This man is certifiably nuts: James Howard KunstlerOK, I'm not generally one of those extremist bloggers. I prefer reasoned arguments and looking at all sides as objectively as possible. But every once in a while, I come across something so outrageous, it simply must be mocked.
The writings of James Howard Kunstler, author of "The Long Emergency", fall in that category. His Rolling Stone piece (partial abstract here) is so off the charts as to be comical (warning: don't read it where laughing out loud might draw unwanted attention from co-workers... ;-) In a nutshell, he believes energy costs will go so high it will drive us back to some sort of labor-intensive agrarian society with Mad Max/Road Warrior overtones as we duke it out for the last drops of oil.
Three very simple data points completely undermine his argument, but this hasn't stopped him from getting huge amounts of press. He bases everything on Peak Oil Theory, which has also gotten a lot of press lately, and argues that we're about to reach peak global oil production. Declines from there, matched with ever-growing demand (esp. from China and India), will lead to out-of-control energy costs. Even if Peak Oil Theory is correct - and there is a lot of argument on that point - there are three reasons his extrapolations are absurd:
- A huge number of oil alternatives get economically viable at $25-$50/barrel: tar sands, liquefied coal, biomass, and oil shale (Business Week graphic). This puts an effective long-term cap on oil prices right about where we are right now: $50-60/barrel (of course, there may be short-term spikes above that until alternative energy capital investment ramps up). A quote on just one of those alternatives, oil shale, from a recent Wall Street Journal article:
"With an estimated two trillion barrels of shale oil under American soil -- roughly 60% of the world's known deposits -- successful development would, at least on paper, begin to change the international oil business. The U.S. would become the world's single biggest oil source, far surpassing Saudi Arabia's proven reserves of 261 billion barrels."
- The Europeans, because of high taxes, have gas costs almost four times ours, yet they are still suburbanizing - they're just doing it with tiny high-mileage cars instead of massive trucks and SUVs. Sure, we'll probably start moving to more fuel efficient vehicles, but the argument that the suburbs and global supply chains are doomed is just plain loony.
- If there are temporary shortages, they won't be here. Oil is a global free market (Well, mostly - OPEC is a powerful cartel in theory, but pretty weak in reality. None of their governments can afford to take much of their oil off the market for long, even if they wanted to for some twisted reason.) The US has the highest GDP per capita by far of any major country on the planet (we're not talking about Luxembourg, Norway, or Monaco here folks). No matter what the price of oil is, we can afford it more than anyone else, and that especially applies to China and India.
Yes, one day we will move beyond oil for our energy needs. But it will be because a better and cheaper technology comes along, not because oil runs out. As a recent Economist article quoted, “The Stone Age did not end for lack of stone, and the Oil Age will end long before the world runs out of oil.”
My own prediction? I don't have a lot of faith in the technological and economic viability of hydrogen. In about a decade or so, I think we'll see next generation hybrids that plug-in at night and go 60+ miles on the battery charge the next day - only using the gas engine when they go beyond that range. This will eliminate the vast majority of gasoline usage. (This ties into my theme that Houston needs to invest aggressively in education, infrastructure, amenities, and economic diversification while the dominant energy-side of our economic base is doing well - or we'll end up like a Rust Belt city one day.)
I think the Rolling Stone piece reaches its wacked-out crescendo with this paragraph:
"The process of readjustment is apt to be disorderly and improvisational. Food production will necessarily be much more labor-intensive than it has been for decades. We can anticipate the re-formation of a native-born American farm-laboring class. It will be composed largely of the aforementioned economic losers who had to relinquish their grip on the American dream. These masses of disentitled people may enter into quasi-feudal social relations with those who own land in exchange for food and physical security. But their sense of grievance will remain fresh, and if mistreated they may simply seize that land."
Will someone please buy this man an isolated plot of remote farmland (ideally with no communications to the rest of the world), a feudal title (maybe "Grand Duke of Fantasyland"?), plus a horse and a plow - and ship him there? Please?