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Drip, drip, drip ... What will the end of the oil era look like?

James Howard Kunstler was "very vexed" upon arriving in Boston Tuesday afternoon for a talk at the Boston Public Library. If you have read any of Kunstlerís work, you might assume that this is his natural state; he can rarely write a full paragraph without complaining about something that bugs him. In this case, his vexation was probably inevitable, given that he had been forced to leave upstate New York to travel up and down the hideous West Coast on bankrupt airlines.

Plus, along the way, a rental-car company tried to get him to drive a behemoth Ford Expedition, which is particularly amusing since the book heís traveling to promote, The Long Emergency (Atlantic Monthly), is all about how our profligate ways with oil will soon lead to the demise of our suburbs, our modern way of life, and most of the worldís population.

Kunstler is best known for books such as The Geography of Nowhere (Free Press, 1994) detailing all that is bad about American suburbia, and he hasnít changed on this score. As he began to relax in his hotel room, I asked him why he thinks people choose to live in the suburbs he finds so awful. "I think there are reasons why suburbia is appealing ó at least, until everybody is doing it," Kunstler says. At that point, it quickly becomes "eight-lane highways lined with Jiffy Lubes and other loathsome accessories of our time."

His close study of suburbia led him long ago to appreciate our strange dependency on cheap oil, which is of limited availability. Now, he has come to see the end of that availability on the horizon, in the impending catastrophe dubbed "Peak Oil" by its believers.

Peak Oil theory, in a nutshell, holds that after we have depleted half the earthís oil supply, the annual extractable volume will decrease immediately and precipitously. If data provided by the US Geological Survey is true, Peak Oil theory will kick in sometime between 2027 and 2047. If you believe Kunstler and others, it is under way now.

Virtually everything we use is made and/or transported by machines powered by oil. If the supply dwindles to a trickle, the price at the pump will be the least of our worries. Forget how youíre going to get to the grocery store ó how the hell are the groceries going to get there?

They wonít, says Kunstler. Most potential replacement-energy sources are ill-suited to our existing machinery, transportation, and lifestyle, he points out. Wind farms are not going to get Targetís merchandise from Beijing to Natick. According to Kunstler, globalization will vanish; commerce and agriculture will become local; people will be forced back into neighborhoods. One day soon the rows of $350,000 houses in Lexington and Weston will stand worthless and empty ó tomorrows slums. "Itís a tragic choice" to live in the suburbs, Kunstler says. "Maybe itís working this decade, but itís not going to work next decade."

Itís easy to dismiss this as a wish-fulfillment fantasy of the antiĖDavid Brooks variety, a suggestion Kunstler says he hears often. But those who shrug and say that technology will save us ó as a room of Google employees did the other day, Kunstler says ó are suffering from what he calls "the mainstream delusions" of Jiminy Cricket syndrome (wish for it and it will come true) and the "Las Vegasization of the American mind" (you can get something for nothing).

Although Kunstlerís book and Peak Oil theory are hot topics on the Web, they have thus far been ignored by almost all print and television reviewers. "Having the mainstream media not covering my book may be a good thing," says Kunstler sourly. "It may assure the book a kind of legitimacy that would only be tainted by its association with mainstream media."

Issue Date: June 17 - 23, 2005
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