AMERICAN journalist and novelist James Howard Kunstler has become widely known in urban planning and energy circles for his articulate and acerbic observations on contemporary American society and its sundry addictions, delusions and dysfunctions.
For the better part of 20 years, his four non-fiction books on urbanism and energy and two dystopian "post-oil" novels -- as well as appearances in the documentaries The End of Suburbia and Radiant City -- have cemented his reputation as a sharp critic of energy-sucking, big-box landscapes.
In the insightful but uneven Too Much Magic, Kunstler's focus is on the inability of most Americans to face honestly their country's environmental, energy and economic problems, and instead to trust -- or hope -- that some as-yet unidentified force will solve these crises and allow them to continue enjoying the high-tech, prepackaged fruits of modernity, when it is clear that solar panels and wind farms will never be able to fuel a world of Walmarts and Disneyland.
The most obvious of these magical beliefs, Kunstler argues, is that "technology" will somehow replace oil. He finds this same magical thinking at work in the labyrinthine financial "instruments" that Wall Street used to bring down the housing market, as well as in other so-called solutions to urban problems, such as vertical (skyscraper) farms and the "aerotropolis" concept (re-orienting cities around massively expanded airports), both of which he criticizes for their energy-intensiveness.
For Kunstler, the suburban landscape and most contemporary city-building represent "the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world." This is because they have no future in an energy-scarce world. America's refusal to do anything about its oil-dependence and its addiction to a swindling debt economy speaks to a collective delusion that people can "get something for nothing."
Too Much Magic revisits themes from Kunstler's previous books and does so in his dependable, journalistic style, combining a clear-headed grasp of historical and current events with unapologetically hard-nosed and sometimes witty prose. His analysis of the financial melt-down is particularly coherent given the complexity of the issue.
However, the promise of the book's title is never fully realized. Instead of engaging in a thorough discussion of the origins of the American culture of techno-utopianism, Kunstler disappointingly confines himself to an in-depth discussion of a single book, Ray Kurzweil's 2005 title The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology.
Interestingly, Kunstler is not immune to delusions of his own. His nostalgia for what he imagines was an era of economic and political integrity earlier in the 20th century ignores the fact that America has always suffered from self-deception.
Most significantly is its refusal to reconcile its mythos of freedom and equality with the reality of structural racism and the legacies of slavery and the genocide of Native Americans. (See Ronald Wright's devastating 2008 book What is America?).
Most tellingly, Kunstler's chapter on the respective political idiocies of the Democratic and Republican parties astonishingly omits almost the entire administration of President George W. Bush, save for Bush's response to the 2008 financial crisis.
This allows the author to avoid addressing the decidedly "magical" justifications for the war in Iraq -- which Kunstler has supported and defended on his blog, to the derision of many of his fans.
Despite its otherwise original insights, the greatest shortcoming of Too Much Magic is that it is far too focused on those issues for which we are apparently predisposed to seek techno-magical solutions, and not enough on the cultural, and psychological reasons why this should be so.
Michael Dudley is the indigenous and urban services librarian at the University of Winnipeg.
Too Much Magic
Wishful Thinking, Technology, and the Fate of the Nation
By James Howard Kunstler
Atlantic Monthly Press, 245 pages, $29