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Review: Too Much Magic by James Kunstler

Too Much Magic: Wishful Thinking, Technology, and the Fate of the Nation
By James Howard Kunstler
245 pp., hardcover. Atlantic Monthly Press – July 2012. $25.00.

Jim Kunstler, the consummate Renaissance man of the peak oil community, has been up to a lot of new and exciting things lately. He’s an accomplished social critic, novelist, playwright, painter and New Urbanist, among other things, and has been churning out a fine selection of work on all these fronts of late. His newest paintings capture as vividly as ever the magnificent countryside that he calls home in upstate New York. He’s promoting his play Big Slide, in which one family holed up in the Adirondack Mountains can’t help warring amongst itself even as civil anarchy rages outside. He’s even decided to try his hand at hosting an online radio program. And lastly, fans of his World Made by Hand novels will be happy to know that he’s busily working on a third novel and planning a fourth beyond it.

In the meantime, Kunstler has a new work of social criticism titled Too Much Magic, his first nonfiction book since The Long Emergency came out in 2005. The book is an inquiry into a skewed, delusional perception of reality that Kunstler thinks has become “baseline normal for the American public lately.” Americans, he says, have been led astray by the incredible technological advancements of recent times. We’ve come to believe that any problem we face is solvable—as if by magic—with the application of some new technology. But Kunstler suggests that perhaps we've had too much magic, since our technologies seem successively less magical with the passage of time. “Even YouTube begins to feel as mundane as watching rain drip off the roof,” he observes.

Each chapter of Too Much Magic deals with a different aspect of the present situation in America. The main topics include energy and the economy, social relations, party politics, the ecological crisis, the “dangers of techno narcissism” and the stark challenges facing today’s cities as they’re forced to contract. A common thread running through all these discussions is the utter lack of public debate or thoughtful analysis about what’s going on around us. Indeed, Kunstler states early on that the book is meant to explore how our nation “happen[s] to find itself at a moment in history when it seems absolutely unable to think straight, let alone address its most pressing problems.”

The mother of all our delusions, believes Kunstler, is our blind faith in alternative energy sources as replacements for oil. The conventional wisdom that “they” will come up with some grand new energy source defies the evidence. Biofuels like ethanol and biodiesel aren’t the saviors they've been made out to be, since they arguably require more energy to produce than they return. As for the Rocky Mountain shale and Canadian tar sands, they're so difficult and costly to develop that they wouldn't be attractive at all without high oil prices. Similarly, hydrogen, algae-based fuels and dark matter, among many others, are all duds. And these are the best that the market could come up even with oil at $147 per barrel. In short, Kunstler writes that in holding out for some new energy source, we’re “waiting for Santa Claus.”

But Santa is not apt to indulge our wishes in this regard. Instead, Kunstler foresees a lengthy continuation of the great contraction that is now underway: The Long Emergency, as he calls it. Energy and other resources will become increasingly scarce. We’ll see an end to democratic automobile ownership and use, reliable electricity and the trappings of our much-vaunted information age, to name only a few of the things that are dependent on fossil fuels. Standards of living will plummet and occupations will vanish never to be replaced. Governments will dissolve, leaving infrastructure to decay and lawlessness to prevail. Looking big picture, we’ll find ourselves “running industrial economies in reverse,” to quote Kunstler, and ending up a much simpler, more localized society than we are today, with farming being the main activity.

Besides resource scarcity, another nail in the coffin of continued economic growth and progress is money scarcity. There simply isn't enough money in the world to pay back the trillions in public debt now outstanding, much less to fund future growth and innovation, argues Kunstler. With the entire global financial system now in disarray, Kunstler wagers that modernity itself may very soon be in “smoldering ruins.”

In an especially trenchant chapter, Kunstler examines the financial mischief that landed the economy in such dire straits. He begins his survey with Depression-era reforms like the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933, which kept commercial banks from engaging in investment banking, and the founding of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) a year later. He charges that the repeal, in 1999, of Glass-Steagall’s most important elements played a big role in the gathering crisis by allowing bankers to once again gamble with depositors’ money. The ensuing shenanigans “subverted legitimate enterprise, clouding the boundary between business and crime, right and wrong.” They also, contends Kunstler, cost America its credibility and good name as a fair-dealing nation.

A registered Democrat who voted for Obama in 2008, Kunstler nonetheless has harsh words for the incumbent president and his party for the parts that they've played in this economic crisis. He faults Obama not only for continuing the Bush bailout policies but also for failing to restore the rule of law in money. No new laws were needed to hold those responsible for this calamity to account; the president had only to see that existing laws were enforced. Yet he did nothing.

The author sees both political parties facing irrelevancy and a loss of legitimacy as the world moves deeper into the Long Emergency. Both the right and the left are displaying “fabulous sweeps of cluelessness and dishonesty,” he writes. The Republicans have shown no more interest than Obama and company in disciplining those at fault for the financial crash. Both parties also have the same delusions about America’s prospects for an alternative energy future, and both are onboard with recognizing corporations as legal persons with the same rights as ordinary citizens. In short, America’s political system is simply ill-equipped to address the age of contraction and austerity now begun. Just as nations and governments wane, so too, insists Kunstler, will party politics in the United States.

In a chapter titled "Social Relations and the Dilemmas of Difference," Kunstler speaks to the widening class divides in America. He sees these divides only growing wider in the years to come, as resources become scarcer and their allocation less and less equitable. He’s particularly troubled by the state of today’s youth, many of whom seem to have a sort of upmanship related to piercings, tattoos and ill-fitting clothes, born of a profound sense of societal alienation. This maligned lot will have one overriding thing in common, predicts Kunstler—they’ll never forgive their elders for passing down a ruined world.

The book’s chapter on ecological crises highlights climate change above all else, in keeping with the overwhelming scientific consensus on its gravity. Indeed, Kunstler has a nice line on the spuriousness of climate change denial: “One question the denial industry couldn’t answer was: why would all these scientists make this stuff up?” Some other deeply depressing environmental problems covered in this chapter include water depletion, overfishing, species extinction and seawater acidification leading to the dying off of the coral reefs.

Too Much Magic is carried off with its author’s usual craft, keen insight and élan. It explores a question that few other books have been perceptive or courageous enough even to ask: how Americans became so enthralled by today’s seemingly magical wonders that we lost sight of reality. In the end, it concludes that our belief in magic is ultimately self-correcting; as the age of high technology and abundance fades, our perspective will change along with it. The book’s parting thought on this is a philosophical one: “Generations will soon come into their power feeling differently about themselves than we do now, and in their reenchanted lives they will wonder about us and what we did to their world and what we thought we were doing."


Frank Kaminski is an ardent Seattle peak oiler, a connoisseur of post-oil novels and a regular book reviewer for Energy Bulletin. Email him at frank.kaminski AT gmail.com; visit his site here.

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