NB. Likely to be cross-posted other places, but you heard it here first.
What is “It”? Well, America’s future.
James H. Knustler’s The Long Emergency (also Wikipedia) presents a very bleak picture of the future for much of America over the century ahead.
Broadly breaking the US into five regions, the Southwest will be quite possibly taken back by Mexico and in any event largely depopulated, the Southeast will descend into neo-feudalism, the Inland West (mountains and great plains north of the Southwest) will be massively depopulated returning to migratory bands of subsistence hunters, and the Pacific Northwest faces the risk of being preyed on by voracious Asian pirates.
Only the “Old Union” has a plausible prospect for surviving more or less intact, though living at an 18th century standard of living modestly improved by some of the most robust of scientific advances, like the knowledge that infection is causes by microbes.
Fortunately for my peace of mind, the organization of the book let me into the most substantial flaw in Knustler’s argument well in advance of the start of painting this grim picture, and so the understanding that, “it will probably be bad, but at least it doesn’t have to be this bad” was the silver lining to working through his dark picture.
… meet you after the fold.
The flaw in Knustler’s argument is the reliance on the following kind of reasoning (pp. 127-8):
The wind power inquiry eventually would lead back to the same place as the one on solar power: Can these technologies be detached from the fossil fuel platform supporting them? Sure, it is possible to generate electricity using wind turbines. Yes, European nations have made major investments in wind farms. … This is all possible because the world has been at or around the historic peak of oil production, meaning the oil economy was at its most robust just when these wind farms were set up. Thanks to fossil fuels, you could product the special alloy metals needed to make the turnines, and you could run factories to mass-produce them and make the replacement parts — because wind turbines are notoriously finicky and break down a lot — and you could set up the installations usinmg petroleum-powered heavy equipment … and jockey the machines into place. What happens without the fantastic technological support of the oil economy in the background.
Later on, the lack of substantial electricity supplies from these sources is part of what leads to the collapse of most of our ability to support the present state of technology — as opposed to the present level of energy consumption. But, of course, that argument is then circular … with substantial electricity supplies from these sources, then there is no need for the technological base that supports a modern wind generator to collapse.
And in a world of substantially greater energy-scarcity, the value of those parts of the technological base that provide substantial sources of energy will not be overlooked.
The Fundamental Confusion
The basic confusion here is simple. At present, technology “X” rests on the current industrial system, which is oil-fired. The current industrial system is guaranteed to be non-functional within fifty years, and probably much sooner.
But all existing technologies in use at any point in time will rest on the industrial system of the day. The question facing us, as the oil-fired economy shuts down and we are forced to transition to the next economy, is whether a particular technology requires something from the oil-fired economy that it will not be able to obtain from the next economy.
Now, lets start with the technology that James Knustler originally focused on, the US suburban settlement system. This is clearly an example of a technology that has no future. It not only rests on the current oil-fired economy, but cannot exist without the cheap supplies of portable energy provided by fossil stocks of petroleum (The only possible alternative is natural gas … but that too is a fossil fuel that will become unavailable for combustion in mass quantities in a similar time frame).
However, a suburban settlement system is a massive net energy consumer. A wind generator is a net energy producer … including the upstream energy costs. Surely it will become more expensive to produce wind generators as energy costs rise … but since it provides an energy surplus, it will be very close to the front of the line in obtaining those inputs.
And unlike arguments over whether there is a net energy yield for “brown” ethanol, the net energy yield of a wind generator is substantial … Gene Tyner’s 2002 estimates (under a range of scenarios) are in the range of 300% to 600%. And even in the “less optimistic” range of 300%, that means that devoting half of the energy produced by the wind generators to wind generator construction would allow each wind generator over its useful life to provide the energy to produce two wind generators.
Lest it be thought that I am cherry picking a wind-power enthusiast, I’ll note that Tyner is far from a wind power enthusiast, since his basic conclusion is that:
… even if wind machines were constructed everywhere it is practical to erect wind machines in the United States they would only be able to provide a pitifully small amount of the net energy compared to that needed to power the industrial economy of the United States even at the 1997 level.
On the one hand, in the Long Emergency scenario, even 1.19 Quads is a valuable amount of electricity. Of that nearly 100 quads of energy, about 40 quads are consumed in the production of electricity, with on the order of 12 quads of electricity produced. So 1.9 Quads of Electricity production is actually more than 15% of what we currently need.
And we are gross energy profligates. If we are forced to cut our energy consumption by 50%, the result will not be the collapse of the American technological system. Indeed, to the extent that design is used to solve problems were we presently simply throw energy at the problem, the result can readily be several new waves of innovation as we progressively mine our existing wasted energy for the energy we need to perform useful tasks.
And on the other hand, the estimate of 1.19 Quads is surely an underestimate. For one thing, it excludes off-shore Wind Power, in both coastal waterways and the Great Lakes. For another, it is based on 1997 technology.
So, Energy will be substantially more expensive, and any technology … like the suburbs … that requires Energy to be dirt cheap will collapse. However, Windpower Technologies has a sufficient Net Energy Yield that is benefits from, rather than suffers from, the end of dirt cheap energy.
So, How Does This Change the Outlook
If any readers wish to tackle Knustler’s Mexican recapture of the Southwest and cracker culture taking down the Southeast, they may. I’m going to focus on the changes that ripple from the prospect that the US may still have somewhere in the range of 25 Quads to 50 Quads of sustainable renewable power that it can generate.
The relative depopulation of the Southwest still seems likely. The end of dirt cheap power means the end, among other things, of corporate megafarming as a way to feed ourselves. Many more of us will be engaged in the process of food production. And population will shift away from areas that cannot feed themselves without importing massive amounts of resources, in terms of fertilizer and water, from elsewhere.
We should beware, of course, of simply projecting current water use per person as if it gives us the current carrying capacity. After all, a major part of the our oil-fired technology is throwing energy at problems instead of addressing them. Even in areas where next to nothing can be grown without irrigation, dryland food crops grown with high efficiency irrigation systems in a diet based primarily on vegetable proteins can dramatically reduce the water required to grow the food required per person per year.
An important question here is the pace of change, since it takes time for such a wholesale change in a region’s agricultural base. It is driven by a series of inexorable increases … the cost of bringing in water, frequency of shortfalls of water supply, the cost of exporting the current agricultural products, the cost of producing feedlot cattle with oil-fed corn and soybeans, the cost of importing food over large distance. Having something substantial to trade, which is growing in value along with these growing costs, can easily be the difference between a painful and bumpy transition and the catastrophic collapse described by Knustler.
The Southwest will have something to export to pay for net food imports … Energy. Not, of course, with current population levels at current rates of consumption … the comparison here is with the almost total collapse under Knustler’s Long Emergency. By comparison to that, the region can sustain a larger population, meeting a local food supply deficit by trading Energy for food imported from rainfed croplands east of the Mississippi.
Of course, how much population this supports depends on how the income generated by the Energy production is distributed. The fact that energy exports could be used to sustain a population level greater than the local carrying capacity under autarky is not assurance that it will be used that way. The argument here is simply that the situation does not necessarily have to be as dire as painted in the Long Emergency.
Knustler paints the picture of the West in broad strokes, after having painted the collapse of the Southwest and the sinking of the Southeast into neo-feudalism with some attention to detail. There won’t be any way to grow crops outside the limit of rain-fed agriculture (which itself may shift east in response to global warming), and there will be little to mine, so there won’t be much out in the West except possibly some Native Americans going back to the old ways and some others following their example.
In short, a big, “whoops, that didn’t work” to much of the settlement project of the last half of the 1800’s.
However, a reversion of the High Plains to shortgrass prairie does not necessarily mean a reversion to the High Plains life that developed after the introduction of the Horse. One of the technologies that is likely to collapse as a result of the end of cheap energy will be the mass beef feedlot. We will all consume less beef and meat in general … and the meat that we do eat on special occasions will not be factory farmed meat.
So, whether they are cattle or buffalo or a hybrid of the two, there will be people across the west who are raising meat, for sale to the east. And at the same time, there is that windpower … according to the American Wind Energy Association, the eight states with the greatest wind power potential have an energy potential of 6,992 Billion Kilowatt Hours, or 23 Quads … and those eight states are (resource in Billion Kilowatt Hours):
- North Dakota 1,210
- Texas 1,190
- Kansas 1,070
- South Dakota 1,030
- Montana 1,020
- Nebraska 868
- Wyoming 747
- Oklahoma 725
Add to this the opportunities for growing coppiced wood in the western mountains, for better biomass productivity than timber production … and using more labor than oil-fired clear-cutting. Much of the attention of biomass today is on the production of liquid biofuels. However, direct conversion to biomass coal is likely to provide substantially higher conversion efficiencies, and therefore substantially better net energy yield. And even in a mixed agrarian/industrial economy that has been forcibly weaned from petroleum, biomass coal is easy to transport, store, and use … as, indeed, mineral coal was originally convenient to transport and use in economies dependent on biomass, hydro, wind and solar power, in the period that launched the Age of the Great Burn Out, that is now drawing to a close.
This also relies on trading electricity and biomass coal for staples being grown in rain-fed croplands. But it does not depend entirely on trading Energy for Food, since included in the economic base will be ranches where meat animals are raised amongst Windplants making an annual rent. And as we glance further west into the coppice tree farms of the mountains, the stable, cyclical harvest of biomass from the forest also provides the conditions for establishing permaculture crops for local consumption and regional trade with the ranches of the plains.
This is the foundation supporting a network of small towns catering to the wants and needs of ranchers and tree farmers, which supports a network of larger towns, and so on. Indeed, it may be that many placed end up with more people living out on the land than in the current technological base of oil-fired tractors applying fertilizer from oil-fed plants so that crops can be irrigated with non-renewable water supplies from fossil aquifers.
So the total population of the West may decline, but that decline is most likely to come from the suburban residents of the larger cities that have no interest in learning to ride a horse in order to become a ranch hand.
While Knustler paints the fall of the Southeast into neo-feudalism with care for some of the details, I’ll spend very little time on it. The reason is that I don’t really buy the idea that “cracker” culture created the sharecropping system, and without that, the whole idea falls apart.
Indeed, we know how to develop a region with a legacy of an elite landholder class maintaining its power position by holding the balance of the population down, with a divide and conquer strategy being used to enlist a portion of the population being held down in active support of their own poverty. You established local small towns based on regulated markets, agricultural extension with local trial field, schools, health clinics, and transportation to external markets, and release underutilized land to those who wish to take up independent farming.
There is no doubt that the Southeast could be as productive an area of rainfed agriculture as the Northeast … for both annual cropping, flatland permaculture, and tree farming in the hillier terrain … given the opportunity to grow on the same framework of technologically progressive small market towns. And active solar dehumidifying combined with geothermal cooling will permits well designed buildings to beat the sweltering heat of summer well within the regional solar, hydro and biomass energy budget.
So I pass quickly over the Southeast … the dire straits that the Southeast finds itself in during the Long Emergency are nothing to do with carrying capacity and everything to do with the premises that Knustler brings regarding cultural evolution.
This essay is, in other words, focusing on the carrying capacity argument in the Long Emergency. And with respect to the carrying capacity, the Southeast has every opportunity to thrive.
This is something of a misnomer … Knustler calls it the “Old Union” … but if people would just remember that here in “midwestern Ohio”, the next state east has an Atlantic port, and even the high grass prairie lands of Illinois are in the eastern third of the country, it’ll do.
This is where Knustler sees grounds for hope, in the re-use of the small farming towns and small industrial cities, connected by rehabilitated heavy and light rail links, and a thriving, primarily agricultural, economy.
Even here in the relative bright spot of Knustler’s Long Emergency, things are substantially brighter once we recognize that windpower and the rest of the knowledge-intensive renewable energy technologies can indeed provide the base for an economy that can sustain those technologies.
And the good news there can be stated in a single word: elevators. We can still use elevators. That means that, even if we have the good sense not to build any more skyscrapers, we do not have to flee the ones that we already have built. That is what drives the collapse of the centers of the large Northeastern cities. And since we understand from the outset that suburbia will also be collapsing, that means that we will not be forced to flee all of the big cities entirely … we can still use the core of the big cities.
Still being able to use the core of the big cities means that we can build energy efficient transport lines that can stretch through the current suburban wasteland, and provide kernels around which small towns can grow … or, in the case of small towns swallowed up by the suburban wasteland, re-emerge.
And, indeed, those cities will help push the return of the suburbs surrounding those emergent small towns to farming, as the demand for food that does not have to be shipped at long distances and, therefore in an era of expensive energy, at great expense, drives the growth of truck gardening in the suburbs, so that fresh fruits and vegetables … and in winter, preserved fruits and vegetables … will be sold in from the proliferating truck gardens, while the truck garden belt uses the proceeds in part to buy staples grown on the larger farms further from the cities.
Now, of course, as a skyscraper ends its useful life, nobody will dream of replacing it with another skyscraper. Rather, all that valuable steel and other resources will be harvested, and when the skyscraper has all been brought back to earth, it will be replaced with human scale urban building.
The Pacific Northwest
In Knustler’s Long Emergency, the Pacific Northwest ought to be one of the areas in a position to do well. However, being on the Pacific Ocean, and so far away from the only other part of the US with the opportunity to survive the Long Emergency in relatively good shape, it lays open to predation by Asian high seas piracy. The premise here is that the Long Emergency will hit East Asia even harder than it hits the US, and so there will be sufficiently desperate resource-poverty to generate efforts to take resources from those who have more.
However, while the Southwest may decline, it need not totally collapse. And the West may well retain an economy offering valuable resources to the economies of the Northeast and Southeast, implying that trunk rail is relied upon to maintain that integration.
And this means that under this view of our renewable resource base, the Pacific Northwest is by no means as isolated as it is in the Long Emergency.
Indeed, in this scenario, if the US is a center of manufacturing renewable energy technology, plundering the US may well be the last thing that a resource-desperate nation would do. If it comes to fending off stateless pirates, there is not reason to think that would be beyond the capability of the United States. And with the increase in relative value of the fertile rainfed croplands of the Pacific Northwest, implied by the collapse of oil-fed agriculture, there is every reason to devote that capability to the task, if required.
My conclusion is what I said at the outset … things need not be as bleak as James Knustler protrays in the Long Emergency. So now I’ll open it up for discussion.
The Floor is Open