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The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century

The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century [Hardcover]

James Howard Kunstler (Author)
3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (251 customer reviews)

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Book Description

April 10, 2005
With his classics of social commentary The Geography of Nowhere and Home from Nowhere, James Howard Kunstler has established himself as one of the great commentators on American space and place. Now, with The Long Emergency, he offers a shocking vision of a post-oil future. As a result of artificially cheap fossil-fuel energy, we have developed global models of industry, commerce, food production, and finance over the last 200 years. But the oil age, which peaked in 1970, is at an end. The depletion of nonrenewable fossil fuels is about to radically change life as we know it, and much sooner than we think. The Long Emergency tells us just what to expect after the honeymoon of affordable energy is over, preparing us for economic, political, and social changes of an unimaginable scale. Riveting and authoritative, The Long Emergency is a devastating indictment that brings new urgency and accessibility to the critical issues that will shape our future, and that we can no longer afford to ignore. It is bound to become a classic of social science.

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

The indictment of suburbia and the car culture that the author presented in The Geography of Nowhere turns apocalyptic in this vigorous, if overwrought, jeremiad. Kunstler notes signs that global oil production has peaked and will soon dwindle, and argues in an eye-opening, although not entirely convincing, analysis that alternative energy sources cannot fill the gap, especially in transportation. The result will be a Dark Age in which "the center does not hold" and "all bets are off about civilization's future." Absent cheap oil, auto-dependent suburbs and big cities will collapse, along with industry and mechanized agriculture; serfdom and horse-drawn carts will stage a comeback; hunger will cause massive "die-back"; otherwise "impotent" governments will engineer "designer viruses" to cull the surplus population; and Asian pirates will plunder California. Kunstler takes a grim satisfaction in this prospect, which promises to settle his many grudges against modernity. A "dazed and crippled America," he hopes, will regroup around walkable, human-scale towns; organic local economies of small farmers and tradesmen will replace an alienating corporate globalism; strong bonds of social solidarity will be reforged; and our heedless, childish culture of consumerism will be forced to grow up. Kunstler's critique of contemporary society is caustic and scintillating as usual, but his prognostications strain credibility. (May)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

Kunstler established a writing career criticizing American suburbia (e.g., The Geography of Nowhere, 1993), and his animosity against his bete noire does not abate here. It's a wide--casting, statistics-studded ramble through energy production and technologies, world economic and political history, and climatology that culminates in predictions that the suburbs are doomed. His assertions are always self--confident, sometimes immodestly so, as when he dismisses in toto any possibility that the market, or technologists, will rescue contemporary civilization from a world of declining oil production. Discerning an imminent future of protracted socioeconomic crisis, Kunstler foresees the progressive dilapidation of subdivisions and strip malls, the depopulation of the American Southwest, and, amid a world at war over oil, military invasions of the West Coast; when the convulsion subsides, Americans will live in smaller places and eat locally grown food. Credit Kunstler with an energetic argument, but whether he has achieved his stated goal--waking up an ostensibly somnolent public--via his relentless and alarmist pessimism remains to be seen. Gilbert Taylor
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Atlantic Monthly Press; First Edition edition (April 10, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0871138883
  • ISBN-13: 978-0871138880
  • Product Dimensions: 9.1 x 6.4 x 1.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (251 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #183,893 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

James Howard Kunstler is probably best known as the author of "The Long Emergency" (The Atlantic Monthly Press 2005), and "The Geography of Nowhere" (Simon and Schuster, 1993). Two other non-fiction titles in that series are "Home From Nowhere" (Simon and Schuster, 1996), and "The City in Mind" (Simon and Schuster, 2002). He's also the author of many novels, including his tale of the post-oil American future, "World Made By Hand" (The Atlantic Monthly press, 2008). The sequel will be published in the fall of 2010. His shorter work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic Monthly, Metropolis, Rolling Stone, Playboy, and many other periodicals.

James Howard Kunstler was born in New York City in 1948. He attended New York's High School of Music and art and SUNY Brockport (BA, Theater, 1971). He was a reporter for the Boston Phoenix, the Albany Knickerbocker News, and later an editor with Rolling Stone Magazine. In 1975 he dropped out of corporate journalism to write books, and settled in Saratoga Spring, New York, where he has lived ever since.

Kunstler's popular blog, Clusterf**k Nation, is published every Monday morning at and his weekly podcast, The KunstlerCast, is refreshed every Thursday.

Kunstler is also a serious professional painter. His work may be seen at

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
368 of 389 people found the following review helpful
This is a brilliant piece of work, indeed so compelling that after glancing at it over morning coffee I set aside a work day and simply read the book. I take away one star because there is no index, no bibliography, and the author is very poor about crediting his sources. On page 163, for example, his observations about 300 Chinese cities being water-stressed, and about the Aral Sea disappearing, appear to have come directly from Marq de Villier's superb book on Water: The Fate of Our Most Precious Resource but without attribution. This should have been footnoted.

Having said that, I consider the book itself, despite its run-on Op-Ed character, to be a tour de force that is very logically put forward. Indeed, although I have seen allusions elsewhere, this is the first place that I have seen such a thorough denunciation of how cheap oil underlies everything else including suburbia and Wal-Mart cf. Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price. I am also quite impressed by the author's logical discourse on how communities have sacrificed their future coherence and sustainability for the sake of a few dollars savings on Wal-Mart products.

There is a great deal in the book that is covered more ably and in more detail by the other 600+ books I have reviewed at Amazon, and indeed, replicates much of what I write about in The New Craft of Intelligence: Personal, Public, & Political--Citizen's Action Handbook for Fighting Terrorism, Genocide, Disease, Toxic Bombs, & Corruption but, I have to say, with a different twist that I admire very much.

I find the author's exploration of how cheap fuel led to wasted water, helping create cities and mega-agricultural endeavors that reduced our water at the same time that we consumed centuries worth of unrenewable fossil fuel, quite alarming.

I sum the book up on page 180 by writing in the bottom margin: "Fuel Drop + Climate Change + Disease + Water Drop = Great Depression."

I disagree with those that consider the book excessively alarmist, and agree with those that find fault with the author's documentation. An index and an annotated bibliography would have doubled the value of this book. The author is clearly well read, logical, and articulate--an unkind person would say that he has also been lazy in not substantiating his arguments with what intelligence readers value most: an index and a good bibliography that respects the contributions of others to the argument.

The author in passing makes a good argument against our current educational system, and I for one believe that we need to get back to a system of life-long education accompanied by early apprenticeship and real-world employment and grounding for our young people. What passes for education today is actually child care, and the smartest young people, like my teen-ager, consider it to be nothing more than a prison.

On balance, a solid 4, a solid buy, and worth its weight in gold if you act on his advice and begin planning an exit strategy from those places likely to run out of water, fuel, and transport options in the next 20 years.
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139 of 148 people found the following review helpful
Here is the argument that novelist James Howard Kunstler presents in this most engaging narrative:

(1) We have a "one-time endowment of concentrated, stored solar energy"--i.e., oil.

(2) At this point in history, give or take a few years, most of that stored solar energy will be gone. ("Peak oil" is upon us.)

(3) The unprecedented growth of our society is predicated upon cheap energy and needs a continued supply of it to maintain itself.

(4) That growth consists largely of a gigantic highway and road superstructure with massive suburban developments in places that cannot sustain their populations without cheap oil ("nobody walks in L.A.")

(5) This land use structure is particularly and exclusively designed for the machines of cheap oil, cars, 18-wheelers, SUVs, etc., which will become too expensive to run as the oil patch rapidly depletes.

(6) There is no substitute for oil--not coal, not nuclear power, not solar cells, not wind power, not hydroelectric power, not hydrogen fuel cells, not cold fusion, not corn oil--nothing will be adequate. The idea that human ingenuity will come up some sort of alternative fuel at the price we are paying today is just a pipe dream.

(7) Our government has its head in the sand.

Kunstler augments his argument with these major points:

One, regardless of what energy source we might dream will replace oil, we will have to build the structures--nuclear plants, hydrogen fuel "stations," solar panels the size of New Mexico in the aggregate, massive forests of wind mills, etc.--from an oil platform, at least to begin with. Note that we now use energy from oil to mine coal and to build wind propellers. We use energy from oil to build nuclear reactors. Even solar panels require an investment of energy up front to build the panels. These are massive investments that nobody is really planning on. By the time we get our heads out of our wahzus it will be too late: there won't be enough cheap oil left to build the infrastructures necessary for a transition to alternative energy.

Point two is that our gargantuan agribusiness is almost totally dependant on fossil fuels to (1) manufacture fertilizer; (2) to run the machines that plow the fields and harvest the crops; and (3) to fuel the pumps that pump irrigation water up from aquifers or from elsewhere.

Point three is that we are also running out of water. Desalination requires massive amounts of energy. The fossil aquifers are rapidly being depleted. Every year water must be pumped from greater depths until the aquifers run dry. Even aquifers that naturally replenish are being drained faster than they can replenish.

Point four is global warming. Suffice it to say that some places may go under water and other places may experience unpredictable climate change. The Gulf Stream may cease to run, throwing much of Europe into something close to an ice age while tropical conditions with topical diseases will move north.

Point five is that globalization, which is currently making us in the developed world rich--indeed richer than any peoples before in human history--is really a ponzi scheme in which we rob the future in order to pay for current prosperity. Additionally, we are exploiting the labor and resources of others to support our high standard of living. When oil runs out, our ability to benefit from globalization will be greatly diminished and consequently our standard of living will plummet.

The net result of all this, according to Kunstler, will be starvation, war, pestilence, and at best a reversion to a standard of living that prevailed before the oil window opened. Human populations will shrink until they reach an equilibrium with the natural resources of the planet.

This is the salient point behind Kunstler's argument, namely that we have already, many times over, exceeded the natural carrying capacity of the planet, and are currently being artificially and temporarily subsisted by a one-time beneficence that cannot be replaced. When oil becomes too expensive for the masses, the result will be what he calls "The Long Emergency" which will be extremely painful at best and at worse catastrophic. Already he sees the wars for oil being fought, and further down the line, he predicts wars for water.

I agree with Kunstler that we have too many people on the planet. And I agree that our government and governments elsewhere have their heads in the sand. However what I see happening is a long glide from oil to coal (and attendant pollution) to a great reliance on nuclear energy (with all it dangers) to gradually reduced populations, to a gradually reduced standard of living (especially in the US)--which might not be so bad. We would have less obesity and chronic illness caused by too much consumption and too little physical activity.

But I disagree that the "long emergency" will be as terrible as Kunstler envisions. As long as the slide down the slope is gradual, human beings will adjust to it, as we have adjusted to the many changes that have taken place since we left the hunting and gathering way of life thousands of years ago.

In particular, I think even Detroit can make small cars that get 100 miles to the gallon. At the same time I observe that commuters today in and out of our cities travel at an average speed of around 30 MPH. I think we can commute in bicycles at almost that speed. What really needs doing is a massive re-education and relearning program leading to a complete change in the cultural ethos so that we value living modestly within our means and in harmony with the planet's resources. This means gradually reducing our numbers and our demands on the earth so that we return to being part of the earth's ecology, not its cancer.
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94 of 101 people found the following review helpful
Good Oil, Bad SF July 22, 2005
I heard about this book on Treehugger, the (n)Utne Reader and other places, and eventually the library here managed to ILL a copy for me. It's about the role of cheap oil in our society, and about what the end of cheap oil will likely do to us.

Read this book.

The back cover is the scary image of a horse pulling a ruined car. The same image is the cover of Stirling's Dies the Fire, and I find it frankly impossible to believe that this is a coincidence. In any case, Kunstler seems to be fairly well known as a social commentator who hates suburbia and advocates a return to close-packed urban communities, a "Smart Growth" booster, in other words.

He begins with a reinterpretation of the twentieth century in terms of fossil fuel use, especially World War Two. As Murray and Millett agree in A War to be Won, I have added this idea to my lecture on WWII, which I recently delivered twice to summer students. He sees the 1973 embargo as the warning, which the US ignored (all except me; my whole life has been a bracing against the end of oil). Hubbert's Curve, which I'd heard of while I was still in Northern California, is a central issue in this book, with the peak predicted very soon, if it hasn't come already.

The Mainstream Media are talking more and more about the end of cheap oil, but no one is talking as starkly and unpleasantly as Kunstler. He then goes on to explain why several popular forms of "alternative" energy won't work. I wasn't sure that I believed all of what he said. I am not an engineer, but windmills (to generate electricity and pump enough water for stock) can be made without oil. Plastics can be made from fermented vegetable sludge; I ran a game once based on such a world. Also, recycling will preserve existing stocks of metals and even plastic for a long time, if we make it mandatory to recycle everything, and do it right now.

Other things he says make a lot of sense. Fusion or zero-point stuff won't save the US: there isn't time to build ten thousand huge power plants, even if the technology becomes available this week. But in the Mojave, where I live, the problem isn't shortage of energy. It's that the area is a commuter suburb. Yes, growth will stop here when gas hits five bucks a gallon. But this area could do all its local commuting in electric cars powered by solar panels on peoples' roofs.

He's right in his basic thesis: that long before we run out of oil, the end of cheap oil will shut down the car-based American suburban culture which I dislike, and am part of.


His section on epidemics makes sense, and much of this has already been made clear by books such as Laurie Garrett's The Coming Plague. His indictment of suburbia has been answered, although not convincingly, by many writers. He's right about Wal-Mart.

He's right about oil being behind the farming boom of the 20th century. But I am not sure that sending masses of people into the fields, Cambodia/Kampuchea style, as he seems to want to do, is going to be more efficient than converting tractors to run on electric batteries powered by solar panels on the farm where the tractor runs, and then using electric trucks to move the produce at 25mph across the US. Tractors and fertilizer are so much more efficient than hand labor that every nation which could adopt them did so.

I don't understand all the stuff about finance, and I don't pretend to. However, any major dude can tell you that the US economy is going to go to hell when gas hits five bucks a gallon. His weird and kind of abusive language when he talks about housebuying is a prelude to his really mean closing to the book.

The last chapter is a strange mix of serious prediction and low-rent science fiction, with some generalizations about the regions of the US that show that Kunstler doesn't know very much about some areas or have a lot of empathy for them. For example, I think that Oregon won't be in as much danger of invasion from China as he seems to believe,(without fossil fuels, that is) and Portland's gravity-flow water system means that very low-tech repairs will keep the water system working there for a long time.

All in all: a good book to shock people and make them think. A bad handbook for the future of the US. This review is one of many. Read it. Make up your own mind and then make plans. But whatever you do, don't ignore the end of big oil.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
Why do we need another review of this book?
My rhetorical question: Why do we need another review of this book? is based upon having read several dozen such reviews. Read more
Published 20 days ago by Breck Breckenridge
Think of not as a "book" but, simply, a "source"!
Like reading Bruce Sterling[*] and Cory Doctorow[**], reading Kunstler one gets the sense that most other "critics" are, sadly, stuck in "first gear"! Read more
Published 3 months ago by Christopher Joseph Snyder
A cult classic
"The Long Emergency" by James Howard Kunstler is a well-known book (and something of a cult classic) in the doomer genre. Read more
Published 4 months ago by Ashtar Command
Reliable guide to the future
Many of the reviews here were written soon after the book's publication, in 2005. Mr. Kunstler wouldn't be human if he hasn't taken just a little bit of pleasure in the fact that... Read more
Published 4 months ago by Susannah
Another 'Peak Oil' Leads to a Greater Depression Book
The tool of fear is overdone in the book, which is why I only give three stars instead of more. Much doom and gloom and 'disintegration of America' and very little hope. Read more
Published 4 months ago by Judah
Lately, I've been dependent upon libraries for my reads. Which makes the things I read a tad behind the times. Information can get dated quickly. Read more
Published 6 months ago by Allan Stellar
A though-provoking book
James Howard Kunstler wrote The Long Emergency, which describes the fossil fuel tsunami, and how it is likely to shape our way of life in the coming decades. Read more
Published 6 months ago by Richard Reese
K. Barnard
I have read a fair ammount on this subject and really enjoyed James Howard Kunstler's straightforward no-nonsense approach along with his smug-wiseguy humor. Read more
Published 8 months ago by Farmer
doesn't stand the test of time
6 years on from the publication of this book, the price of natural gas has dropped by around 50%, and the global airline and shipping industries are busier than ever. Read more
Published 10 months ago by Peter Cacioppi
Be prepared to take off your rose coloured glasses and re-focus your view on the society in which we live. Read more
Published 13 months ago by MarkusX
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