The best novel of the past 100 years is, of course, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
The opening lines are brilliant: “In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. `Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone,’ he told me, `just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages you’ve had’.”
The closing lines are even better: “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter – tomorrow we will run even faster, stretch out our arms further…And one fine morning – so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past…”
Stephen King – an author who’s often grossly overlooked by literary snobs – once called that the best closing paragraph in English literature. I’m inclined to agree.
And the best non-fiction work of the past century? I have no idea. But I do know that The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the 21st Century by James Howard Kunstler is without doubt the most thought-provoking I’ve read in recent years.
The premise of the book is simple really and crystallises what most of us should already know but often choose to ignore due to acute denialism: oil is finite, and it’s running out.
The global oil peak – which will only become apparent a few years after it has past, due to a “rearview mirror” effect – is nigh.
Cheap and abundant oil underpins everything that we take for granted. And not just dipsomaniac SUVs, but mass-scale agriculture, cheap transport that allows us to ship goods from halfway across the world, vast road networks, car-dependent suburbia, and just about everything else.
Kunstler, an established American writer on environmental and economic issues, puts it like this:
“It has been very hard for us – lost in dark raptures of nonstop infotainment, recreational shopping and compulsive motoring – to make sense of the gathering forces that will fundamentally alter the terms of everyday life in technological society.
“Even after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, that collapsed the twin towers of the World Trade Center and sliced through the Pentagon, we are still sleepwalking into the future. We have walked out of our burning house and are now headed off the edge of a cliff.
“Beyond that cliff is an abyss of economic and political disorder on a scale that no one has ever seen before. I call this coming time the “Long Emergency.”
Yes, you might argue, we all know that the oil will eventually run out, but of course there are alternatives just around the corner. Wrong, argues the erudite and well-informed Kunstler.
And if you don’t mind I’ll quote him at length when he says the following:
“Above all, and most immediately, we face the end of the cheap fossil fuel era. It is no exaggeration to say that reliable supplies of cheap oil and natural gas underlie everything we identify as a benefit of modern life.
“All the necessities, comforts, luxuries and miracles of our time – central heating, air conditioning, cars, airplanes, electric lighting, cheap clothing, recorded music, movies, supermarkets, power tools, hip replacement surgery, the national defence, you name it – owe their origins or continued existence in one way or another to cheap fossil fuel.
“Even our nuclear power plants ultimately depend on cheap oil and gas for all the procedures of construction, maintenance, extracting and processing nuclear fuels.”
A little later Kunstler writes that:
“These days, even people in our culture who ought to know better are wishing ardently that a smooth, seamless transition from fossil fuels to their putative replacements – hydrogen, solar power, whatever – lie just a few years ahead.
“I will try demonstrate that this is a dangerous fantasy. The true best-case scenario may be that some of these technologies will take decades to develop – meaning that we can expect an extremely turbulent interval between the end of cheap oil and whatever comes next.
“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.”
There’s worse, including the ravages of climate change – Kunstler is sharp enough to use that term, as opposed to the sometimes erroneous global warming, bearing in mind that the planet has been heating and cooling for millennia – oil wars, and even the emergence of super-viruses, which many virologists will tell you is a question of when not if.
Then there’s spectre of the planet’s obscene overpopulation, which has only been made possible by the superabundance of fossil fuels.
Even motoring for the elite still able to afford it might not be particularly Arcadian.
“There are additional problems with keeping the car-and-highway system, as have known it, going during the Long Emergency. One is political,” writes Kunstler.
“As the middle class becomes increasingly distressed economically, and oil supplies become more expensive and possibly irregular, using a car will become more and more a luxury. If car use becomes something only for the elite, it is likely to incite the resentment of those whose driving opportunities have been foreclosed by economic misfortune. That resentment might become extreme. Cars might be vandalized. Drivers might be subject to physical abuse.”
Kunstler, of course, doesn’t see any miraculous panacea for the end of oil but rather a fundamental change in the way which we live.
Until the black gold dries up, however, I’m going to continue fantasising about a dream garage, populated by burbling V8s.
At the same time I’m going to be fervently hoping that, contrary to what Kunstler maintains, humankind is going to rapidly develop some feasible alternative to oil – and that we’re not all going to regress to pre-industrialisation levels or, as Scott Fitzgerald put it, be “borne back ceaselessly into the past…”