Cure Same as Disease?

James Howard Kunstler, author of The Long Emergency and frequent contributor on oil matters to, recently decided to answer his critics by making some suggestions on how to make the post-oil (or post-cheap oil) world work. Here’s a synopsis:

  • Stop worrying about fueling automobiles. That concern will prompt people to make bad decisions.
  • Growing food will have to become a more local and less fertilizer and pesticide intensive activity. More people will end up working on smaller farms.
  • Cities will have to get smaller and people will have to start living in small towns again.
  • The era of cheap transportation and industrial mass production is over, and more things will be made locally. And fewer things will be made.
  • Life will have to become increasingly more decentralized, and everything that has been significantlly centralized in the industrial world — government, education, health care, entertainment — will have to change.

Now, let’s assume for a moment that Kunstler is right about this (he might be), and that the era of cheap transportation fuels is over — forever. What he describes as policy options needed not to avoid the crisis but to learn to live in that world are also the logical outcomes of that new world. Meaning that if the economic incentives are right, people will make these choices because there will be no reasonable economic alternatives. He is describing the eventual outcomes of “the end of oil” whether policy makers choose them deliberately or people choose them inadvertently. And people will choose these things IF they make economic sense.

So, if this is what a post-oil world is going to look like (whether we like it or not), why bother with the policy recommendations? It may be Kunstler hopes that suffering from bad choices can be avoided. The citizens of the industrial West (and not just Americans) are going to be hard pressed to want to give up an energy-intensive, “happy motoring” way of life for one closer to what their ancestors lived more than 200 years ago. Americans are good at wanting to impose their fear and insecurities on others and of not wanting to suffer themselves, and it is likely many Americans — and many American “leaders” — will opt for war and government action to secure “cheap” energy. A lot of people will suffer, and die, as the currently comfortable attempt futilely to secure their comforts.

And yet. I wonder if Kunstler has considered (as have the advocates of “doing something” about global climate change) if 7 billion people can live in this world without oil and mass-production industry. Can the suffering he seeks to avoid actually be averted by policy changes? Or will policy changes merely cause the imposition of another kind of suffering? Can a world without mass industrial agriculture, mass production and mass consumption support 7 billion people? Who gets to choose which of those 7 billion will make it and which won’t? Which is better, public policy choices that inflict deliberate suffering on people, that pick winners and losers, that have the winners voting who will lose and then forcing those choices upon the chosen losers, or the complex but unmanaged interactions of billions of actors picking winners and losers?

(Don’t tell me will we will are share. We won’t. Public policy choices aren’t and cannot be about sharing burdens equally. Public policy choices are about compelling some people to bear burdens they otherwise would never choose to bear on their own.)

Also, Kunstler has the modernist’s faith in the managerial state by believing that this post-oil crisis (as he describes it) can be effectly managed. I see no evidence from human history that human beings are capable of avoiding the calamities they create from exhausting their environments or depleting their cheap resources. Human beings may be better educated and know more about the world, but I don’t think we’re any smarter than we ever have been or are any more capable of dealing with this than any other human civilization facing salt build up in the soil, a changing climate or whatever. If there is a crash coming — either from the end of an oil-based economic or from the effects of industrialization on the global ecology — then I suspect there is nothing we can do to avert it. There will be suffering, and suffering unequally. In fact, anything we try to do collectively will almost certainly make the problem — and the suffering — worse.

4 thoughts on “Cure Same as Disease?

  1. It´s obvious to me that if the cheap oil ends there would not be such things as people driving dozens of miles per day to work. But it wouldn´t be the end of industrial civilization. People would drive less(Or even drive no more), but there would be energy to run buses, trams and trains. If oil is being deplected, the market is the best solution.And let´s not forget Kustler´s statements about the Middle East.

  2. There are some changes that will inevitably be made. Chris Sanders for example @ comments on the current practise of apples, grown in England, being flown to South Africa to be washed and polished and then returned to England for sale. I have the feeling that might cease.

  3. “[P]eople will choose these things IF they make economic sense.” False. People often choose things for non-economic reasons; people often make choices that make no sense at all. Half the fun of economics is figuring out, how, if at all, some decisions benefit people; figuring out if people are just plain crazy or crazy like a fox. You have an unstated assumption, probably a logical fallacy: You are assuming away the temporal element, i.e. that people will EVENTUALLY choose things that make economic sense. For instance, if I, a novice, were hired to fix a toilet, sure, after staring at the thing for a few hours I might eventually figure things out and choose to do things with regard to the toilet that make economic sense, but wouldn’t it be much better if I started off by following some instructions in a guidebook or better yet get a master plumber to supervise me through the job?Your next error is that you jump right into worrying about the world as a whole. My reading of Kunstler’s webpage and three of his books suggests to me he has a laudable sense of patriotism –for upstate New York, for New York City, then America as a whole, the West, Western Civilization, and then onwards and outwards from there. You, on the other hand, present a false dilemma: all or nothing. Finally, agreed we will not all share. Here you get into libertarian/anarcho theory that I don’t have time or space to refute right here. Suffice it to say that just as people make seemingly economically stupid choices all the time, so too do they do things collectively –for good or ill, all the time. Oh yeah, I don’t see Kunstler as arguing in favor of some sort of modernist’s faith in the managerial state. Time and time again he speaks of the tragedy of the human condition and alludes to the wisdom of the ancients in their acknowledgement of that tragic fate. How is that a “modernist’s [misguided] faith”?

  4. I like Jim Kunstler a lot – in fact I went to see him out of admiration and respect for his work – however I also agree with your assessment. Although I do think JK is more aware of the “irrationality” factor than, say, John Michael Greer (check out his Archdruid site). Nobody knows “what it’s going to be like.”Americans are no longer a community and cannot act in concert to manage anything. The sad thing is we will probably have to be “united” by a totalitarian system before we begin to find the path to the spiritual.

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