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Page added on July 11, 2012
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 I’m fascinated by. 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: “[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.”(p. 6). 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 time 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.”
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 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.
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.)
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.” That 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.