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.