Our years of magical thinking: interview with James Kunstler

September 9, 2012

“Everybody’s got a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
— Mike Tyson

“That’s a pithy way of saying where our country, perhaps the developed world, is at right now,” notes author James Howard Kunstler.

We’ve blown past the mileposts for global peak oil, says Kunstler in his new book, Too Much Magic: Wishful Thinking, Technology and the Fate of the Nation, and we expect technology to save us. Whether our cheap-oil lifestyle falls quickly with a single knockout blow or crumbles slowly with a battery of jabs, Kunstler is certain of one thing: We’re about to be walloped.

We’ve definitively entered the epoch Kunstler calls “the long emergency,” an extended era of economic contraction and social stress caused by shrinking resources. Yet we refuse to see this, largely because we’re spellbound by the mighty systems we run with technological magic. Peak oil got you down? No worries; we’ll run those iPads with some other undiscovered, inexhaustible means of power.

Writers Paul Smyth and Judy George spoke with Kunstler about the end of the fossil fuel era and whatever comes next.

You talk about magical thinking in two ways: Not only do we believe we can solve our energy problems with new technology, but we infuse that belief with wishful thinking.

These two ideas are related, and I think elements of them have to be viewed historically. The last 150 years have amounted to such a cavalcade of wonders and technological marvels that we’ve literally programmed ourselves to expect it will continue indefinitely. This sequence of events — the telephone, the light bulb, electricity in every home, airplanes, motion pictures, television, the computer and thousands of other conveniences to human life—programmed us to think there’s an endless supply of technological magic that can overcome anything.

I think we’re heading into a time-out from technological progress as we’ve known it—and by that I mean just the way I’ve described it, the expectation of endless magic. And I think that will come as an enormous shock to our culture.

Why are we in for a shock?

I don’t think the previous Dark Age that followed the collapse of Rome was quite the same as what we’re facing. That involved a profound and incremental series of losses in knowledge, technique and the ability to do things, everything from making good pottery and concrete to ways of organizing work.

Our situation now has much more potential for cultural damage, because our conditioning in technological progress is so extreme. The letdown may be awful when it becomes evident we’re not going to solve our energy problems with algae secretions, solar, wind or other alternative fuel schemes–that we’re not going to run Disney World, the interstate highway system, Wal-Mart and the military on any combination of other energy systems.

Then what happens?

This has enormous potential for disrupting our sense of reality. It’s hard to predict the kinds of reaction that this may generate, but I think you will have a society so profoundly disappointed by science and technology that it could propel us into a new dark age of superstition.

What’s changed since your 2005 book, The Long Emergency?

First, it’s apparent that the problems we have with capital formation and the disabling of the banking system may be overcoming the issues of resource scarcity and peak oil, in the sense that we’re rapidly losing the ability to finance the kind of resource discovery and production we hoped would compensate for peak oil.

Second, I observed in The Long Emergency that we were becoming very delusional about the set of predicaments that we’re facing. I’m a little shocked at the quality and character of the delusional thinking and where it’s coming from. When you see articles in the New York Times, the supposed newspaper of record, that the USA may soon become a net energy exporter, you know there’s some kind of problem with perhaps the entire intellectual class in America.

What do you mean?

When societies get badly stressed, delusional thinking increases. We are now in that situation.

When you traffic in delusional thinking, you tell yourself a lot of lies and untruths. This is a dangerously infectious process. Once you start doing it in things like banking and money matters and carrying it out in the practical form of accounting fraud, then you’re really putting your culture, your society in peril.

These problems infect all realms of practical existence, including politics, business, media, education—so you end up, for example, with the President of the United States telling the public that we have 100 years of shale gas. That’s just an untruth. The consequence is a society that cannot and will not prepare itself for the reality of the future.

If we accept peak oil—and the debate rages—we’ll need something else to keep the lights on. In The Long Emergency, you held out hope for nuclear energy to help manage a transition to what you see as inevitable decline.

I had mixed feelings in 2005 about how nuclear energy was going to work out. It was obvious that the hazards were monumental. The way I put it at the time was that nuclear energy was probably the only way we were going to keep the electricity running after a certain point, and I think that’s still categorically true.

But I don’t think we’re going to do it now, for a couple of reasons. One is the fiasco at Fukushima. It’s created a climate in which opposition, even in a crisis, could be enormous. But there was always a question of whether there would be a broad enough window of opportunity for us to ramp up a program of commissioning new nuclear plants, and I think that’s closing—perhaps, closed.

The other new wrinkle is that the capital formation issues have become so extreme in the last five years that now, even if we did have the will and consensus to go forward with the new generation of nukes, it’s improbable we’d be able to finance it.

Your message—that we’re heading for a re-set to an agrarian communities, that we’ll be living in ways we haven’t seen for several hundred years—is often not well received. How have you prepared for the future you envision?

I believe in facing the future with hope. I moved from a fairly successful small town, Saratoga Springs, to a smaller, more decrepit factory village 15 miles east. I bought three acres of land with the intention of growing a lot of food on it. I built a substantial garden that’s still under way.

I chose to live in a place I care about. I spend a lot of time playing music with my friends. I also put a lot of ongoing effort into consciously building a social network here. I’m thinking about starting a small business that would be a cafe and gathering spot, but that’s in the larval stage now.

Tags: Coal, Consumption & Demand, Energy Policy, Food, Fossil Fuels, Nuclear, Oil, Technology