Podcast

Photo by Charlie Samuels

James Howard Kunstler: It's Too Late for Solutions

Consequences are coming and we better start facing them soon
Saturday, July 14, 2012, 7:23 PM

Author and social critic James Howard Kunstler has been one of the earliest, most direct, and most articulate voices to warn of the consequences -- economic and otherwise -- of modern society's profligate wasting of the resources that underlie its growth.

In his new book, Too Much Magic, Jim attacks the wishful thinking dominant today that with a little more growth, a little more energy, a little more technology -- a little more magic -- we'll somehow sail past our current tribulations without having to change our behavior.

Such self-delusion is particularly dangerous because it is preventing us from taking intelligent, constructive action at the national level when the clock is fast ticking out of our favor. In fact, Jim claims that we are past the state where solutions are possible. Instead, we need a response plan to help us best brace for the impact of the coming consequences. And we need it fast.

[We now live in] this weird, peculiar period in American history when the delusional thinking has risen to astronomical levels -- predictably, really -- in response to the stress levels that our society feels. And it is expressing itself as sort of "waiting for Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy" to deliver a set of rescue remedies to us so that we can continue running Wal-Mart, Walt Disney World, Suburbia, the U.S. Army, and the Interstate Highway System by other means. That is the great wish out there. It is kind of understandable, because that is the stuff that we have, and people tend to defend the stuff that they have in any given society and the systems and platforms that they run on.  But it is probably a form of collective behavior that is not really going to benefit us very much and really amounts to simply wasting our time, and wasting our dwindling resources, and even our spiritual resources when we could be doing things that are a lot more intelligent. 

Here is something I have detected as I travel around the country: There is a clamor for “solutions.” Everywhere I go, people say "Don't be a doomer; give us solutions." And I discovered that the subtext to all that is they really want solutions for allowing them to keep on living exactly the way they are living now. To keep on running Wal-Mart, and keep on running Suburbia, and keep on running the highway system, and the whole kit of parts. And what that really means is that they are looking for ways to add on additional complexity to a society that is already suffering from too much complexity.

So I am trying to propose something a little different. Rather than so-called solutions, I am proposing that we use the term "intelligent responses," which is not so grandiose. It does not come with a whole grab bag of promises that life is actually going to work out exactly the way you wish. A lot of the intelligent responses that we could be making to our predicament would have a lot to do with decomplexifying and with simplifying. But we do not want to do that; we just want to add more complexity, and that is what some of the wishful thinking and vanities about technology are all about. 

We are discovering more and more that the world is comprehensively broke in every sphere, and in every dimension, and in every way. The governments in every level are all broke, the households are going broke, the banks are insolvent, the money really is not there. And the pretense that the money is there has been kept going simply with accounting fraud. And accounting fraud really accounts for most of the so-called "innovation" that we chatter incessantly about – this is at the heart of Too Much Magic and the wishful thinking about technology. We are so intoxicated with this idea that we can create new and wonderful things. And we have absolutely no sense that the new and wonderful things that we created in the money system are destroying the money system.

One of the lessons that used to be at the center of a liberal education, and no longer is, is that life is tragic. And by that I do not mean that happy endings are impossible or that bad outcomes are guaranteed. What I mean is that there are consequences to the things that you do, and that everything has a beginning and a middle and an end. And we have to get real with those. 

It seems to me that the whole capital issue is going to accelerate hugely over the summer. I really do not see how the Europeans can get out of the box they are in – it really does not look like they are going to be able to form a European fiscal union. And it really does not look like the Germans are going to be willing to print money into a hyperinflation. And so I think that the disappearance of money is going to accelerate, and it is going to be all getting sucked into a black hole over the next six months. And that is going to be the beginning of a broad-based social awareness of the nature of this problem.

Click the play button below to listen to Chris' interview with James Kunstler (41m:10s):

Transcript: 

Chris Martenson:  Welcome to another Peak Prosperity podcast. I am your host, of course, Chris Martenson, and today I am really happy to welcome my friend James Howard Kunstler as a guest to the program. Jim is a well-known author and social critic whose ideas have been extremely influential to myself, the Peak Oil and Sustainable Living Movements, and other places besides. His best known works include The Long Emergency, which certainly turned my head a while ago, in which he argues that declining oil production will result in the decline of modern industrialized society and compel Americans to return to smaller scale, localized, semi-agrarian communities. Also the logical, fact-based book, World Made by Hand, and its sequel, The Witch of Hebron, which used fiction to entertainingly transport us into what that future narrative might look and feel like. That is, a world with less net energy. And now there is a brand new book, Too Much Magic: Wishful Thinking, Technology, and the Fate of the Nation, which I hope we are going to discuss today, and of course, he has an excellent weekly blog found over at Kunstler.com. Jim, I am so happy to be with you today.

Jim Kunstler:  And it is always a pleasure to talk to you, Chris.

Chris Martenson:  Thanks. So Too Much Magic, the title of your new book, let us start there. What is that referring to?

Jim Kunstler:  Well, it is referring to this period of time, this weird, peculiar period in American History, when the delusional thinking has just risen to astronomical levels. Predictably, really, in response to the stress levels that our society feels. And it is expressing itself as sort of waiting for Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy to deliver a set of rescue remedies to us so that we can continue running Wal-Mart, Walt Disney World, Suburbia, the U.S. Army, and the Interstate Highway System by other means. That is the great wish out there. It is kind of understandable, because that is the stuff that we have, and people tend to defend the stuff that they have in any given society and the systems and the platforms that they run on. But it is probably a form of collective behavior that is not really going to benefit us very much and really amounts to simply wasting our time, and wasting our dwindling resources, and even our spiritual resources, when we could be doing things that are a lot more intelligent.

Chris Martenson:  Well, this delusion, this certainly, does not seem to me to be to be constrained to any particular side of the social spectrum, political spectrum, to any one religion. It seems to be fairly broad-based, just grossly speaking, left versus right. Would you agree with that?

Jim Kunstler:  Absolutely. You know, the uniform distribution of delusional thinking is really striking. And the most striking thing about our predicament right now is our absolute inability to collectively tell ourselves a coherent story about where we are at and what we are going to do about it. We just cannot construct a narrative or a consensus that is consistent with reality. And hence, most of the talk that comes out of any public conversation tends to be looney and unrealistic, and rather silly.

Chris Martenson:  You know, when you run the numbers -- there is a this great blog called “Do the Math” by Tom Murphy, a physics professor -- and you have this very nice conversation with an economist, which he captured. And basically the economist was of the view [that] listen, we are going to have growth forever. And he said well, okay, just for the sake of argument, if we just grow our energy’s by 3% per year, you realize that in 400 years, the surface temperature of the earth is boiling point of water because of just the waste heat generated by constantly compounding our energy. It is the waste heat that cannot escape into space fast enough; it cooks us. So would you agree, somewhere between here and there, maybe we are going to have to not grow our energy, as there is simple math underlying this? And when I look around the world and I get to interact with younger and younger people in my audiences. I am interested to hear your take on this. But also, when I went and talked with people that say, occupy Wall Street, there are a lot of young people who have looked into this narrative and said, “I don’t get it.” Like this is fundamentally broken. So I have personally seen that there are cracks in this narrative, this delusion, as it were, that in my perspective is actually growing.

Jim Kunstler:  Well, you know, the late and great Joe Bageant used to refer to this elective imagination as "the hologram."

Chris Martenson:  Yeah.

Jim Kunstler:  You know, sort of a picture of reality that seems to be there but really was a mirage, was just simply an image projected in the space of our – whatever our collective mind space is as a society. I – you know what was Part B of that.

Chris Martenson:  Well, it is something around the idea that there are more and more growing numbers of people who can see the hologram for what it is, that there are cracks appearing in this.

Jim Kunstler:  Right. Well, you know I think that the part of this that is the most evident nowadays, is the connection between our energy predicament and the impairment of capital formation.

Chris Martenson:  Uh-huh.

Jim Kunstler:  Which I believe is going to really sort of – the capital formation issue is already overtaking the energy issue, even though the energy predicament has not gone away. But what we are discovering more and more is that the world is comprehensively broke, in every sphere, and in every dimension, and in every way. The governments in every level are all broke, the households are going broke, the banks are insolvent, the money really is not there. And the pretense that the money is there has been kept going simply with accounting fraud. And accounting fraud really accounts for most of the so-called innovation that we chatter about. You know, we talk incessantly about – I mean, this is at the heart of Too Much Magic and the wishful thinking about technology -- we are so intoxicated with this idea that we can create new and wonderful things, and we have absolutely no sense that the new and wonderful things that we created in the money system are destroying the money system.

Chris Martenson:  Right, well, there is always this delusion that it is sort of an addictive behavior, which says, well, the alcohol was really not working for me all that well anymore. I kind of ran that out. But now that I have moved to heroin, I find that things are much easier, and eventually the heroin runs out in terms of its ability to provide an impact. And so one of the things that is the most strikingly missing from this conversation is not that technology cannot play a role to help us mitigate some of these things, but to also acknowledge that with every single technological -- and I am putting air quotes up -- “improvements” that we have managed to deliver to ourselves, there have been issues that came with them. Technology is not this wonderful thing that solves all problems. It invariably creates new ones. So the green revolution was a technological subvolution that was great, and it delivered to us seven billion people, which is going to have a whole host of things that we are going to have to manage. So in this discussion, I found, whether it is on the left side with these green alternative technologies that are going to save us, or on the right, we are just going to drill and unlock [as] there will always be more oil to be found somewhere. In neither of those scenarios do I have this sense that we are having the larger conversation which is, yes, and what else might come with that.

Jim Kunstler:  Well, this can simply be described as the diminishing returns of technology, or the unintended consequences, or both. And what it means is that technology turns around and bites you on the ass. And my favorite example of this is the 30-year effort that we made to computerize every phone system in America in order to improve communication. And the net effect of that was that it is now almost impossible to get a live human being on the phone anywhere in America. And the secondary effect of that is that every night when you are sitting down to dinner, a robot calls you to pitch some kind of a product or a political candidate. So after all that effort to bring technological innovation to telephones, we are left with having conversations with robots.

Chris Martenson:  And that is not a huge leap forward in your mind?

Jim Kunstler:  No, and because I have been a little preoccupied with medicine for the last two months, it is most visible in these places that you would think would be absolutely crucial for large human beings to intervene. Namely, you call up a doctor, and what do you get? You get a phone tree. I mean that it is just, the blowbacks from this are hideous, but they are everywhere; it is not just the phone system. Obviously the banking system has literally committed suicide, but with technological innovation.

Chris Martenson:  Absolutely, so let us go there for a minute. In Too Much Magic, which in its heart is talking about how we have a delusional narrative which really is, if we were going to put it in one word, it is unsustainable. We have built for ourselve, a very large, very complex system that everybody agrees, whether the left or right, or wherever they are on the spectrum, has to continue. And yet it is pretty obvious it cannot continue. So in this financial sphere, for instance, what we did was we created these wonderful technological products in the financial sphere called derivatives. And what they did, according to Greenspan, was they made risk entirely disappear. So we did not have to think about risk anymore, which was great, because now you can really lever up. And here we are, dealing with the aftermath of that. Of course it was, you want to talk about blowback, this one we are feeling the first breezes of this storm coming back on our shore. And so we have now this idea here in front of us that we have created for ourselves, something that is fundamentally unsustainable just by mathematical definition. Where is the conversation that asks and by the way, is this something we would even want to sustain?

Jim Kunstler:  Oh, well, I came to the whole subject of the long emergency, and the matrix of oil and resources and money, because I was writing, in the nineties, a series of books about the fiasco of Suburbia. And that first brought me into this, and it was my observation that the suburban living arrangement was going to be very problematical for America and might even, that the venture of American civilization might even founder on it because it was so problematical. But you could not fail to notice that we were going to run into a problem with running our system in the years ahead, even back then, even before guys like Colin Campbell were writing their first papers and journal.

Chris Martenson:  Well, what were some of those early critiques that you were referring to there, that you said Suburbia has got a living arrangement that is not worth sustaining?

Jim Kunstler:  So I was writing about Suburbia back in the eighties and nineties, and it was self-evident that the whole suburban living arrangement had a range of problems, in and of itself, that did not have all that much to do with the sheer energy picture. People experienced it in ways that were hard to articulate for them. They would say things like there is no sense of community here. And really, by that they meant that they were not living in integral, urban habitats or even integral rural habitats. They were living in atomized cartoon habitats. The main feature of suburban life for the last 40 years is that it became a cartoon of country living, in a cartoon of a country house, in a cartoon of the country. And so one of the big lessons that we fail to learn from that, and which actually kind of washes over onto the whole technology -- and indeed, the computer realm, is that the virtual is not an adequate substitute for the authentic. And this goes for the way we inhabit the landscape and it goes for the way we do business, and the way we conduct our money matters, and even the way social relations take place. This lesson that the virtual is not an adequate substitute for the authentic is very, very hard for us to learn, and until we do, we are probably not going to get to where we need to go.

Chris Martenson:  You know, everybody who is over the age of 40 can identify with what I am about to say next, which is that I grew up in what you might sort of think of as a fairly sort of suburban-looking place. Stratford Connecticut was [where I spent ] my earliest years. And I roamed, I was always outside, I was off, me and my friends on the bikes. My mom’s main difficulty every day was getting me to show up by dark or dinner. That was her problem; it was getting me in. And nowadays, when I look at suburban areas when you drive around, often it looks like a replica of a place where people live. Because there are houses, there is actually evidence that there are children there, because you might see a swing set, there might even be toys outside. But it almost looks like a neutron bomb went off; there are like no people to be seen. And this is, to connect it all, I guess we have our virtual worlds now; there are a lot of reasons why people stay inside and do not go outside. And it is comfortable and it is an easy existence. And boy, is it so much of my childhood, I am so glad I lived in a slightly different era, because it was really important to me to be out there, outside, roaming around, on my own, and -- dare I say it -- bored from time to time. I think being bored is an essential human condition which actually makes the brain do wonderful things.

Jim Kunstler:  Well, the main problem with Suburbia is that it deprives children of this passage through life where they learn to develop their personal sovereignty. That is when they learn to manage how their bodies work in space and in their community, and going from point A to point B on their own, by themselves, and making decisions about how to be responsible to get themselves where they have got to go on their own. And once they get there, to do what they have got to do when they get there. And the pattern lately has simply been for parents to over-manage children’s lives instead. I think that that ends up with terrible developmental problems for kids.

Chris Martenson: Oh, I certainly agree, and letting us all go out and make our own mistakes and roam around is a wonderful thing to do.

Jim Kunstler:  You know, also, beyond that, too, the kids need a number of things. They need sort of play spaces where they can use their imagination that are not governed by all kinds of rules, especially playground rules. They need wild places and semi-wild places, but they also need the human places and the places of commerce and the places of adult life where they can learn how to take a place in the world. They learn how to buy a popsicle and then that enables them to learn something about money. And then they learn a little bit later in life that they have to earn some money if they want more popsicles. And they see other adults going about their business in a purposeful way, and that is terribly important to see, for children to see adults going about their jobs and their daily lives in a meaningful and purposeful way, rather than just idling around or sitting in front of a TV eating cheese doodles.

Chris Martenson:  I agree. And this is question that comes up for me a lot. We just had a weekend seminar at Kripalu, and people are very curious, the attendees, about how we are raising our children -- and everybody, I think, in any generation, always has that question. But ever more so today, it is really one place where I sense a big gap between what we might say, the looming reality, and the narrative we are all being asked to live into. It's this idea that if you peer into the future, it is not hard to imagine a future where you need to be adaptive, creative, really resilient, a variety of descriptors like that. And it is not always clear that we are necessarily raising our children in accordance with those principles, often asking them to conform. And so as I peer into this future, I realize that there is a huge amount of uncertainty in this story that is being developed right now. And at its heart it is unsustainable in so many ways. What I cannot know and what nobody can know is [that] it is a complex system, Joseph Tainer talks about that wonderfully, but we have an increasingly complex and complexifying system that we are slowing throttling for net energy. And somewhere in that story, things just do not work like they used to.

Jim Kunstler:  Well here, is something that I have sort of detected as I travel around the country. There is a clamor for “solutions.” Everywhere I go, people say do not be a doomer; give us solutions. And I discovered that the subtext to all that is they really want solutions for allowing them to keep on living exactly the way they are living now. To keep on wanting Wal-Mart, and keep on running Suburbia, and keep on running the highway system, and the whole kit of parts. And what that really means is that they are looking for ways to add on additional complexity, to a society that is already suffering from too much complexity. So I am trying to propose something a little different. Rather than so-called solutions, I am proposing that we use the term "intelligent responses," which is not so grandiose. It does not come with a whole grab bag of promises that life is actually going to work out exactly the way you wish. A lot of the intelligent responses that we could be making to our predicament would have a lot to do with decomplexifying and with simplifying. But we do not want to do that; we just want to add more complexity, and that is what some of the wishful thinking and vanities about technology are all about.

Chris Martenson:  I agree. To me it is a difference between two words, adapt and adopt. So adapt means that we ourselves are going to change the changing circumstances, something humans are actually very good at. We are one of the most adaptive species out there; we live everywhere on the planet, right? Obviously we can do that. But adapting means that we are going to fundamentally modify how we operate in this story. And adopting means we are going to adopt the right (fill in the blank here). We are going to vote in the right President this time or next time. We are going to find the right technology, we are going to tweak the right policies, we are going to do some things that will ultimately, I think, decompose into this statement: allow us not to have to change how we do our own business.

Jim Kunstler:  Well, I agree with you, and it is very unfortunate. One of the lessons that used to be at the center of a liberal education and no longer is, is that life is tragic. And by that I do not mean that happy endings are impossible or that bad outcomes are guaranteed. What I mean is that there are consequences to the things that you do and that everything has a beginning and a middle and an end. And we have to get real with those.

Chris Martenson:  Well, lets talk about ways that maybe we are not getting real,. There has been an extraordinary campaign that started about in February that basically summarizes to this headline, the U.S. is heading towards energy independence. And there has been an absolute flood of Peak Oil is dead, Peak Oil is over, just – they – whoever they is -- have just speared the idea that we have any sort of energy limits whatsoever, and [are] doing it without any trace of irony whatsoever. You know, people who are involved in the oil fields say, whoa, no, there was no new technology that came along; there was no new discovery of this back in play. We have known how to frack for decades; we have known how to horizontal drill for decades. What did change in this story was the price of oil, right? As soon as the oil went over $70 - $80 a barrel, it made sense to make those plays do what we do. And without any trace of irony whatsoever, I am reading all these gushing stories about how much energy we have, without anybody wandering over and saying, hey, let's just see what $100 a barrel oil did to the European economic miracle.

Jim Kunstler:  Yeah, well, obviously we really want to believe that we are going to be okay with oil. And unfortunately, the authorities in our society want us to believe that. We have been trafficking in untruth and delusion and lies for a very long time. And that has a particular corrosive effect, which is that eventually, you cannot trust authority. And you know, I am not talking about being authoritarian, but if you are going to live in a civilized society, there have to be authorities that you can trust, whether they are bank managers or political leaders or clergy people or academics. And I think that the actions of the rule of law, in money matters, especially, has corroded the legitimacy and authority of everybody who is supposed to be responsible for stuff. And so what you get now, as a result of all of that, is a society that can no longer distinguish a lie from the truth and does not really much care. And so there are these places where you never would have thought would be emanating untruth. Places like the New York Times. The New York Times published an article, I think about a month or two ago, that said something to the effect that the United States was on its way to being energy independent.

Chris Martenson:  Uh-huh.

Jim Kunstler:  You know, it is unbelievable that the New York Times would do that, the newspaper of record. But that is really how low our collective sense of truthfulness has gone. And President Obama did the same thing when he got up a year ago February and said, “We have a 100 years of shell oil.” You have to ask yourself, did Secretary of Energy Steven Chu advise him to say that? And if that did happen, then Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory physicist, does he not understand the energy picture out there? I mean, how can these untruths be generated? The only thing that explains it is a kind of collective psychological break by everybody in American society, fostered in a climate of the retailing of lies.

Chris Martenson:  You know, that one really caught me when the New York Times came up with it. They were in the general flood and they said, I believe the headline was, "U.S. inching towards energy independence."

Jim Kunstler:  Yes, exactly.

Chris Martenson:  But they had a chart right there which showed that if we did everything right, and we kept demand flat for the next twenty years, which has never really happened in the data series, but we are going to do that because we are going to buy the right kind of Prius or something. But anyway, we keep our demand flat, and everything goes like we are hoping in the oil patch, we are only going to be importing 38% of our oil instead of 54%. And I had to go to my dictionary and I cracked it open and I found "independence" and "importing more than a third," those two things do not line up. And they have good editors at the New York Times; they can pick their words carefully if they choose. How do you square that up? I mean, rhetorically, something is happening there; it is difficult to explain through what I would call a normal filter.

Jim Kunstler:  Yeah, that is exactly right. But, however, I am allergic to occult filters, and I am allergic to conspiracy theories, so I do not think it is that. I think when I said life is tragic a few minutes ago, what I really meant was this: Society can make bad collective choices; they just do. Sometimes they choose the wrong path, and history does not shed a tear when that happens. And that is exactly what we are doing. Now for example, we have been talking about oil, and a lot of that has to do with the whole motoring situation and the fact that we live in this dreadfully car-dependent society. And a lot of people think that the whole question of motoring hinges on the price of the fuel, how much is the gasoline at the pump. But it is not going to turn just from the fuel. Right now there are two other things that are going on that are going to be equally or perhaps even more influential in determining what happens to mass motoring. And they both have to do with the failure of capital formation. Okay, one is that there are going to be fewer and fewer loans available for people to buy cars, and that is how Americans are used to buying cars, on installment loans. So there is going to be a lot less of that, incrementally.

And the second thing is that all governments are broke at every level -- the municipal level, the county, the state, the federal government,. We do not have the money to keep on repairing and maintaining the elaborate hierarchy of roads that we have developed in the last 100 years. We are going to be facing a triage process where we have to make decisions about which roads get fixed and which ones do not. And which bridges get saved and which ones do not. I can already see that happening around where I am in the Hudson Valley, where we have a lot of bridges going over the Hudson River and a lot of it is little tributaries. And there are some bridges now that are never going to be repaired; they are closed. And the motoring system has many ways to founder. It is not just going to be a matter of econometrics in terms of necessarily just the flows of oil and where the oil comes from. There are many things in motion at the same time out there.

Chris Martenson:  Well, ultimately our capital formation, such as it is, is that what is left over between producing and consuming. And we store that off to the side in this thing called money. And it turns out that as our energy just becomes more expensive, and I do not care if there is an infinite amount of it, if it is $1,000,000 a barrel, we are just going to discover that we have a lot less capital formation going on. It is going to confuse a lot of the conventional economists, because they just assume that capital formations is a magic thing that happens, because we are clever. And they do not quite understand that ultimately all of our wealth comes from resources themselves. And we do transform them, and we do very clever things with them. And it is the gap between what we are producing and consuming, and especially in terms of creating a productive infrastructure in some way, to mention the infrastructure you are talking about. That, I agree, is just going to become more and more difficult, it is going to confuse a lot of people, like where is the money, I do not – why are our capital markets not quite working, I do not get it. And they really have to wander over and understand that higher and higher energy prices are very, very corrosive to the idea of capital formation.

Jim Kunstler:  It seems to me that the whole capital issue is going to accelerate hugely over the summer. I really do not see how the Europeans can get out of the box they are in, because they – it really does not look like they are going to be able to form a European fiscal union. And it really does not look like they are going to be willing to – the Germans are going to be willing to print money into a hyperinflation. And so I think that the disappearance of money is going to accelerate, and it is going to be all getting sucked into a black hole over the next six months. And that is going to be beginning, really, of a broad-based social awareness of the nature of this problem.

Chris Martenson:  I truly think that people in Greece have already caught on to what is really happening there, and it is very clear that what used to work is not working anymore. And this is part of my message to everybody, is this idea: It is very easy to model what you think is about to happen next. And so there is a number of things I think working against U.S. interest, U.S. citizens' interest here. One being the collective sort of overt and covert sort of lies that we tell to ourselves. These admissions and commissions that we do, we leave stuff out of the story; there is context missing all the time, from really important parts of our conversation. So you have to fight through the narrative that we are telling ourselves in ways both large and small. And then there is this idea of exceptionalism, this idea that because it has not happened yet, and because the United States is X, Y or Z, however you want to describe it, it really will not happen. I think the people here often have a much lower sense of what the risk really might be. And oh, by the way, you only have to go back to the late 70s or early 80s to go back to a time when it was really dicey as to just how exceptional the U.S. really was. It is even within living memory that these things come and they go. And so the idea that somehow the world leaders, central banks, the Federal Reserve, etc., have really got it all sort of stapled down and figured out, is really a potentially a colossal mistake, I think.

Jim Kunstler:  Well, we started talking about generally about delusion. And I think it is important to reflect on the idea that the history of the last 200-odd years has been a tremendous departure from human normality. And we think of all the accessories and furnishings of modern life and all of the comforts and conveniences and marvels of it as now having been incorporated into the matrix of normality. When in fact, it is entirely anomalous. And I had an odd experience the other night. I was driving back from Lake George, listening to a recording of English Country Dances from the 18th century. And there are these beautiful and elegant and intricate fiddle tunes, basically. And I was trying to imagine the tremendous differences in just the way human beings behaved in that period of time. And the kind of people who would have responded to that music, and what their manners might be and how their social relations might be, and how they would interact with each other so much differently. They would not be wearing sideways hats with their pants falling down, you know.

Chris Martenson:  All right.

Jim Kunstler:  You know, my point really is, is that you said a few minutes ago that human beings are amazingingly resilient and adaptable. And it is true, but culture themselves go through such massive transmogrifications. Human culture changes so hugely from one age to another that it is almost impossible to put yourself in the shoes or the stockings of those people and imagine what their worldview was. And you know, likewise, I think that the people in the future are going to have trouble putting themselves in our sneakers, or our highly engineered Nike athletic shoes, and imagining what was going through our heads when we were doing this. I mean I have my own idea about the future, and I think it is going to be a lot simpler than it is now. I think that agriculture is going to come to the center of economic life, at least for awhile. I think we are going to see a major reset in the terms of everyday life, and in terms of wealth and in terms of what societies can manage to do for themselves. And I sincerely believe that we are going to see a time-out from technological progress as we have understood it in the modern era.

And as we have understood it in the modern era, it has been nothing less than a steady progression of miracles. And I think there were, that is the reason that we are sitting around waiting for Santa Claus, because we are programmed to believe that we live in an age of miracles and they are unceasing miracles, and there will always be the new miracle following the previous miracle. And we are going to be hugely disappointed by that. In fact, I would go so far as to say that there is going to be a huge reaction, a very negative reaction, against science generally and technology in particular. I think people are going to feel hugely let down by technology and science and that we will probably, as a result, enter a new age of superstition. There will be a rather dark period in American history. And it is already happening; we can see it in the way that the idiotic religious themes have penetrated American political discourse. So we are really already there.

Chris Martenson:  Interesting. You know, as long as I get my flying car, Jim. I want a flying car someday.

Jim Kunstler:  Oh, yeah. Right.

Chris Martenson:  You know, that technological "Jetson" future. I agree with you that there is this sense that technology can triumph overall when, you know, there was an interesting article in the Wall Street Journal maybe three or four months ago. They noted that now that the Concorde airplane has gone, and now that we have retired the Blackbird Program, it turns out that we are actually, we hit a peak in terms of airspeed travel, and we are going backwards. Because we were just at the outer edge, like going faster than a certain... – there is a barrier there and pushing up against it is really not very cost effective or whatever. And by one version we would say, oh no, no, no, we will just keep moving faster and faster and there is no limit to that progress. I was at a conference and I gave a talk and this guy came up afterwards because somebody was saying oh, Moore’s law, Moore’s Law, we are going to – look at how fast computer chips are. And this guy came up and said hey, here are some calculations for you, you know why we are running up against three and a half to four gigahertz right now, because that is clocking as fast as the speed of light takes to go across this little 2 inch chip. And sorry, that is the end of that; once you hit that, we have to find some other way.

So we are going to hit these sort of limits that we are going to push up against. And in reaction to that, I see already this idea -- I hate to call it checking out or going backwards, but I have seen people and I interact with them a lot, who have looked into this and said whoa, time out. I see the direction all of this is going; I understand the narrative I have been asked to step into. I am going to work hard, I am going to have my suburban home, I am going to have all my gadgets and toys, and something is missing in that, that is not fulfilling. That is not really -- yes, consuming is this really awesome thing, because we consume I-pads, but fundamentally, it does not set us apart from any other species out there. What is it that really makes us human? And I find people stepping into that story are doing a lot of things like I have done, and if you care to talk about [it], what I think you have done, which is fuel the lifestyle for ourselves. Where actions are in accordance with some of our best knowledge about what is important, the direction the future might be going, maybe becoming a little more resilient. Ultimately, finding out and making sure that our actions and our beliefs or thoughts, when those are lined up, that is where some real magic happens, at least for me.

Jim Kunstler:  I agree with you, and I sat out the housing bubble for about six years. And then in November, I bought three acres of land on the end of kind of a sad, old, tired factory village in the Hudson Valley, pretty far up. So I am right at the edge; I can walk right into town. But I have enough land to grow some food, and I spent the Spring building gardens and planting fruit trees and berry bushes. And I do not pretend that I am going to be able to feed myself and my household off of this, but we are going to be able to eat some out of it. And there is more we can do. We have not gotten to the chickens yet, but I am planning on doing that. And so for me, that has been very satisfying. Not everybody can do that, and I was fortunate, and I think that there is going to be kind of a lot of sort of trouble and friction and disorder and people left behind and people who for one reason or another were not able to make any kind of provision like this.

Chris Martenson:  Uh-huh.

Jim Kunstler:  And of course, there is no guarantee that we are even going to be able to keep our stuff, you know. We do not know whether we are going to be living in a very disorderly society, even for a period of time.

Chris Martenson:  Right.

Jim Kunstler:  So I think that we are trying to walk the walk and try to live a purposeful and meaningful way and in accordance with reality and with what the future may be bringing us. And it is satisfying to do it, but life is tragic in that sense, too, that sometimes the best-laid plans of people do not really pan out. So we are very dependent on each other. This is – we are civilized, we are human, we are social creatures. And a lot of what happens in the future will depend on the comportment of our fellow man. And even the people just in our immediate community.

Chris Martenson:  Absolutely. Well, these are just periods of change, and we have gone through huge periods of change. There are a few things that are very different in this story at this point. And I know some; I am currently tracking one big part of this story, looking at a couple things. One is the heat maps and second the drought tables, and laying those over our food producing areas. Just wondering how this year is going to turn out.

Jim Kunstler:  Well, what conclusions did you come to so far?

Chris Martenson:  It is shaping up to be a pretty poor year. These things can always turn around, and rain can return and temperatures can fall.

Jim Kunstler:  The Midwest is looking pretty gnarly for the moment.

Chris Martenson:  Yes, there are whole swaths there, and of course we are already seeing that in the future prices for particularly soybeans and wheat and corn. But these, we are living in an era where for myself I have done many of the same steps you have done, fruit trees, garden, and all of this, and it is a quality-of-life issue for me. And I, at one point I was entering this life of becoming more resilient because I was a little worried about the future. And I have since learned that actually, this is a place that I would willingly go to anyway, because it is a better place to live my life right now. And I am fortunate to be able to do this, and I know not everybody can. But for me and my family, I love the lifestyle that has come out of this for me. It is very fulfilling.

Jim Kunstler:  Well I think it is working for you, because you used to be kind of a tubby, middle-aged guy, and now you look like you are 20 years younger with a six-pack.

Chris Martenson:  It feels better, I will tell you that, absolutely. And you and I got to see each other at the Slow Living Summit at Brattleboro, and that was fun and we got to have lunch and it was a great time. So you saw me at my worst and my best so far. So hopefully you can continue to see me at the best.

Jim Kunstler:  I hope I do.

Chris Martenson:  Well, Too Much Magic is the book, Jim Kunstler is the author. I am sure it is going to be a fabulous read, because all of your writing is just fantastic. Your ability to turn a phrase is almost second to none; it is great. So looking forward to that. And how can people get their hands on that?

Jim Kunstler:  Well, Too Much Magic is at all the usual-suspect booksellers, but I do urge people to, if they possibly can, get it at their independent local bookstore.

Chris Martenson:  Oh, okay.

Jim Kunstler: B ecause we do want to support those people. It is very important to give them our business.

Chris Martenson:  Excellent and that book it is out now, I take it.

Jim Kunstler:  Yeah, the publication date was Monday. It is published by the Atlantic Monthly Press and I think it is also in a Kindle version, which you probably cannot get from your local independent bookseller, but just FYI, it is there.

Chris Martenson:  Fantastic, and the blog at Kunstler.com, anybody can visit you there. Thank you so much for your time, I appreciate it.

Jim Kunstler:  My pleasure to talk to you, and I love your podcast every week. It is the first thing that I get excited about in the cavalcade of weekly podcasts.

Chris Martenson:  Well, thank you so much for that; I appreciate it.

Related content

19 Comments

Arthur Robey's picture
Arthur Robey
Status: Diamond Member (Offline)
Joined: Feb 4 2010
Posts: 2380
A laugh a miniute.

What a treat to have JHK as a guest.
My model of reality is dominated by the Limits To Growth model.The author Prof. Meadows refuses to take the post peak scenario seriously. It is a laugh a miniute.
Prof James Lovelock predicts that we wont make it. Extinction.

I shall tell you what I see in Daejeong at the Cold Fusion conference. Your survival depends on their un-apprecated efforts.
First we solve the energy crisis and then we leave the Planet to ameloriate the exponential growth problem.

The alternative is extinction.
I have written a Science Fiction story too. It is a laugh a miniute.

DavidC's picture
DavidC
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Posts: 239
Chris, A great and thought

Chris,

A great and thought provoking interview, excellent stuff. The podcast the other week with Joe Saluzzi was a treat as well.

DavidC

cmartenson's picture
cmartenson
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Thank you both....Talking with Jim is always a treat

You know, even if we did find some other endless form of energy, and could use it wisely without baking ourselves or extinguishing a few thousand more species, Jim has a lot of good points about the unexamined nature of our self-imposed living arrangements.

Perhaps there are improvements that could be made (or rediscovered), and you need someone like Jim asking the right questions and making astute observations to see things from a different perspective.

And if one takes the view that there are resource limits out there somewhere, then there's no time like the present to begin thinking about where we are going and what we'd like it to look like when we get there.

Doug's picture
Doug
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Posts: 2745
His living arrangements

I don't know any of the specifics of Jim's living arrangement aside from what he shared here and where he lives.  WRT the latter, I am pretty familiar with the town and county where he recently moved.  I have to say that he is putting his money where his mouth is.  After a few years of following Chris and many of the people who share the viewpoints of this site, I find it refreshing to discover one of the group who shares my living situation in significant ways.  That is, he lives in or near a small community in an inpoverished area that has languished for the last 40 years or so.  It will be interesting to follow how he adapts to the culture and economics of the area.

Doug

amusedtodeath's picture
amusedtodeath
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Posts: 13
Really great interview!

Always great to hear from JHK," The Long Emergency" is essential reading. The new book "Too Much Magic" sounds like it will be a great read. I like they way the conversation meanders in such a natural way, just like two good friends in a bar, over a drink.I also like James Howard Kunstler's black sense of humour!

tomchampagne's picture
tomchampagne
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Posts: 1
good interview, but....

it is a shame that JHK finds himself "allergic to conspiracy theories," since a useful and necessary narrative out of our collective predicament is to recognize that there has been a very deliberate attempt to lie to the american people, conspiracies and collusion does happen, and justice and truth demand investigations of the deceptions and criminality of our leaders.

JHK always self censors himself in this regard, which is a shame, because in many, many respects, he is spot on.

RJE's picture
RJE
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Joined: Aug 31 2008
Posts: 1369
Chris, to have you and a

Chris, to have you and a mentor (of sort) like Mr. Kunstler was indeed a treat. Both of you lift my spirits with every word spoken in this Podcast.. Not one single word or expression of thought by either of you isn't exciting to here.

The comments over at zerohedge weren't all that complimentary but then again it wasn't hard to understand when reading how those people felt. Still in denial and will need to catch up.

A little story about your daily adventures and how darkness was your Que to get home (ours was streets lights). My son has two son's that I love unbelievably. I expressed only one strong view since they were married and never interfere in anything, and are always accommodative. That was this: Any electric play car that does not require my grand babies to either push, peddle or run aside would have all the wiring pulled from it. That my son doesn't have to look far for the culprit because it would have been me. Why? As you said, kids need boredom, it allows thoughts and a self awareness to creep into their very souls. Imagining what is possible from the world around them, it is where good choices come from. Plus, they get their exercise. My son and I are of the same mind so I am glad I will never have to be that grand parent.

Anyways, just a fabulous Podcast, it gets no better than Mr. Kunstler

Regards

BOB

robbie's picture
robbie
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Posts: 91
Miscellaneous thoughts...

This is the stuff that, sadly, is missing from any national discussion and probably will continue to be right up until the brink of collapse. I recall a quote from the remake of a classic sci fi movie-The Day the Earth Stood Still: "It's only on the precipice that we [humanity] evolve". It's difficult to see right now how the TPTB will be persuaded to act before we need to test this hypothesis.

It would be fascinating to hear a three-way discussion /debate between Jim, Chris and Ray Kurzweil. I can't think of an intellectual with a more diametrically opposed viewpoint on the future of technology, humanity, and the planet. 

Chris- Thanks for the walk down memory lane. I share similar recollections of my childhood growing up in suburban New England. Being allowed to make my own mistakes without parental "helicoptering" fostered independence and an enquiring mind. A partial list of these life-affirming experiences would include sore fingers from short-fused firecrackers and botched attempts at starting u-control model airplane engines, a red welt on the leg from unjamming the new Daisy BB gun, and the most important lesson of all: Don't twist the tail on the neighbor's dog when you get bored unless you like to run!

My parents still live in the house that I grew up in. New neighbors have come and gone and many have had kids, but they don't wander the streets and yards with their dogs as we used to. I'm fully aware that the only constant is change, but I really believe that many children today have lost something critical to developing independent thought that we're going to pay for down the road. Perhaps it will be streetwise urban youth that will be better equipped to deal with a fast-changing world?

thatchmo's picture
thatchmo
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Posts: 265
nice

Serendipity!  I had no sooner set down "The Long Emergency" after reading the last chapter than a vsit to PP.com gifted me with this interview.  How many times have you longed to visit with an author after finishing their book?  This was great!  Also have just finished "World Made by Hand"-  what an engaging writer.  I suppose I came late to both these books, but if you haven't read either, I heartily recommend them.  Waiting for "The Witch of Hebron" to appear at the library, but will probably purchase the new book.  Thanks Chris and Jim.  Aloha, Steve.

Arthur Robey's picture
Arthur Robey
Status: Diamond Member (Offline)
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Posts: 2380
Insight

Dr. Iain McGilchrist will be able to offer insights into why the Virtual world is dead. Please take the time to watch this video.

[video:

]

Dr McGilchrist argues that the imbalance begun with the Enlightenment. While Models are absolutely vital to us puny humans it is the Gestaldt that gives life it's meaning.

For further reading please consider his book.

amusedtodeath's picture
amusedtodeath
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Posts: 13
Re: conspiracy theory allergy

I completely disagree with you there, JHK being "allergic to conspiracy theories" puts him in the creditable catagory. The whole notion of conspiracy implies a knowledgable plan by the conspirers or at the very least an elite with an agenda. This opens you up to critics who will pigeon hole you, then you need hard evidence that you are not a crank! By avoiding the whole notion JHK doesn't need to justify these theories.

Wendy S. Delmater's picture
Wendy S. Delmater
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Posts: 1516
Old ways

Dr. Chris talked about, "...letting us all go out and make our own mistakes and roam around is a wonderful thing to do." I'm about his age. Yes,  I remember a childhood when I read library books (gotten via bike) in the tops of 40-ft oaks to feel the breeze, or played Robin Hood or Jungle Book in  the woods behind my home, or--most notably--when my siblings and I were allowed to take a small Sunfish sailboat across a two-mile, shark-infested brackish bay to an Altalntic border beach. Yes, we had life preservers, and yes we knew how to swim, and yes we wore sunblock and froze our lunch so it would be thawed by the time we were (always) becalmed for two hours on the far side of the bay.

But we took risks. We learned from the experiences. Most importantly, we had earned our parent's trust and reveled in that increasing reasponibility. We also pulled the boat on a large wagon to the end of an inlet and canoe-paddled the boat out into the open bay where we could use the sail.

The comment that current suburban neighborhoods looked like they'd been hit by a neutron bomb was accurate. However, part of the reason I love our community is the kids on bikes, the kids doing target practice with air rifles, the home gardeners out weeding their tomatoes, and the people out walking their dogs. As luxuries like cable TV and computers to game on get more and more expensive I hope this trend continues. What will change things the most for the southern US will be when it gets too expensive to run the A/C. Then, look for the resurgance of the use of the font porch, the screen porch, and the post-prandial (after dinner) stroll. Neighbors will talk to neighbors again, and I say "About time that happened."

My only disagreement with JHK has slways been how he dismisses religious folks. They have one of the strongest local built-in senses of practical community you can find. I think its a mistake to not appreciate that resource.

pinecarr's picture
pinecarr
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Posts: 1573
amusedtodeath wrote: Always

amusedtodeath wrote:

Always great to hear from JHK," The Long Emergency" is essential reading. The new book "Too Much Magic" sounds like it will be a great read. I like they way the conversation meanders in such a natural way, just like two good friends in a bar, over a drink.I also like James Howard Kunstler's black sense of humour!

-I have to agree with ATD, the nature of Chris's and JHK's podcast made it a pleasure to listen to.  That, and being able to listen in on the conversation of two thought-leaders like Chris and Jim; the insight you get from this kind of interaction is just precious.  It's like a live performance of a couple of your favorite musicians jamming vs listening to an excellent -but less spontaneous- recording.  Keep the podcasts coming, Chris and Adam!

Chris, I, like others, also share the same kind of childhood experiences you did.  We roamed over hills, climbed trees, caught minnows in creeks, and ran pretty much unfettered until it was time to go home  for dinner.  It was the best!  I feel a sense of loss that children now are so much less likely to have the gift of that kind of freedom and learning experience, not to mention the opportunity to develop the rich relationship with nature we had.  Part of it is the attraction of electronic gaming, but part is also the parental concern about child predators.  Even my rural area has experienced that kind of tragedy, which makes it so hard for parents to feel safe letting their children roam as we once did.  I know I find myself torn, as a parent, between letting my child run free as I did, and insisting on more oversight for safety sake.  It's a hard choice.

KugsCheese's picture
KugsCheese
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Posts: 661
Top->Downers Won

Look, the top->downers won, and what did they win?  A slice of American Cheese on Wonderbread.   The fundamental problem has nothing to do with Suburbia (I see a lot more per home garbage waste in the city).   It is simply that technology allowed the top->downers to create a fiction using fear (e.g. the Pedophilia Scare, the Sun Scare, etc).  With the "advancing" technology enabling the top->downers, humans have no choice.   Sure we are the most arrogant animal on the planet, but the human animal is still an animal that is governed by Natural Laws.  One of those laws, the Biologic Law, states that all species reach a crisis point when the species goes extinct.  Humans only find some of the fossils therefore this animal thinks it is god's exception.

rhare's picture
rhare
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Posts: 1271
Suburbs, technology not the problem....

While I agree with much of the discussions, I disagree with a few of the thoughts presented:

One is that suburbs are these horrible things that are nothing but horrible places (JHK view).  In the future they might be an advantage in that they give citizens a bit of land to grow food, have solar panels, etc.  I don't think it's that suburbs are necessarily the problem but that the isolation we have between people is more apparent in a suburb where you can jump in your vehicle in your garage and drive to work without having to interact with your neighbors versus in a city with high population densities you don't have that option even though you may be just as isolated.

I agree that virtual is no substitute for real interaction.  While technology has allowed more isolation, I don't believe it is the root of the problem.  Rather it is just another tool like suburbs that allow us to see the breakdown in human interaction.

So what do I think is the root of the problem? - I believe it is the distortion caused by our monetary system that has allowed us to live much more isolated lives.  We no longer have to value what others contribute because we have all been blessed not to have to care.  We don't have to interact with the farmer because we can just go to the grocery store to get our food.  Because of JIT production and shipping anything we have wanted is available 24x7x365.  Technology, high density energy, and a hyped up monetary system have allowed us to distort the value of labor, skill, capital and community.  Community is lost because we haven't had to rely on others - you could lead an isolated live and do just fine.

Take for instance the phone issue JHK brought up at the beginning.  The computerization (digitization) of the phone system has led to tremendous advantages - cell phones, cheap calling world wide, unlimited calling, voice mail, etc all at cheaper and cheaper rates.   However, as with any technology advances it generally means some form of labor that used to perform those tasks will be devalued.    Telephone operators are much less needed, so their labor should drop in value dramatically.

However, we can see that due to flood of money we have allowed much of labor to be valued artificially high.  We use unions, minimum wage laws, and regulatory burden to artificially prop up salaries particularly for unskilled or unneeded labor.  That works as long as there is excess money and capital that can support that overhead.  What we seen now in an energy declining world is the illusion being revealed that everyone must produce what society wants and that labor will be valued based on the product produced.  In JHKs example of the phone tree, it's not that people want to interact with a computer.  Nor do doctors or other businesses want to force interaction with a computer onto their customers.  The technology is not deployed simply because it exists.  We get phone trees because the advantage of talking to a human is not high enough to overcome the required labor costs.  Let labor costs for unskilled labor reflect market demand and many business would gladly hire a phone operator versus buy an automated system.

I think we have also seen a distortion in the other way, energy has allowed us to discount labor for things we really need.  For instance farming.  I think we will suddenly find that farm labor in the US is much more valuable when we can't use energy and distorted money to buy food from abroad.

Another change I believe is coming is that when we can no longer simply "buy" what we need, we will begin to have more community because we will have to interact out of necessity.  Island living whether in a suburb or city will become less of an option.

Oliveoilguy's picture
Oliveoilguy
Status: Gold Member (Offline)
Joined: Jun 29 2012
Posts: 368
Rural social structure

Dr. Chris talked about, "...letting us all go out and make our own mistakes and roam around is a wonderful thing to do." I'm about his age. Yes,  I remember a childhood when I read library books (gotten via bike) in the tops of 40-ft oaks to feel the breeze, or played Robin Hood or Jungle Book in  the woods behind my home, or--most notably--when my siblings and I were allowed to take a small Sunfish sailboat across a two-mile, shark-infested brackish bay to an Altalntic border beach. Yes, we had life preservers, and yes we knew how to swim, and yes we wore sunblock and froze our lunch so it would be thawed by the time we were (always) becalmed for two hours on the far side of the bay.

But we took risks. We learned from the experiences. Most importantly, we had earned our parent's trust and reveled in that increasing reasponibility. We also pulled the boat on a large wagon to the end of an inlet and canoe-paddled the boat out into the open bay where we could use the sail.

The comment that current suburban neighborhoods looked like they'd been hit by a neutron bomb was accurate. However, part of the reason I love our community is the kids on bikes, the kids doing target practice with air rifles, the home gardeners out weeding their tomatoes, and the people out walking their dogs. As luxuries like cable TV and computers to game on get more and more expensive I hope this trend continues. What will change things the most for the southern US will be when it gets too expensive to run the A/C. Then, look for the resurgance of the use of the font porch, the screen porch, and the post-prandial (after dinner) stroll. Neighbors will talk to neighbors again, and I say "About time that happened."

My only disagreement with JHK has slways been how he dismisses religious folks. They have one of the strongest local built-in senses of practical community you can find. I think its a mistake to not appreciate that resource.

Safewrite,

I cannot agree more with your final thought regarding religion. I grew up in the intellectual North East. Attended boarding school and all that. It wasn't until I embraced rural living that I started to see amazing  values and a strong sense of tradition and culture. In small communities the church is a powerful force, not due to denominatioal hair-splitting, but in the context of creating manageably sized micro-communities that do all kinds of social good.

I fully intend to introduce members of my church group to some of the Peak Prosperity concepts. 

SagerXX's picture
SagerXX
Status: Diamond Member (Offline)
Joined: Feb 11 2009
Posts: 2115
Great interview

Especially as it wandered into the territory of considering the human/spiritual costs we have paid as a society due to the choices we have made about living arrangements etc -- these ideas appear in the larger discussion so rarely as to be non-existent.  How shall we live, and live well -- and to what end?

Viva -- Sager

Arthur Robey's picture
Arthur Robey
Status: Diamond Member (Offline)
Joined: Feb 4 2010
Posts: 2380
North Korea as a Model

So I bought the Lonely Planet's guide to Korea. In the back was all about North Korea as tourist destination. There was a bit of self congratulatory gloating in the tone of the well written article.

I hold the situation in North Korea as a model for all our fates. We might need to go there to learn how to do this thing.

Jacques T's picture
Jacques T
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Joined: Aug 4 2012
Posts: 1
TOO MUCH MAGIC before TOO MUCH MAGIC?

I suggest that you read another book called TOO MUCH MAGIC that came out a year before Kunstler’s book. It is called “TOO MUCH MAGIC: Pulling the Plug on the Cult of Tech" by Jason Benlevi. It has much more original thesis about the digital one percent and the overwhelming influence they will have on our future. http://www.toomuchmagic.com



 

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