While I enjoy reading the works of James Howard Kunstler, I’m always hesitant to talk or write about them. His low-tech vision of the future seems too far out there…his predictions too cynical, his outlook too pessimistic. And then a news story will grab my attention and make me wonder if he is, in fact, bang-on. This week it was a Stephen Leahy article entitled, Experts fear the collapse of global civilization. You know you’re in trouble when the really smart, normally cautious people—like University Professors—start freaking out.
Escalating climate disruption, ocean acidification, oceanic dead zones, depletion of groundwater and extinctions of plants and animals are the main drivers of the coming collapse, they write in their peer-reviewed article, “Can a collapse of global civilisation be avoided?” published this week.
Even Prince Charles agreed that to “continue with ‘business as usual’ is an act of suicide on a gargantuan scale.” Of course, none of this is news to Kunstler, who has been writing non-fiction books and issuing dire warnings on subjects like suburban sprawl, resource depletion and environmental collapse since the early 1990’s. His 2012 book, Too Much Magic: Wishful Thinking, Technology and the Fate of the Nation, provides a much-needed follow up to his terrifying 2005 publication, The Long Emergency (which for many was an eye-opening introduction to peak oil and climate change).
Kunstler blames our inability to address our problems on “delusional groupthink,” and “techno-grandiosity” in particular. I’ve written about my own skepticism toward Amory Lovins’ climate capitalist theories before, and felt a little smug when Kunstler expressed the same opinion in the very first chapter (much more eloquently, of course). He cites two other common beliefs: wishful thinking, and the idea of getting something for nothing, which are combining to create a “toxic psychology” that is now preventing us from moving forward with meaningful solutions. Here is an excerpt:
“Give us solutions, not doom and gloom!” was the gist of what I heard at every conference or college campus. I sensed that there was something not quite right with this complaint, partly because I was presenting all sorts of ideas for addressing the long emergency and my audiences seemed to be blocking them out. After a while I began to understand what lay behind this plea for ‘solutions.’ They were 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, NASCAR, Disney World, Walmart and good jobs with guaranteed comfortable retirement. They didn’t want to hear anything that suggested we might have to make other arrangements for everyday life in this country.
Kunstler covers the full gamut of inter-related problems that are now beginning to cause us grief: peak oil, peak debt, our financial woes, the ineffective U.S. political system, climate change…and shatters any illusions about alternative or high-tech energy solutions (shale oil and gas, or bio-fuels, for example). None of it is really new information, but he writes with a clever, conversational tone that turns otherwise dry subjects (like the Wall Street fiasco) into a compelling read, especially when compared to some of the more academic writers in the same genre. He also seems to have a remarkable insight into the psychology behind it all.
Critics might point out that while his prose is eloquent, he has a tendency to come off as ornery. But how does one write passionately about such topics and not appear ornery? I enjoy his books even more so because of this. Reading Too Much Magic was a bit like listening to a post-apocalyptic Arcade Fire song—it made me feel enlightened in a discordant, ominous sort of way. I suspect Kunstler is one of those people—and there are not many in this world—who have the ability to stand back from their own culture and see things as they are. Passing up an opportunity to learn from such a person, however uncomfortable it may be, is surely an act of willful ignorance.
Too Much Magic: Wishful Thinking, Technology, and the Fate of the Nation
By James Howard Kunstler
245 pp., hardcover. Atlantic Monthly Press – July 2012. $25.00.