Dissecting the Long Emergency

Sharon March 28th, 2008

If there is one thing Jim Kunstler deserves all the props in the world for, it is his naming and describing the complex, sweeping and all-encompassing crisis we’re facing.  He called the combination of energy, climate and financial crisis “The Long Emergency” and I think that’s turning out to be just about right.  As a prophet, Kunstler is looking pretty accurate in some respects (I’m still kind of skeptical about the Asian pirates marauding across the northwest coast, but maybe I’m wrong ;-).

I’ve been getting emails from people asking me whether the present crisis is “just” financial and whether/how peak oil and climate change are factors.  And this is a fascinating question - because, honestly, it is awfully hard to sort them out.  In fact, it is really all one crisis - I call it (perhaps not as eloquently as Kunstler) the crisis Ourobouros, the great worm that encircles the globe, and does not realize that he is devouring his own tail - it is impossible to entirely find the beginning or end.  But we can take a stab at it.

 I thought for my own edification, and perhaps for others, it might be worth trying to sort out how all three segments of our present situation are working together, and what parts of the hard times facing us are tied into more than one segment of the crisis.  I make no claims that I can provide a perfect explanation, or that I won’t miss some links, but if nothing else, it is an interesting way for me to clarify my own thought.  So I’m going to list present problems one by one, and describe how (if at all) they are tied into each element - financial crisis, climate change, peak oil.  I’ll try and figure out whether what we’re seeing is a cause or effect, and just how closely related they are.  I doubt I’ll even come close to articulating the whole picture - that sounds like a book in itself, and one for someone more knowledgeable than I.  But here goes nothing:

Crisis # 1: Rising Food Prices

Relationship to Climate Change: Super Direct. Climate change is a direct cause of rising food prices, particularly the rise in wheat prices.  Wheat crops were heavily affected by drought in Australia, the Middle East and the Mediterranean.  Aquifer depletion in China, along with reduced rainfall is also affecting wheat crops.  Massive growth in  biofuel production, was in part motivated by the (completely erroneous) assumption that biofuels would produce fewer greenhouse gasses than fossil fuels.  Climate instability is also a primary motivator as nations become more concerned with feeding themselves, and restrain exports or raise tariffs, as when Russia raised wheat tariffs and Egypt and India announced they will largely stop exporting rice.

Relationship to Peak Oil: Super Direct. Peak oil is a direct cause of rising food prices.  Biofuels are only a feasible project in a world of declining oil availability - their Energy Returned over Energy Invested is simply too small to make any sense when you’ve got plenty of oil and natural gas.  The mistaken belief that we can keep all the cars going and our basic lifestyle intact has led to a rush to biofuels that has helped driving prices of staples, meat, eggs, milk and other foods up by 50%. In addition, rising fertilizer prices (because of rising prices for natural gas and rising prices for rock phosphates) are also driving food prices up, as are the costs of transporting industrial food over long distances. 

Relationship to Financial CrisisDirect. The financial crisis is in part a result of rising food prices.  Over this winter, we saw more and more people using their holiday gift cards and store credits for groceries - food prices are rising so quickly that they are cutting heavily into consumer spending, which is a substantial part of the economy.   Food price rises have slightly slowed growth in countries whose wealth has been propping up the US economy. This is somewhat speculative, but rising food prices are probably an underlying force fueling the collapse in housing values - the reality is that basic needs like food and housing must both be met, and when you are paying more for one, you can pay less for another.  I’ve written about the relationship between housing and food prices here.

Crisis #2: The Housing Collapse

Relationship to Climate Change: Tenuous.  So far, sea levels haven’t risen enough, and climate change hasn’t been a large enough factor to really motivate large numbers of people to relocate.  Some farmers in Australia, and a few others are starting to see the writing on the wall, but mass migration in the rich world has not yet affected property values.  So far, people are still looking at any given disaster as short term thing.  I don’t expect that to last.  In the long term, climate change will probably dramatically alter housing patterns, and cause some markets simply to collapse.

Relationship to Peak Oil: Substantive.  I’m going out on a limb here, because I’ve seen no research suggesting this to be true, but while the majority of the housing collapse is based on the fact that we had ridiculously overinflated housing prices to begin with, I think that it is also the case that rising energy prices for home heating, cooling, food and other things have begun to eat into not just people’s ability to pay a large chunk of their income towards a mortgage, but also into their belief in housing as a refuge from difficulty.  It isn’t an accident that the housing boom really took off in the US shortly after 9/11, when people turned inwards, hiding from the outside world. Again,  I’m speculating, but I think the outside world has penetrated, and the idea that a home could be a form of protection is wearing off in the face of skyrocketing costs. Also, as energy prices rise, local governments are less able to maintain services -we have seen this with school bus and plowing declines - and thus become lower value regions, although the latter is a tertiary effect.

Relationship to Financial Collapse: Absolutely Direct.  In this case, it operates as both a cause and an effect.  The housing boom and the use of inflated house values to borrow was the cause of the bubble, and the collapse of housing prices is, if there is a single root cause, the cause of the crisis.  But it is also an effect of drying up credit - the less there is to borrow, the smaller the chance people will buy.    The more foreclosed and devalued properties there are, the less reason to buy a new house.  It is vicious circle, and it looks like it has a lot longer to go.

Crisis #3 - Rising Gas Prices

Relationship to Climate Change: Not Much Yet.  We are going to see a strong relationship in both cause and effect here, but so far, the effect has been small.  So far, the major effects of climate change in oil prices are limited to natural disasters affecting refineries, and growing political conflicts over water that threaten economic relationships.  None of these is terribly acute yet.  However, with discussion of carbon taxes in the works and more and more disasters, water shortages and other problems occurring, we may see supply issues more tied to climate change.  More importantly, gas prices have yet to drive off global demand enough to mitigate climate change.  As prices get higher, more effects should be seen - but probably not enough to mitigate things.

Relationship to Peak Oil: Umm…duh!  Do I really have to explain this one?  Yes, peak oil is the root here.

Relationship to Financial Crisis: Significant, but mostly concealed. Growth requires energy - and quite a lot of it. I won’t go into detail here, since Gail the Actuary has just done a great talk on this subject which you can read here that covers anything I would say better.

Crisis #4 - Failing to Mitigate Climate Change

Relationship to Climate Change: Well, yes.  This one seems like it would be a “duh” but it actually isn’t just that.  Yes, our failure to mitigate climate change is causing climate change.  But we are also failing to mitigate climate change *BECAUSE* of climate change.  That is, the rising number of natural disasters are making us react to climate change more and more, rather than addressing it.  We are spending more and more of our money and energies that we might use to adapt our infrastructure repairing it and fixing the damage of climate change.  Moreover, because climate change is happening much more quickly than anyone expected, we are still basing our mitigation efforts on inadequate information - that is, we’re still talking about 450 or 550 ppm limits, when 350 ppm is probably more like it.  We still don’t get what we even have to do - and that weakens our ability to do it.

Relationship to Peak Oil: Very Direct.  The reality is that all the discussions of what we potentially could do to mitigate climate change depend on large scale economic growth and lots of cheap energy to do the initial build out.  As energy prices rise and shortages start showing up (mostly so far in the Global South, but not entirely), we’re going to use more and more money and energy on mitigation. Diesel supplies, which are required for global trade, build outs, mining and other projects are showing shortages even in the rich world.  Moreover, our warmongering is the direct cause of 10% of all emissions, and that, of course, is about the oil.  James Hansen recently released an analysis suggesting that there isn’t enough oil in the ground to get us to the worst effects of climate change - but that would only work if we didn’t use the coal.  But higher oil and natural gas prices are likely to drive us steadily towards coal.

Relationship to Financial Crisis: Direct.  Despite all the hype, the payback time of most renewable energies is pretty damn long, compared to oil.  So in order to build out renewable energies you lots of liquid credit dripping off the walls and down into various new industries.  We need people who are willing not to get their money back for a good long time.  Guess what - those people are increasingly in short supply.  So expensive, long term renewable solutions are also likely to be in short supply.  On the domestic level, while some energy consumption drop is likely to happen, there are also likely to be short-term losses, for example as people priced out of heating oil in the northeast burn coal, or as people rely on existing gas guzzlers rather than buying more fuel efficient vehicles.  In the long term, a depression will cut consumption, but also adaptation, which will mitigate climate change and increase unhappiness.  Poorer cities and towns will likely end efficiency programs, nations may permit coal plants again to keep the grid going.

Crisis #5 - Increasing World Political Instability

Relationship to Climate Change: Absolutely Direct.  Climate change is likely to be a political disaster - up to 1.5 billion people without access to safe water, some without any water at all.  More than a billion refugees.  Growing hunger.  Political conflict over resources, land and borders of all sorts.  Some of these wars are already popping up - the conflict in the Sudan, for example.  And a fair bit of anger on these issues is likely to be directed (quite correctly) at the Global North, probably especially at the US.  We can also expect more internal conflicts within nations over resources, such as the ones the US is already seeing over water.  Political unrest is also likely to exacerbate climate change, as oil fields and forests are burned in conflicts and the war machine, which already produces 10% of all greenhouse gasses, expands.

Relationship to Peak Oil: Direct…And Getting More So. Well, I won’t belabor Iraq, but that’s probably just the beginning.  For example, Saudi Arabia recently announced it will no longer grow wheat, its primary staple - probably due to climate change.  Rice prices rose by 30% in a single day this week - and almost 2/3 of the world’s population depends on rice as a staple food, in large part due to climate change and biofuel production.  The rising price of corn is already causing tortilla riots, and that’s directly tied to ethanol production. 

Relationship to Financial Crisis: Tenuous…for the Moment. Even if you don’t think that any attack on Iran will be partly motivated by the Republican administration’s desire to distract from the unfolding financial crisis, our political relationship to Russia and China (among others), is clearly being shaped by America’s declining economic situation.  So far things are in the early stages, but it seems like the balance of world power is shifting, and how that will play out, we do not know.  The one good thing one can say about the coming financial crisis is that if the economy crashes enough we will probably leave Iraq fairly quickly.

I’m sure I could come up with a whole host of other crises to discuss, but this at least gets us a start! 



22 Responses to “Dissecting the Long Emergency”

  1. Karinon 28 Mar 2008 at 10:07 am

    I would agree with everything you have to say but I think that you could link some of the current financial situation to the war. The US is borrowing billions of dollars every month to pay for Iraq. In order just to pay the interest on those loans the priorities of the federal government no longer address human services. The state of Maine had a 95 million dollar short fall at the beginning of the year. That ballooned into 2 million dollars in February when the fed government told the state the medicare and medicaid rules were changing as of March which would in effect the amount of money the state would recieive from the Federal government. There are some draconian cuts proposed in this state in order to address this short fall. States across the country are similar situations. Joseph Stiglitz recently wrote a book with Linda Blimes , The Three Trillion Dollar war which outlines the cost of the war on the US.

  2. Iaatoon 28 Mar 2008 at 11:07 am

    Sharon, perhaps there’s a cleaner energetic way of looking at the global problems.

    The discovery and exploitation of a hidden storage of fossil fuels over the last 100 or so years is the basic culprit in almost all of the problems you’ve listed. It has led to explosive population growth, primarily due to industrial agriculture and food availability. The overshoot in carrying capacity has led to problems with said fossil fuel supply, because it is a storage rather than a source. Burning the fossil fuels has led to waste heat and CO2 problems in the form of climate change.

    Overshoot then creates issues of economic and political instability that are first revealed as shortages of gasoline and electricity. The current economic crisis is caused by decreasing energy availability while money supply is expanded. As a result, the capitalist system no longer is an optimal operating system.

    Use an energetic basis for the explanations, and the connections become clear.

  3. Greenpaon 28 Mar 2008 at 11:15 am

    Population, population, population. Everybody hates to talk about it- but it’s got to be on the list.

  4. Sharonon 28 Mar 2008 at 12:23 pm

    Well, yes, I agree that population is a root cause for all of the above - as is the existence of fossil fuels itself. I wasn’t trying to get at the root causes of everything, but rather at the intersections of all of them.

    I don’t hate to talk about population - I actually quite like it, which is why I write about it *a lot* (and of course, get burned for having the number of kids I do). But population is also a function of other things - for example, Vandana Shiva has a fascinating article about tracking population growth in India - it doesn’t begin with the green revolution, as people tend to think, but with the growth of colonialism - a fairly stable population begins do explode as it is required to serve the colonial economy. So is it growth, of which colonialism is a form that creates the population that creates peak oil…

    The reality is that looking for a single root cause doesn’t work - and I’m not trying to do that. What I’m trying to do is track the intersections between several things.


  5. Iaatoon 28 Mar 2008 at 12:41 pm

    Anytime anyone tries to tell me what my reality is, Sharon, my alarm bells go off. There is a single root cause here.

  6. Greenpaon 28 Mar 2008 at 1:12 pm

    Sharon- oh, I know YOU aren’t scared of it; but many are. And I wasn’t exactly touting it as the root (that tends to shut down conversations, too) but suggesting it as a real, current, intersecting problem - which might get more minds thinking, too. Part of the food problem- sure, more mouths, just no question. Housing/credit- hard to see; peak oil, oh, yeah; political instability, oh, yeah. It’s right there. Failure to act - hm- now there’s a can of worms.

    Hey, I’ve got a nice technicality for you on the number of your own kids. They’re all boys, yes? Technically - males make NO contribution to population growth.

    Really! You gotta have the right equipment to produce offspring; and males don’t. In scientific equations on population- if you assume a population with free movement- the only thing that counts in calculating the size of the next generation is the number of females that are reproductively capable. Except for rare extreme cases; males are inconsequential. (don’t quote me!)

    True, when I say this to non-biologists, I just get funny looks back. So I don’t know how much good it’ll do ya. Wouldn’t want to sound like you’re stretching for “definitions”! :-)

  7. Kasaon 28 Mar 2008 at 1:27 pm

    This is a rather off-topic question, but your mention of relocation reminded me - and I guess this is as good a place to ask as any.

    Sharon, do you have any resources or ideas on where, climate-wise, the best places to live are? I’m settle pretty well by the water, as is my family on the other side of the country. Obviously with rising water this may be a problem, but we don’t know how much. I would imagine someone else in the blogosphere (oh god, did I really use that word? yes, yes I did…) has discussed it. For a young’n whose pretty mobile at the moment, it would be helpful.


  8. Anon.on 28 Mar 2008 at 7:36 pm


    If I may, here’s something Sharon’s already written about the question of relocation. I’d copied it to mull over myself:

    “The things that I personally care most about are the following:

    1. Water, water and more water. I don’t want to live anywhere without 40 inches of rain - and where they’ve actually gotten those 40 inches most of the last 5 years. Also, check out floodplain location - take a look at the sea level rise and check it out.

    2. Not on top of any major natural resource - no uranium, no coal, no oil. Even if they can’t get at it on your property (and eminent domain has been expanded in recent years), extraction in your region can be tremendously destructive and appallingly toxic.

    3. Near people I care about - or be very good at community building.

    4. A climate I can tolerate with minimal or no use of fossil fuels - they may not always be available, so if you hate the heat, don’t live in Tulsa and if you hate the cold, don’t live in upstate NY. Remember, though, most of us are far more adaptable than we think we are.

    5. Near a place that has a reason for being - historically towns and cities grew up near lines of transport and natural resources. If you are thinking about moving somewhere, think about its historical reason for existing - is that still true? Because if you can’t find any obvious reason for the town to be there, there might not be one in the long term. So, for example, I’d be inclined to bet on river transport and rail both recurring.

    6. Somewhere with a culture you can deal with. Other accounts of this issue tend to assume we’re all the same people - that is, Kunstler assumes we’re all terrified of living around religious conservatives and Latinos, because, of course, none of *us* are religious conservatives or latinos. But, of course, that is nonsense - some of us are nearly everything. So think about the region’s broad culture and whether you like it. Like Glenn, I’m a New Englander in a region that is culturally similar - Southerners I know think we’re cold and dull. When I visit South, I get nervous because too many people smile at me and ask me where I go to church (joking!) - I’m used to New England. I often think people hate regions because they simply aren’t accustomed to the cultural background - so pick some place you can like people.

    Just my .02.

    Good luck with the decision.

  9. TopCaton 28 Mar 2008 at 8:30 pm

    Despite the fact that the general trend of too much CO2 in the atmosphere is towards an over all warming, climate change also means that some areas on the planet will get colder and drier while others get wetter and hotter. (hotter And drier is also in the cards)

    New England could actually get wetter (snowier in the winter) and Atlanta, GA could turn into a redux of the Anasazi Southwest, with millions trying desparately to relocate to other parts of the country with water (New England?)

    This would not go over well with New Englanders. Tension and violence could easily erupt inside the US itself over water shortages and the dislocations accompanying it. If Georgia tries to force say, Tennessee, to fork over more water to ’save’ Georgia’ and Tennessee flips them the bird, whose to say a mini-civil war would not flare up on the border, especially in light of the Bush Admin’s glaring incompetence during rescue missions.

  10. Kiashuon 28 Mar 2008 at 9:01 pm

    One point: Saudi Arabia’s stopping of wheat growing does not have anything to do with climate change, but with depleted aquifers.

    The Saudis got the water for their crops in the desert from aquifers. Those aquifers were more than sufficient, and could be replenished well enough by their small rainfall, when they were just quenching the thirst of a few hundred thousand nomads and their camels and horses. But when the aquifers were used for growing grain for millions of people, men with four wives and sixteen children - well… it was too much.

    Depleting aquifers are something we could have even without climate change, or could avoid even with climate change. Water’s a renewable resource, like food and timber - but like those things, if you draw on it too much then your renewable resource becomes a depletable one, like oil.

    Depleting aquifers are a problem across the world, and tie into the problem of growing enough food locally. The aquifers around Beijing are in some stress…

  11. Kiashuon 28 Mar 2008 at 9:06 pm

    Regarding population, in short we can say that the environmental impact of a group is its affluence or wastefulness multiplied by its population.

    You find that in the developed West, which is very affluent and wasteful but not very populous, people say that population is the problem. In the Third World, which is less affluent and wasteful but very populous, people say that affluence and wastefulness is a problem.

    I say that both are a problem, however we can humanely change our wastefulness today, but we cannot humanely change population in less than a generation. So it’s better to focus on affluence and wastefulness. And it turns out that by making women more affluent and well-educated, the birth rate drops. So if we don’t want the Third World to have a lot of children, we in the West should make them richer. Strangely, we’re not so keen on that…

    I talk about the issue at length here.

  12. Lynneton 29 Mar 2008 at 8:17 am

    Sharon’s writeup on factors to consider in relocation is very good, but I think just as important is figuring out how to live where you are now. Come home to your own bioregion. Learn how to live with it.

    There are lots of low-tech ways to keep cool in hot climates, and warm in cool climates. There are ways to grow food in arid regions, without using fossil aquifers.

    Of course if your region is going to be underwater in the next few years, you should move to higher ground. But we can’t pack the entire population of the United States into places that have more than 40″ of rainfall yearly, and have a mild climate year-round. There just aren’t that many places.

    Whenever we’re busy thinking about where we should move to, we’re not really being at home where we are.

  13. Jameson 29 Mar 2008 at 11:10 am

    Hey Sharon, what’s with blaming colonialismfor the rise in India’s population ?!  So whena society gets colonised, and has to “serve”those “imperialists”, how exactly does thatlead directly to an increase in population ?The common-sense link between colonialismand population increase, is the suddenintroduction of (1) new farming methodsthat lead to higher crop production and (2)medicine which leads in particular to the decline in infant mortality.  Funny how India (or any of the other colonies) never
    thanked the Brits for all that medical expertise.

  14. Josef Davies-Coateson 29 Mar 2008 at 12:45 pm

    Great article Sharon, although I think the link between Financial Crisis and global instability is far from tenuous.

    See, for example this and this.

    I remember feeling quite sickened when some of the first reports out of Iraq post our “winning” was the “good news” that Iraqi’s were now freer to max out credit cards on consumer goods.

    The global financial system is based on debt and if we can create more debt year on year then it collapses. Hence why this was reported as good news. Sigh.

    Kiashu: I take your points about aquifers but it is nonsensical to say that has nothing to do with climate change. Plants are just like you and me; when it gets hotter they need to drink more (thereby speeding up the depletion of aquifers).

  15. Josef Davies-Coateson 29 Mar 2008 at 12:47 pm


    The global financial system is based on debt and if we can can’t create more debt year on year then it collapses.

  16. Sharonon 29 Mar 2008 at 4:12 pm

    James, the medical and food benefits you describe aren’t characteristic of early British colonialism. Well being didn’t increase in India, it declined when Britain moved in. Shiva’s tracking of population growth long preceeds the green revolution or major medical advances - by 60 years or more.

    And it is just shocking that the Indians aren’t more grateful to the British. Heck, American Indians are damned ungrateful to us - and their population delcined ;-P.


  17. Shaun Chamberlinon 29 Mar 2008 at 8:20 pm

    “In the long term, climate change will probably dramatically alter housing patterns, and cause some markets simply to collapse.”

    For a glimpse of that future take a look at: http://viabilityindex.com/

    You wouldn’t be able to tell, but oddly enough, it’s part of a rather brilliant project by the band Nine Inch Nails to wake people up to climate change and the state of American politics.

  18. Rosaon 29 Mar 2008 at 11:53 pm

    Hey Sharon, I just got back home and haven’t had time to read your last two week’s of posts…but thank you for the one about the shopping list.

    We were in New Mexico and Arizona, and did a lot of climbing and looking at Sinagua ruins (and eating frybread, which we can also do at home, but whatever.) It’s important to remember that people organized in a community and building up a specific body of knowledge about the place, it’s climate, and the local biome, can live *anywhere*.

    And have a lot of spare time to sit around painting, weaving, and building, too.

  19. […] Casaubonâ

  20. Albert Bateson 30 Mar 2008 at 10:34 pm

    Relationship to Crisis in Gaza: Absolutely Direct. Condi goes to the Middle East but gets nowhere, so they send Darth Vader. The Saudis say, yes we will be happy to open the taps a bit wider, even support your position on Iran, but we need to you to show some mercy to the Palestinians. So Dick meets with the Palestinian leadership and pledges support in building an independent state. Then Condi goes back for another try, and the Israelis retire 40 checkpoints as a gesture, mostly window dressing, but are actually pretty upset that Darth was meeting with the Palestinian leadership. Anyway, is this about Peak Oil? Absolutely. The big four suppliers for the USA are Canada (scraping the sands), Mexico (bone dry in 6 years), Venezuela (Houston we have a problem: they are building refineries in China to process Orinoco Heavy), and Saudi Arabia. Of those, only the Saudis still sell the light sweet and say they have reserve capacity. Between Israel and Saudi Arabia, one has oil, the other doesn’t. Climate Change? Both Israel and Saudi Arabia have serious water issues that are stifling development. Both are vulnerable to sea level rise, especially as it might affect salinity of aquifers. Under such conditions, geopolitical calculus must take account of using military power to expand one’s reach to encompass new water sources, or conversely, defending from same. The Koran is pretty clear about the duty to protect one’s water supply.

  21. Sharonon 31 Mar 2008 at 7:27 am

    Albert, I agree with everything you say - I think the next couple of years are going to be very messy ones for the whole world.


  22. Jameson 31 Mar 2008 at 8:51 am

    Check out, for example,
    http://www.indianchild.com, which states
    that the pop was more or less
    stable 1910-1920, then increased
    dramatically as a result of curative
    and preventative medicine which
    lowered the death rate.

Trackback URI | Comments RSS

Leave a Reply