Sunday, April 14, 2013

Wishful Thinking

It is all too tempting to dismiss James Howard Kunstler as a doom-and-gloom pessimist but the nagging questions he leaves us in his books and blog, are pretty insistent in their demand that we prove him wrong (Too Much Magic, Atlantic Monthly Presss, 2012). This exercise, to have any meaning, would have to be done by what Kunstler calls, “reality-based adults”. Good luck finding such individuals and pray to the god (small cap) of your choice that they are successful. You might be such a person. Kunstler's conclusions are too dark for my sunny disposition so I beg, someone, please demonstrate the flaws in his argument.

In my world view, previous to reading this book, the life system operant on the only planet we have has been under serious threat from several quarters: pollution, over-population and nuclear nightmare. These are interrelated and probably share a common source rooted in human disfunction. To these three perils must be added, so says Kunstler, a fourth at least as potent, made more so by being pretty much off the radar.

It is a sad and bitter prophesy that, if Kunstler is on the mark, all the great books, music movies and other products of the imagination, advances in science, technology, medicine... are about to slide into the inaccessible area called the past, of no further use, at least that portion of them dependent on oil and electricity. What will be useful, life-sustaining, is the ability to walk where you're going and grow food. Accompanying a wholesale die-off of complex civilization will be a die-off of that portion of humanity without those skills. Even the guns will one day rust and bullets will peter out so the NRA-schooled bully boys will be reduced, once again, to clubs. A small club is good for turning a hollow log into a musical instrument but, given the rate of success we've had instituting non-violent conflict resolution when we've had the leisure to develop it, we're going to need big clubs too. Those of us not in the die-off.

Afraid perhaps of losing his audience Kunstler is not quite so blunt. Rather he couches his view in a persuasive objectivity and scientific grounding, citing interesting tid-bits across many disciplines to bolster his credibility, such as the number of barrels of oil used daily in the U.S., economic assumptions about infinite growth and investment, fusion, alternative energy strategies (fantasies), the savings & loan bail-out under Bush I., the “leveraged buyout of the U.S. government by big banks”, the abandonment of downtown Johannesburg's business district, climate change, the petroleum industry con called fracking, the coal industry con called “clean coal”, Nixon's downfall, Carter's anomie, and the blissful ignorance or denial of the implications of peak oil.

Kunstler doesn't do much to persuade the reader of his assertion that peak oil was reached in 2006, apparently feeling his previous book, The Long Emergency, had already established that “fact”. He does define peak oil as when the amount of oil produced daily peaks, and from then on less is increasingly available to a growing consumer base. So something, increasingly, has to give. Living in a capitalist society tends to instill a reluctance to share and this value, combined with a dominator's willful ignorance of non-violent conflict resolution skills, should produce a lively if brutish existence for the survivors of Kunstler's long emergency – should he be right.

Desperate to find something to oppose in this book I have to point out that the author or his editor must have found all their ideas for titles already taken. A line from the sub-title would have been snappier and clearer – Wishful Thinking. As it is, Too Much Magic: Wishful Thinking, Technology and the Fate of the Nation is as awkward and cumbersome a title as you could come up with. Would that this criticism negated the book's thesis. The nation, as Kunstler sees it, wishes to maintain it's consumerist and wasteful life style unimpeded by a reality-based adult consideration of facts. With little sign of a fessing up to what Kunstler calls a “hallucinatory globe of falsehood”, neither by public officials nor citizens, we drift, as Einstein said in a slightly different context, toward unparalleled catastrophe.


  1. Advanced civilizations have been wiped out before by space objects like meteorites hitting the Earth. This will be the first time we wipe ourselves out by our nuclear technology.

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