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.