Bookshelf: The Long Emergency

//ref=nosim/”> Link to book at

Link to book at Powell’s
Link to book at Multnomah County Library

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With all the discussion of Peak Oil this week, it seems very appropriate to add this to the bookshelf this week.

Kunstler convincingly makes the case for our proximity to peak production, then goes on the make a very depressing case for the impact this will have on world society and economy. I think (hope) his scenarios are overly pessimistic, but this book keeps me up at night.

One interesting note is that Kunstler lists nuclear as one of the few energy technologies that could readily fill the energy gap left by exhausted fossil fuels. I wonder how the environmental community is going to react to what could become an uncomfortable reality?

The countervailing view of course is that human ingenuity will work out alternative energy sources. But will it happen fast enough to prevent significant disruption?


25 responses to “Bookshelf: The Long Emergency”

  1. Great book… how about a link to Powell’s instead of Amazon? We are trying to live local here.

    There is less fuel involved in shipping from downtown than from Amazon’s warehouse somewhere. (Unless you want to speed the depletion of oil in which case maybe you should buy from Amazon. I get so confused.)

    Long Emergency at Powells

  2. As I understand it, electricity is really the only energy form that is readily produced through a wide variety of renewable and innovative methods (wind, solar) and also through other non-oil methods such as hydro and nuclear.

    However, electricity use is primarily used to power stationary applications and infracture (houses, offices, subways etc.). Mobile applications (cars, train, trucks, cargo ships) are still almost entirely dependent on oil. So a giant oil crash will primarily affect transportation. Sure you can talk about hybrid and electric cars, but they aren’t cost effective and rely on other scarce resources for the batteries. Hybrid or electric powered cargo ships are a long way off. So I think that innovative and renewable energy solutions are likely to be concentrated around stationary and infrastructure uses like the folks who use wind and solar energy to take their houses “off the grid”. I don’t see many innovative non-oil solutions for fueling transportation in the near future. That’s where the shock will be. And let’s not talk about nonsense such as corn ethanol. So Chinese goods at Wal-Mart will suddenly cost a LOT LOT more when you factor in the cost of cargo shipping and trucking. I’m not sure that’s really a bad thing. But we might have to learn all over again how to make products locally that are now made in China.

    But personally I don’t think even a GIANT oil crunch will really change things all that much. My wife is from Chile and we visit her family in Santiago every year. In Chile the per-capita income is probably only 1/3 to 1/2 of what it is in the US and gas costs more than here due to taxes. So do cars. Yet Santiago still has giant traffic jams and the freeways around the city are still full of people zooming around, going to the mountains and beaches on weekends and to the malls. What gives? Well, Chileans are as loath as Americans to give up their mobility so they just scrimp elsewhere and live with paying 4-times more of their disposible income for gas than do Americans. Of course the cars are much smaller on average, and you see a lot more carpooling, especially within families. But life in Chile still pretty much resembles life in the US and you see a car in front of most houses.

    Same goes for Europe for that matter. Gas prices have been much higher there for years and incomes generally lower. Yet people still want their cars and still drive. A prolonged gas crunch will cause a lot of Americans to buy Korean econo cars and cut back on the $50,000 kitchen remodel. But they’ll still drive.

  3. What about reducing consumption at home and in business? There are already have been strides over the last thirty years. Now: close off rooms not in use; use radiant electric heaters; turn lights off or use fluorescents; zonal heating; passive heat collection and on-demand for hot water; methane power generation on farms; use natural cycle cooling instead of AC; use microwave instead of huge gas ranges;(add your own).

    Much of the oil price rise is also due to natural gas price increase (and concurrent heating oil increase) and this is caused by growing consumption for electrical power generation in central US and Canada. By now petrol. companies have enough profits in the bank to stimulate exploration. So we could, conceivably, benefit from a downward cycle if there are also energy conservation measures, ala Jimmy Carter. It is amazing how related in price fluctuation the components of “the energy complex” are. A amall variation in the constriction of the “pipeline” of energy can translate into large price fluctuations.

    Even an electric car, in most of the US, is going to rely on nat. gas power to recharge, unless they use solar or wind. It seems to me that passive solar could have enormous potential in much of the US: how about hot water generated power for AC (which would assist natural cooling-i.e letting the cold early morning air in and trapping it)?

  4. Kent –

    If some kind of big oil/gas cruch occurs, hybrid and electric vehicles WILL become cost effective quite rapidly.

    The Toyota Prius is almost cost effective without subsidy TODAY. (I already went into the details of this in a long comment a few weeks ago on this site.)

    The GM EV1 was a successful electric prototype with highway speeds and good range based on the battery technology of more than 10 years ago. Such designs could be quickly revived if oil prices become seriously high.

    Yes, batteries use exotic materials, but battery recycling centers are already in operation, and the service batteries in cars such as the Prius are warrented for 8yrs/100,000 miles, with no reports of a service battery failure ever.

    I would not be so quick to dismiss hybrids and electrics. They are “almost there” today, and higher gasoline prices, say over $3.50 a gallon, will make them quite competitive.

    The entire US automotive fleet turns over about what, every 10 to 15 years, just from normal buying patterns. A national shift to another propulsion system in a time of high gas prices could occur rather quickly.

    – Bob R.

  5. A big part of Kunstler’s point is that when petroleum (and natural gas too) become limited in supply (versus demand), a whole lot of things get much more diffult (e.g., hard to make plastics). Manufacturing of all kinds becomes more difficult.

    Kunstler also breaks energy into to types, those that are based on ongoing solar sources (hydro, wind, direct solar, etc.), those that are ‘stored’ (hydrocarbons, nuclear) and those that are really just transmission technologies (electric, hydrogen). Once we deplete the ‘stored’ supplies, we have to live within what the sun gives us!

    With all the talk about hydrogen, it’s important to understand that it’s a lot more like electricity than it is like oil. You don’t mine it, you have to make it from some other form of energy.

  6. Bob: The US auto fleet might turn over every 10-15 years but the cars that will be sold in 5-10 years are on the drawing boards now. It would take years just to gear up production of alternative propulsion vehicles.

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but as I understand it, critical shortages in battery manufacture is what is currently limiting production of hybrid vehicles. Toyota previously announced a bunch of new hybrid models for 2006 but now they are putting that off until 2007-20008 for that reason. At least that’s the scuttlebut on the auto forums that I sometimes read. Last month I told my wife that we were never going to buy another gasoline car. And I’ve been wondering how long we’ll be waiting to get a hybrid/electric minivan.

    I don’t mean to dismiss hybrids. But I do think that even if gas prices quadruple we’ll still see people driving gas vehicles for a long time. They will give up a lot of other things first before they give up their gas cars.

    In any event, I don’t think this is all bad. We don’t just waste gas, we waste enormous amounts of plastic every day too in just packaging materials that get thrown away. I just bought a SD card for my PDA that had about 50-times more plastic in the packaging than it did in the actual product. The damn package was at least 10″x10″ big and the SD card is the size of my thumbnail. Even if oil prices go up to $1,000/barrel we’ll still be able to make all the plastics that we actually NEED. We just won’t be wasting it so much on shrink wrap and bottled water.

  7. And apparently the latest Oregon emissions plan Kulongoski is pushing – to tighten our emissions to California standards – would include banning sales of diesel autos in Oregon – which would outright kill biodiesel for passenger vehicles.

  8. I have just had a wild “sci-fi” thought about the transportation fix the “peak oil” and “the last pump of that black gold” would cause. And what source of energy would take its place.

    Electric Cars that have batteries and also the ability to “hook in” to a field built into a road would do it.

    One MAJOR safety feature would need to be a fail-safe “go to ground” switch when the doors are opened. Static charges would be the second issue.

    Could a car be designed that could receive it’s “juice” from Superconductors located in the road beds?

    I’m sure this has been debunked but I search for some articles anyway.

    Ray Whitford

  9. Looks like Magnetized roads with photo-voltaics cells re-charging local battery stacks and fuel-cell cars (thin film technology and something to burn) with magnets for gliding over the surfaces will be the our “Golden Path” once hydro-carbons are not available. Computers in all vehicles will need to be invoked to create the “safe” use of the magnet lanes.

    Give us 100 years to get there from here.


  10. “And apparently the latest Oregon emissions plan Kulongoski is pushing – to tighten our emissions to California standards – would include banning sales of diesel autos in Oregon – which would outright kill biodiesel for passenger vehicles.”

    Would that be a bad thing?

  11. This possible future transportation infrastructure would need to handle the essentials first (trucking and rail systems) to bring goods to distribution points (hubs).

    The individual will need some way to get to the hubs.

    Maybe this will not be necessary, but human power alone will not kept us on our current growth trends in population and/or GDP.

    With no new oil reserves being found in the last thirty five years of looking by governments and oil companies, there isn’t alot of facts that say ‘we will find more oil’. Maybe Siberia will prove me wrong but I think the former Soviet Untion and the Russian Federation would be letting everyone know by know that they were sitting on those reserves and China wouldn’t be looking at Venuzula and Africa for oil.

    Oil secerts for hard to kept hidden unless you are a closed society like Saudi Arabia.

    Ray Whitford

  12. Yes, banning diesel car sales would be bad. People really need to keep up on current events (the technologies coming out of European auto makers). The EU has mandated Clean Diesel engines by 2008(?) and are currently at Euro 4 Standards. Right now, diesel car sales in Europe account for 75 percent of the total. Europe is way ahead of the US car makers on reducing diesel soot exhaust. Once again, US Automakers will not supply high efficent cars in the US market (I had to go with a VW to get a modern diesel). Low Sulfer diesel is being phased in many countries, including the US.

    I bought my Jetta TDI because I didn’t want to feel like supporting Saudi Arabia with my long commute. Diesel engines run more efficently then gasoline engines (thus better mpgs). I didn’t know about Bio-Diesel until after I purchased the Jetta.

    Hybrid Diesel/Electric Buses are in Portland, Seattle, LA, etc., for reliability testing since everyone knows already that they save on fuel consumption. Since its new technology the Tri-Mets of the US want to know about their maintenance issues, if any. I just wish Tri-Met and Metro would push for Bio-diesel as an end user.

    Even the Department of Defense is looking at Diesel/Electric hybrid for their vehicles (quieter for more stealth and better fuel efficency). Little know fact: the US Department of Defense is the single greatest comsumer of fossil fuels in the world.

    The State of Oregon just passed tax breaks for biodiesel refinery construction (lets see if Gov. K. sign it) and here we have the governor (who I support since he is standing up to Bush and His war in Iraq) looking at the California Anti-Smog laws being implemented here (Yes, with the exception for Green Diesel Engines. Build on EU Standards and Biodiesel Expansion Ted!!! Don’t screw us over!). So my question is: Why would you stab the farmers and the green diesel movement in the back, Ted K.?


  13. “The EU has mandated Clean Diesel engines by 2008(?) and are currently at Euro 4 Standards. Right now, diesel car sales in Europe account for 75 percent of the total”

    I am not sure why this makes diesel a better choice than gas. As I understand it, there are some serious environmental concerns with diesel, bio-diesel or not. There must be a reason strict air pollution standards hit diesel harder than regular gasoline engines. Bio-diesel is better than plain diesel, but it is not at all clear that it is an improvement over gasoline engines for most people. And it sure doesn’t beat walking, biking or using transit.

    “Little know fact: the US Department of Defense is the single greatest comsumer of fossil fuels in the world.”

    Its actually not. The US government as a whole consumes even more, making it the single greatest consumer. I hate these sorts of silly factoids.

  14. I love factoids; I like to debunk or confirm them.

    What single department in the US government consumes more energy then any single user in the world? Answer: DoD (80 percent of the US government total mentioned in nice history lesson on what the US has being doing about oil reserves since WWI,

    Is that better?

    The factoid about diesel that needs to be stated here is that for green house gas emissions; the diesel engine produces less the gasoline engine. Only the soot issue (mainly with older Cummins-Diesel technology) is of greater concern compared to the gasoline engine. Here is one of many web pages with lots of factoids about how current diesel technology is moving toward “green” status and its advantages and disadvantages with Natural Gas. Looks like each fuel (gas, diesel, natural gas) has pluses and minuses. Plainly, Europe has gone with diesel technology. Demand for diesel cars really shot up around 2000 (right when I purchased my TDI) to where it sits now at 40 percent (my error in previous post) with projections of 55 percent by 2010. (
    This oil company document even states that Australia is using diesels to meet its Kyoto numbers. Clearly, the rest of the World is going Diesel. We are so backwards. Those damn German engineers!

    Biodiesel renders the soot issue even a lesser issue, but notes an increase in NOx.

    (pulled from

    “What are the tailpipe emissions impacts from using biodiesel?
    Replacing conventional diesel with B100 reduces most tailpipe emission pollutants, but increases emissions of nitrogen oxides.
    SMOG: B100 results in large reductions in hydrocarbons (HC) but about a 10% increase in nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions, resulting in a small overall increase of smog forming pollutants. These pollutants are responsible for the urban smog that reduces lung function, increases incidents of asthma and can aggravate chronic lung disease. Increases in NOx emissions could be minimized through engine modifications, fuel additives, or exhaust after-treatment devices. Although tailpipe HC emissions are reduced, in a full lifecycle assessment, smog forming HC emissions were 35% higher than conventional diesel. The emissions are attributed to the farming and soy processing components of biodiesel production.

    B100 has shown about a 50% reduction in particulate matter (PM or soot) emissions. Diesel PM has been shown to exacerbate respiratory conditions and cause premature death.”

    So, take European progress on engines and exhaust systems; use B100 fuel; and start designing diesel /electric hybrids. Do these things yesterday! Stop killing people for oil.


  15. “Is that better?”

    No. The problem is the arbitrary distinctions these factoids always seem to make. What is a “single user”, how is the Defense Department comparable and what meaning is there in making the comparison?

    “Clearly, the rest of the World is going Diesel. We are so backwards.”

    I am not sure those two things follow. The diesel preference may be driven by the economics of oil in those countries.

    “Only the soot issue (mainly with older Cummins-Diesel technology) is of greater concern compared to the gasoline engine.”

    I have been told by some people working on environmental justice issues that those emissions have bigger health impacts on people exposed. As you note:

    “These pollutants are responsible for the urban smog that reduces lung function, increases incidents of asthma and can aggravate chronic lung disease. Increases in NOx emissions could be minimized through engine modifications, fuel additives, or exhaust after-treatment devices.”

    “Could be” is full of possibility. But the fact that it is possible, perhaps, isn’t the basis for current decisions.

    “B100 has shown about a 50% reduction in particulate matter (PM or soot) emissions.”

    B100 is not likely to be used very much immediately since current vehicles require modification to use it. It certainly is not a reason to promote purchase of current diesel autos instead of gasoline or hybrids.

    From the article:

    “Although tailpipe carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions are similar for diesel and biodiesel operated engines, biodiesel provides a distinct advantage in a full lifecycle assessment in which emissions from fuel production and fuel use are considered. In the case of plant-based biodiesel, carbon dioxide uptake by plants during respiration offsets the CO2 emissions produced from the combustion of biodiesel. ”

    So, use of farmland to grow crops that are used for fuel instead of food is described as a benefit of biodiesel. Its not clear to me that that farmland would not be planted in crops of some kind regardless of whether biodiesel is used or not. From a greenhouse perspective I suppose you can argue you are better off putting the corn into cars than into cows, but I am not convinced that is really the choice.

    The same site
    Union of Concerned Scientists – “Sick of Soot” doesn’t mention biodiesel as one of the elements of reducing diesel emissions.

    I think biodiesel is fine. It is a way for farmers to market their product and it may well be a cleaner industrial product than diesel fuel. But I am not prepared to see it as the linchpin of an emissions control strategy or a reason to step back from regulations designed to have an immediate impact on emissions.

  16. Ross,

    Your comment: “B100 is not likely to be used very much immediately since current vehicles require modification to use it. It certainly is not a reason to promote purchase of current diesel autos instead of gasoline or hybrids.”,

    needs some clarity.

    B100 can run on my stock 2000 VW Jetta TDI with out any modifications what so ever.

    You are confusing Bio-diesel for diesel engines with the use of “used vegetable oil” in diesel engines after the “conversion kit” is install. Two different fuels.

    This snippet from one page of the referenced webpage mentions the two ways of handling vegetable oils being run in a diesel engine (

    “Modern diesel engines are not well adapted to run on vegetable oil because their fuel injection systems are designed to run on diesel fuel, which is significantly less viscous than vegetable oil. This problem is easily overcome however, by either of two rather simple techniques.

    One method is to heat the vegetable oil prior to its delivery to the engine, reducing its viscosity to levels suitable for the fuel injection system. This requires the addition of a separate fuel system for the vegetable oil, often heated by the waste heat from the engine. With this system the engine can be started and warmed up on petroleum diesel, then switched to vegetable oil when significant temperatures are reached, then switched back prior to turning off the engine to purge the vegetable oil from the fuel pump and injectors, preventing clogging as the oil cools down.

    A second approach is to process the vegetable oil so that its viscosity at normal operating temperatures is suitable for the fuel injection system. This can be done by chemically removing the glycerin molecule from the vegetable oil. Glycerin is what gives vegetable oil its viscosity, so removing it creates a product that has a similar viscosity to petroleum diesel fuel and is known as biodiesel. Processing vegetable oil into biodiesel allows it to be used in a modern diesel engine without any modification to the engine or creating a separate fuel system. In fact, it can also be blended with petroleum diesel in any amount. Fuel blends that include biodiesel are becoming more popular worldwide as they generally burn more efficiently than 100% petroleum diesel and with fewer emissions.

    Each system has its advantages and disadvantages, but either will allow a modern diesel engine to be operated effectively on vegetable oil as fuel when implemented properly. Both methods have been in use for quite some time now, with people all over the world logging thousands of miles on vegetable oil. Anyone interested in experimenting with vegetable oil fuel is highly encouraged to pursue further education about diesel engines and biofuels technology.”


  17. Ray –

    You are correct that B100 can be used, at least at temperatures above freezing, but it isn’t actually being used very much. Most biodiesel sold is still mostly regular diesel with some biodiesel added. Part of that is that pure B100 gels at about 32 degrees.

    So while you can point to the advantages biodiesel could provide, the actual advantages it does provide are not as great. It may have a role in the long range fuel economy. It may be important as a transitional fuel. But I don’t think it is something we should promote as a central solution to either meeting transportation fuel needs or reducing air pollution.

  18. Interestingly, the original creator of diesel engines designed it to work on a variety of fuels, including peanut oil.

    I don’t see why we can’t replace gasoline with a limitless fuel supply. Considering that Sequential Biofuels just opened a Portland refinery recently, and the so-called ‘hydrogen economy’ decades or more away (if at all – I seriously have my doubts about such a thing), why shouldn’t we incorporate proven technologies into public policy to gain energy independence from unstable foreign countries??

    Banning diesel autos in Oregon would completely sink all of the work these environmentally-geared companies have been working for over the last few years, and regulate biodiesel users to hippies driving used diesel mercedes or volvos.

  19. If you read the book, I think you’ll find that Kunstler makes a pretty good argument that it would take way more oil to grow all the crops to provide the biomass than the oil it would replace.

    Maybe if you wanted to harvest the Amazon rainforest to fuel our cars, but I think that has some downsides too…

  20. Interesting comment from my boss who just got back from three weeks in Ireland.

    Europe, just like America, pays their farmers NOT to grow crops on some or all of their land. They call it “wasteland”.

    But now, the farmers are being asked to grow plants that are high in seeds (the seed is where the oil is, I believe).

    Maybe we could learn one more thing from Europe.

    I’m not saying that bio-diesel is the answer for everyone forever. But, it can supplement or replace the fossil fuel. All of our diesel transportation trucks will need this fuel. Some of us are going to piggyback on this requirement. Someday another technology will replace the internal combustion engines, but I’m not going to just hope and pray for that day. Most likely, I’ll be long gone.

    God gave me a brain and I know my path; my feet; my bikes; and my diesels.

    As for the costs, the plants are not for eating so I see no reason for pesticides and herbicides. If Oregon and Washington grows local plants that are hardy and native, then the water requirements could be small too. Transporting the raw material to the company or co-op that does the separating and condensing is where a cost might be needed.

    If the co-ops could be located along rivers and sloughs then getting the raw material to a refinery farther down river would be cheap too.

    The refinery itself can do multiple things for power, such as; support wind (OR Rocks!) and solar projects; conservation energy; de-centralizated fuel cell technology using NG or bio-diesel; and have diesel generators for emergency shutdowns.

    Maybe the generators are not needed since emergencies at a bio-diesel refinery is mostly cases of people being covered in used french fries grease, not like explosions that happen at fossil fuel refineries.


  21. I know that this is a transportation forum and all, but I have a theoritical question to throw out there: What if, with a true down turn in oil production, (Peak Oil, Natural Disasters like huricanes, oil supplies cut off by war, etc.) and you had to choose. What would you use the available oil supply for?

    Some suggestions and maybe you could rank them as most needed/wanted to least needed/wanted. Don’t think in terms of percentages, only as a ranking.

    Road maintenance
    New road construction
    Tire manufacturing
    Jet fuel
    Electric power generation
    Add more to the lists you make, letting others know about the new ones.

    My list is almost complete, but I don’t want to add it for obvious spoilage reasons. Plus I probably forget a key consumer of the raw material.


  22. Ray,

    I don’t know offhand what would be the most important. However, I do know that for most of the things you have mentioned there have, for a long time, been alternative technologies available. But I guess Big Oil (and societal inertia) have thwarted those innovations.

    Most Portlanders (and an increasing number of Americans) would agree that efficient mass transportation would reduce the requirement for highways. That was how our transit revolution started. And it would also reduce a number of other things you mention.

    Generally less power consumption would reduce the natural gas consumption of power plants. I didn’t know fertilizer was dependent on petroleum but the must be a number of options there. Likewise with pharmaceuticals.

    I have been doing some research on ocean wave power. Oregon should have an opportunity to combine this with wind power. The Norwegians have developed a breakwater (jetty) that accentuates crashing waves, intakes the water through openings and directs it all towards a power turbine. So future jetties could derive power from the surf; and why not add windturbines on top? And I wonder why wind turbines could not have vanes that are more like sails than propeller blades and catch more air. Also could these not be mounted in a long horizontal axis, comparable in layout to a push lawnmower’s blades?
    So, set up a jetty with two sources of power, that is visually unobtrusive, besides. I think there is a lot more potential in harnessing the ocean waves, than even these electromagnet buoys OSU is working on. Think of the tremendous amount of water flowing through even a mile long stretch of ocean surf. Or a riptide current, which is dangerous for recreation, anyway.

    I don’t have a comparison of fuel cost/person mile of jets as compared to the ol’ Greyhound bus, but I do know if a bus had sleeping compartments I would not mind it all all for overnight travel. And why couldn’t it? Sleeping on the overnight train, without a cabin, used to be normal in Europe. I am sure the solutions for what you list are already available–if people would learn to think outside the box.

  23. BTW, an analysis of all resource consumption has always led me to the conclusion that “export economies” are inherently wasteful. When livelihoods depend upon the export of either commodities or finished items there is a necessity to keep that system going, through all sorts of upsetting events. What would be better? A ‘direct action’ strategy whereby people produce, for themselves, the major components of sustenance: owner-built homes, food, recycling systems, energy efficiency. Now, people rely on the income from exporting to pay for these things.

    As long as this circuitous route is followed we will see increasing energy consumption. OTOH, a direct approach with people achieving, independent of income, those major purchases should cause a slow spiral downward of relief from economic pressures. In Spetember 2000 I participated in the UN ‘State of the World Forum’ and from there have been making plans for the biennial UN Urban Forum. Next year it will be held in Vancouver BC (June 19-23, 2006) and I hope to continue progress on issues already begun. I have talked somewhat of Portland as a model for urban planning but if we don’t rein in the excess spending (at taxpayer largess) I don’t know if this will continue. There is a lot of competition out there between Urban Regions, and the UN is free to award its “Best Practices” recognition to whoever is the best.

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