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Say it isn’t so: Review of J. H. Kunstler’s “Too Much Magic”

James Howard Kunstler describes himself as an “all-purpose writer,” and boy can he write. His latest book “Too Much Magic: Wishful Thinking, Technology, and the Fate of the Nation,” has taken otherwise ‘hard to write clearly about’ subjects such as financial instruments, what’s happening to our environment and shale oil, and made them interesting and useful to the reader, without talking down to, or boring us.

How can we understand the difference between extracting oil from deepwater conventional oil wells and shale oil you ask? “Think of it as like comparing a fire hose to wringing out a sponge.”

But essentially, the book looks at what prevents the ordinary person (he refuses to call us “consumers”) from recognizing the urgent need for us to “rearrange our manner of living.”

As a psychologist who’s written about these topics, it’s an area that fascinates me. He argues that two central beliefs (when combined) stop people from accepting the notion that there are limitations to growth, increasing economic hardship before us, and calamitous environmental change around us: “[W]hen you wish upon a star…you’ll get something for nothing!” He calls this a “toxic psychology…[that] has become baseline normal for the American public.” Kunstler argues that we can’t “sustain the unsustainable,” and we’re got to prepare for “intelligent responses” instead of “solutions.”

And, he adds, the hour is getting very late.

Kunstler calls the conditions of our times a “contraction.” “The only big remaining questions,” he asks “are whether this sort of compressive contraction can be called collapse and what happens afterward.

Intelligent responses, he argues (in addition his more classic arguments for more rail and working ports), includes “put[ting] us back in touch with elements of human experience that we thoughtlessly discarded in our heedless rush toward a chimerical techno nirvana – working together with people we know, spending time with friends and loved ones, sharing food with people we love, and enacting the other ceremonies of daily and seasonal life in story and song.” Yet these very recommendations seem so banal as to be rejected as no proposal at all. Being human is so…ordinary, and ennui is the symptom of our time. Even airplane travel feels as “boring and tiresome as sitting in the dentist’s waiting room” despite being eight miles up and traveling at 550 miles an hour. We’re lost an appreciation for the real magic all around us and in us.

Those attending his lectures, he reports, beg for “solutions,” wanting to be fed “rescue remedies” that promise a continuation of an easy life, endless driving, cheap fast food, NASCAR and Disney World. “Ordinary people already felt hopeless about the things they were conditioned to believe they had control over, such as the idea that gainful employment would find those willing to work,” so when confronted with the harsh realities of Peak Everything and “what is among the gravest problems that the human race has ever faced” (like environmental catastrophe) they tune out. These issues appear to be “best ignored, with the hope that it would go away, like a case of poison oak.

Climate Change

One thing that isn’t going away is a worsening planet. “[O]ver 40 percent of the entire United States was subject to drought” in 2011. Today, that figure is 56%. Kunstler tells us that sixty percent of aquifers in India will be in critical condition in fifteen years, and groundwater is being pumped into irrigated farmland faster than rainfall can recharge it. Yet we spend far less on international climate change financing than we do on “air-conditioning in the various theatres of war.” Climate change deniers tend to also be Peak Oil deniers, according to Kunstler, movements both heavily funded by the fossil fuel industry.

Suburbia

Anyone who reads him knows how biting Kunstler can be critiquing – Disney Land guests who are “overfed Americans waddling so innocently about in their JC Penney casuals,” and in this book, he doesn’t disappoint. But he also shows us a more tender side. We can feel his outrage at the wasted opportunity, misdirected trillions, and the ticky-tacky bait and switch, that impacted those born at the turn of the last century. They travel to Disney Land now to relive what they most loved about where they were born– a place of shops and shopkeepers, the safety of walking around and greeting other people, and feeling the neighborliness of small town America. In short, they now pay to see a fake version of “whatever had made their towns worth caring about.” Even though he acknowledges that most of these same folks worked very hard to advocate for the very changes that eventually destroyed that way of life, he’s put it in context in this book. Like Kunstler, himself claims “I feel that I am a hostage to this economy.

It is a sentiment that echoes with me as a clinical psychologist. I regularly work with couples who try to find meaning in a life that is filled with moving family members to and from school, work, the mall, and the soccer field. Many nights, when they’re starving, they stop for a fast food dinner, although they know better. Kunstler calls this a life devoid of “repose and tranquility, the necessary conditions for reflection.” We now pay people like me for the time to gain a ‘considered life.’ My clients know that something is wrong with this picture, but they blame themselves instead of cultural norms. Many make a middle or upper-middle class income, and find themselves being too tired to make a decent dinner or to see friends, too exhausted or alienated from each other to have passionate sex or a meaningful conversation, or in too much chaos to create an organized and “homey” home life. Designer pillows and drapery don’t make “homey.” The act of tending to and living in a space actually makes it a home.

Kunstler argues that cities “were designed to serve all the most inhuman elements of industrial enterprise: the needs of machines, factories, transport infrastructures and the efficiencies demanded by capital finance…” The more industrial and urban the USA became, the more nostalgic people became for rural and village life. But “rural” is not “suburban,” as suburbia, according to Kunstler, lacks its rich “associational nature,” and the inability to integrate activities like visiting, eating in a café, or children roaming in woodlands, to later meet friends at a central location. It is the interweaving of businesses that create civic responsibility, from “Little League to libraries.” This is something corporate America lacks.

In a paragraph, he beautifully sums up the trials in the migration of Southern agricultural peasants who were displaced by “mechanical cotton pickers” in the late 1940’s, only to be displaced again a few decades later from this same factory and heavy industrial work they came to do.

Psychologist Bruce Alexander traced the emotional impact of displaced Scottish Highlander sheep herders who immigrated to Vancouver, BC. Dr. Alexander argues that it creates deep despair and hopelessness not only for the former way of life, but also for the connectedness and context of their prior community. Whisky, an integral part of Scottish culture, became an overused or abused “medicine” to treat the meaninglessness of rootlessness they encountered in the New World. As true of the families of the South migrating North to cities like Detroit or Cleveland, alcohol and drug abuse brought with it family instability, mental illness, and violent crime. Later in the book, Kunstler targets the “infantile and barbaric” clothing of young men with baggy shorts and oversized shirts giving the appearance of a “human body with very short legs and a large torso, which is exactly how little children are proportioned…designed to advertise that the wearer does not expect to do any physical labor.” Perhaps with linkages to prison dress, these youth represent two or more generations of parents and grandparents who have lived decades as social throw-aways, and part of the chronically unemployed. And tattoos might say “graphically that you have written off your economic future.” Or it was written off for you before you were born.

Politics

Only Kunstler could toss around provocative terms describing Obama voters as “baby boomer intellectual romantics, race-and-gender special pleaders, public employees and transfer payment recipients…” and argue for a generation of “boomers yearning for the moral victory of electing a black president, a kind of coda to the romantic idealism of their youth in the old civil rights marching days.” Instead of idealism and desired “change,” Obama gave us more of the same handouts (“shovel ready public works projects, mostly building highways,” and rescuing General Motors and Chrysler) and more of the same people, put in positions of power to enforce the law, who didn’t. Republican or Democrat, it used to matter. Now Kunstler argues, it’s been sold “lock stock and barrel” to corporate interests.

Wall Street

The chapter that most impactful to me was “Going Broke the Hard Way: The End of Wall Street.” It explained the various financial instruments and the funny business that happened with them, in enough detail to be meaningful, while holding my interest. I learned quite a lot about complicated financial swindling and was left feeling furious when I finished the chapter. He ends with this paragraph:

The United States became the economic engine of the developed world in the past century not just because of its abundance of mineral wealth…but largely because the rule of law was so firmly established here that people knew where they stood with things they’d worked for all their lives…These rights and responsibilities were enforced with more than the usual rigor found in other parts of the world. They enabled business to be conducted freely and mostly fairly. The confidence that people all over the world felt for the rule of law in American financial matters was expressed in their respect for our money and the moneylike instruments issued by our companies and banks, the stocks and bonds, et cetera. We threw it all away: our honor, our faith in ourselves, our credibility with others, and the legitimacy of our institutions. (P.` 154.)

The Bumpy Ride Down

There are no ‘rescue remedies’ here, and no ubiquitous “happy chapter” that often accompanies a book of this type. We have, according to Kunstler, a “rendezvous with entropy” where “the truth is that circumstances will now determine what happens, not policies or personalities.”

It’s time to get real, and yet: “We can’t face it. We pretend it’s not happening. We’re doing everything possible to defy it as a practical matter.” We can’t go on pretending much longer.

Too Much Magic, like The Long Emergency, is destined to become a Peak Oil classic.

James Howard Kunstler, (2012). Too Much Magic: Wishful Thinking, Technology, and the Fate of the Nation, Atlantic Monthly Press.

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