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James Howard Kunstler on Why Technology Won't Save Us

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James Howard Kunstler
James Howard Kunstler
Charlie Samuels

James Howard Kunstler is a novelist and critic who made his name trashing suburbia.  The Geography of Nowhere, published in 1994, is a wildly entertaining rant against strip malls, fast food, and America’s "happy motoring utopia."  A decade later, he followed up with The Long Emergency, in which he argued persuasively that the decline of cheap oil will bring an end to civilized life as we know it.

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.

That’s quite a list!  In The Long Emergency, you argued that the end of cheap oil basically meant the end of modern life as we know it.  And yet, paradoxically, in the last few years there has been a boom in unconventional oil and gas.  How has that changed your views about the consequences of peak oil?
There is a stupendous volume of propaganda, and wishful thinking, that we can replace cheap oil from the Middle East with unconventional oil and unconventional gas – namely shale gas and shale oil.  I think the whole game really founders on money issues and capital issues, and this is very poorly understood by the public – including by people who ought to know better, like the mainstream media.  We’ve been seeing headlines lately suggesting that America will soon be energy independent.  Or that somehow America has magically become a net oil exporter.  This is nonsense.  The bottom line is, once you are trying to replace a shortage of easy-to-get conventional oil with unconventional, expensive oil, you’re stuck in a trap.  There is a paradox there: you really need a cheap oil economy to support an expensive oil economy.  Without that underlying cheap oil economy, we’re probably not going to get much of that expensive oil that’s in difficult to get places, or that requires some extreme and complex production method for getting it out of the ground.

People in the oil and gas industry argue that technological innovations like horizontal drilling are opening up new reserves all the time.
We’re not paying attention to the what is turning out to be the biggest shortage of all, which is the shortage of capital, based on the impairments of capital that are now underway in our disabled banking system.  What this all boils down to is that the money is not going to be there to do the things we’d hoped we’d be able to do.  There is only so far that wishing, and a strong will, will get you.  Ultimately, you do need to have some kind of accumulated wealth to accomplish these things, and that’s what capital is.  For several hundred years, we’ve had a pretty good system of accumulating it, accounting for it, storing it, and allocating it for useful purposes.  That’s what capitalism is about.  Capitalism – contrary to a lot of bullshit – is not a belief system.  It is not a religion.  It is simply a set of laws governing the behavior of surplus wealth.  What we have done in the last 25 years is introduce so many layers of untruth and accounting fraud that it’s no longer possible for money to truly represent the reality of accumulated wealth.  These lies are so deeply impairing the banking system, and all of the mechanisms that go with it, that we’re going to end up in a crisis of capital, even before we end up in a crisis of energy.

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? 

Steve Jobs famously argued that, at it’s best, technology is a tool to empower individuals.  I get the feeling you’d argue that technology has made us stupider – is that right?
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 write a lot about the failure of political leadership.  In particular, you go after President Obama for not appointing tough regulators to oversee Wall Street.
Obama has turned out to be fairly clueless.  He seems like a decent chap (and by the way, I voted for him).  I think that Obama’s failure to reestablish the rule of law in money matters is the most damaging thing that he’s done – and perhaps the most damaging thing that has happened in American politics in my lifetime.  Because once the rule of law is absent in money matters, then anything really goes in politics.  Any untruth is admissible.  Any distortion of reality is OK.  It is a profoundly dangerous place for a culture to go.  And there is no sign, as we enter the election of 2012, that he has any plans to rectify that.  We’re in a situation now where the rule of law is simply AWOL in American economic matters.

Do you have a solution to our troubles?
I don’t like talking about "solutions."  I prefer talking about intelligent responses.  My beef with the whole "solutions" thing comes from my travels around the country, talking on college campuses and such; there is this whole clamor for "solutions."  The idea is, if you’re not optimistic enough, you should shut up.  But there are subtexts to all these things.  And the subtext to that particular meme is, "Give us the solutions that will allow us to keep running our stuff the same way we’re running it now, except by other means."  They don’t really want to hear about other arrangements.  They want to keep on running all the cars, only differently.  You know, like hybrid electric cars, or electric cars, or cars that run on algae secretions.  But they don’t get that we’re done with that way of life.  The mandates of reality are telling us something very different.  They are telling us we have to inhabit the landscape and move around in it very differently in the future. 

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. 

For more about James Howard Kunstler, visit his website: kunstler.com.

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