Monday, August 6, 2012

The Problem with Positivity

Too Much Magic: Wishful Thinking, Technology, and the Fate of the Nation
by James Howard Kunstler

Looking for a book that will keep you up late, give you nightmares and leave you feeling like you've just come from the doctor with really, really bad news? You were with me till that last part, weren't you? Well, that's exactly why you should read Too Much Magic, says author James Howard Kunstler.

Barbara Ehrenreich covered similar territory in Bright-sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America, but Kunstler's warning is even more urgent. Too Much Magic continues the exploration of "the converging catastrophes of the 21st century" that he began in The Long Emergency. To the intertwined and mutually amplifying problems detailed in that book (climate change, "population overshoot," resource depletion, urban decay/suburban sprawl), Kunstler now adds economic collapse and deepening political paralysis. And no techno-wizardry is going to save us this time. If this sounds like grim reading, be assured it is. But it's also wickedly funny. Kunstler's barbs sting, but his jabs are well aimed and anything but gratuitous.

"Times are hard," Kunstler writes, "and look like they will get a whole lot harder soon." Especially out here on the fringe of car-loving Atlanta, which he declares will be spectacularly unlivable in the "post-oil" era. Reading Too Much Magic is like contemplating your own death; you know it is going to happen, but does it have be so soon? And soon it will be, says Kunstler. He warns that something like the gas crises of the 1970s could become a way of life within a decade. After that, natural gas lines will start to sputter and—barring a miracle—the electrical grid will begin unraveling as gas-fired generators fail. What happens next is anyone's guess, though the survivors may well regard their Amish neighbors with envy.

Because "there is no solution for the insoluble," Kunstler offers no solutions for the crises we will face in the Long Emergency. His only advice: be ready. He has published two novels about what life in post-oil America might look like: The World Made by Hand and The Witch of Hebron. I haven't read them yet and can't tell you whether they're any good (though Goodreads rates them highly), but one thing is certain: they will still be readable long after the lights flicker out and the last e-reader has gone dark for good.

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