(Above) Photo by Alex Pucher.
“My grandfather rode a camel, my father rode a camel, I drive a Mercedes, my son drives a Land Rover, his son will drive a Land Rover, but his son will ride a camel.” —Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum
What are you going to do when the oil runs out? Peculiar question, isn’t it? It’s valid, though, so think about it a moment. Think about your job, how you get there, the food you eat (or are eating right now) and the energy required to grow and transport it to your plate. Think, for a second, about almost every single thing you come in contact with on a daily basis. Did you touch plastic today? Yes, you did. It’s oil. Did you brush your teeth? Oil. Drive on a road? Wear clothes? Watch TV? Should I go on? It’s a long list, and it’s all oil – all of it – in different refined mixtures. I’m not the first, by far, to recognize the limits to black gold. In 1956, M. King Hubbert famously offered his “Peak” and prediction of the end of oil as we know it. Thus far he has proved to be startlingly correct. And Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, the Prime Minister of United Arab Emirates, knew to wonder about the other side of the oil peak, and then properly prepared his country for that day – which did indeed come.
More recently, an author of both fiction and non-fiction books took up the task of asking that same question: What will we do when the oil runs out? James Howard Kunstler is the creative force behind The Long Emergency, which is a non-fiction examination of our near future based on the worlds’ over consumption of resources. He took the knowledge he gained and transformed it into a fictional account of what we (yes, you and I) and our children face fairly soon. World Made By Hand, set in upstate New York in a future that has memories very relevant to our present, follows the daily lives of ordinary people struggling to make it in a world where the modern conveniences of electricity, hospitals, and luxury sports sedans no longer play a part. Gardens are no longer a pastime; they are a necessity. Sickness is no longer cured; it’s endured, and the once familiar staple of life that people die comes back with a vengeance as the natural carrying capacity of Earth is rediscovered at somewhere around a billion people And then there’s the place, their world, cut off from the rest of the planet and left to fend for itself without the threads that keep the world we know moving.
(Above) The fastest possible way to dig out a new, and enormous, lake.
“I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.” —Albert Einstein
Where were you the morning of September 11, 2001? I know where I was. I was getting ready for work, buttoning up my shirt, tying my shoes, and drinking coffee. Then I was glued to the TV along with the rest of the world, watching towers fall and a plane ram the side of The Pentagon. My thoughts shifted to my father, who was at that moment somewhere in D.C., hopefully making his way out alive. For several agonizing hours I didn’t know where he was. I took the day off of work, unable and unwilling to focus on anything else. All I knew was that two great American cities were essentially on fire. Would there be more? Was this just the beginning? Then the call came. Dad was fine. The world started spinning again. I got lucky that day. Even after that call, though, the world was still smoking and holes in the ground in three separate states were proof that something had gone hideously wrong. The question everyone asked at that point was simple and primal, as an animal waiting to see if the predator had finally given up— Is that it? What if that wasn’t it? What would we have done if the world hadn’t started spinning again on that mild September morning?
To answer that question, we must first take a step back into the past.
In October of 1961, the Soviet Union detonated the largest nuclear weapon ever tested. At fifty megatons, Tzar Bomba was capable of causing third-degree burns at sixty miles away, and broke window panes at five hundred miles from ground zero. The seismic shock of the explosion was recorded in the United States, thousands of miles from the detonation site, and the shock wave was registered even on its third pass around the globe. The crater, created from a detonation altitude of 2.5 miles, can still be seen from space (see above image from Google Maps).
“My fellow Americans, I’m pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.” —Ronald Reagan, August 11, 1984-
As a Cold War kid growing up in the suburbs of D.C., there were constant reminders that the world was in an apparently endless struggle not to fall over the cliff of mutually assured destruction. Now, I didn’t grow up during the “duck and cover” days, but that would have held its own very special place in my reminiscent heart. None of my neighbors were clamoring to build bomb shelters. The derogatory term “Red” was almost (but not quite) a distant memory, except for the random satirical Robin Williams movie. There were, however, strategically placed missile silos tucked discretely in the depths of our safe white collar corner of Fairfax County, at the ready to incinerate the surrounding two-story colonials on their way into the atmosphere and armageddon. There were weekly air-raid siren tests—every Wednesday at noon. Ronald Reagan made the infamous joke that was later leaked to the public, putting Russian air command on high alert.
Arguably the tension of the early ’80s was a far cry from the height of posturing in the early ’60s. The Hunt For Red October, which highlighted the common humanity of two diametrically opposed super powers, was published in 1984. Mikhail Gorbachev was slowly but surely hinting at the fact that the Soviet Union was going desperately and disastrously broke. That diminishing tension, though, was just enough to spark the curiosity of a budding, perhaps mildly morbid prepubescent. It was just enough to make me ask, in no uncertain terms, what if? This was just about the time when “nuclear winter” was becoming popular jargon. Three Mile Island had nearly erupted, and Chernobyl was soon to follow. The Day After premiered on primetime network TV in 1983, painting in stark detail for a general viewing audience what the affects of all out nuclear war would mean. Awareness of real consequences was becoming a family room topic. What if those bombs flew? What then?