Monday, July 2, 2012

Separating Crisis Message From Crisis Mush

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

I always find it awkward when I agree with a book, but have to recommend against it anyway. A book may be factually accurate, and accord with real-world concerns, yet still fail in the goals it sets itself. That’s the problem with James Howard Kunstler’s latest jeremiad. Though he (mostly) hits the target squarely, he touches so many topics in such a slim book that he loses coherence, does none of his concerns justice, and sounds like a curmudgeon.

Kunstler inveighs mainly against “techno-grandiosity,” his term for the hubris of assuming that technological innovation can solve the problems technological innovation creates. Cheap energy, material innovation, and boundless optimism have created a world of unprecedented plenty. But Kunstler believes this will be seen by historians as an anomaly. We face imminent fuel shortages, agricultural failure, and a world too crowded for its diminishing resources.

Unfortunately, our best and brightest assume, because society has seen an upward trajectory to this point, nothing can stop us now. If we run out of hydrocarbons, so what? We have technology to circumvent those shortcomings. We can build our way out of this cul-de-sac. The mere fact that current technology relies on the cheap, abundant energy that only hydrocarbons provide doesn’t penetrate the heads of these relentless cheerleaders.

So far, so sound. Kunstler’s claims make sense, they accord with the evidence we outside the halls of power see around us daily, and they sound persuasive. But instead of expounding on this core shortcoming, which bolsters every other claim Kunstler makes, he caroms through every ramification he can imagine, sometimes too briefly for us to comprehend them. Only somebody already in agreement with Kunstler will even want to follow his frenetic thought labyrinthe.

It’s hard to dispute Kunstler’s warnings about peak oil, unsustainable urban design, the false promise of post-humanism, and more—if you follow his hyperactive reasoning. Because he voices concerns I share, though more eloquently than I could, I agree with Kunstler. But he doesn’t stay on one topic long enough to do any of them justice. I’m persuaded because I’m already persuaded. If I came to this book cold, I doubt he would change my mind.

Kunstler also follows some weird cow paths. For instance, though he mostly addresses abusive reliance on technology, his longest chapter barely mentions that topic, focusing instead on the circumstances around the 2008 Wall Street implosion. Kunstler’s explication is less thorough than Robert Kuttner’s A Presidency in Peril—though Kunstler is funnier and more pugnacious. Still, telling a story well doesn’t matter if the story feels like an appendix.

Worse, both Kunstler and Kuttner miss the most important lesson of the meltdown: while media and government in the runup lionized pirate financiers, they also demeaned routine work. Laborers, teachers, and local service providers heard themselves openly described as “slackers,” “parasites,” and worse. No wonder they marched on Zucotti Park when not one bankster was indicted for the 2008 shipwreck.

Maybe that highlights the problem I have: Kunstler highlights the top-level malfeasance which created the current impasse, without really parsing what it means for the ordinary Joe who wants to earn a living. Peak oil, with its charts and histograms and sweep of technology, alarms those of us who care about umbrella issues. It means something different on the ground, where stats show that, the poorer you are, the further you probably live from your job.

Car-reliant suburban sprawl, one of Kunstler’s biggest bugbears, will certainly become a major menace when oil becomes so scarce that the poor can’t drive to work. But such sprawl was willed into existence, not out of malice, but because people need homes they can afford. And as the rich, who initially fled urban life, have now crowded the working poor out of city centers, people with hourly wages have moved where they can afford.

Kunstler, unfortunately, misses this. Though I can’t claim he’s unaware of the contemporary two-tiered social structure, he addresses it only fleetingly. Thus, while I cannot disagree with anything Kunstler says, I fear that when he addresses the audience who most needs to hear his message, his words will fall on deaf ears. Indifference, in politics, is so much worse than opposition.

I support nearly everything Kunstler says about what he justly calls “America’s war against its own future.” But if he doesn’t learn to pitch his message in terms that will penetrate his audience’s barriers, he might as well shout down a hole. I fear that’s what he’s doing already.

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