I often get labeled as a pessimist (I’d prefer ‘realist’ label) but this guy, James Kunstler makes me look positively giddy. While I haven’t read his book, Too Much Magic, Wishful Thinking, Technology, and the Fate of the Nation, for now this review and interview will suffice to address a couple of the issues he raises. Here is his basic thesis:
“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.”
I actually agree with his statement of the impending doom, but I actually don’t concur that our only choice is some substantially reduced living, as he states (in the interview):
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.
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.
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.
Again most of what he says I agree with, but not all. We do have our head in the sand and the bulk of the public just thinks technology can bail us out and we can keep on going in our non-sustainable ways; and that’s wrong, as Kunstler says. And as the current political paralysis shows we’re not going to do anything about any of the sustainability issues we face, primarily because Repug constituencies make too much money off them (and even more with the shortages, as we’ll see in the speculation driven hyper-inflation of food prices using the current drought as an excuse) and because Repug “philosophy” of anti-government, but especially anti-science (always the inconvenient truth for them).
But the U.S. always does this. We’re terrible at anticipating crises and heading them off, but we actually (at least thus far) have managed to do OK at panic reaction to them (how much easier it would be if we managed soft landing, like managing the banks in 2005-0007, rather than bailing them out in 2008). Like the multiple “surprise” attacks on us we’ll respond with vigor once our apathy is overcome, even when the apathy, this time, is being encouraged by special interests.
Kunstler makes a big deal about “peak oil” but he’s also old enough to have lived through the first of the gasoline shortages (even back then, mostly contrived and artificial). I remember pushing my car, car-length by car-length in a half-mile long gas line and the point is so did every one else in that line. In the years that followed we actually made significant strides, both in the technology being created by the auto companies (unfortunately mostly just the non-U.S. companies) and in consumer acceptance of different cars. When we have to we can do something. we’re just terrible at preventing crisis.
So Kunstler is, unfortunately, selling the same idea as Jimmy Carter did during his malaise speech (and we all know what happened to Jimmy Carter). If you ask Americans to accept less (esp. in non-crisis situation) you will be vigorously rebuffed and then the good part of your message will be lost too. Unfortunately the Repugs have adopted the notion of “exceptionalism” (their meaning is nowhere near any original meaning or any justifiable meaning) and we see it in something like Sarah Palin handing out cupcakes as a reaction to Michelle Obama’s garden and healthy eating campaign. Anyone who says anything semi-sensible is going to have this polarized political response treating the need of positive change as an unAmerican attack on “exceptionalism”.
But also as a member of the technology community I think we’re more creative than Kunstler imagines. What he doesn’t quite manage to do is split the greedy self-interest of Repugs from the actual capabilities of technologist. He mentions in the interview that Google folks thought we’d substitute the Internet for energy and Kunstler gets a good laugh from that. But we are reducing energy consumption (and could do a lot more) through smart technology. Kunstler correctly points out the crappy energy grid we have but ignores the possibilities of a smart grid, of smart highway, or self-driving cars, etc.
This POV is really just another repeat of the old Malthusian catastrophe projection and we’d be dead many times over already if Malthus had been correct. Now my “optimism” is not a justification for: party-on, let the good times roll. We are doing way too many non-sustainable consumption of resources to not expect a crash. But in many cases, that non-sustainable consumption is the consequence of policy (like the depletion of Ogallala aquifer here in the great plains or stupid water waste in California) and thus can be changed. What is missing is political will rather than technology.
For instance let’s say we put on a carbon tax (just as we did the equivalent with cigarettes) that drives up the cost of gasoline to $10/gallons. Now everyone will scream and yell and say that screws lower income people. Fine, give them a prorated rebate of all their fuel taxes, but at the end of the year. So when they pay $100 at the pump to fill their gas guzzler they’ll feel that pain then, even though they will get the taxes back later. Now under this plan tell me what you think will happen to average MPG in the U.S.? There will be a lot of bargains on used pickups and SUVs for a few years and a shortage of Prius’s but we’ll adjust and 80 MPG will be the new standard. But admittedly conservative can only go so far and even this only means cutting oil consumption in half, probably, but it buys us time. Can we run cars off something other than oil by 2050? I’ll bet yes, but we won’t get there from where we are now if either: a) we don’t actually start making changes now, and, b) we reject the pessimism of Kunstler type thinkers.
Now the Repugs love to say the market is always self-adjusting and you know what, I agree, but not the way they think. See I accept the scientific facts of evolution which is based on natural selection. Do something stupid for very long and you (and your progeny) will be wiped out. So markets do correct, sometimes just very violently. Had Hank Paulson not bailed out the banks in 2008, they would have crashed (and the economy with them) but that is “self-adjusting” in the market (it just threw everyone in the world into a giant depression to finally convince a few idiot gamblers in Wall Street their game was over).
Well, global climate change also will be self-adjusting. Simply put we’ll kill enough of the human species that we stop injecting so much greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, possibly we’ll kill all of us and many other species, but guess what, the earth will survive, life will survive, and it will all go on without us. No, we can’t cheat Mother Nature and truth will win out in the end. But do we have to be so stupid to all die just to prove the science is right.
The only place where I might agree with Kunstler’s pessimism is the notion of tipping points. By the time global climate change has created enough disaster that denialism is finally crushed (who knows, the worse it gets the religinuts will just claim its gods’ will for believing in any science at all and want to do even more stupid stuff) we’ll, in a panic, finally do something. But will it be too late then? Will we have already messed up the atmosphere enough that even ending greenhouse gas emissions 100% will be too late to halt the positive feedback loops, like the release of methane from permafrost areas. So if we wait to act, it may be too late to act – nothing can save us then.
But Kunstler’s notion that we’ll have to drastically cut consumption is just not going to sell. We’re sitting in a terrible drought and heat wave now, plus massive other evidence of climate change, and still the Kocks’ lies campaign is working. They were really lucky that the well was already poisoned with the anti-science sentiment due to the insane rise of biblical literalism and the denial of evolution (would we even ban smoking in today’s climate, I doubt it). So I’m sorry James, you attract more flies with honey than vinegar, so we’ve got to have a positive alternative (keep the good times rolling) to bring about change, so let’s not tear down the only thing that saved us from past Malthusian doom-and-gloom and get more, not less, technology.