Coming soon: the end of the world as we know it

Bend over and kiss it goodbyeWe turn our attention briefly away from the CEI controversy to a more pleasant topic: the imminent destruction of civilization.

Columnist Dan Neil jumps into the peak oil story with a set of hair-rising predictions from James Howard Kunstler, author of “The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century.”

According to Niel, Kunstler makes Al Gore look like a “candy-assed optimist” on issues related to fossil fuel usage. Kunstler isn’t worried so much about global warming, but rather about the economic ravages that will occur when oil reaches $200 a barrel. The food production system will collapse. Famine and disease will result in a massive die off. Suburbia will become even bleaker than it is today.

At one point, Neil holds out TerraPass as a potential savior of the universe, only to get viciously smacked down:

When I ask him about the TerraPass program at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School (drivers pay a fee proportional to the size of their cars to offset their cars’ carbon impact), he goes bananas. “What do I think? I think it’s [colorful intensifier here] stupid!” he fairly shouts. “There’s not going to be a [ditto] Wharton School!”

That’s a shame, too, because they just moved into a really nice new building.

Kidding aside, we’ve written extensively about peak oil on this blog. Personally, I think the peak oil story is very real, and press mentions of the issue should track nicely with oil prices.

I don’t, however, share Kunstler’s apocalyptic view. I suspect that the market will do what it’s supposed to do: oil prices will rise, demand will drop, substitutes will flood in, and we’ll weather the transition to a post-peak economy largely intact. Mind you, the transition could be very painful, but we should be talking about ways to soften the landing through greater efficiency and heavier reliance on renewable energy, not stocking up on canned food and fortifying our basements.

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  1. John Fish Kurmann - May 24, 2006

    I’ve read a lot of Kunstler’s work and I’ve seen him careen back and forth between statements like the one quoted above and exhortations to the American people to rise to meet this challenge as we’ve risen to meet other huge challenges in the past. I suspect most of his comments of the former variety are born of frustration, of his sense that people have not faced up to the fact that technofixes and policy changes will not save our fannies from “the end of oil, climate change, and other converging catastrophes of the twenty-first century” (the subtitle of the paperback version of his book, The Long Emergency, which I highly recommend). If the American people were also fully engaged in a broad and deep conversation about what we need to do to transform the present superconsumer lifestyle into sustainable ways of living, and were clearly serious about doing just that, I don’t think he’d have anything negative to say about TerraPass. I suspect the point he’s trying to make is that carbon offsets and other such measures are utterly inadequate to meeting this challenge (and I suspect many TerraPass supporters agree), and that we’re not going to be able to keep driving as much as we’re driving if only we buy carbon offsets for our vehicles. And he’s shouting because he’s convinced we must get started on more fundamental changes as soon as possible or there will be no chance of a smooth transition.

    For those who are interested in where Kunstler is coming from, I recommend a recent blog of his titled “The Wishing Society”.

  2. Adam - May 24, 2006

    Hi John. Thanks for the link and the thoughtful comment. Kunstler’s article is interesting. I find much that I agree with, and much that is deeply unpersuasive — probably fodder for a future blog post.
    But to your point that Kunstler and others don’t object to TerraPass per se, they just don’t think offsets are adequate to meeting the challenge of climate change — we completely agree. Offsets are merely an economic tool to bring about some of the changes that Kunstler advocates: conservation, a more sustainable supply chain, renewable energy supplies, etc. And even as a tool, they aren’t by themselves sufficient to the task. Only a coordinated, multi-front approach will be able to forestall the worst effects of climate change.
    We’ve made this point many times before, but it always bears repeating. Thanks again for the comment.

  3. MM - May 24, 2006

    Here is an interesting link from the Earth Policy Institute -The World After Oil Peaks by Lester Brown.

  4. obewan - May 25, 2007

    I don’t see classical supply and demand as having any saving grace in this problem. The demand is supposed to go up 53% in the next 10-20 years, and the supply is declining at 2-3% per year. A shortage of 3% in the 70’s caused the price to triple or something like that. True we may not run out soon, but we can not escape the economic consequences. Our lifestyle will for sure have to change. Still with gas at $3.29, SUV sales went UP 6% this month. We have not demonstrated intelligence in the past, so why should the immediate future change things?