I just finished James Howard Kunstler’s latest book, Too Much Magic: Wishful Thinking, Technology and the Fate of the Nation. This is his long-awaited follow-up to his book The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century, the book that started me thinking much more seriously about communities and what would be needed to maintain good places to live even as our society changes around us.
There’s a lot not to like in Too Much Magic if you’re one of those people who believes that all problems have solutions, that we’re smart enough to fix anything, or that if all else fails governments can wave a magic wand and make things happen. (It’s also a book to dislike if you believe you’re entitled to your entitlements, or that you personally shouldn’t have to experience any change that isn’t producing “more”, “faster”, or “better”.)
If, on the other hand, you’re willing to take a bath in reality instead of fantasy for a while, Too Much Magic is a jeremiad by a patriot who believes his people are better than they have been lately, and capable of doing the things that would help them transition into the future with more than they will otherwise have if they’d just stop wishing and hoping.
For Kunstler, change you can believe in begins with hard facts and honest appraisals, not pipe dreams and fantasies. (Between The Long Emergency and Two Much Magic he published the first two of four novels exploring the world of a community after the long emergency has unwound most of the world as we know it now — World Made by Hand and The Witch of Hebron — and he is currently writing the third now that Too Much Magic is out.
What are some of the beliefs we insist on, that are keeping us from seeing the realities of our times?
We keep believing in “happy motoring” forever. By this, Kunstler means that we’ve built places, supply chains and needs that are totally dependent upon driving. Trucks drive in all supplies. Cars are an essential to get around. We build the human landscape in ways that make public transit just not work well — and we’re more interested in closing down bus lines and rail lines than we are in creating alternatives. (Here in Canada the Maritime provinces lose their only inter-city bus services in a few more weeks — the company’s throwing in the towel — and in another month rail services to Northern Ontario are discontinued.)
Closely coupled to “happy motoring” is the notion that air travel will be prevalent, frequent, and cheap — and that shipping allows for global supply operations to allow us access to everything at any time.
What we’ve built is a world that cannot persist if liquid fuels of the appropriate types (and you don’t run planes or ships on ethanol, for instance) are unavailable or priced out of reach — mostly because we’ve left no alternatives.
“Appropriate” does not mean just products: it also means regularity of supply, and affordability. You get affordability by the energy returned on energy invested (EROEI), which is another way of looking at the cost of production for the return. An
EROEI of 100, similar to the original Spindletop find in Texas that launched the twentieth century, gives you 19¢/gallon gasoline easily with more than enough capital available to keep supplies coming. An EROEI of 0.9 (corn-based ethanol) actually costs more to deliver than it delivers. Today global supplies are coming in at an overall average of less than 10, and falling fast, as more of the mix is unconventionally sourced (oil sands, shale oils, deepwater drilling, etc.) This, in turn, pushes more and more people into poverty traps.
Capital is as important as energy, in Kunstler’s analysis, and the debt bubbles of the past thirty years cannot be sustained, in his view. Each default, each failure, is the elimination of more and more capital, on top of the capital-destroying techniques used to hold the debt bubble at bay (zero interest rate policies, quantitative easing and the like). Less capital available will in turn impact production of the non-traditional and alternative energy sources, causing supply shortfalls — a feedback loop where each ratchet down on one side reduces the other.
Poor capital formation and debt has kept much needed maintenance from happening over the years. A road that experiences freeze-up in winter (most of North America) needs regular maintenance: twenty years later without it, you have a pile of rubble. (Twenty years of unused rail line and it’s still usable, albeit at slower speeds, one reason Kunstler supports expanding our use of conventional rail — rebuilding interurbans, expanding passenger service, restoring freight capabilities where lines have been torn up, etc.)
Instead, we have nonsense about energy independence (which ignores production issues and capital issues), “clean coal” and alternative energy systems (which are mostly at the R&D or small scale but haven’t been proven to scale), and the like.
Kunstler’s view is that our time is effectively up — the dies are cast, and we’re already living with the results. Our politics and our corporate world, on the other hand, reflects none of this — on any side.
Probably the single most scary thought he related came from his visit to the Google campus where he presented on The Long Emergency and they laughed him out of the room. “Dude, we have technology!” was the cry. The people there — smart people, creative people — couldn’t see that they, too, were part of an inter-related system, where things beyond their business affected their future.
Kunstler is not a “doomer” or a “survivalist”. He does think place matters — some places will do better than others, because of their built environment, their geography, their climate — and he does think scale will necessarily shrink as we continue to adjust to less free capital, less energy, more locality. For those who’ve heavily invested themselves in an untenable place, or who can’t conceive of big-scale institutions not being the measure of success, this is disturbing and doom-laden. But the fault lies in their conceptions, not in Kunstler’s ripping the curtain away and showing, not the wizard at work, but the hollowness of staying on a course that cannot succeed.
I recommend Too Much Magic highly. You won’t like it. It’ll irritate you beyond belief. But it may change your life in time to make a difference for you.