F O R U M O N P H Y S I C S & S O C I E T Y
of The American Physical Society 
April 2007 
Vol. 36, No. 2



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The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of Oil, Climate Change, and Other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-first Century

By James Howard Kunstler, (Grove, New York, 2005, 2006). 324 pp. $14. ISBN 0-8021-4249-4 (paper).

The thesis of Kunstler's earlier books is that suburban sprawl and the automobiles needed to navigate it have deprived us of our sense of community. The thesis of the present book is Kunstler's earlier thesis overlaid with the dependence of automobiles on what he refers to as "cheap oil," coupled with the idea that the imminent end of the era of cheap oil will lead us to a "Long Emergency."

"Even after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001," he writes, "America is still sleepwalking into the future" (p. 1). "The wonders of steady technological progress under the reign of oil have tricked us ...to believe that anything we wish for hard enough can come true ...wishing ardently that a smooth, seamless transition from fossil fuels to their putative replacements--hydrogen, solar power, whatever--lies just a few years ahead.... A more likely scenario is that new fuels and technologies may never replace fossil fuels at the scale, rate, and manner at which the world currently consumes them" (p. 3).

"It is possible that the fossil fuel efflorescence was a one-shot deal for the human race," he writes (p. 5). "...An unprecedented orgy of nonrenewable condensed solar energy accumulated over eons of prehistory ...created an artificial bubble of plentitude for a period not much longer than a human lifetime.... As oil ceases to be cheap and world reserves arc toward depletion, we will .suddenly be left with an enormous surplus population ...that the ecology of the earth will not support" (p. 7). However, "...humankind will survive ...though not without taking some severe losses in the meantime, in population, in standards of living, in the retention of knowledge and technology, and in decent behavior ...a dramatic die-back, but not a die-off" (p. 5).

Thus, in his first chapter, he lays out the book and beckons the reader to continue for more details. The next two chapters consider the geological and political factors determining oil supplies in recent history and the prognosis for the future. But I was especially interested in the following chapter, "Beyond Oil: Why Alternative Fuels Won't Rescue Us," because I felt that Kunstler's denying a future based on alternative fuels was the key to his forecast of a dismal post-oil future. Here he writes that "all of the non-fossil fuel energy sources ...depend on an underlying fossil fuel economy" and adds that "...without the petroleum 'platform' to work off, we may lack the tools to get beyond the current level of fossil-fuel based technology ...we have an extremely narrow window of opportunity to make that happen" (pp. 100, 102). He seems less dismissive of nuclear fission than of solar and wind energy, but even here he is quick to recognize that nuclear fission (like photovoltaics and wind) is limited to making electricity (which represents only 36% of our energy use). "It means we can have the lights on at night and refrigerate our food, but without the benefit of artificial fertilizers made out of natural gas, and diesel-powered machinery to till the soil at industrial scale, we will have to completely reorganize agriculture" (p. 146).

After a further chapter discussing the further insults to the post-oil world which we can expect from global warming and further medical dangers, he comes to his penultimate chapter "Running on Fumes: The Hallucinated Economy." Just as the stock market crashed in 1929 when the expected increase in the value of stocks bought on the margin failed to materialize, so also have the "dot.com bubble," the Savings and Loan Association fiasco, and "creative" schemes continued to characterize the "hallucinated economy," which Kunstler attempts to describe in a thermodynamic context with a questionable use of the concept of entropy. Most recently, according to Kunstler, this economy has invested its money unwittingly in real estate under the assumption that its value, too, will only continue to appreciate.

The same considerations apply to energy sources. "Economists would rationalize," he writes, "by declaring that ninety-nine years from now we will have colonies on the moon or Mars or under the Sea of Cortez. Or that technology coupled with human ingenuity will solve the problem some other way, perhaps by genetically reengineering human beings to be one inch tall, or booting all our consciousnesses into computer servers where unlimited numbers of virtual people could dwell in unlimited virtual environments of endless cyberspace" (p. 193). "More likely, we will remain confined to the planet Earth," Kunstler rejoins, where the carbon dioxide resulting from burning half the world's supply of oil "is now ratcheting up global warming and climate change, which might well put the industrial adventure out of business before human ingenuity can come up with a substitute for oil" (p. 194).

This brings us to "Living in the Long Emergency," the final chapter. "...Life in the decades ahead ...will become increasingly and intensely local and smaller in scale ...as the amount of available cheap energy decreases" he writes. "All other activities will be secondary to food production, which will require much more human labor" (p. 239). With oil the resource in most immediate shortage, Kunstler turns to transportation needed both to produce food and to market it. He sees in the Amish and small-scale organic farmers--and the craftsmen and women who support them--the maintenance of agricultural knowledge that will be needed in the Long Emergency.

            Kunstler surveys and rates the different parts of the U.S. in their ability to adapt to the Long Emergency and concludes that the most adaptable parts are small cities and towns in the northeast, surrounded by fertile farmland. The key criteria for buildings are 1) ability to walk (or bicycle) to them, 2) ability to heat them, and 3) ability to keep their roofs repaired. This requires sufficiently dense urban living, but not so dense that energy-consuming elevators are needed--Kunstler settles on two-to-five stories as most ideal. He feels the northeast is most adaptable because it has a greater pride in sense of community, also plentiful fertile soil and rainfall.

Air and auto transportation, both of which depend on oil, could be afforded only by the wealthy, and neither to a sufficient extent to maintain public highways or commercial airlines. More realistic modes of transportation, Kunstler argues, are water and electrified rail (provided that nuclear electric plants can be built soon enough)--he recalls the once widespread network of interurban light rail systems, which, he says, can now be rebuilt on the roadbeds of abandoned highways.

As one of the few present occupations that will continue to be viable, teaching, Kunstler writes, will likely become a more respected profession. But it will become more limited in scope, preparing the rest of the population for more useful "hands-on" employment. "...Most non-manual-labor jobs ...do not require anything more than the ability to write a coherent paragraph or perform a few rudimentary operations of arithmetic--which is asking a lot, by the way..." (p. 217).

What especially concerns Kunstler is the emerging feeling that something can be gotten for nothing, which he attributes to the emerging respectability of gambling from the proliferation of casinos--"from students who expect to be given automatic As just for showing up ...to ordinary citizens living wildly beyond their means on credit cards" (p. 302). Instead, "We will have to adjust our attitudes, values, and ideas to accommodate these new circumstances.... In the Long Emergency, nobody will get anything for nothing.... Personal responsibility will be unavoidable, perhaps excessive" (pp. 303-304).

John L. Roeder
Physics instructor
The Calhoun School, New York City


Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America’s Energy Future

By Jeff Goodell, Houghton Mifflin, New York (2006), 324 pp., hardcover, $25.95, ISBN-13: 978-0-618-31940-4

Veteran journalist Jeff Goodell tells three separate but interwoven stories in Big Coal. The first is the story of coal as a resource and of our present-day need for coal for cheap energy. Much of our energy from coal comes in the form of electricity, and about half of the electricity in the U.S. today is from coal. The second is the harm to the people who mine it and to the environment both as a major source of pollution and of the greenhouse gas CO2. And the third is the story of Big Coal, the coal-mining companies, coal-burning utilities, railroads, lobbying groups, and industry supporters, which collectively constitutes a formidable political force to promote the interests of the coal industry, frequently at the expense of the public welfare. The influence of Big Coal has expanded considerably since President George W. Bush took office in 2001. Within weeks, Bush began staffing regulatory agencies with former coal industry executives and lobbyists; as of 2006, more than 150 new plants were either planned or under construction in the U.S.

Cheap and plentiful coal and electricity generation have proven to be a natural fit. Chapter 1 describes our ample U.S. reserves. According to a 1974 study, half of our reserve base is recoverable, an estimated 250 years’ worth at the present rate of consumption, although a 1989 study concludes that only a much smaller 5-20% is recoverable at present costs. Goodell describes in chapter 5 the astonishingly rapid diffusion of electricity into the U.S. economy, starting from Edison’s first electric power system in lower Manhattan in 1882. In 1905, fewer that 10% of U.S. homes were wired for electricity; by the late 1920s, 75% were, including almost all homes in cities. And the average price of electricity fell from $4.53/kWh in 1892 to $0.62/kWh in 1927 and $0.47/kWh in 1937, still high by today’s standards. The new electric power industry was based mostly on large and efficient coal-fired power plants. Today’s coal plants, many built in the 1960s and 1970s before pollution controls were enacted, produce electricity so cheaply that it is difficult for other types of power plant to compete, although in recent years, natural gas-fired plants have given them a run for their money.

But there has always been a downside to coal, a downside of exploitation, pollution, and evasion of social responsibility. Chapters 2 and 3 describe how coal mining in West Virginia has made a few people extremely wealthy while wages of coal miners have lagged far behind productivity, and the state as a whole has remained poor and environmentally degraded. Mountain top removal has resulted in more frequent and more intense floods, and the ground water has been polluted with heavy metals. Mining is one of the most dangerous occupations in the U.S.; mine safety legislation has come about only after mine disasters have brought working conditions to the public eye.

Chapter 6 considers air pollution. Tens of thousands still die prematurely in the U.S. each year from burning coal. The 1970 Clean Air Act helped considerably; since then, SO2 emissions per unit energy from coal plants have fallen by 77%, NO2 emissions by 60%, and large soot particles by a remarkable 96%. Nevertheless, power plants still account for two-thirds of all SO2 pollution, 22% of all nitrogen oxides, a third of all mercury emissions, and nearly 40% of all CO2. The industry response has frequently been lobbying for favors and loopholes, evasion, and delay. To cite one example: Although under Presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton the EPA moved to strengthen mercury regulation, in 2003 under pressure from the coal industry the EPA de-listed coal plants from the list of sources of hazardous air pollutants, and put in place a cap-and-trade arrangement preferred by the industry; many passages in the new EPA regulations were written by coal industry representatives and lawyers. As of the writing of the book, the de-listing was still in effect. Other instances of Big Coal meddling in government are detailed in Chapters 6 and 7.

Big Coal is a significant player in the global warming issue, both as a producer of CO2 emissions and as a shaper of public opinion and of public policy, as detailed in Chapters 8 and 9. Global warming first caught the public eye at the testimony of climate researcher James Hansen before the U.S. Senate during the hot, dry summer of 1988. Some prominent scientists and climate modelers suggest that the world can tolerate 3.5oF of warming without major disruptions; this means that CO2 levels must be stabilized at between 400 and 500 ppm. At the rate the world is going, we’ll pass the point of no return around 2017. Big Coal’s response has been twofold: In the early 1990s it participated in the public relations campaign of the Information Council on the Environment to “reposition global warming as theory rather than fact,” a campaign that despite its lack of scientific basis has been remarkably successful; and it has pushed forward on plans for more than 150 new power plants in the U.S. Although the new integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) technology is more efficient and much more amenable to carbon sequestration, only a handful of the new plants will use IGCC technology; Big Coal cites studies showing they are 10 to 20% more expensive to build, and that IGCC is an unproven technology, claims that are disputed by Goodell. Then there is the problem of China, described in Chapter 10. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), the equivalent of 1400 1000 MW coal-fired power plants will be built globally by 2030, half of them in China. Yet China is unlikely to cut its CO2 emissions from burning coal, if to do so means risking its economic growth and political stability.

Despite the apparently intractable problem of reducing CO2 emissions in the face of increasing world-wide demand for cheap electricity from coal and the resistance of the coal industry to change, Goodell is hopeful. In the Epilogue he outlines a plan of action:

  1. We must recognize the two enormous problems facing the world in the coming years, the end of cheap oil and the arrival of global warming.
  2. We must recognize that the barriers to change are not technological but political; near-zero-emission coal plants (IGCC plants with sequestration) can be built today.
  3. We must make the externalities of coal and coal-fired plants clearer to the public, and we must make it easier for smaller, more local forms of power generation to get onto the grid.
  4. We must begin preparing for the consequences of global warming.

He ends with an exhortation for innovative thinking: “ ... it’s within our grasp to figure out less destructive ways to create and consume the energy we need. Ultimately the most valuable fuel for the future is not coal or oil, but imagination and ingenuity. We have reinvented our world before. Why can’t we do it again?”

This is an important book, carefully researched with a complete set of notes and references. It documents well the environmental and social price we pay for cheap electricity from coal. It’s worth reading by anyone interested in energy, the environment, public policy and, in particular, coal and electricity and the way they work together in the U.S.

Louis Schwartzkopf
Professor of Physics
Minnesota University, Mankato


Living with the Genie: Essays on Technology and the Quest for Human Mastery

Edited by Alan Lightman, Daniel Sarewitz, Christina Desser (Washington, DC, Island Press, 2003), ISBN 1-55963-419-7. $27 hardcover. 301 pp.

The share price of Apple rose 10% with the introduction of the iPhone. What this device costs or does are hardly important—Apple will make something new, and people will eagerly buy it. Why shouldn't they? In a world that equates technology and progress, the latest gadget places its owner on the leading edge of technology, pushing society towards a bright and happy future.

American science was institutionalized in the wake of the tremendously successful Manhattan Project, and it reflects a faith that science provides the raw materials for technology and the position of power that the United States enjoys today. It is assumed that one cannot know beforehand which research will provide dividends, but that the benefits of a broad research portfolio will be vast. But there are drawbacks—threats to our lifestyle, society, and civilization— and many believe we should make scientific choices carefully, with the potential drawbacks in mind. “Living with the Genie” is a collection of ideas from writers, scientists and philosophers concerning what kinds of technology we should pursue, and how we can ensure that our research is working for us, and not the other way around.

Philosopher Philip Kitcher argues in “Living with the Genie” that our research program largely reflects the curiosities of scientists. He complains that evidence supporting the idea that progress is best achieved through serendipitous discovery is anecdotal and held to lower standards of proof than is the science itself. Kitcher describes a better method that would bring a broad cross-section of society to produce a ranking of projects to be carried out. Kitcher's scenario is idealistic, but it lays out a case for more democratic involvement in decisions, and a concrete understanding of how research and benefits are connected.

Shiv Visvanathan proposes an implementation of democratic communication in science based on the model of Truth Commissions, which could inform decisions to deploy new strains of grain, or building dams, etc. Visvanathan emphasizes the need to understand the benefits of current practices before they are displaced by newer technology. In his native India, novel technologies have been implemented without discussion, sometimes doing more harm than good. Truth Commissions offer a form of dialog that avoids presumptions of good and bad, providing an environment in which promoters and skeptics of technology could find compromise. This would be the kind of conversation that Kitcher imagines would produce decisions based on a thoughtful consideration of how science can be best used to our advantage. “Living with the Genie” is part of this more nuanced discussion.

While most authors recognize weaknesses in the way technology now connects to society, they don't suggest that certain avenues of research be closed. Lawyer Lori Andrews describes reproductive technologies as a case in which withdrawal of government support for research has merely prevented regulation.

Kathy Schick and Nicholas Toth give an anthropologist's history of technology. They agree with inventor Ray Kurzweil that we shouldn't sacrifice potential benefits to avoid hypothetical dangers, particularly when it is difficult to foresee behind which doors the hazards lie. They argue that we've proven ourselves adept at keeping one step ahead of disaster, and we should continue to pursue all research with a system like Visvanathan's to avoid problems in implementation.

The most hysterical fears of technology focus on threats to our lives, but the most interesting ones concern technology's ability to make us less human. Richard Powers describes software called “DIALOGOS,” which allows him to correspond with any person, dead or alive, real or fictional. When Powers writes to young Werther, of Goethe's novel, the software takes clues from his mail and the web to respond in a believable way. DIALOGOS awakens other characters in the book, who write to Powers about their mutual friend. As Werther is exposed to new information, he tries to understand his relationship to Goethe; realizing that his life has been scripted, he kills himself; the program is writing a story that would surely fascinate Goethe.

Powers is absorbed by his lifelike and increasingly self-aware correspondents, withdrawing from human society and leaving emails from actual people unread. The program is responding to Powers, but it also has access through the web to a deeper collection of human wisdom and experience than Goethe ever had. It is as real as the novel. A machine that can write better books or be a more interesting conversationalist than real people threatens to take away our humanity, but Powers is optimistic that it offers a new way of sharing the human experience. It is as much art as technology.

Alan Lightman's essay concludes the book on a similar note. He complains that his days are now so efficiently filled that every moment is allocated to some productive task, leaving no room to breathe. When technology and progress are equated, and every possible step towards speed and efficiency is seen as a form of good that should be taken up without hesitation, we don't have time for the self-reflection that makes us human. He claims that this life has taken from him something of his inner self.

But Lightman's essay is an act of self-reflection—he has made time to assess what kind of life he wants, and what role technology should play in it. If the sweep of technology takes away his humanity, it is because he allows it to. Powers also takes responsibility, deleting the program from his computer and ending his essay on the sidewalk, talking with a neighbor.

Science and Technology have been a tremendous source of goodness. The authors in “Living with a Genie” point out many problems with the way that science interacts with society today, but this is not an anti-science book. They advocate for a deeper consideration of how we can pursue our inquiry in a way which is safe and responsible to our values, but they are optimistic that by accepting responsibility for pausing and taking stock of what we want from technology, we can remain its master.

Matthew Sharp
University of Chicago