Bad now? There’s worse to come
Too Much Magic: Wishful Thinking, Technology, and the Fate of the Nation by James Howard Kunstler (Atlantic Monthly Press, $25)
There are damn few things you can count on in the world, but a view of what’s coming for civilization from James Howard Kunstler that’s dark and gloomy—and accurate—enough to keep you awake nights is always one of those things. His latest book, which serves as an update to The Long Emergency, also makes some interesting and noteworthy points; mostly, we’re too attached to “magic”—the miraculous things that are woven into the fabric of our lives—to seriously consider the sort of major changes that a warming planet with dwindling resources will demand of us.
In short, we’re so busy looking for alternative fuels to keep our car culture that we don’t examine our car culture itself to see if it can or ought to be sustained. Real change isn’t going to happen as long as we continue to believe that we can have “magic”—hydrogen fuels, solar car batteries, algae biofuels, anything so we don’t have to give up our cars, our habits, our stuff.
Kunstler runs down the list—warming planet, peak oil, overpopulation, tanking economies—and makes connections most of us are afraid (or unwilling) to make.
For example, global climate change means the emergence of diseases in areas where they’ve never been seen before, but even if we have treatment for them, rising energy costs, coupled with a staggering delivery system and a crappy global economy may make it impossible to get medicine and health care where it needs to be. A whole lot of people will die, not necessarily because there’s no cure, but because we can’t move things cheaply any longer. Of course, that will go a way toward reducing the population, but only the pre-ghost visitation Scrooge would suggest such a thing is a good outcome.
All the things we expected from the future are becoming out of reach, even in “first world” countries. Is it really any surprise that young people seem to long for a zombie apocalypse, when they’re $40,000 in debt for a B.A., juggling two barista gigs, and living at home? At least the apocalypse will get them out of debt and provide meaningful work.
“And, by the way, where are the flying cars? I was promised flying cars in the future.”
That’s a quote from Red Forman, the grumpy, blue-collar conservative dad on That 70s Show. The sentiment is pure American; technology will solve all our problems. However, as Kunstler points out, the tech that was always going to save us has never dones so. In fact, it tends to make things worse. Sure, cheap oil made it possible for (almost) everyone to have a house in the suburbs, but now that the oil’s not so cheap, those suburbs are a mess.
Seriously. Have you been out there lately? Hot, paved, and empty during the day.
The bottom line, accoding to Kunstler, is that we’re hitting the place—and the global financial struggles highlight this—where there isn’t any magic technological fix. We can’t make more things because, when it comes to resources, there simply isn’t any more.
Consider, for a moment, the recent murder of a Chinese manager at a coal mine in Zambia. Employees were upset and protesting poor working conditions and low pay; the manager was killed accidentally. But get this: It’s now necessary for China to own and operate coal mines in an African nation in order to get enough cheap energy to keep their economy moving. As even this fails, Kunstler would remind us, we’ll have a hotter, more violent planet with which to contend.
And, as he points out, those the tech geniuses and their colleagues in the “creative class” are primarily concerned with things that are “cool,” not necessarily things that work simply, easily and sustainably. What good is a really “cool” new computer tablet if there’s no power to charge it? And what value does storing thousands of songs in the cloud have, when the “cloud” can no longer be accessed because all the servers are unable to get powered up?
While Kunstler gives a lot of credit to the New Urbanism—a move toward sustainable, walkable cities that rely less on cars—he also notes that the ideas have been co-opted, resulting in a lot of unsustainable development that only looks like New Urbanism. It doesn’t function that way.
If anything, Kunstler makes an argument for function over form. The basic human needs, unchanged for millennia, for food, water and shelter are going to become increasingly difficult to meet. Take a close look at what’s already in store for us, short-term: Drought in the grain belt means that the price of food is going to go up for the next year). When the supply chain starts to break down, the system we’ve currently got—in which most stores have no more than a three- or four-day supply of commodities, depending on regular deliveries—is going to leave a lot of people hungry.
That’s bad enough, but the real stress here is on our way of thinking. For just so long as we continue to believe that there will be a technological “save” and we’ll be able to go on pretty much as we always have—using more, consuming more, having more—we’re not going to make the adjustments that might avoid a catastrophic collapse.
It’s our own magical thinking that makes this civilization-wide apocalypse inevitable.
If you haven’t read The Long Emergency, start with that; if you have, this follow-up is mandatory reading.
Read my interview with James Howard Kunstler about Sacramento’s plusses and minuses for sustainable living.