Jul 202012

I think that most people believe that science and engineering will come to our rescue with technological magic which will take care of our fuel supplies and allow us to keep roaming the freeways and back roads of this great nation.This belief in technology is too much magic in the view of James Howard Kunstler.

Kunstler might be described as a “futurist.” That is to say, someone who thinks about the future and the historical events, trends, ideas and attitudes that will take us there. Kunstler fans (I am certainly one for many reasons, not the least of which is the fact that Mr. Kunstler hooked our youngest son up with his literary agent which resulted in a four book deal with a major publisher and a number of foreign publishers) anxiously await his regular Monday morning diatribe/rant/essay which is loaded with imaginative metaphors and unusual language flourishes. He has written essentially the same essay a hundred different ways—to wit: we are running out of energy and must scale down. Before that happens we can expect some blood to flow in the streets.

In his several books elaborating on this topic his language is less hyperbolic, less entertaining than the Monday rant, but more convincing. His recent novels beginning with A World Made By Hand are very readable projections of what a future might look like.

Kunstler’s views on Peak Oil, the end of suburbia and the necessity to scale back are not well received by most people. They demand that he offer “solutions” to mitigate his views of the future. As Kunstler puts it, “They (are) clamoring desperately for rescue remedies that would allow them to continue living exactly the way they were used to living, with all the accustomed comforts ranging from endless driving to universal air-conditioning, cheap fast food, reliable electric service…They (don’t) want to hear anything that suggests we might have to make other arrangements for everyday life in this country.”

Well, we all want to continue our “way of life” don’t we? The general attitude of the island toward the ferry is a good example of this basic desire. The total impetus of PLIC during the recent ferry crisis was to maintain the status quo, regardless of the cost to the county based, on the proposition that Lummi Island deserved to be able to maintain its “way of life”, e.g. the ability to come and go at will at a somewhat reasonable price. Interestingly the current “way of life” on the island is quite different from the “way of life” here say 50 or 75 years ago before the island became a bedroom/weekend/retirement community with the requirement to get to Trader Joe’s and Costco as needed. I’m sure what Kunstler would tell the island would be to think this through a bit more. Consider what the future might bring as energy costs increase or as fuels are in short supply, as governments go broke due to a declining economy or as the country descends into some sort of economic and social abyss. Begin to think about how our transportation needs might have to be solved by the island population rather than by county politicians and bureaucrats.

There are no “solutions” to sustaining what is unsustainable. Kunstler suggests “intelligent responses” rather than solutions. But people insist on solutions and when it comes to energy look to technology as the way out. In most cases those solutions involve technology and Kunstler spends a lot of the book renewing his argument that 1) petroleum supplies are declining and, specifically, that export nations like Mexico with their own increasing demand for energy, will soon have to cease exports. 2) that shale oil is no solution because of the high cost of retrieving the oil and the immeasurable environment damage caused by the fracking process, 3) shale gas for the same reasons as shale oil 4) likewise, solar, wind, hydroelectric, biodiesel, algae-powered hydrocarbon fuels, hydrogen fuel, nuclear fission, thorium fission, atomic fusion.

We’ve had a lovely ride on the back of cheap, easy to retrieve petroleum-based fuels. “Unfortunately, the…expectation of most people in America is that all we have to do is switch from one energy system to another to keep everything going, and that the new replacement systems will appear magically as a result of the amazing synergies of creative innovation leading to new technologies.”

America imports more than two-thirds of our total fuel consumption. If we lose any part of this the affect will be dramatic and rapid. “We are a complex society and history teaches that such societies have a hard time contracting. We are geared for growth. In general, the only thing that complex societies have not been able to do is contract, to become smaller and less complex and do it in a programmatic way that reduces the pain of transition.”

Kunstler points out that we just can’t face the idea of contraction. We deny it and defy it. “All we’ve done is mount a campaign to sustain the unsustainable, to attempt to reflate the money supply, to try and ramp back up an orgy of borrowing that was insane in the first place…to bail out failed companies and socialize their losses at the expense of the taxpayers, and to run up new public debts so extravagant that they will impoverish generations to come.”

Granted, it’s hard to think about such things as not being able to get on the internet, not being able to drive to the store, not being able to fly across the ocean or talk on the telephone. We resist such talk. “People do what the can until they can’t.” It’s human nature.

Kunstler doesn’t feel compelled to describe our future except to suggest that it has to be more local, less regional, less national and international. In his novels, one finds an almost feudal arrangement developing with strong leaders emerging in localities. These novels are worth reading to stimulate one’s thinking about possibilities as is Too Much Magic to convince you that the game we’ve been playing is nearly over.


  13 Responses to “Too Much Magic”

  1. I do love reading all about how bad things are getting. It just makes me tingle all over. I think it goes back to my childhood. When we would all have to go out in the hallway at school, for drill, and sit against the wall, with our heads between our knees waiting for the Soviet Atom Bomb to fall on us. Our family couldn’t afford a bomb shelter in the backyard, stocked with food and water, so we could survive our inevitable fate. Our only defense was to ignore the whole terrible doom that was sure to befall us. We just lived our normal, everyday lives, went to school, our jobs, Sunday School, the movies, picnics, and vacations on Lummi Island. The inevitable nuclear holocaust, didn’t stop us from having a pleasant family life. Looking back, I’m glad. What a miserable way it would have been to exist, worrying about bad stuff that just never quite happened. I guess, ever since, it has amused me to observe folks who do chose to worry about things that just never quite seem to be as bad as predicted. I have better things to do than sit in the hallway, with my head between my knees, even if all the statistical data indicates that the sky is falling. It particularly amuses me when old retired folks like me, seem to worry so much about a future that in all likelihood we will be too demented to notice. The future I’m most concerned about is tomorrow morning. Will the Sun come up? Will it be rainy or warm? Will my toaster work when I push the handle down? Is there still steam rising from the BP Refinery out my window? I think the chances for my future are pretty good. Chances are, it’s sustainable even into next week. But, I’m not gonna worry about it. I’ll just keep checking back here, to see how bad things are getting. I’m glad somebody else worries for me. It gives me more time to enjoy today. Today is magic. I’m willing to bet that tomorrow will be too. But there I go with my wishful thinking. I’m sure, if you concentrate, and listen very, very closely, you can hear a Soviet bomber approaching………

  2. Ed, You can look forward to my next book review: “Bright-Sided: How The Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America.” by Barbara Ehrenreich.

  3. Like Ed, I’m grateful daily for our good fortune and celebrate it at every opportunity.

    Like Randy, I believe that Really Bad Things can and will happen to people and other creatures living on this earth — even in the USA, even on Lummi Isalnd.

    I prefer to accept both the joys or sorrows of this life, the fact that change will come and that predictions of the future are always iffy. It’s easy to pick out, post hoc, those predictions that failed or predictions that were correct (there were many who didn’t predict the real estate & financial meltdown, others who predicted it correctly).

    For some people, seriously acknowledging risks and potential ly serious problems seems to be spirit-killing and hence avoided at all costs. For others, acknowledging and trying to mitigate risk is a positive, not negative, approach to life. Where each of us sits on this Perky Pollyanna – Dismal Donna continuum varies widely. Our position often even varies considerably from day to day, depending on what’s going on.

    Those who sit (even temporarily) on the extreme ends seem to find it hard to see, never mind genuinely and respectfully acknowledge, validity in *any* view except their own — including compromise views of those somewhere in the middle of the continuum. Taking extreme positions creates excellent fighting territory (I’m right; you’re wrong — and stupid or ignorant since you don’t accept My Truth). While that’s great fun for the many among us who often seem to be itching for a fight, it’s tiresome for the rest of us who prefer to BOTH celebrate AND identify/solve problems.

    One of my favorite examples of how optimism and pessimism can work together productively is from the founders of our country, who were privately *very* pessimistic that the new democratic country they were working to form could possibly survive even a short while. Yet these private predictors of doom forged ahead with intelligence, compromise, political savvy, practical external optimism and much hard work to create our government.

  4. Good points, Wynne. I very much support private pessimism, and the public nurturing of hope, that our founders followed.

  5. Unfortunately I waffle wildly between private & public pessimism, private and public hope. Sometimes I just can’t help grieving loudly at some of the sheer insanity of our human world — much to the annoyance I’m sure of my friends & family. Just count me as one more bozo on the bus.

  6. Have you seen Kuntsler’s ” Eyesore of the Month” site? It’s here: http://www.kunstler.com/eyesore.html

  7. Lis
    Hadn’t seen that. Thanks.

  8. I don’t think I am really prepared to learn about how positive thinking has undermined America, and have decided it is time for me to delete this web link from my desktop. I apologize to those readers for whom my silly comments have become tiring, and to Randy, for any undermining I may have done to his message. I wish you all the best in achieving the goals you aim for, a full harvest, and bulging honeycombs.

  9. Ed

    Hate to lose a reader especially one with a different point of view.


  10. I like to remember that historically, the US military has had a reasonably good balance between risk-management and gung-ho positivism. Except, of course, when they get waylaid or seduced by political nonsense, or by personal manias. Then as usual all bets on sanity are off.

    I hope you stick around here, Ed. I value your insights and comments a LOT.

  11. Yeah Ed. I hate losing ten percent of my readership!

  12. I suggest that you read another book called TOO MUCH MAGIC that came out a year before Kunstler’s book. It is called “TOO MUCH MAGIC: Pulling the Plug on the Cult of Tech” by Jason Benlevi. It has much more original thesis about the digital one percent and the overwhelming influence they will have on our future. http://www.toomuchmagic.com

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