Far, far away, on the misty frontiers of knowledge, dwells a small and widely scattered clan of clear thinkers who live with their eyes wide open, their minds always set to the “on” position, and their powers of reasoning cranked up to 10. They have an acute ability to instantly recognize the presence of balderdash and poppycock, even in parts per billion quantities. Even if the source is a slick-talking president, a gray-haired instructor, an industry expert, or a famous sexy celebrity, they know with without a doubt when claptrap and twaddle are shamelessly being ejaculated. They can keep their eyes on the ball, even in the thick fog of a never-ending propaganda blitzkrieg.
These isolated wizards refuse to drink the Kool-Aid and dream away their lives in the colorful cartoon fantasy world of consumer society. They aren’t giddy with childlike excitement about the latest new cars, shoes, cell phones, and hairdos. They have no throbbing hunger for RVs, McMansions, or jet skis. They don’t rot and soak into the couch cushions while sitting in front of flashing screaming TVs. Their minds are capable of voyaging to realms far beyond the dreary two-step death march of working and shopping.
They often dwell on mountaintops, sitting beside a fire, horrified at the spectacular stupidity of the industrial civilization spread out below them — killing the oceans, killing the forests, killing the prairies, killing their children, killing everything they touch — all for no good reason! Nothing could be more befuddling and painful to watch! What could they be thinking? Why can’t they see what’s happening?
James Howard Kunstler is one of those clear thinkers, and the twenty-first century is just driving him bonkers! It’s ridiculously easy for clear thinkers to comprehend the glaring, obvious truth, and they can’t understand why most of humankind seems to be incapable of doing this, too. He can see that consumer society remains on the worst possible path, and at every fork in the path, they choose the bigger mistake. It’s immensely pathetic, to the degree that the tragedy develops a ticklish aroma of comedy, and Kunstler uses wit like a sharp whip.
Consumers behave as if they are completely disconnected from almost every aspect of reality, spending their lives in an artificial world of pure whimsy. They are like excited children waiting for piles of fun presents from Santa Claus. They have a profound blind faith that science and technology will protect everyone with its boundless magic. Kunstler calls this the Jiminy Cricket Syndrome: “When you wish upon a star your dreams come true.”
In his book, Too Much Magic, Kunstler hurls a super-sized bucket of ice water in a heroic attempt to rouse sleeping zombies into a state of consciousness. “By the time you read this, the empire in question may be a smoldering ruin.” He rips down the curtains and reveals the stinking, burning, fever-crazed world outside. Wake up! We’re speeding toward multiple catastrophes! “This entire book is about the manifold failures of all kinds of people to anticipate the changes we face.”
Fossil energy is the foundation of our world economy. The global production of conventional oil peaked in 2006. By 2008, the price of oil had skyrocketed to $147 — big trouble. With regard to the miraculous new shale oil and shale gas fields, he’s convinced that most of the hope is based on industry hype, intended to attract dreamy investors and half-smart high-risk gamblers. All the magic in the world cannot replace fossil energy with alternative energy, or even come close.
The end of the 90-year era of “Happy Motoring” is approaching, and we’re not far from the peak of suburban sprawl. American style suburbia was “the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world.” Suburbia has no future, but Americans haven’t grasped this yet. “I expect many suburbs will become slums, ruins, and salvage yards.”
Southern California will turn into a ghost town.
Shortly after oil hit $147, the housing bubble popped, the financial system collapsed, and trillions of dollars vaporized. The collapse is far from over, since banks still hold a huge number of worthless mortgages, pretending that they are assets — pretending that they are not the living dead. A shortage of capital means that perpetual economic growth is close to finished. This means that trillions of dollars of debt are never going to be repaid.
This means that the party is over. This means that we’re moving into an age of contraction. Economic life is going to get much smaller, more local, and will use far less energy. Much of the labor force will be shifted toward the production of food. If we choose to acknowledge this, then we could make efforts to contract in an orderly manner. If we choose to bet everything on magic, the trip down will be more brutal, painful, and dumb. This is the core message of the book.
Kunstler takes us on a tour of a number of problems that are major threats to our future, and a few lesser issues that he just enjoys kvetching about (like infantile young bozos who wear their baggie pants way too low). He laments that the overpopulation problem has been assigned to Mother Nature to fix, since we’re not capable of giving it serious thought. He grieves over our unwillingness to do anything to slow the advance of climate change. (Well, we’re totally eager to help in any way that doesn’t involve changing our lifestyle to the slightest degree.) He spews extra large doses of venom on the political system and the finance industry.
George W. Bush was a memorable president. He involved us in two expensive wars for no good reason. He nearly succeeded in obliterating our economy. He made conservatives look like a clown act. Many believed that his shenanigans would drive the Republican Party into extinction. Nobody imagined that Barack Obama would grab the baton and simply maintain the same policies (his #1 campaign contributor was Goldman Sachs).
Obama approved borrowing hundreds of billions of dollars for stimulus spending, mostly for highway projects and runway improvements, updating a transportation system that has no future. Tens of thousands of finance industry fraudsters are never going to wait in line at the guillotine, because the president completely refused to enforce existing laws. Obama will be remembered for “botched health care reform, a dumb energy policy, keeping two of the longest wars in our history going, and not reestablishing the rule of law in banking in the face of arrant misconduct.”
He gives us Reality for Dummies, but not Solutions for Dummies. No amount of magic can undo climate change, painlessly shrink our population, make coal burning clean, or fix our economy. But today is an excellent day to open our eyes, and make an effort to comprehend our dire predicament. Today is an excellent day to take a good look, to see if there are less catastrophic places to crash land our airborne Titanic. At this point, it’s all about damage control, and trying very hard to learn as much as possible from our mistakes. It’s about clear thinking.
Kunstler, James Howard, Too Much Magic, Atlantic Monthly Press, New York, 2012. www.kunstler.com