Too Much Magic by James Howard Kunstler

Sound the alarmist

Books Reviews
Too Much Magic by James Howard Kunstler

“If you are reading this,” offers social critic and New Urbanist James Howard Kunstler about halfway through his 16th book, “then you may be doing it in the smoldering ruins of modernity.”

Writing in the winter of 2011-12, Kunstler observed that the global financial system “stood in nearly complete disarray.” The author worried that the seismic economic spasms occurring then might just bring everything crashing down by the book’s publication date.

Such pronouncements, even if not truly meant to be literal, practically guarantee Kunstler’s dismissal as an alarmist doomsayer—an unfair tag given that the ultimate value of his message can’t actually be measured by its forecasting accuracy. ?

A one-time reporter and a mid-‘70s Rolling Stone editor, Kunstler has nurtured concerns about the industrialized world’s reliance on fossil fuels since assigned to cover the 1973 oil crisis for the Albany Knickerbocker News. In his 2005 book, The Long Emergency (a condensed adaptation appeared in Rolling Stone that same year), Kunstler made a host of dire predictions about humanity’s future based on his (and several geological experts’) assertions that the global capacity for oil production had entered a stage of irreversible decline (i.e: “peak oil”).

On a parallel track, Kunstler has long maintained a fiercely critical stance against suburban sprawl and car dependency in the United States, a point of view cataloged at length in his 1993 book The Geography of Nowhere. That work helped launched him into prominence as a spokesperson on civic design. ?

As Kunstler has enumerated countless times leading up to this latest book, the ramifications of peak oil and suburbia intertwine in a broader matrix of consumerism, economics, politics, geopolitical maneuvering, resource mismanagement, environmental decline and American cultural dynamics.

Essentially, Kunstler reiterates his outlook on the interplay among these forces in Too Much Magic. Unsurprisingly, he draws heavily on the recurring ideological tenets that define his other non-fiction work, as well as his fiction (much of it science fiction and speculative history), his lectures and his weekly podcast and blog editorials. He does, however, devote attention to new topics and targets, including Ray Kurzweil, an iconic technophile and artificial intelligence proponent who like Kunstler has earned a reputation for making audacious predictions about the future. ?

As he does for nearly every U.S. president since Richard Nixon, Kunstler reserves stinging criticisms for Kurzweil, a fitting figurehead for the rabid faith in technology against which this book vehemently rails.

In the process of pillorying Kurzweil’s infatuation with ultra-advanced nano-machinery, Kunstler observes that he and Kurzweil were both born in the same year (1948). He muses poetically on their two divergent life paths and offers a revealing personal take on the potential god-like sentience of a universe Kurzweil would rather see propagated by cyber-humans. He even draws Unabomber Ted Kaczynski into the equation in an investigation of the spiritual moorings of the Boomer generation to which all three men belong. ?

As in previous work, Kunstler thinks none-too-highly of his generation. In his view, Boomers “engineered a systematic misunderstanding of reality,” a collective act of such grave and far-reaching implications that the author considers it a decades-long crime against humanity.

Such hostility towards Kunstler’s own contemporaries prompted MSNBC correspondent Chris Hayes in his review (titled “Wise Fool”) of The Long Emergency to mischaracterize Kunstler as “motivated by a generalized misanthropy and contempt for modernity.”

In Too Much Magic, Kunstler once again demonstrates, on the contrary, his motivation by a deeply romantic appreciation for human decency, embodied by what he repeatedly extols as our once-virtuous American national character. ?

For a stretch of about 40 pages, Kunstler recounts the tale of how our national character was, as he tells it, undermined and then eviscerated wholesale by a pandemic of unethical practices in the finance industry. This section offers the most substantial expansion on Kunstler’s previous work. It also functions rather usefully as an easy-to-follow crash course on the history of banking from the buttoned-up postwar period to the worldwide economic meltdown of 2008 to its subsequent progress to 2011.

When Kunstler refers to The Great Recession as a tragedy, his yearning for the noble aspects of the American enterprising spirit practically jumps off the page: ??

The United States became the economic engine of the developed world in the past century not just because of its abundance of mineral wealth, its amber waves of grain, and its fantastic endowment of oil, 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. 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. Fair dealing in a bounteous land was apparently not enough even for us, who had established and cultivated it. We became greedy and craven and decided that lying to ourselves incessantly was the same as telling the truth. And all the wreckage that remains to be sorted out is testimony to that tragic change of heart.

On the other hand, Kunstler has consistently targeted Americans’ rampant sense of entitlement and exceptionalism as root causes of the very predicament he describes. He argues that the convergence of postwar prosperity in the United States and the then-abundant availability of oil paved the way for a shortsighted mentality. In the blink of an eye, historically speaking, that mindset enthralled our culture so profoundly it propelled us past a point of no return.

To Kunstler, our detachment from the reality of dwindling natural resources (namely: oil) doesn’t appear any less far-fetched than Ray Kurzweil’s extravagant dreams of evading death by retreating into a synthetic infinity of computer-generated realms. And our adopted penchant for cutting corners, Kunstler argues, directly resulted in the sleight of hand that enabled banks and Wall Street financiers to invent profits out of thin air (in effect creating new layers of money based on money, a process the book covers in great detail).

To be fair to critics like Hayes, Kunstler does write from the perspective of a kind of provocateur who feels we deserve what (he insists) we’ve got coming to us.

Kunstler devotes an entire chapter of the new book to arguing that alternative energy sources won’t prove to be effective replacements for fossil fuels—arguments he’s made before. By subtitling that chapter “Waiting for Santa Claus,” Kunstler calls up the mordant sense of humor otherwise more exuberantly on display in his talks, podcasts, and blog posts. The oft-delivered Santa lecture he gives during speaking engagements, for example, could literally be marketed as a combination architecture seminar, secular apocalyptic sermon, and stand-up routine. Even with the witticisms, though, Kunstler writes as if he harbors punitive intentions; the yuk-yuk factor doesn’t resound quite the way it does when he speaks, although his observations on the 1969 moon landing and the “nutritional masturbation” of the American diet do come close. (Readers of this publication will find ample cause to balk when Kunstler verges on unintentional hilarity by suggesting that the economic ascension of America’s working class precipitated a culture-wide artistic decline—a shockingly elitist assertion, especially given his Rolling Stone background.)

Is he worth hearing out again after already presenting these ideas in so many other venues? Indeed, Kunstler may be correct in anticipating that we lack the requisite sense of urgency to devise adequate solutions to our problems. And just because he points out the destructive carelessness inherent in our approach to suburbia, energy consumption, technological innovation for its own sake, and gambling with our financial infrastructure, it’s not fair to brand him as an alarmist.

Unfairness may cut two ways, however. Kunstler addresses the reader as if he’s convinced no one’s listening to him. (Want proof? Simply open the book to any random page.) ?

Underlying Kunstler’s searing indictments of certain technology (and architecture) that he feels has been conceived without conscience, myriad clues suggest he would like to see modern societies return to simpler ways of living that promote humane connectivity among people and their environments, natural and constructed.

His trademark warning—that “we’re not gonna be able to run the interstate highway system, Disney World, and WalMart on alternative energy”—betrays a desire that something come along and jolt us out of wasteful modes of living. As a result, as much as he laments the poor choices we’ve made in our race to modernity, Kunstler inadvertantly sounds as if he’s cheering for the crash those choices stand to bring. If that crash doesn’t come? We run the risk of never learning from our mistakes … or being forced to take responsibility for them. Hence the punitive tone. ?

By comparison, likeminded authors such as Michael Pollan (The Botany of Desire), Jared Diamond (Collapse), and Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation) manage to assert pointed ideas without succumbing to either taunting or defensiveness.

Kunstler clearly values certain attributes of human nature, ingenuity and problem-solving among them. But by taking to cause the virulent neglect that has characterized human activity since the Industrial Revolution, he leaves little room in his imagined future for those attributes to blossom.

In Too Much Magic, he explicitly references the fact that audience members at his talks frequently ask him for reasons to be hopeful. In one of his podcast episodes, a recording of a Q&A period following a speech, Kunstler barks “I’m not a therapist!”

Those requests may have finally gotten to him. He relents—at least somewhat—in the pages of Too Much Magic. At first, he offers a “disquieting conclusion” that closes on a pensive note: ??

Our longer-term destination is a society run at much lower levels of available energy, with much lower populations, and a time-out from the kinds of progressive innovation that so many have taken for granted their whole lives. It was an illusory result of a certain sequencing in the exploitation of resources in the planet earth that we have now pretty much run through. We have an awful lot to contend with in this reset of human activities. If it leads to the intermission from technological advance that I believe is in store, then we’ll have plenty of time to reflect on what we’ve done and where we go from here.

Later, he presents the possibility of “a hopeful future”:

I think the human race has many more innings ahead, but I am convinced that the terms for daily life can change sharply — [they] have historically, and [they] will again. If you are inclined to despair about being alive in this world of mystery, you could find plenty of reasons to sulk even if we weren’t in for the rigors of climate change, peak oil, resource scarcity, geopolitical conflict, and a crashing standard of living. Plenty of Hollywood stars have been miserable in their hermetic luxury, and lots of lowly peasants have been infused with the light of gratitude for [simply] being [alive]. A fortunate person will come to terms with the anxiety that being alive in this world presents.

In The Long Emergency, during a passage that verges on the sweeping force of classical epic poetry, or perhaps even symphonic music, Kunstler marveled at how, by the 21st century, “the richest nation in the world had become an amazing panorama of ruined towns and cities with broken institutions and demoralized populations—surrounded by WalMarts and Target stores.”

It would be difficult for any author to top such breathtaking lyricism. To be fair, Too Much Magic doesn’t necessarily aspire to do so. Kunstler clearly conceived the new book as a companion piece, and it essentially functions as an announcement that this “long emergency” period has gotten underway in earnest. ?

Too Much Magic certainly captivates, particularly in the sections on finance and climate change. Because Kunstler also applies more focus to historical timelines, his book at times follows a more coherent course than some previous work. The question lingers, however: has enough transpired in the seven years since The Long Emergency to justify a follow-up? Meanwhile, Kunstler has filled that time—perhaps more adequately—elsewhere.

In fact, one of the guests on his own podcast, Rolling Stone environmental correspondent and How to Cool the Planet author Jeff Goodell may have beaten Kunstler to a suitable punch line a year ago.

Asked (by Kunstler) how he felt about his own children inheriting a future shaped by climate change, Goodell expressed concern about them having to grow up in what he called a “radically de-stabilized world.” ?

For a final word, Goodell turned to scientist and Gaia-theory originator James Lovelock’s response to a similar question.

“Lovelock,” Goodell explained, “compared [the climate repercussions of the future] to being present in London during the bombings in World War II—he said, ‘it was horrific and chaotic … but it was very exciting.’”?

“That,” Goodell concluded, to much laughter all around, “is what we’re headed into: a chaotic but very exciting time.”?

?Saby Reyes-Kulkarni is a writer and musician based in Rochester, NY. He writes, podcasts, and posts interviews and short films at www.intersectionz.com.??

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