by Piet Coetzer

Looking at the limits of technology

Too Much Magic: Wishful Thinking, Technology, and the Fate of the Nation

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The time for thinking about magic and hoping for miracles to rescue the world from the “long emergency” when the “oil taps” run dry is over. It is time to begin preparing in earnest for the emergency that has already begun. 

This is the conclusion of futurist (and author) James Howard Kunstler in his latest book, Too Much Magic: Wishful Thinking, Technology, and the Fate of the Nation.
Although Kunstler, in the first instance, addresses an American audience, his conclusion also carries a global message.
His latest book follows on his 2005 best seller The Long Emergency in which he painted a vision of a post-oil future. Long Emergency ignited a widespread debate about society’s dependence on fossil fuels and dysfunctional financial and government institutions.
In Too Much Magic, he suggests that the financial system may already be in a state of permanent collapse, that the hopes pinned on natural gas in abundance are based more on desperation for fossil fuel than on reality, and that Mother Nature may be exacting revenge.
He analyses the various technologies being put forward as solutions to the looming energy crisis, including vertical farms, fracking and garnering ethanol from agricultural crops. The book concludes that none of the afore-mentioned will provide a long-term cure for a society dependent on fossil-fuelled cars, in love with an ideal of inefficient suburbia and unwilling to fundamentally change its high-energy lifestyle.
Alternative sources such as wind and solar cannot produce enough energy to replace the present consumption of fossil fuel and the equipment needed, and they use fossil fuel in producing it. These alternatives will only provide a “transitory phase of history” until we settle into a “low-energy”, more local, society.
For Kunstler 'too much magic' is the bright vision of a future world dreamed up by overly-optimistic souls who believe technology will solve all our problems. It reminds him of the visions of a future with flying cars and robot maids that dominated the 1950s.
“Our lust for ever more comfort, pleasure and distraction, our refusal to engage with the mandates of reality, our fidelity to the cults of technology and limitless growth, our narcissistic national exceptionalism – all propel us toward the realm where souls abandon all hope,” he writes.
He does however also put forward some ideas of what a post-oil society might look like. Among these are that:
• One of the major results will be a necessary restructuring of society on a more local basis; 
• Geographical areas will be responsible for producing their own food and water; 
• Waterways will become important again as a means of transport and people will have to adjust their lifestyles to be close to such waterways; and 
• A robust railway system may be the only reliable and quick transport once oil runs out.
 
What others say
Stephen J. Dubner, co-author of Freakonomics and SuperFreakonomics said that “Kunstler plainly has a lot to say about the state of the world. And while much of it is bad – aggressively, congenitally, perhaps even fatally bad – he speaks with such vim and vigour that you find yourself nodding in agreement rather than looking for a noose.”
Tim Chamberlain on worldpress.com commented that “[t]his 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.”
Too Much Magic: Wishful Thinking, Technology, and the Fate of the Nation was published in July this year by Grove Press and Atlantic Monthly Press. It can be ordered online in South Africa from Exclusive Books at a cost of R274.
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