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Too Much Magic: Wishful Thinking, Technology, and the Fate of the Nationby James Howard Kunstler
Synopses & Reviews
In Too Much Magic, which builds on Kunstler's critically acclaimed New York Times best seller, The Long Emergency, Kunstler shows us that in a postfinancial-crisis world, his shocking vision of our post-oil future is more relevant than ever. He articulates a number of issues relating to the unsustainability of our high-energy lifestyle, including:
With vision, clarity of thought, and an antic, comic spirit, Kunstler argues that the time for magical thinking and hoping for miracles is over, and the time to begin preparing for the long emergency has begun.
In Too Much Magic, Kunstler builds on the core arguments of The Long Emergency and argues there is now compelling evidence that the long emergency — a period of increasing resource shortfalls, gradual economic decline, and a forced change to humanity's lifestyle — has now begun. Forces including the economic depression, decreasing oil production, and increasingly dramatic climate change are combining to — as Kunstler puts it — reset the fundamental terms of everyday life.”
In Chapter One, Where We're At”, Kunstler lays out the bleak situation that the world currently finds itself in. Not only have we surpassed peak oil (the point at which global oil production peaks and begins to fall), we are living in the wake of recent hurricanes, tsunamis, droughts and other natural disasters, and the havoc they have wreaked (just think of Fukushima). Governments seem powerless to stop the economic rot, and yet there appears to still be a lot of what Kunstler terms "wishful thinking" going on — the idea that technology will somehow deliver us from our myriad problems. Whats more, much of this wishful thinking manifests itself in techno-grandiosity: ideas of flying cars, cheap food for all, and alternative energy sources that will more than cover any shortfall from dried up oil or burned out gas. Kunstler argues compellingly that we need to get real with the situation that we're in, and suggests concrete plans that are focused on getting rid of our dependence on a high-energy lifestyle. He advocates investing in passenger trains for example, which consumers will not use until they are at least as convenient and cost-effective as the car. Kunstler argues that we've had "too much magic" — who thinks about the technology involved in flight when they're on an airplane, or gets a thrill out of turning on a flat-screen TV? We need to stop taking technology for granted, and get used to living with less.
In Chapter Two, Farewell to the Drive-in Utopia”, Kunstler discusses one of the topics in which he is most well-versed: suburbia and how it is destined to erode and decay. Suburbia, Kunstler argues, is by its nature criminally inefficient: impossible to traverse except by car, and filled with houses that are too large and extravagant to make sense in a lower-energy future. The recent falling out of the bottom of the property market, and the spate of foreclosures and deflation of property prices are indicative that American suburbia's days are numbered. Kunstler forecasts the imminent end of what he calls the "suburban sprawl-building economy" (as opposed to the "post-industrial," "information" or "service economy" — epithets that the government applies to an economy that has in large part been rolling along on inflating property prices) and argues that the demographic shift and mass migration that will ensue from the death of suburbia will be one of the defining features of America's experience of the long emergency.
Chapter Three, Cities of the Future”, looks at a different — but equally inefficient — way of housing humans: in skyscrapers. Since the 50s, one of the dominant tropes in visions of the future has been tall, glass-clad buildings that will house humans in clean, beautifully landscaped environments, far above the city streets themselves. These visions are still dominant today, in books like Greg Lindsay's Aerotropolis (which Kunstler singles out with particular ire), and Kunstler also rails against grandiose technological chimerae like vertical farms (humans have farmed horizontally for hundreds of thousands of years, and there's a good reason for this) and Modernist architecture (which often fails to accomplish critical tasks expected of buildings like keeping the rain out). Kunstler also points out that skyscrapers, of all buildings, have the shortest shelf lives — most only last a generation, and require frequent and expensive repair. So he argues that we will have to return to traditional ways of occupying the landscape: walkable cities, towns and villages, located on waterways and — if things don't go too badly — connected by railway lines.
In Chapter Four, The Dangers of Techno-Narcissism”, Kunstler demolishes the myths surrounding technologies like genetic engineering, nanotechnology, and the abolition of aging and death. In particular, he looks at the ideas delineated in futurist Ray Kurzweil's book The Singularity Is Here. Kunstler analyses Kurzweil's visions of future war (nanobots, dust-sized aircraft, smart weapons” like guns that can shoot around corners). He sees these futuristic ideas as completely out of line with reality: each gallon of gasoline used by American forces in Afghanistan cost $400 — where will the Defense department get the money to invest in new technologies when its going to become even more overstretched with rising oil and commodity prices? Kunstler also rails against Kurzweil's ideas that new sources of energy (shale oil, clean coal, shale gas) will arise just in time to make up for the sources we deplete.
In Chapter Five, The Futility of Party Politics in the Long Emergency”, Kunstler turns his attention to politics. He traces the fall of Democratic liberalism and analyses how average Americans lost their love for progressive liberalism, and how the economy morphed into its current bizarre state under Nixon, Carter, Clinton and the Bushes. He also looks at how the financial crisis dominated the 2008 election and how Obama's moves to attempt to tame it, and to institute real regulation, have all but failed.
Chapter Six, Going Broke the Hard Way: the End of Wall Street.”, Kunstler examines the banking industry in the wake of the financial crisis, analyzing step-by-step what went wrong with the banks, the regulators, and the other key players involved, and identifying the hubris which directed much of the banking sector's behavior. Kunstler traces the changes in America's economy and financial sector from the end of World War II, examining how we got into the mess we're in, and giving a blow-by-blow account of the key early moments of the financial crisis. He criticizes Obama for his failure to bring real change to the financial industry, and argues that we are very much still living in the aftermath of the crisis — nothing has been resolved, no perversions of the system have been rectified, and no senior bank officials have been charged or called on to answer for their actions in a profound way. And given that the whole financial crisis hinged on mortgages and on a collapsing property market, Kunstler does not see the economy improving any time soon — indeed, he argues that the endless financial crisis could be viewed as an extension of peak oil, climate change and population overshoot, coinciding with cycles of history predispose to change (the millennial generation).
In Chapter Seven, The Energy Spector: Oil and Gas, Alternative Energy, and Waiting for Santa Claus”, Kunstler analyzes the various peaks and troughs in oil production to date and showing how we reached a peak in 2006 that will never truly be surpassed. Global demand for oil is now hovering above total oil production — and this gap is set to get wider and wider. Kunstler also looks at other sources of fossil fuels: biodiesel, tar sands, shale oil, and looks in detail at fracking, but firmly believes that these sources will not be able to close the gap. In this oil-poor climate, energy-intense sectors such as the airline industry are struggling dramatically — just look at the recent news from American Airlines. Kunstler also argues that renewable energy sources will never be able to generate the kind of energy required to power America and the world — wind only amounts to 1.25% of energy generated in the US, and solar, less than 0.1%. If these technologies were to become more widespread, other limiting factors would come into play, such as the high cost of metals like silver which are required in the production of solar cells. And nuclear power has its own whole raft of different problems — last seen at Fukushima. Kunstler also discusses corn ethanol, hydrogen, fusion, and other alternative energy sources, but comes to one simple, if disquieting, conclusion — he sees our ultimate destination as a place with much lower levels of available energy, much lower populations, and a time out from the kind of lifestyle, and constant progress, to which we have become accustomed.
In Chapter Eight, Insults to the Planet, and the Planet's Reply”, Kunstler turns his attention to climate change. He believes that it is imperative — as well as inevitable — that we scale back our lifestyles to a pre-industrial level; this alone will stop the devastating effects of climate change. Kunstler discusses climate change deniers, and looks at the data relating to greenhouse gas emissions, the rising sea level, and extreme weather events. He explains the nuances behind climate change monitoring, and the problems involved therewith — but argues that the kind of extreme weather we have been seeing recently can only be attributed to a changing climate. As Kunstler says, the earth is a fickle place for all life, not least the human project of civilization” — and we are beginning to learn how powerful the climate and the weather can truly be.
Chapter Nine, Social Relations and the Dilemmas of Difference” looks at the gap between the rich and the poor in America, which began growing significantly at the start of the second half of the twentieth century, and is wider than ever today. He looks at the changes in cultural phenomena and consumption, particularly among the middle class, and analyses how changes in aspirations and expectations from life have widened this gap. The US economy is in a critical position — little manufacturing now goes on in the US, and America's tradition of attracting immigrants from all around the world further complicates the job market.
In a coda, Kunstler takes the moon landing as a brief example of how far we have already fallen. Apollo Eleven reached the moon with less computer power than the average cell phone nowadays, but while the rest of his household were celebrating, Jim (a young kid at the time) was extremely anxious — he felt very strongly that it wasn't right to go to the moon, even though he recognized it as an amazing deed in the annals of science. This mistrust of technology has stood him in good stead to cope with the realities of a changing climate, declining economy, and the start of the long emergency. The book ends with a message of hope — that the kind of trials that we will have to face during the long emergency will change the human spirit for the better: Generations will soon come into their power feeling differently about themselves than we do now, and in their re-enchanted world they will wonder about us and what we did to their world, and what we thought we were doing.”
About the Author
James Howard Kunstler was born in New York City in 1948. He is the author of eleven novels, including World Made By Hand and The Witch of Hebron, and four nonfiction books, including The Long Emergency. He is a frequent lecturer at colleges and professional organizations across the country. He lives in Saratoga Springs, New York.
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