Saturday, April 09, 2005

The Long Emergency

Sometime back, I mentioned that I'd seen the write up on this book. Now I find an excerpt from it at Rolling Stone. It's making the rounds now (I found the link at Wolcott's blog), and it raises an interesting question for me.

The thesis of The Long Emergency is that life as we know it, at least in the "First World," is impossible without cheap energy. Moreover, this cheap energy has shifted our thinking about life in ways the Industrial Revolution couldn't imagine (and no, the computer has not been the most important vanguard of that shift). In brief, as cheap energy runs out, so does the way we live. Food shipped in not just from South America, but from other parts of the country, will become prohibitively expensive, if not impossible. Agro-industrial farming itself will collapse, and with it will go cities that chew up farm land and cover it with concrete and asphalt (like much of Houston where I live, where neighborhoods now were farmland as recently as 50 years ago). Development, highway construction, urban sprawl, all will obviously be affected, but so will "simpler" things like electricity consumption. As Kunstler puts it: "Imagine Phoenix without air conditioning." Or Houston, for that matter.

I practically grew up on "doomsday" scenarios in the 60's and 70's: nuclear war; overpopulation; food shortages; water shortages, etc., etc. But when you think about it, the very way we live, the way we think about life, is based almost wholly on cheap, plentiful fuel. Fuel to transport goods to us; fuel to run power plants; petroleum to make the ubiquitous plastics of our daily life. It is not like this for many parts of the world. It won't be like this for us, much longer; especially as China and India decide they have the capacity and the right to consume as much fuel as they can pay for. The discovery and use of petroleum has literally changed the way we live and the way we relate to each other. It has certainly made Houston, Texas the fourth largest city in the country.

It's easy to look back and see how we let this happen. Now, literally right now, we have to start looking forward, and think about how we respond to it. Kunstler is pessimistic, perhaps with good reason. But does it have to be difficult? Do we have to respond to every crisis with violence and civic unrest? Do we have to allow things to unfold as if they were pre-ordained? There are clearly other ways available to human beings. Spain in the aftermath of the Madrid bombings comes to mind. A social philosophy, a social theology, will be desperately required. To not even try to have one, it to abdicate all responsibility to the irresponsible.

I mentioned the "interesting question." That question is this: have we really fundamentally changed since Spindletop? Did humanity fundamentally change after the Industrial Revolution, or did we just shift our perspective? Two views came up side by side in the upheaval: Romanticism, and what we call today "market capitalism," identified on a spectrum from the "invisible hand" to "neo-liberal economics" to Social Darwinism. What's coming now? Phenomenology? Deconstruction? A new theology or social philosophy? If history is any guide, the seeds are already sprouting. Which plants will we cultivate?

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