Readers react to Amory Lovins' and James Howard Kunstler's competing visions for what will happen when we run out of oil, and sound off on Kunstler's book "The Long Emergency."

By Salon Staff
Published May 28, 2005 8:00AM (EDT)

[Read "Sparks Fly," by James Howard Kunstler and Amory Lovins.]

I'm not sure where the story lead's mention of my supposedly "promoting the institute's ultralight Hypercar as a panacea for the coming oil crunch" came from, but it's not true. I've never made such a claim, and wouldn't. Anyone who reads "Winning the Oil Endgame" or hears my speeches will understand that there's no single silver bullet for the oil problem, and that light vehicles use only 42 percent of U.S. oil.

-- Amory Lovins

As a lover of books, I devoured Katharine Mieszkowski's review of Kunstler's "The Long Emergency." Then Salon posted the real intellectual candy: a rebuttal, and re-rebuttal, Lovins vs. Kunstler. This posed a dilemma. Should I buy "The Long Emergency" or "Winning the Oil Endgame"? $23 or $40? Easy choice. Lovins' arguments are so succinctly stated, so factually persuasive, that I can't wait for my copy of "Winning" to arrive!

-- Linda DeNoyer

I can't help wondering who Mr. Kunstler thinks is going to pay for the conversion of suburban and rural habitations to urban ones, and where the raw materials are going to come from to rebuild the new urban landscape. Not to mention that old free-choice problem: Some of us like living in the hinterlands. When he pushes hydrogen as an alternative fuel, Kunstler sounds like a G.W. Bush environmental visionary, willing to so radically rethink our future that, good as it looks, there's no way to get there from here. Lovins at least acknowledges the intermediate steps.

-- Jane Smiley

Despite the exchange of barbs, Amory Lovins and James Howard Kunstler are starting from much the same place and describing two alternative futures. I like Lovins' utopia much more, but were I a betting man, considering how effective the country has been in facing its problems before they become overwhelming, I'd wager on Kunstler's dystopia.

-- Bruce Gregory

Thank you for allowing Kunstler and Lovins to present their ideas and argue with each other in a very informative and fair exchange. Both write well and addressed the issues directly.

Over the years I have read various articles by a group of economists. I call it the "smart people -- but not me" camp. The argument goes thus: When we start to run out of oil, the free market will provide opportunities for smart people to come up with creative solutions. Evidently and unfortunately Lovins is one of these "smart people." Although a highly intelligent man, Lovins nonetheless focuses on purely technological solutions. I am truly impressed by Lovins' description of his HQ and the energy-efficient practices of his staff. But Kunstler points out that petroleum supplies more than energy. The plastic in the computers they use to telecommute, the ingredients in the fabric of the hang glider, the fittings on the bicycles, the fertilizer that grows the cheap food, as well as the other cheap products that trucks ship to suburbia, all come from petroleum. Cheap fuel makes shipping products from overseas in huge container ships more cost effective than making them locally. Fortunately, the technology for wind power ships already exists, but this kind of transportation is more labor-intensive.

I remember a conversation I had on this topic with a highly intelligent grad student at Columbia University in 1984. He ended the discussion stating simply that he had faith in modern technology to solve these problems. What? Technology is now a god in the minds of even highly educated people? Now I know we're in trouble. Kunstler attempted to point out the shortsightedness of exclusively technological solutions. Lovins paid homage to the god.

-- Steven Dunlap

[Read "After the Oil Is Gone," by Katharine Mieszkowski.]

Anti-consumerists like Kunstler have been secretly yearning for a paradigm shift to appear and wipe obese, lazy, ignorant and wasteful Americans off the face of the earth. Numerous scary scenarios have been predicted in years past: Malthusian population bombs, silent springs, Y2K, etc. Unfortunately, peak oil seems to be the real deal, guaranteed to get the Homer Simpsons of this country off their collective couches and into the streets. However, before we riot for cheap gas, cold beer and easy credit, maybe we should forgo our bruised egos and plant a garden, sell a car, and reevaluate our lifestyles.

In a growing movement of intentional communities, practitioners of voluntary simplicity and environmentalists have realized that the current systems of finance, transport and agriculture are unsustainable. They are working to reimagine what future organizational framework can replace a fossil-fuel-driven global economy. Planning for a great depression doesn't have to necessitate the abandonment of core values such as equality, fairness and tolerance; nor do we have to elect a fascist to keep the electricity flowing.

Kunstler underestimates American ingenuity, but that doesn't mean we should keep sleepwalking - a new energy bill should be demanded today and awareness of peak oil must spread. Community gardens, local economies and our rail network must be resuscitated immediately.

-- Elise McDonough

So, the anti-globalization crowd now has its very own "Left Behind." Neat.

-- Jason Carl Smith

I found this article unbelievably alarmist, and it strikes me that Mr. Kunstler knows little about current technology or world history.

Since we have centuries' worth of coal and uranium for electricity generation, I fail to see how we are going to be blasted back to a 18th century agrarian economy when oil reserves run low. I'm also skeptical we're all going to have to give up cars and plastic by 2020. Untaxed gasoline prices will certainly rise in the United States to match the current prices in Europe, which will favor smaller cars and make trains economically viable again; hardly an apocalyptic scenario. Kunstler also doesn't seem to realize that you can make most modern materials (including gasoline) using coal and methanol feedstocks, and that electric cars are already a reality. As long as people are willing to plug in, in the future, uranium is the ideal element to power an indefinite number of environmentally friendly cars, not hydrogen or carbon.

Regarding the following passage: "The future that I see tells me that the larger cities will be in big trouble and the action will be in the smaller cities and smaller towns. They will have resilience. It will be very important to live close to places that have viable agriculture" -- London, 1650? Rome, 100? Yep, it's completely impossible to have large cities without oil-powered trucks to move food around.

Finally, he seems to be missing a much more important crisis coming up in the near future: By 2050, much of the heartland grain country will be useless due to global warming (regardless of whether it's human caused or not). Current water-use practices in the plains states are much less sustainable than oil-use ones and more important for food production. Depending on the extent of the global-warming effect, the carrying capacity of the planet could be down to 3 billion humans by 100 years from now. That'll cause a little bit more chaos than having to drive an electric car.

One more thing -- how, exactly are the East Asian pirates that are apparently going to beset our West Coast going to deal with our fleets of nuclear submarines, which are not dependent on fossil fuels for power?

-- Greg Lohman

My gut says James Howard Kunstler is right about the limitations of America's "suburban-sprawl economy." However, for someone who was both a journalist and a novelist -- and who uses words like "hypertrophic" and "blandishments" -- Kunstler has surprising difficulties with the English language. (He says, "That's precisely where we're at" and "If I was living in the Atlanta suburbs...")

If he skipped learning the basics of grammar -- that which I know about -- how do I know Mr. Kunstler didn't skip learning the basics of energy production and consumption? And would I be unreasonable to extrapolate that it wouldn't stop him from exaggerating his authoritativeness? I'm just saying...

-- David Donnell

The murderous fantasies of the comfortably bored!

But you've got to love Kunstler's honesty. Unlike most end-of-the-world types, he admits he's looking forward to it. Ah, nihilism.

The Dead Kennedys had it right. If economic and social collapse is your thing, why stick around here? Cambodia isn't what it once was, but maybe Kunstler could spend a few days in Sierra Leone, Nigeria or the Sudan. There are probably a couple billion people in the world who would cut off their left hands to live in a nice boring American suburb. Perhaps Kunstler could find one who looks like him, and swap passports -- no amputation required.

As for oil, Kunstler makes the same mistake as '70s doomsayers like Paul Ehrlich and Jeremy Rifkin. Oil price predictions are like any other economic forecast: If you're right and you know it, what are you doing talking to Salon? Go make your big bucks on the futures market.

To be more specific, "proven reserves" are an accounting fiction of almost infinite fudgeability. Real oil prices are the result of tens of thousands of individual people's decisions about exploration and production, politics and prices, over the course of many years. How $50 oil will change, and be changed by, these decisions is anyone's guess.

Including Kunstler's. But hopefully before they load up on oil futures and stock their mountain hideouts with hay, Krugerrands and toilet paper, Salon readers will hear from another expert who doesn't have such a weird, ugly ax to grind.

-- Curtis Yarvin

Is there anyone who comes close to matching the arrogance of bad science fiction writers? They truly are in a league of their own. Poets and literary auteurs only disparage each other's works, sci-fi prognosticators attack entire fields of engineering, technologies and the morality of societies with a single broad stroke.

Who can forget Larry Niven boldly stating "There is an organ-legger in your future" (never mind that we now know killing people for organs won't extend lives, and we're close to growing human organs in pigs)? Verner Vinge positively apologized that for the sake of drama in his book, he delayed our planet's "technological singularity" for a few years (we're all going to disappear because science is on an exponential growth curve that has no end). And now this, James Howard Kunstler's silly screed, which was already disproved before he even wrote it.

Oh, of course, like all bad science fiction premises, Kunstler's novel does have a grain of truth. The era of absurdly cheap energy will soon be over. Gasoline, as it is in Saudi Arabia, will no longer be cheaper than fresh water. But there are literally dozens of mass-energy sources available at a slightly higher price. That, combined with even slightly better fuel efficiency will make energy not impossible to get, just moderately higher in price. Trips round the world will cost a bit more, but suburbs won't collapse.

But the final nail in the coffin of Kunstler's credibility is his smug belief that anyone who doesn't believe his doomsday scenario is delusional. We're not. Our laughter comes from looking at poor reasoning. To quote the immortal words of Carl Sagan: "They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown."

-- Jason Carl Smith

Salon Staff

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