Jim Kunstler has a new book out called Too Much Magic: Wishful Thinking, Technology, and the Fate of the Nation.
“Too Much Magic” is what Kunstler sees in the bright visions of a future world dreamed up by overly optimistic souls who believe technology will solve all our problems.
Their visions remind him of the flying cars and robot maids that were the dominant images of the future in the 1950s...
Although I think Jim has gone a bit overboard regarding his belief that peak oil is going to subvert our disintegrating industrial civilizations —at least in the next 10 years or so—I can certainly agree that we live in a world of overly optimistic souls who believe technology will solve all our problems. Read yesterday's post The Assumption Of Technological Progess if you haven't already done so.
Full disclosure: Jim contacted me when he was writing Too Much Magic to ask about unconventional natural gas from shale reservoirs, and our discussion hit on these faith-in-technology themes. Naturally I tried to be supportive. I remember Jim mentioning Ray Kurzweil of technological singularity fame. I remember telling Jim that I think Kurzweil is bat-shit crazy. Finally, I haven't read Kunstler's new book.
Rolling Stone interviewed Jim in an article called James Howard Kunstler on Why Technology Won't Save Us. I'll quote some of the interesting bits today and make a few comments at the end. I left out large parts of the interview, so read the original article if you want more.
In his latest book, Too Much Magic: Wishful Thinking, Technology, and the Fate of the Nation, Kunstler zeroes in on the central narrative of our time: that we are a highly evolved and technologically sophisticated civilization that will use our ingenuity and engineering expertise to come up with a solution to all the problems we face, from the end of cheap oil to the arrival of extreme climate change. In other words, we're not going to collapse into the dust bin of history like the Mayans or the Easter Islanders, because we have iPads and antibiotics.
In Kunstler's view, this is a childish fantasy. "I’m serenely convinced that we are heading into what will amount to a 'time out' from technological progress as we know it," Kunstler, who is 63, told me from his home in upstate New York. "A lot of these intoxications and deliriums and beliefs about technology are going to run into a wall of serious disappointment." In short, Kunstler believes we are living on borrowed time – our banking and political systems are corrupt, our fossil fuel reserves are dwindling, the seas are rising – but we’re still partying like it's 1959. "Reality itself is very uncomfortable with fraud and untruths. Sooner or later, accounts really do have to be settled."
Why Is your book called Too Much Magic?
It's part of the ongoing story of what's turning out to be a crisis of civilization. I tried to describe the first part of the crisis in The Long Emergency. Since that time, it has become self-evident that we have a range of very difficult problems facing us, and we are taking refuge in wishful thinking, telling ourselves a story that we can continue to live the way that we’re living now. We desperately want reassurance that we can keep this hyper-complex engine of an advanced American Dream economy going – despite all the signs that are telling us that we probably have to make new and different arrangements for everyday life.
What, specifically, are those problems?
Peak oil and the exhaustion of material resources, climate change, the failure of the banking system, and political turmoil.
You write about visiting the Google campus in Silicon Valley, and how nobody there understood the difference between energy and technology.
They are not substitutable. If you run out of energy, you can’t plug in technology. In this extremely delusional society right now, one of the reigning delusions is that if you run out of energy, you can just turn to technology. We completely don’t understand that. And the tragic thing is, the people who ought to understand it don’t get it. And if the people at Google don’t know the difference between energy and technology – well, then who does?
Well – yeah! When more people are paying attention to Khloe Kardashian’s vagina than to the great issues of whether we can carry on our civilization in a dangerous time, I’d say that is a pretty misguided, distracted culture. Not that I have anything against Khloe Kardashian’s vagina.
Aren’t you ignoring the many upsides to technological progress, from medicine to the political power of Twitter?
I think it’s very deceptive. First of all, technology never stops biting us in the ass. It never stops demonstrating unintended consequences. My favorite example is, we spent 30 years computerizing the phone system in order to enhance communication – and now the net result is, it’s impossible to get a live human being on the phone anywhere in America. Another case in point is what I’m going through right now. I have a wonderful, innovative hip implant that was designed about 10 years ago. I got one of the early models, which is now giving me a case of cobalt poisoning, and forcing me to have another operation to remove it. This was introduced as "better technology than was there before."
What’s going to happen to the billions of iPads that are drifting around now – are we going to use them as roofing tiles?
People always ask me about the Internet, saying, "Isn’t that where all the activity will migrate to?" That seems like an absurd supposition to me, largely because there is no question we’re going to have trouble with the electric grid. It is already decrepit and in a lot of trouble. If the Internet exists at all in the future, it will be on a much-reduced scale from what we enjoy today, and all the activities of everyday life are not going to reside on it. It’s just another moment of intoxication. We simply can’t imagine an end to the kind of technological progress we’ve enjoyed for over 100 years. We can’t imagine any other reality.
You end the book talking about the importance of facing future with hope. What gives you hope?
That reality will compel us to change our behavior, whether we want to or not. We’ll probably be dragged kicking and screaming into a new arrangement of everyday life. We will probably adjust to it once we get there. But there are liable to be a lot of losses along the way. I think the key to getting through this is to understand that that our main political task for the next few decades will be to manage contraction in a way that minimizes human suffering. All the magical thinking that is going on now is just an attempt to evade that mission.
Jim's answer to that last question is very interesting. Reality will compel us to change our behavior, whether we want to or not. That's kind of a hopeless hope. It's really no hope at all in my view. We will probably adjust to it once we get there. I don't know what Jim is thinking here, but perhaps he thinks the future will look something like the world he created in A World Made By Hand, his recent novel about life in America after the peak oil manure hits the fan (which I also haven't read).
My own view is that managing contraction in a way that minimizes human suffering is well-nigh impossible. Once the contraction starts, and people see it is irreversible, they will lose all faith in our governing institutions. I expect human behaviors to revert to the primitive in no time flat. I'm not saying this will happen anytime soon, but if things really do start going downhill—a genuine collapse—I certainly don't want to be around to see it. And I certainly wouldn't see it for long in any case. Unless I've got a boatload of canned goods and enough guns & ammo to stock a small armory, I wouldn't expect to last 5 minutes.
Jim may genuinely feel hopeful about the possibility of managing the contraction. And we should remember in this context that Jim has a book publisher (and a track record) and I don't. And if you want to get a book published in America, especially a book about a degraded future, you had better put some hope in there somewhere, preferably in the last 15 pages after you've just spent 265 pages telling your readers in very precise terms just how fucked they are. As I'm fond of saying, the hope is obligatory.
Bonus Video — the video from my post The Astounding World Of The Future