Ten Ways to Prepare for a Post-Oil Society

Bigger must give way to smaller, smarter. A novelist tries his hand at some doable proposals.


By James Howard Kunstler

In the public arena, essayists often are criticized for not offering solutions to our looming energy crisis. Here are some suggestions for those tired of the hand-wringing and ready to do something useful.

1Expand your view beyond simply finding fuels other than gasoline to power vehicles. The obsession with keeping cars running at all costs could prove fatal, especially because so many self-proclaimed “greens” and political “progressives” are hung up on this monomaniacal theme. Cars are not part of the solution, no matter what fuel they use. They are at the heart of the problem. Trying to salvage the entire Happy Motoring system by shifting from gasoline to other fuels will only make things worse. Think beyond the car.

2We have to produce food differently. The Monsanto/Cargill model of industrial agribusiness is headed toward its Waterloo. As oil and gas deplete, we will be left with sterile soil and farming organized at an unworkable scale. Many lives will depend on our ability to solve this problem. Farming soon will return closer to the center of American economic life. It will have to be done more locally, at a smaller and finer scale, and it will require more human labor.

3We have to redistribute the population. Virtually every place in our nation organized around automobile dependency is going to fail. Quite a few places (Phoenix, Las Vegas, Miami) can support only a fraction of their residents. We’ll have to return to traditional human ecologies at a smaller scale: villages, towns, and cities (along with a productive rural landscape). Our small towns are waiting to be reinhabited. Our cities will have to contract.

The stuff we build in the decades ahead will have to be made of regional materials found in nature — as opposed to modular, snap-together, manufactured components — at a more modest scale. Like farming, this will require the revival of skills and methods long forsaken.

4We have to move things and people differently. Get used to it. Don’t waste society’s remaining resources trying to prop up car and truck dependency. Water and rail are vastly more energy efficient. Start with railroads, and let’s make sure we electrify them so they will run on things other than fossil fuels. We also have to prepare our society to use water much more to move people and things. This will require rebuilding infrastructures for our harbors and for our inland river and canal systems, including the towns associated with them.

The great harbor towns, such as Baltimore, Boston, and New York, no longer can devote their waterfronts to condo sites and bikeways. We have to put the piers and warehouses back in place (not to mention the accommodations for sailors).

Programs are under way to restore maritime shipping based on wind — yes, sailing ships.

5We have to transform retail trade. The national chains that have used the high tide of fossil fuels to contrive predatory economies of scale are going down. Wal-Mart and the other outfits will not survive the coming era of scarce, expensive oil. They will not be able to run their “warehouses on wheels,” those tractor-trailers rumbling incessantly along our interstates. Their 12,000-mile supply lines to Asia also are endangered as the United States and China compete for Middle East and African oil.

The local networks of commercial interdependency that these chain stores destroyed will have to be rebuilt brick by brick. This will require rich, fine-grained, multilayered networks of people who make, distribute, and sell stuff.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that the Internet will replace local retail economies. Internet shopping depends on cheap delivery, and delivery no longer will be cheap. It also is predicated on electric power systems that are completely reliable. That is something we are unlikely to enjoy in the years ahead.

6We will have to make things again in America. However, we will make less stuff. We will have fewer things to buy, fewer choices of things. The curtain is coming down on the endless blue-light-special shopping frenzy that has occupied the forefront of daily life in America for decades. But we still will need household goods and things to wear.

As a practical matter, we are not going to relive the 20th century. The factories from America’s heyday of manufacturing (1900-1970) were designed for massive inputs of fossil fuel, and many of them have been demolished. We’re going to have to make things on a smaller scale by other means. Perhaps we will have to use more water power. The truth is, we don’t know yet how we’re going to make anything.

7The age of canned entertainment is coming to an end. It was fun for a while. We liked Citizen Kane and The Beatles. But we’re going to have to make our own music and our own drama down the road. We’re going to need playhouses and live performance halls. We’re going to need violin and banjo players, playwrights and scenery makers, and singers. We’ll need theater managers and stagehands.

The Internet is not going to save canned entertainment. The Internet will not work so well if the electricity is on the fritz half the time.

8We’ll have to reorganize the education system. The centralized secondary school systems based on the yellow school bus fleets will not survive. The huge investments we have made in these facilities will impede the transition out of them, but theyCrayonswill fail anyway. Since we will be a less affluent society, we probably won’t be able to replace these centralized facilities with smaller and more equitably distributed schools, at least not right away.

Personally, I believe that the next incarnation of education will grow out of the home-schooling movement, as those efforts gather locally into units of more than one family. God knows what happens beyond secondary ed. The big universities, both public and private, may not be salvageable. And the activity of higher education itself may engender huge resentment among those blocked from it.

But anyone who learns to do long division and write a coherent paragraph will be at a great advantage — and, in any case, probably will outperform today’s average college graduate. One thing for sure: Teaching children is not liable to become an obsolete line of work, compared with endeavors such as public relations and sports marketing. Lots to do in education, and lots to think about. Get busy, future teachers of America.

Doctor's Bag9We have to reorganize the medical system. The skein of intertwined rackets based on endless Ponzi buck-passing scams will not survive the discontinuities to come. We probably will have to return to a model of service much closer to what used to be called “doctoring.” Fewer doctors of the 21st century will drive German cars, and there will be fewer opportunities in the cosmetic surgery field. Let’s hope that we don’t slide so far back that we forget the germ theory of disease, or the need to wash our hands, or the fundamentals of pharmaceutical science.

10Life in the USA will have to become much more local, and virtually all the activities of everyday life will have to be re-scaled. You can state categorically that any enterprise now supersized is likely to fail — everything from the federal government to big corporations to huge institutions. If you can find a way to do something practical and useful on a smaller scale than it is being done now, you are likely to have food in your cupboard and people who admire you.

An entire social infrastructure of voluntary associations, co-opted by the narcotic of television, needs to be reconstructed. Local institutions for care of the helpless will have to be organized. Local politics will be much more meaningful as state governments and federal agencies slide into complete impotence. Lots of jobs here for local heroes.

KunstlerJames Howard Kunstler is the author, most recently, of World Made By Hand, a novel of post-oil America. His essays have been published in the Atlantic Monthly, New York Times Magazine,Rolling Stone, and many other periodicals. He was an editor at Rolling Stone in the 1970s.

As originally published in Newsmax magazine.