Visions of the “Long Emergency”: How Will We Live After Peak Oil?

Stories about the end of the world are as old as culture itself. While many traditional belief systems posit history as an endless cycle of renewal, humans have often imagined time as having a beginning and an end, an origin story and an apocalypse or day of judgment. In modern society, these stories have often taken the form of dystopian literature; Nineteen Eighty Four and Brave New World depict a kind of “end of history,” where the despotism of politics and technology have extinguished humanity’s potential for progress, either by grinding people down with pain or numbing them with pleasure. More recently, we have seen tales of nuclear disaster (Cloud Atlas), environmental catastrophe (The Day After Tomorrow), economic and demographic collapse (Children of Men), and the ever-reliable zombie apocalypse (Confessions of a Shopaholic).

The dizzying number of problems the world faces in the early twenty-first century has clearly prompted a renewed interest in the genres of apocalypse and dystopia. Particularly, climate change offers the same kind of imaginative possibilities that nuclear war once provided during the Cold War, where the threat of radiation made for fictional scenarios both silly and profound. (You had giant ants attacking Los Angeles; you also saw humans fiddle with time travel as they attempted to survive in tunnels under Paris in the 1960s classic La Jetée, the basis for Terry Gilliam’s later film 12 Monkeys). The difference between nuclear and climate catastrophe, though, makes for very different stories – the difference between a sudden calamity that renders the landscape almost unlivable for humans, and a potentially slow, erratic change in the environment that makes life more difficult in a variety of ways, whether rising waters, food shortages, or political conflict. In the dystopia of climate change, the world might look a lot like ours, just without the plethora of consumer goods we have gotten used to or the shorelines we’ve come to expect when we look at a globe.

No, you can’t have your Medicare Grandma

In part these stories reflect a consciousness of natural limits that emerged with the rise of the environmentalist movement in the 1960s, at a time when the spectacular advances of productivity and living standards in the US, Europe and Japan seemed to augur a future of infinite possibilities. Environmentalists began to question whether endless growth was wise or even possible, but the awareness of serious side-effects from rising temperatures since the 1970s has made such concerns far more tangible than they once were. Whereas the New Left once pondered whether ever-greater consumption would make for a just society or a contented life, we now wonder whether millions in Bangladesh or Manhattan will be able to go on living above sea level. The incredible leaps of productivity in the 200 years or so since fossil fuels were widely exploited for fuel begins to look like an anomalous, if miraculous, blip in the longer history of human drudgery.

Writers in the peak oil movement believe our era is truly exceptional. They say we are burning through the energy stored in the Earth over millions of years, and once this supply runs out there is no remotely comparable alternative. Authors such as James Howard Kunstler, Sharon Astyk, and Richard Heinberg have tried to warn the public of an imminent resource crunch, arguing that the depletion of oil will have an even more dramatic effect of human society than climate change, although the problems are likely to be felt simultaneously. These critics insist that oil is rapidly becoming scarce even now, and the idea that solar, wind, and other alternative energy sources can provide anywhere near the level of energy of fossil fuels is a dangerous illusion. We simply have to prepare ourselves for a future where much less energy is available, with all the economic, political, and cultural consequences that come with this new reality.

Astyk in particular has made a salient case about the gender implications of peak oil, asking how a dramatic diminution of living standards will affect men and women differently. For instance, oil is an essential ingredient in countless consumer goods, such as anything made with plastic, and the lack of fuel to move goods will make many basic necessities costlier or simply unavailable. “I teach classes for people attempting to adapt their lives to lower energy usage, and one of the things I’ve found startling is the degree to which conversations about ‘men’s issues’ and ‘women’s issues’ look completely different. When women’s issues come up, women are worried mostly about material realities – How will I keep safe?” Astyk writes. “How will I handle pregnancy, birth control, breastfeed, menstruation and menopause? These are the central issues that women perceive as specific to them.” She goes on to describe the implications for men:

When we talk about men’s issues, almost always one of the central discussion points, however, is depression, anxiety, drug and alcohol use, and even thoughts of suicide. The difference is startling – and it doesn’t seem just to be my audience. In states that have collapsed or had a major crisis, there’s considerable evidence that men often have more trouble with the shift in their roles than women, and with heavy consequences. In Russia, for example a combination of poor health care, increased alcoholism, rapidly rising suicide rates and other linked factors created a disparity of almost a decade between the lifespans of men and of women. Both sexes saw declines in lifespan – but for Russian men, the difference was extremely dramatic – 4 years from 1980 to 1999.

Clearly, the possibilities of a dramatic drop in living standards are real and very serious, but Astyk suggests they might not be all bad. The loss of automation and automobility will reintroduce a great deal of drudgery to everyday life, but the shift may bring with it a revaluing of manual labor. Millions of people whose livelihoods have been destroyed by labor-saving technology, plunged into despair, poverty and even incarceration, may find that their skills and physical capabilities have worth again. That world might be one of organized physical intimidation by local gangs or security forces, or even civil war, but Astyk at least suggests that physical work may have renewed dignity in a future where today’s post-industrial service economy is no longer feasible. Critics of capitalism, consumerism, technology and various other ills have long suggested that a life alienated from nature and tradition is profoundly unrewarding; Astyk and her compatriots simply suggest we may not have much choice in the matter of whether we abandon consumer society or not.

Hollywood liberals have been keen to dramatize the possibilities of climate change on the screen – perhaps because catastrophic weather lends itself to high-tech spectacle better than the grinding poverty of an oilless future. The most vivid fictional vision of both peak oil and climate change may be in David J. Williams’s The Mirrored Heavens. The author is a retired grad student who appears to run a side business as a consultant on the next wave of military technology, specifically the space-based weapons that he believes will become inevitable as the US, China and other nations attempt to cope with environmental crisis. During the depths of the economic collapse in 2009, I compulsively read the book’s timeline of the twenty-first century; its dystopian trajectory seemed well suited to a world that was careening toward catastrophe across the board. (Remember when economists said that if the US government did not step in to rescue the banks “we are then in a world in which the only things that have value are bottled water, sewing needles, and ammunition”? The tone is not too different from the prophecies of Astyk and Kunstler.)

Don’t try this at home

Williams’s story is a fascinating one – an alternative history of the future where green technology and Freakonomics can’t save us, where nations pursue various paths to survival that all ultimately lead to famine and authoritarianism. The EU adopts the Helios Project, a battery of solar panels in space meant to beam energy back to Earth. The ironic outcome is that the new energy source simply adds to the rising temperature of the planet, and the project is ultimately abandoned. Japan pursues research on cold fusion, which seems promising until a horrific accident known as the Kyushu Incident unleashes unimaginable destruction in 2049, leading to a near-complete evacuation of the island nation. (A year ago this plot point seemed gratuitous: the always high-tech Japanese are collectively done in by their scientific hubris. Recent events have made this aspect of The Mirrored Heavens seem not so unreasonable.)

Meanwhile, oil grows scarcer and dearer, dragging on national economies throughout the world and mounting debt. The US fights a series of “eco wars” with various developing countries, particularly Brazil, on the premise that their increasing consumption and resource usage is to blame for rising temperatures. With shorelines receding and no new viable energy source coming online to replace fossil fuels, escape from Earth through space travel and colonization becomes a priority, and different blocs fight for access to libation points along the equator as the critical points of departure for the Moon. China and Russia form an alliance, reminiscent of the early Cold War, after the Communists fall in the 2030s and the “Neo Confucians” gain power through a lengthy civil war. Russia has not-unpredictably shucked off the illusion of democracy and come under the yoke of Marshal Sergei Olenkov.

To make a long story short, the spiraling problems of diminishing resources and environmental degradation bring civilization to the brink of collapse in the 2090s. Nuclear attacks between Jerusalem, Tehran, Tel Aviv and Damascus demolish the Middle East. Food shortages and riots lead to mounting paranoia in the US and Eurasia, where information is scarce because the nations have “cauterized” their Internet systems to ward off cyber attacks. Eventually, the US defaults on its national debt in 2088 and the government collapses; the military seizes power, and a Reformed Constitution is put in place where the departments of the army, air force, navy, space and counterintelligence replace Congress and the courts, the President serves for life, and only military personnel and veterans can vote. If you can think of a more depressing scenario for the twenty first century, let me know.

The author’s interest seems to be telling the grimmest story possible, outlining a future where the most weapons will be sold. He imagines one human folly after another, with no innovation or creativity or democratic movements to save humanity from its (admittedly staggering) economic and environmental problems. He extrapolates from the worst of current trends; the necessity of telling a plausible story requires leaving out the unpredictable events that actually lend shape to much of history, such as the Egyptian Revolution that caught so many observers off-guard in 2011. Regardless, the author gives us a compelling possible future, a fictional spin on the fears voiced by the writers who try to rally public awareness of climate change and peak oil. It is not the kind of story where the majority of us are wiped out in the blink of an eye by a nuclear bomb, and the survivors envy the dead, but one that forces us to consider how we will react to the slow, unpredictable unfolding of an interrelated set of problems. It is the epitome of “not with a bang, but a whimper.”

In considering these baleful prospects, we find ourselves torn, as ever, between the perennial poles of human nature – between the ideas of “original sin” and “the war of all against all” on one hand and the conviction that human ingenuity, cooperation and simple goodness can overcome the insurmountable barriers thrown up by nature. One of the reasons why people do not listen to critics like Astyk and Williams is that predictions of scarcity have been proven wrong as often as forecasts of the Second Coming; from Malthus down to Ehrlich, humans have expected to come up against the material limits of nature only to overcome them again and again. Of course, just because something has not happened before does not mean it never will. People forget that the wolf eventually did show up in the “boy cries wolf” story. I for one am unsure of what to believe: is there simply not enough energy in the world to maintain the American standard of living for long if the oil runs out, or will some geniuses figure out a way to keep the whole machine running through the foreseeable future? The latter will never happen, though, if we don’t consider the former – however unhappy the thought may be.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Sharon Astyk, “Peak Oil Is Still a Women’s Issue and Other Reflections on Sex, Gender, and the Long Emergency

Paul Boyer, By the Bomb’s Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age

Douglas Coupland, “A Radical Pessimist’s Guide to the Next 10 Years

Paul Hawken and Hunter and Amory Lovins, Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution

Richard Heinberg, The Party’s Over: Oil, War, and the Fate of Industrial Societies

James Howard Kunstler, The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty First Century and The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America’s Man-made Landscape