James Howard Kunstler’s new book The Long Emergency has been getting considerable play recently, partly because of an excellent marketing effort, mostly because of the book’s incendiary subject matter. That subject, simplified, is that we stand at the peak of our material culture. In another year—maybe five—we’ll begin the descent.
Our economy depends upon a ready supply of cheap oil. Every aspect of our material culture depends upon it—agriculture, transportation, production, security. But cheap oil is about to end. World oil production has peaked—now or in the next few years. We’ve reached the point of diminishing returns. Recent record prices for gas in the U.S. is merely the first wobble in an increasingly unstable economy.
Kunstler’s most salient point is that we don’t have to exhaust our oil reserves to crash the economy. All we need do is begin the slide. The increasing cost of fuel will make the sale of goods transported by a long supply chain unprofitable. It will no longer be possible to make Huarache sandals in China, ship them across the Pacific in cargo containers, haul the containers cross-country to a distribution hub in Ohio, then truck them to a Walmart in Hoboken and still sell them cheaply.
In other words, things are going to get local very quickly.
He also believes there will also be an increasing divide between the affluent and the rest of us. The middle class will be hardest hit and most outraged by their loss of entitlements.
Years ago while working as a marine consultant on the San Francisco Bay, my company was approached by a man preparing the government’s emergency response to a massive earthquake in the Bay Area. Their scenario was that bridges and underpasses would be unsafe to travel, surface transportation impossible, airports incapacitated, and helicopters unavailable—the local pilots preoccupied getting their families out of the devastated area. The only movement would be on the water. He was preparing a mobile, marine, emergency command center.
He told me that government research on the public response to a truly massive disaster indicated the most dangerous segment of the population was not the poor and dispossessed—they have ample experience surviving adversity—but the middle class. The experience of the middle class is mostly limited to well-stocked supermarkets and a line-of-credit thick as an anaconda. Neither would exist three days after the disaster.
They are well-stocked with firearms, however, and after several days watching his family go hungry, the stock broker or middle manager is likely try to take what he needs by force. Personally, I find few things more disconcerting than a man with a receding hairline, midlife paunch, and a 12-gauge shotgun.