Review of Too Much Magic: Wishful Thinking, Technology, and the Fate of the Nation by James Howard Kunstler
By Tim Chamberlain
In his latest non-fiction work, James Howard Kunstler delivers a sobering message about what a post-oil society might look like and how we got ourselves into this situation.
Too Much Magic is both a history lesson and a warning. The warning concerns how we as a society will have to deal with a world where cheap, plentiful oil is a thing of the past. The history lesson is all about how we came to live in such an oil-dependent society bent on expanding its suburbs to infinity.
Kunstler is also the author of 2005 book The Long Emergency which dealt with similar topics: the passing of peak oil production, climate change, and the reorganization of society in a lower-energy environment. He argues that advances in technology cannot replace dwindling fossil fuels in our economy, and we are unwilling as a people to prepare or plan for this eventuality.
One of Kunstler’s major beliefs is that the result of a lack of oil will be a necessary restructuring of our society on a more local basis. Geographical areas will have to be responsible for producing their own food and water. Waterways will become important again as a means of transportation, and people will have to adjust their living situations to be close to such waterways. He also advocates a more robust national rail system, as that may be the only way to reliably travel long distances quickly once our oil supply is gone.
Another main argument is that alternative energies such as wind and solar cannot produce enough energy to replace what we burn in oil right now. Also, the equipment needed to harvest these energies requires some form of fossil fuels to be used in the first place. Kunstler is not against trying what we can, but he feels that any of that will be a “transitory phase of history” before we settle into a “low-energy,” more local society. Another effect is that major parts of the country (such as the southwest) may become uninhabitable as we won’t have the electricity to pump water and run air conditioning in these areas.
Obviously an author with Kunstler’s views is going to have detractors, and Kunstler has many. Many argue that he lacks credentials as an oil expert or that he is simply a crackpot. A quick perusal of oil experts tells us that the world has anywhere from 40 to 100+ years of oil left at current usage, depending on whose numbers you believe. No matter what you think of Kunstler’s opinions, one must address the fact that a lack of oil will be a problem that the world will have to face sooner or later. I feel that Kunstler is merely pointing out something a lot of people would like to ignore, that our current state of energy consumption is unsustainable in the long term. Kunstler states (and I tend to agree) that technology cannot replace energy–heck, that’s just physics.
This is a rather sobering (and, at times, frightening) book that may keep you up nights–there is a lot to think about. Even if you disagree with Kunstler’s views and vision of the future, you have to agree that the issues raised are important. If nothing else, reading this book will get you thinking about serious societal issues, and you will likely learn something as well.