The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-first Century.

Author:Brown, Douglas
Position:Book review

The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-first Century, by James Howard Kunstler. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press. 2005. Cloth, ISBN 0871138883, $23.00. 320 pages.

Before writing this review I paused for a moment to reread the 1962 foreword to Clarence Ayres' The Theory of Economic Progress. Additionally, I considered its subtitle: A Study of the Fundamentals of Economic Development and Cultural Change. Naturally, as most of us are in some fashion self-defined institutionalists, we are quick to identify with Ayres' argument that "what happens to any society is determined jointly by the forward urging of its technology and the backward pressure of its ceremonial system" (Ayres, xvii). This is Ayres' dialectic and forms the basis of "the fundamentals of economic development and cultural change." Nothing new here, but after reading James Howard Kunstler's The Long Emergency, I find Kunstler's argument to be the most insightful and no doubt the most persuasive counter-argument to Ayresian techno-faith that I've ever read.

Kunstler is not an institutional economist nor an academic. He is eclectic, a novelist, a painter, and a geographer of sorts. This is his most recent work, and one that I heard about in part because I liked his two previous titles, The Geography of Nowhere and Home From Nowhere. And there is another link to his work and ideas that I discovered last year: he is interviewed in the excellent documentary video The End of Suburbia. If you view this video, my hunch is that you will want to read The Long Emergency. This book is the most clearly argued and prescient critique of humanity's vulnerable social and environmental condition that I have read. Consider this statement that stands as a reasonably accurate summary of his case for what is shaping up to be humanity's "long emergency," and it will explain why I thought about Ayres as I began this review. Kunstler says: "We in America flatter ourselves to think we are above this kind of general catastrophe--because our technologic prowess during the cheap-oil fiesta was so marvelous that all future problems are (supposedly) guaranteed to be solved by similar applications of ingenuity. If there is anything we have been stupendously bad at in the preceding century of wonder, it is recognizing the diminishing returns of our technologic prowess. Some of our greatest achievements, such as industrial farming and the interstate highway system, have produced...

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