Rob Parsons

Wake-up Call

What to do now that we're at the end of oil

By Rob Parsons
Published in Maui Time Weekly
March 15, 2007

We spent our wealth acquired in the twentieth century building an infrastructure of daily life that will not work very long into the twenty first century. It's worth repeating that suburbia is best understood as the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world.

So says James Howard Kunstler in his 2005 book, The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of Oil and Other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty First Century. Kunstler will speak on Maui Wednesday, March 21 as part of the Focus Green lecture series, sponsored by Dowling Company. While the 6 p.m. presentation at the Maui Arts and Cultural Center is free, the public should know that there will be a hefty price to pay for our world economy and social construct's delusional reliance on cheap oil.

Since stepping away from corporate journalism in 1975, Jim Kunstler has penned nine novels and three non-fiction works, including his treatise on the downfalls of suburban sprawl design, The Geography of Nowhere. Besides his current incarnation as an author addressing energy, geo-politics and economic issues, he is also a prolific oil painter.

In The Long Emergency, Kunstler presents a sobering, academic study of the history of oil, its economics and politics, the meaning of "peak oil," and why the fossil fuel bonanza was a one-time deal. "Beyond peak, all bets are off about civilization's future," Kunstler wrote.

World oil prices soared in 1973, with the OPEC embargo, and again in 1979 during the Iran hostage crisis. The industry's response was a huge push in oil exploration, assuming that high prices were here to stay. But by 1986, world oil prices collapsed. West Texas crude dropped from $31.75 a barrel to $10. A 15-year glut was on.

Concurrently, a free-market global economy arose, promising something for everyone, and all at discounted prices. The "oligarchial corporations" which operated globalism made piles of money, while systematically undermining local economies and communities. Kunstler defines corporations as a "group enterprise given the legal status of a 'person' with 'rights', but in fact devoid of any human qualities of ethics, humility, mercy, duty, or loyalty that would constrain those rights."

In the American sprawl model of development-the "geography of nowhere"-Wal-Mart springs up outside of seemingly every community, along with an accessory consumer-friendly tapestry of factory outlet malls, fast-food outlets and corporate coffee shops, all connected by asphalted roadways for SUVs guzzling imported oil.

After peak oil, the point where we have extracted more than half of all the world's supplies, diminishing returns mean it will cost more and more to extract less and less. Most Americans largely believe that another energy source will bail us out, just in the nick of time.

But Kunstler reviews the alternatives, including natural gas, coal and tar sands, shale oils, ethanol, nuclear power, hydrogen, solar, wind, wave energy and methane hydrates. He concludes that these sources require an underlying fossil fuel economy. He raises the question of whether we've exceeded the carrying capacity of this planet so egregiously that no ventures into alternative energy will allow us to keep the current game going.

"Fossil fuels allowed the human race to operate highly complex systems at gigantic scales," he wrote. "Renewable energy sources are not compatible with those systems and scales."

Kunstler believes the future U.S. economy is not likely to center on high-tech, information, services, space travel, tourism or finance, but on farming. But while succumbing to modernity, we have forgotten the sustainable living practices that date back thousands of years.

I recently spoke with Kunstler at his Saratoga Springs home in Upstate New York:

MAUI TIME WEEKLY: For an island community largely dependent on the importation of oil, food, building materials and tourist dollars, what is an important first step?

JAMES KUNSTLER: Well, to recognize our assumptions we carry with us about the way things will work in the years ahead are likely to be wrong. Vis-a-vis energy systems and our ability to run the mechanisms of our current economy.

Your opening chapter is titled, "Sleepwalking Into The Future." What will it take us to collectively wake up?

That's a really good question. It seems that the American public has not felt the pain of the oil economy yet. The current scene is that the pain is exported to Third World countries, while advanced nations are getting a free ride. But soon advanced nations will be competing with each other for dwindling resources. When that happens, it may lead to even more delusional thinking. We may act desperately, not sensibly, in the face of these things.

What is likely to be the initial effect on our tourist economy as resources dwindle and prices soar?

The bottom line is that, clearly, Hawai`i will not be able to rely on the tourist economy of the past 40 to 50 years. Continued investments into the infrastructure of that economy may turn out kind of tragic. It's hard to be optimistic about the U.S. commercial airline industry with more than a quarter of their operating costs being jet fuel. Hawai`i could even become a bit disorderly socially and economically. A veneer of consumerism has kept ethnic conflicts to a minimum for the past 15 years.

What about the local push for biofuels?

I believe that cars will have a diminished presence in our lives, no matter what they run on. It's understandable that there is wishful thinking to get something for nothing, to change the fuel we're using for happy motoring. But it's in the realm of fantasy. We'll be disappointed by what alternative fuels can actually do for us. It also creates competition for land use for food.

What are your feelings on President George W. Bush's trip to Brazil to forge an ethanol alliance, along with his treatment by protesters down there?

Well, ethanol is a racket. It's part of a wish to keep things running on whatever means possible to prop up our investments. We know a lot more about the energy picture and our place in it. Delusional thinking is fantastically high. They are prisoners to a paradigm they can't escape, that things will run the way they did in 1994. One impediment to getting with the reality program is the belief that energy and technology are the same. The idea that if you run out of one, you just plug in the other. Commerce, farming, food, transportation, manufacturing? My view is that we must make other arrangements, including how we inhabit the landscape.