to survive. But while he was merciless in his critique of American society, I left the conference believing he was as optimistic as the rest.

Kunstler's rage and disdain was righteous and unsparing. He was pissed and he was eloquent: "We've turned into this nation of overfed clowns, riding around in clown cars, eating clown food, watching clown shows," he said. We're "a nation of cringing, craven fuckups."

Kunstler singled out one element of the psychological dimension in American life: "The idea that when you wish upon a star, your dreams come true. It's not a good thing for adults to wish upon a star. Right now, this is a normative belief -- that you can wish for things, and you'll get them."

He said that the nation's leading religion has become the "worship of unearned riches, which is based on a very stark idea, the idea that you can get something for nothing."

If that was the religion, Kunstler said, then the city of Las Vegas is its temple. Why this matters, he argued, is that when we talk about the problems facing our oil-dependent society, the dominant frame of mind is one of pure fantasy -- that years of predominance on the international stage has left America smug in the belief that it need only wish to have its problems solved, and that it doesn't have to face challenges that might require a massive change in all aspects of American life.

Bringing this rather abstract statement directly to contemporary national politics, Kunstler cited a quote he attributed to Dick Cheney about the centrality of our shopping malls and freeway systems to society: that this way of American life is "non-negotiable." Kunstler argued that Cheney's mindset is that of all Americans -- that SUVs, fast food, hourlong home-to-work commutes driven alone with the air-conditioning blasting was the best of all possible worlds, and the natural outcome of what our forefathers had dreamed of when they drew up the Constitution.

It was this kind of collective insanity, Kunstler said, that led CBS' 60 Minutes to run a program telling millions of Americans that the Canadian province of Alberta's tar sands held two trillion barrels of extractable oil that would keep us going for perpetuity -- never mind that the infrastructure required for extraction is decades away from being ready, and that the best available technology requires almost as much energy to extract as it produces.

Kunstler also criticized the arrogance that industrial leaders in the tech sector had about dealing with petro-dependency. He described a visit he made to the Google headquarters in Northern California for a speaking engagement. Here were the execs of a major company, whose ideas and products have received the official stamp of "The Future." Young captains of the tech industry, who, because "they have been megasuccessful -- they have very grandiose ideas about what is possible." And what Kunstler saw were a bunch of kids "dressed like skateboard rats."

Kunstler bemoaned their almost religious confidence in technology to solve society's problems. He said that after he gave his speech outlining the dangers facing our oil-dependent society, the young executives didn't ask any questions but made comments and rebuttals, which Kunstler summarized essentially as, "Dude, we've got the technology."

Kunstler argued that it was this mixture of arrogance based on Google’s sudden phenomenal financial success and delusions about the rise of the internet that allowed the young executives to confuse technology with energy -- for these skateboard rats to see them as the same thing. To hammer his story home he pulled up a slide of a picture of a Boeing 747 with the caption, “Fill’er up with, uh... technology.”

Kunstler's final and biggest point was that if we wanted to convince wider society that it has to make a very different set of living arrangements to survive in a post-oil society, we need to find a "vocabulary and syntax" that speaks to its most dogged adherents. He said that rhetoric had been given a bad name, and that it needed to be retrieved from the dumpster of history.

I think Kunstler was dead right -- many of the ideas and practices about how we can make other arrangements are already in existence, but there isn't a wide demand for them. There must be a language that competes with the standing fantasies in our consumer society that makes people want to ditch their cars, stop their consumptive impulses, and make our standing commercialized social narratives as appealing as the idea of taking a bath with a corpse.

But I wonder if the winning rhetoric involves direct insults, like calling middle Americans who live in suburbia "craven fuckups" to their face. I wouldn't write it off instantly, given the popularity of serial insult artists like Dr. Phil. Kunstler also emphasized that talking about peak oil and automobile dependency just once to someone isn't going to make any converts. "You're going to have to employ repetition ... to an uncomfortable degree."

I know what I'd do if someone kept telling me I was a craven fuckup, I was a craven fuckup; I'd react angrily and cling to my way of life all the more desperately. Finding the right rhetoric that makes people want to change all on their own is a high art and one of our greatest challenges.

While Kunstler didn't once preach apocalypse, he did say that there isn't any guaranteed outcome of an energy renaissance or salvation for American society. "We either make it work, or we don't," he said, capturing the total indifference the Earth has regarding our fate. Lucky for us, the attendants at this conference were not as aloof.

This article has been changed to reflect an earlier version.

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