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Hocus pocus as national strategy - Review: ‘Too Much Magic’

magicwand

It’s okay to believe in magic when you’re five. When you’re elected to help run the nation, not so much. Photo: Nieve44/Luz via Flickr.

In the Waldorf method of education, founded by scientist and mystic Rudolf Steiner, each year the child experiences a different central focus in class. This central focus informs everything from storytelling to math to language acquisition to handwork skills like knitting, sewing, or wood working.

For example, in the first grade the central focus is fairy tales and in second grade it is myths, legends, and saints. In theory, fairy tales and other legends inspire the young child, still filled with wonder about the world, in her own heroic quest to overcome evil and discover her own innate strengths while internalizing a moral code, desiring to do the right thing and recognizing when something is wrong.

This is the right age for fairy tales. The six-, seven- and eight-year old child is just beginning to grasp abstract concepts such as math equations and representative letters. But soon enough the child will be done with magic stones and dark forests, with spinning straw into gold and believing in St. George slaying a literal dragon.

Yet somewhere in the recesses of his mind those fairy tales will linger, leaving a feeling that anything is possible. It will simply be checked by later developmental needs, particularly those grounded in what is possible under natural law. Over the arc of the years, new central focuses will dominate. His imagination will thus unite with and inform his morality, his reason and his intellect, resulting in the mature man.

Arrested development

TooMuchMagicJacket300

Too Much Magic: Wishful Thinking, Technology, and the Fate of the Nation by James Howard Kunstler, Atlantic Monthly Press (June, 2012), 336pp, hardcover, $16.50

Well, of all the long lead-ins that I’ve ever written, I can’t help but see the failure of contemporary man (or more precisely, Americans) to achieve any of that wise, progressive, human development as a central critical premise in James Howard Kunstler’s latest book, Too Much Magic: Wishful Thinking, Technology, and the Fate of the Nation (Kindle edition here).

These days, it’s as if Americans are permanently and pervasively stuck at age seven, more focused on the imaginative powers of Harry Potter’s wand and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (or the latest iGadget) than running their own adult lives.

Kunstler would probably not appreciate the Christian-mystic and astrological end of Steiner’s writings. But Steiner’s methodical case for the anthroposophical development of man — uniting inner life and outer development over time — might meet Kunstler’s reverent standards of truth, beauty, and goodness.

And in my view, these are Kunstler’s core concerns, informing every aspect of his recent analysis; most of all that, lacking a proper maturation, and mired in a protracted version of what Elizabeth Kolbert calls “adultolescence,” contemporary man is in thrall to a debilitative brand of magical thinking that prevents our ability to craft responses to manifold problems in the social, political, cultural, and economic realms.

All that magical thinking is quite literally, killing us.

Kunstler’s book is a hard-nosed and unforgiving look at the times with particular regard to the key resource driving economy — cheap fossil fuels — and its decline, along with the relationship of energy to economy, and more precisely, to credit and the inability to pay back what’s already been drawn on as well as the gumming up of future credit. He attributes this to a cultural habit of wanting and expecting “something for nothing.”

As in the present volume’s prequel, The Long Emergency, Kunstler’s narrative rides on sweeping historic analyses with a particular focus on the century and a half of fossil fuel development and the ensuing living arrangements, most notably suburbia, that define the era, including its politics, policy, and consumerism. Kunstler’s writing is remarkably lucid, readable, incisive, accurate, and telling, making it the absolute non-fiction page turner of 2012.

Moreover, you don’t need to be a freaking rocket scientist to get it.

Kunstler writes with wit and ease, covering vast terrains of history, society, culture, science, technology, politics, art, architecture, civilization, economics and more while never actually giving away that that’s what he’s doing. At least in the sense that his writing is never bogged down or overly-technical.

All the while he builds up the unassailable truth that we’re screwed because we’re too busy being distracted by pop culture and investing in wildly unrealistic technotopian schemes for collective living (Gingrich’s colony on the moon, anyone?) that we can’t see ourselves driving ourselves to distraction while driving ourselves over a cliff in the process.

We can’t see it, he argues, because we’re still in first grade. Because we prefer first grade. We want fairy tales. We prefer magic wands to cogent observation, discernment and prudent decision making. We don’t want to grow up.

What we have in our “debate” over global warming, for example, and our ignorance of the realities of energy and in our unsustainable living arrangements is the result of preferring arrested development over the advice of, say, the Bible’s 1 Corinithians: “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me.”

Such ancient advice should appeal to the conservatives who are ever at the ready to co-opt Christianity to their ends. It should also appeal to truly devout Christians. Instead it seems to appeal to no one.

We are, Kunster argues, a relentlessly immature society, though we haven’t always been.

No stone left unturned

Part of his lament is our collective fall from a time when we possessed great moral authority as a nation, after the defeat of Hitler and the hard-won victories of World War II. Where did that substantive America(n) go, he wonders, an America(n) that can’t been found anymore through all the reality TV, bling, vinyl homes, flagrant wastefulness and crimes as serious as Abu Ghraib and the recent Wall Street perfidy.

For Kunstler this means looking afresh at our dysfunctional political system and, eschewing the romanticism that sees America as unassailable, finding fault where censure is due: today’s plutocratic parties lack the intellectual heft, visionary approach, groundedness in reality, and the gentlemanliness of compromise to lead the nation in its most dire hour.

The present is a remarkable period of stupidity, even within the spectrum of what passes for extremes in our history. The challenges to the project of civilization have never been greater than in this moment of ecological overshoot, and the public conversation about what is happening to us and what we might do about it has never been so inadequate. Our aging two-party system gives off an odor of necrosis. Roughly dividing what we conceive to be the right and the left, both sides evince fabulous sweeps of cluelessness and dishonesty.

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Readers of Kunstler will know that he is impatient with idiocy and doesn’t suffer fools gladly or otherwise. Though his intellect is razor sharp, his research impeccable, his historic analysis comprehensive, it may be his disdain that I find most appealing because he just makes so much sense in cutting through the insanity — which is one helluva anomaly these days.

A somewhat cranky Renaissance man (at least at first glance), Kunstler seems unafraid of any subject, and Too Much Magic offers the contrarian view on an encyclopedic range of topics relevant to today, to wit –

The decline of cheap oil, the bubble-quality of hydrofracking for natural gas, and the limits of shale oil, tar sands, and uranium. He gives you your Wall Street shysters and derivatives banking on a platter skewered and fileted, along with the Fed, the two US political parties, architecture, urban development, food, farming, conservation, renewable energy as doable and as limited; you’ll get culture, pop culture, tattoos, Beaux Arts, fashion, TV, discourse, women, men, races, cultures, families, small towns, big towns, peak oil, global warming, small hydro, good friends, references to other key figures in the peak oil analysis, an unforgiving take down of the failure to enforce the rule of law on investment banking heists, and many other things that I can’t remember because the one fault of the book is its lack of an…index for God’s sake!

Kunstler, what were you thinking?

At the same time I’m not sure there’s another peak oil writer who evidences so much heart, so much love for humanity, for our wondrous creations. His understanding of that juncture where cheap energy and easy cash outstripped our ability to intellectually and emotionally integrate so many new toys and lifestyle shifts leaves him pining for a cultural clearinghouse that would cut the dross so we could see, for example, the many beautifully constructed urban spaces that predate what he calls the clownishness of suburban sprawl. It’s the kind of development (or retrofitting) that he sees as a more sustainable project for civilization.

But his is not just nostalgia for easier to understand times. There may be some of that, but it isn’t his central point. His central point is that today’s arrangements don’t work, leaving us fat, sick, alienated, in debt and unable to sustain our arrangements going forward. Moreover, that we can’t seem to knit together how it got that way.

The growing prosperity of the New South also expressed itself in burgeoning suburbia. The great highways were built rapidly — rationalized, in fact, as a national defense mobility network — and before long the predictable manifestations of car-centered real estate development followed. Wherever a set of on-and-off ramps was built, the housing subdivisions followed, and then the strip malls and the out-parcel tilt-up commercial boxes sprang up. By the 1960s many a southern boy who’d grown up barefoot on a farm in the Great Depression had turned into a wealthy car dealer, owner of a real-estate agency, production builder of tract houses, a paver and excavator, air-conditioning contractor, lumber dealer, strip mall magnate, or the lucky holder of multiple fast food franchises, all activities spun off by suburban sprawl. The economic transformation was very abrupt while cultural behaviors and beliefs lagged behind.

So too, it seems, did an understanding that if all this was running on cheap energy, and cheap energy was running out, at some point in the near future all this would be unmanageable, unaffordable, and due to the former two, undesirable.

And so, he advises, it’s time to rethink and rebuild our living arrangements at a much more human scale, offering some caution but plenty of hope about how we can do that.

If you’re following the peak oil story, this book is essential to your personal library and for you to recommend to your local library right now. I mean step…away…from…the…computer…and go through the process to recommend this to your local library…immediately.

It’s also the best easy read yet (without sacrificing a shred of hefty intellectual substance) for you to give away (or recommend) to everyone you know who is primed to grasp the undeniable energy and economy story we’re facing today (and which no Hadron collider can ever zoom away). Get ten, and parcel them out for every holiday on your calendar.

It is a MUST READ!

Think of it as the definitive book for anyone who’s done with fairy tales and is ready to meet the world where it really is. It’s a book for grown ups, for those who are ready for the maturation of the human race but who like to consider such a prospect while also hearing the phrase “baby pants.” They’ll be the ones who understand that it’s time we graduated to cleaning up our own mess.

–Lindsay Curren, Transition Voice

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