Return to the IHS Home Page
Institute for Hermetic Studies

For Scholars & Professionals

Book Reviews

Earth Energies and Environmentalism


The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century
By James Howard Kunstler
Atlantic Monthly Press
New York, New York
Copyright 2005
307 pages
Bibliographical References

Some books are critical to our earthly path, to where we are going as individuals, communities, and even the world.  James Howard Kunstler's book, The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century, is such a book. If you are going to read one non-fiction book this summer as you motor to the beach, or head to the mountains, this should be the one.

Despite its overwhelming title, Long Emergency is a call to action, a book of human possibility. One might even call it radical optimism born in the hard reality of facts and figures and not the usual fatalistic quasi-Marxist, anti-Western, environmental doom and gloom we have become accustomed to over the years.  It is also not Y2K revisited. Chicken Little telling us that the sky is falling (again). Instead, Long Emergency is a sober, solid, fact-filled look at the intricacies of the modern industrial state and its vulnerability to the very environments in which it exists. In a word, Long Emergency is about energy - petrochemicals to be exact. It is no secret that the United States and the industrialized countries of Europe and Asia are dependent on a thin lifeline of energy to run their economies, sustain their standards of living, in fact, to exist at all as the nation states we recognize.

Kunstler describes the intricate line of interconnecting events that allow the average American consumer to eat a salad either from a McDonald's drive-through, or their local grocery store, and how it essentially has traveled 6,000 miles or more to get to them. The same is said about a variety of necessities and luxuries we have grown accustomed to, and in doing so, sacrificed our future for short-term savings as discount shoppers.  Unfortunately, all of this relies on a diminishing resource - oil, and plenty of it.

For those of you who drive 30 minutes or more one-way to work each day (a common event in the United States), and have noticed the bite of $2.25 to $3.50 a gallon is taking out of your pocket, don't expect it to get better. More importantly, there are three things you need to know:

1.On a world wide level oil is being used at a faster rate than new sources of it are being found.
2.There is no foreseeable substitute for  oil on the technological horizon.
3.Oil is a part of everything we use, eat, watch, wear, and use as pharmaceuticals. Without high quantities of high quality oil at an affordable price, industrial life as we know it would not exist.

Now, even if you don't buy Point One, commonly known as 'Peak Oil,' and believe that more oil will be found, The Long Emergency will educate you in simple, clear language, on the series of historical and economic events that have brought us to our current level of political involvement in the Middle East and elsewhere. This is also done in a balanced and impartial manner, free of the usual self-righteous indignation found in similar books working with the advantage of hindsight.

If you have faith that at some point oil can be synthetically produced or replaced with alternative energy sources read again Point Two.  So far, there are no viable substitutes. Based on current technological limitations Kunstler demonstrates that the current hype around solar, hydrogen, wind, and others much touted ideas are political grandstanding, and admits that unfortunately, nuclear energy is the only viable short term, band-aid, partial solution available, and this is only limited to electricity generation. Now, there maybe solutions in the future, but right now when we need it, there are none; and this is the important part, even if there is plenty of oil waiting to be found, and/or we can "tech" our way out of the problem, we still need to deal with global warming, and environmental degradation as a result of such a large-scale use of petrochemicals and the massive 6.3 billion people they support.

New Age doom and gloomers will be pleased to know that there are two camps on the issue of human survival in a post-cheap oil age: one that embraces the theory of 'die off' in which humanity is seen more or less as a parasite and gets its just deserts, and 'die down' which say, "OK, continue on the path you're going but history shows that human populations often suddenly drop as a result of political shifts, as well as environmental. Some people, and in large numbers, will die." Die Down recognizes that in a world where demand is high, populations abundant, and supply limited, the potential for open conflict is always just below the surface.

Kunstler admittedly follows the Die Down camp, as his projections suggest a long, slow, even agonizing decay of civilization as we know it, if we continue to acting like 'business as usual.' Confident in the human ability to adapt to new environments, Kunstler suggests that given the overwhelming evidence for Peak Oil, and the potential environmental decay even if it is not true, that the United States needs to, and can, immediately begin the task of rebuilding its small towns, neighborhood shopping districts, farm locally, and consciously and willfully deconstruct the massive industrial-social-economic complex that has been build over the last sixty years and is dependent on a vanishing supply of cheap energy. It is a big dream, but then so was the idea of the American Revolution or defeating the Axis as well.

Be aware, The Long Emergency is not a pleasant read. You will find every reason possible to ignore and simply deny the message it presents. You will however not be the same after having read it. Each time you turn your car on, fill your tank, or shop at a big-box discount store for inexpensive imports that you don't really need or want, you'll hear Kunstler's words in the back of your mind.  Much of what he says bears a similarity in tone to the Traditionalist wing of modern esotericism, and while I doubt Kunstler is a follower of Julius Evola, compare their thoughts on humanity's future:

    "Even though it may be destined to disappear, modern civilization is certainly not the first to become extinct, nor is it the one after which none will follow….only the ignorance of modern man has induced him to believe that his civilization, which is characterized by the deepest roots in the temporal and contingent element, will enjoy a different and privileged fate." - Revolt Against the Modern World by Julius Evloa

    "The Long Emergency is going to be a tremendous trauma for the human race. It is likely to entail political turbulence every bit as extreme as the economic conditions that prompt it. We will not believe that two-hundred years of modernity can be brought to its knees by a worldwide power shortage. The prospect is so grim that some individuals and perhaps even some groups (as in nations) may develop all the symptoms of suicidal depression…The survivors will have to cultivate a religion of hope, that is, a deep and comprehensive belief that humanity is worth carrying on." - The Long Emergency by James Howard Kunstler

However, if each of us picks up the gauntlet, and accept the challenge presented, it is possible to turn The Long Emergency into a brighter, quieter, and more peaceful future for us all. But to do it, we must each take responsibility for our actions today, and their effects on tomorrow. If we don't, the opening phases of the Age of Aquarius will be a cold, dark age of Saturn, and not the bright Uranian dreams of freedom so many desire.

Review by Mark Stavish, Copyright 2005.

This review may be reproduced and cross-posted as long as the text and copyright notice remain intact.

Back to Top

[Home] [About IHS] [Blog] [Events/Calendar] [Resources] [Articles] [Testimonials] [Press & Media]

Send Email

Copyright© 2001-2017  Institute For Hermetic Studies. All rights reserved
Developed and hosted by ProAccess