Final Thoughts on Kunstler’s The Long Emergency

I finished The Long Emergency yesterday, and had planned to post my thoughts last night, but 1) life got in the way, and 2) I really felt like I needed to take a few hours (at the very least) to digest. Despite some of my reservations and criticims that I’ve already expressed, I do think that The Long Emergency is an important, necessary book.

As I got into the last few pages, it dawned on me that perhaps I was approaching the book all wrong. I do think Kunstler’s predictions on the future are incredibly bleak (think Mad Max or that Kevin Costner Postman movie), and I still think his use of entropy was problematic. At the same time, though, I don’t think Kunstler is attempting to play the role of prophet or seer (as it seems some have characterized him). Rather, I think the book’s purpose is to shock us out of complacency (and we’re all complacent) and get us thinking about how we’d live given the circumstances he describes. So, while I responded initially as a literary critic, and perhaps also as a good citizen of the oil economy, I think some of the most productive responses I’ve seen are those by fellow bloggers like Steve Balogh and Kurt Cobb who’ve sat down and considered “What does this mean for me?” (Kurt’s also taught a course). Even while I think Kunstler’s characterization of the future is apocalyptic (a term he tries to refute), I think we are facing some momentous changes in the future, and all of us will have to deal with a simplifying of our lifestyles. As a teacher, I was actually encouraged by his thoughts on how education would change — his position is similar to that of Daniel Quinn in My Ishmael, though a bit more direct, and I find this approach to education remarkably refreshing.

Back to my lit. crit. mode, it’s interesting how Kunstler has set up the industrial age as a sort of tragic character — I referred to Icarus earlier, but Oedipus might be an even better parallel, as, in Kunstler’s view, modern/postmodern culture will be paying for its blindness. At the same time, there is a bit of the comic in his approach — we will survive despite our foolishness (if you haven’t read or seen Thornton Wilder’s play The Skin of Our Teeth, do… it should probably become required reading).

Mostly, though, I’m thinking about what I can do in terms of preparing for big changes to come. Could I suport my family on farming and craft labor? Probably not at this point, and that’s good to know. Would St. Louis be a good place to stay? Maybe, because of our location at the juncture of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. Or, will we need to prepare more like a second Great Depression is coming? Would Missouri be a region more like the Deep South or the Upper Midwest in terms of its response? As a native Southerner, I know exactly what Kunstler describes in terms of the fundamentalist religion and authoritarian tendencies in the South, but I also know that, surprisingly, these didn’t come out nearly as strongly during the Depression as one might have expected.

Ultimately, though, I don’t think it’s a good idea to take Kunstler’s words as a gospel, but rather to realize that we’re likely entering unpredictable times — preparation for that unpredictability is key.

OK, enough of my ruminating… What do you think?

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