Say it isn’t so: Review of J. H. Kunstler’s “Too Much Magic”

James Howard Kunstler describes himself as an “all-purpose writer,” and boy can he write.  His latest book “Too Much Magic:  Wishful Thinking, Technology, and the Fate of the Nation,” has taken otherwise ‘hard to write clearly about’ subjects such as financial instruments, what’s happening to our environment and shale oil, and made them interesting and useful to the reader, without talking down to, or boring us.

How can we understand the difference between extracting oil from deepwater conventional oil wells and shale oil you ask?  “Think of it as like comparing a fire hose to wringing out a sponge.”

But essentially, the book looks at what prevents the ordinary person (he refuses to call us “consumers”) from recognizing the urgent need for us to “rearrange our manner of living.”

As a psychologist who’s written about these topics, it’s an area that fascinates me. He argues that two central beliefs (when combined) stop people from accepting the notion that there are limitations to growth, increasing economic hardship before us, and calamitous environmental change around us:  “[W]hen you wish upon a star…you’ll get something for nothing!”  He calls this a “toxic psychology…[that] has become baseline normal for the American public.” Kunstler argues that we can’t “sustain the unsustainable,” and we’re got to prepare for “intelligent responses” instead of “solutions.”

And, he adds, the hour is getting very late.

Kunstler calls the conditions of our times a “contraction.”  “The only big remaining questions,” he asks “are whether this sort of compressive contraction can be called collapse and what happens afterward.

Intelligent responses, he argues (in addition his more classic arguments for more rail and working ports), includes “put[ting] us back in touch with elements of human experience that we thoughtlessly discarded in our heedless rush toward a chimerical techno nirvana – working together with people we know, spending time with friends and loved ones, sharing food with people we love, and enacting the other ceremonies of daily and seasonal life in story and song.” Yet these very recommendations seem so banal as to be rejected as no proposal at all. Being human is so…ordinary, and ennui is the symptom of our time. Even airplane travel feels as “boring and tiresome as sitting in the dentist’s waiting room” despite being eight miles up and traveling at 550 miles an hour.  We’re lost an appreciation for the real magic all around us and in us.

Those attending his lectures, he reports, beg for “solutions,” wanting to be fed “rescue remedies” that promise a continuation of an easy life, endless driving, cheap fast food, NASCAR and Disney World.  “Ordinary people already felt hopeless about the things they were conditioned to believe they had control over, such as the idea that gainful employment would find those willing to work,” so when confronted with the harsh realities of Peak Everything and “what is among the gravest problems that the human race has ever faced” (like environmental catastrophe) they tune out.  These issues appear to be “best ignored, with the hope that it would go away, like a case of poison oak.

Climate Change

One thing that isn’t going away is a worsening planet. “[O]ver 40 percent of the entire United States was subject to drought” in 2011. Today, that figure is 56%.  Kunstler tells us that sixty percent of aquifers in India will be in critical condition in fifteen years, and groundwater is being pumped into irrigated farmland faster than rainfall can recharge it.  Yet we spend far less on international climate change financing than we do on “air-conditioning in the various theatres of war.”  Climate change deniers tend to also be Peak Oil deniers, according to Kunstler, movements both heavily funded by the fossil fuel industry.


Anyone who reads him knows how biting Kunstler can be critiquing – Disney Land guests who are “overfed Americans waddling so innocently about in their JC Penney casuals,” and in this book, he doesn’t disappoint. But he also shows us a more tender side. We can feel his outrage at the wasted opportunity, misdirected trillions, and the ticky-tacky bait and switch, that impacted those born at the turn of the last century.  They travel to Disney Land now to relive what they most loved about where they were born– a place of shops and shopkeepers, the safety of walking around and greeting other people, and feeling the neighborliness of small town America. In short, they now pay to see a fake version of “whatever had made their towns worth caring about.”  Even though he acknowledges that most of these same folks worked very hard to advocate for the very changes that eventually destroyed that way of life, he’s put it in context in this book. Like Kunstler, himself claims  “I feel that I am a hostage to this economy.

It is a sentiment that echoes with me as a clinical psychologist. I regularly work with couples who try to find meaning in a life that is filled with moving family members to and from school, work, the mall, and the soccer field.  Many nights, when they’re starving, they stop for a fast food dinner, although they know better.  Kunstler calls this a life devoid of “repose and tranquility, the necessary conditions for reflection.” We now pay people like me for the time to gain a ‘considered life.’ My clients know that something is wrong with this picture, but they blame themselves instead of cultural norms.  Many make a middle or upper-middle class income, and find themselves being too tired to make a decent dinner or to see friends, too exhausted or alienated from each other to have passionate sex or a meaningful conversation, or in too much chaos to create an organized and “homey” home life.  Designer pillows and drapery don’t make “homey.”  The act of tending to and living in a space actually makes it a home.

Kunstler argues that cities “were designed to serve all the most inhuman elements of industrial enterprise: the needs of machines, factories, transport infrastructures and the efficiencies demanded by capital finance…” The more industrial and urban the USA became, the more nostalgic people became for rural and village life.  But “rural” is not “suburban,” as suburbia, according to Kunstler, lacks its rich “associational nature,” and the inability to integrate activities like visiting, eating in a café, or children roaming in woodlands, to later meet friends at a central location.  It is the interweaving of businesses that create civic responsibility, from “Little League to libraries.”  This is something corporate America lacks.

In a paragraph, he beautifully sums up the trials in the migration of Southern agricultural peasants who were displaced by “mechanical cotton pickers” in the late 1940’s, only to be displaced again a few decades later from this same factory and heavy industrial work they came to do.

Psychologist Bruce Alexander traced the emotional impact of displaced Scottish Highlander sheep herders who immigrated to Vancouver, BC. Dr. Alexander argues that it creates deep despair and hopelessness not only for the former way of life, but also for the connectedness and context of their prior community.  Whisky, an integral part of Scottish culture, became an overused or abused “medicine” to treat the meaninglessness of rootlessness they encountered in the New World.  As true of the families of the South migrating North to cities like Detroit or Cleveland, alcohol and drug abuse brought with it family instability, mental illness, and violent crime.  Later in the book, Kunstler targets the “infantile and barbaric” clothing of young men with baggy shorts and oversized shirts giving the appearance of a “human body with very short legs and a large torso, which is exactly how little children are proportioned…designed to advertise that the wearer does not expect to do any physical labor.” Perhaps with linkages to prison dress, these youth represent two or more generations of parents and grandparents who have lived decades as social throw-aways, and part of the chronically unemployed. And tattoos might say “graphically that you have written off your economic future.”  Or it was written off for you before you were born.


Only Kunstler could toss around provocative terms describing Obama voters as “baby boomer intellectual romantics, race-and-gender special pleaders, public employees and transfer payment recipients…” and argue for a generation of “boomers yearning for the moral victory of electing a black president, a kind of coda to the romantic idealism of their youth in the old civil rights marching days.” Instead of idealism and desired “change,” Obama gave us more of the same handouts (“shovel ready public works projects, mostly building highways,” and rescuing General Motors and Chrysler) and more of the same people, put in positions of power to enforce the law, who didn’t.  Republican or Democrat, it used to matter.  Now Kunstler argues, it’s been sold “lock stock and barrel” to corporate interests.

Wall Street

The chapter that most impactful to me was “Going Broke the Hard Way: The End of Wall Street.” It explained the various financial instruments and the funny business that happened with them, in enough detail to be meaningful, while holding my interest.  I learned quite a lot about complicated financial swindling and was left feeling furious when I finished the chapter.  He ends with this paragraph:

The United States became the economic engine of the developed world in the past century not just because of its abundance of mineral wealth…but largely because the rule of law was so firmly established here that people knew where they stood with things they’d worked for all their lives…These rights and responsibilities were enforced with more than the usual rigor found in other parts of the world. They enabled business to be conducted freely and mostly fairly. The confidence that people all over the world felt for the rule of law in American financial matters was expressed in their respect for our money and the moneylike instruments issued by our companies and banks, the stocks and bonds, et cetera. We threw it all away: our honor, our faith in ourselves, our credibility with others, and the legitimacy of our institutions. (P.` 154.)

The Bumpy Ride Down

There are no ‘rescue remedies’ here, and no ubiquitous “happy chapter” that often accompanies a book of this type. We have, according to Kunstler, a “rendezvous with entropy” where “the truth is that circumstances will now determine what happens, not policies or personalities.”

It’s time to get real, and yet: “We can’t face it. We pretend it’s not happening. We’re doing everything possible to defy it as a practical matter.” We can’t go on pretending much longer.

Too Much Magic, like The Long Emergency, is destined to become a Peak Oil classic.

James Howard Kunstler, (2012).  Too Much Magic:  Wishful Thinking, Technology, and the Fate of the Nation,  Atlantic Monthly Press.

About Kathy McMahon

Kathy McMahon Psy.D. is a clinical psychologist who is internationally known for her writing about the psychological impacts of Peak Oil, climate change, and economic collapse. She's written for Honda Motors, and has been featured in American Prospect, Greenpeace International, the Vancouver Sun, Freakonomics, Itulip, Ecoshock Radio, and Peak Moments Television.


  1. This sounds like yet another great piece of work by Kunstler. I’ve used “The Long Emergency” to wake people up to Peak Oil for years because Kunstler’s wit makes the topic accessible and relatively painless.

    That said, if Kunstler is going to make blunt pronouncements about the capabilities of existing energy technologie, he — and all other Peak Oil proponents committed to Truth — may want to delve a little deeper into the history of corporate/government suppression of proven, existing, patented energy technologies that rendered fossil fuels obsolete decades ago. Chiefly, technologies that harness the electrical gradient between the upper atmosphere (+) and the Earth’s crust (-), and technologies that utilize magnets to harness Geodynamic power, aka that of Earth’s magnetic field.

    Peak Oil proponents have a nasty tendency to cite the Laws of Thermodynamics as proof that energy is limited, overlooking the fact that Quantum Mechanics really calls the shots in this Universe and E=mc2. Peak Oil proponents can’t wrap their minds around the reality of perpetual motion despite the fact that all of us depend on at least two perpetual motion machines for our very existence:

    Our perpetually spinning Earth
    orbits a perpetually burning Sun
    while perpetually incomplete Truths
    leave perpetually flapping Gums

    Here’s a free lesson in “for-all-practical purposes” perpetual motion, taken directly from (

    “What causes the Earth’s magnetic field?…
    Differences in temperature, pressure and composition within Earth’s outer core cause convection currents in the molten metal as cool, dense matter sinks whilst warm, less dense matter rises. The Coriolis force, resulting from the Earth’s spin, also causes swirling whirlpools.

    This flow of liquid iron generates electric currents, which in turn produce magnetic fields. Charged metals passing through these fields go on to create electric currents of their own, and so the cycle continues. This self-sustaining loop is known as the geodynamo.

    The spiralling caused by the Coriolis force means that separate magnetic fields created are roughly aligned in the same direction, their combined effect adding up to produce one vast magnetic field engulfing the planet.”

    In short, we’re standing on a gigantic electrical motor. Hokay?! Technologies for tapping into this were perfected long ago but the patents got bought out and/or the inventors got whacked. This article on Magnetic Energy Generators from a 1980 edition of Science and Mechanics magazine is as good a place to start as anywhere.

    Perhaps Peak Oil is just another layer of the Big Lie and we all got punked. That’s a hard truth to stomach, but further exploration into the realm of “free energy” only leads one to hope… you might just ditch those Peak Oil Blues and tap into something entirely unexpected. ; )

  2. So, I posted this comment to demonstrate I’m posting everything but spam. But the truth is, there are tons of “great ideas.” A lack of “great ideas” aren’t the problem. The actual capacity, infrastructure, and capital to put those “great ideas” into practice is the problem. If there was a “one size fits all” solution, Max, you shouldn’t be posting it here. You should be raising the capital and making a bundle…

  3. Harnessing unlimited amounts of power means harnessing unlimited destructive power as well. Free energy would allow anyone to blow up the earth and thus would be a dangerous proposition.

    While there are many mature individuals I know capable of self regulation and reflection the majority of people would be destroyed by any true freedom that free power would give them. Most people define themselves by how much they suffer and not by how rich their internal personal life it.

  4. John dunn says:

    It’s interesting to read into the current mood of people like Kunstler, as opposed to the mood 3 or 4 years ago when many of the ‘peak oil’ aware, still felt we could work something out, if we could only put our heads together.
    Well we didn’t. And now we can’t. As smart as we are ; as creative, inventive and brilliant as we are, we proved to be little more than tool using monkeys, with an occasional appreciation of poetry.

  5. Why the magical thinking:
    Excellent review Kathy, I will get the book soon and I can’t wait to read it.
    But before reading the book and trying to understand why there are so many out there that practice “magical thinking” in regards to this predicament we have created (that includes, apart from peak oil, climate change, financial collapse, food and water systems collapse, etc.), I have reached to some ideas by myself. Why do so many of us, in developed countries and so many more in developing c ountries (I come from two) ignore or deny what’s coming?
    These are my ideas:
    1. Human beings ten to live in the present (like most animals). Our cultural memory is short, and we acknowledge only what is known and in front of our eyes. That’s why we tend to repeat historic mistakes again and again: because we didn’t live them, it wasn’t us: it was somebody else 50 or 100 or 1000 years ago an it is unreal for us, no matter how much we try to internalize the knowledge.
    2. We tend to believe in the things we see and experience. It is hard to imagine a collapse or a system failure, resource depletion, food wars, scarcity or high unemployment when what we see outside is highways full of cars, TVs in every window, Wal-marts full of stuff and people buying it, supermarkets full of affordable food from far away and TV shows showing how “others” live as a desirable and achievable goal. It is also hard to believe these predicaments are real, when the majority of what you read, hear or watch in the media says otherwise. When politicians say everything is possible and continue planning as this is just another small bump in the road. When big corporations continue to function and CEOs are still getting 500 times or more our salary.
    3. Most people are misinformed or plain uninformed: let’s face it: who reads peak oil books? Probably 1% of the population or less. Yes, there are many “concerned” with being green and their carbon footprint; others are somewhat concerned about their savings or lack of them; others about saving “the environment” (as if it were something “out there”) and yet others are concerned about specific and small things, such as a war somewhere in Africa, or refugees, or the earthquake in Iran. But few can put all the dots together, and even fewer look for the right information in the right places.
    4. People are too busy. People are more concerned about where the money will come from to repair their broken car, or how to book a family vacation without breaking the family budget. Some have more serious concerns, such as not having employment or losing their house, and some are concerned about their own health or that of a family member. People are short-sighted by nature, we included. It takes a lot of effort to see beyond our small world and our small problems and see the big picture.
    5. Whatever is happening is not happening to “us”: people tend to see themselves as part of a protected circle. The same happens to the concept of death (our own), losing someone you love, living through an environmental nightmare, starvation, war, etc. Unless you have lived through it, you tend to believe that all those things happen to “other people”, “those in Africa” or now “those in Greece or Spain”. It is a protecting thought that makes despair less unlikely, which in a way is good; otherwise we would not want to live. But when taking to the extreme is childish and selfish.
    6. People don’t know what to do. OK, some actually “get” the whole picture. They may go through a period of despair, trying to awake everybody else in their family and friends’ circles. They may have tried to start doing “something” or may have stopped their lifestyle altogether, and tried to change to something more sustainable that also allows them to “survive” whatever comes. They may have experienced different degrees of “awareness” and also responses to it. However, there is a point when most realize that the task ahead is overwhelming, therefore paralyzing: “I cannot stop resource depletion, or environment destruction, or climate change, or financial collapse, or… so I do nothing. Some react to this with plain denial: all this may be just a trend, or a strategic plan for some to earn something, or just another fad.”. Some decide to continue living the same way, as there is nothing they can do anyway, so they “forget”. Some may become extremely depressed and may attempt against themselves, and some, against others. Some may become angry and some may decide to live life “to the fullest” as all soon will end.
    The reality is that it is hard to “see” clear signals that show more than just another bump. It is also difficult to keep ourselves updated with what is happening and the initiatives some groups are taking, as we are so busy and preoccupied by our own lives. It is difficult to understand the whole picture and foresee exactly what will happen and how. And it is tremendously difficult to start changing our lifestyles and “do” something: not everybody has a supportive family or partner or friends who completely understand your awareness and are committed to change along with you. Not everybody has a farm or the means to start one. Not everybody has the skills needed to “survive” and not everybody has the health or the strength to start the change that is needed in their lives.
    There is another factor: what will really work? Some are convinced that becoming self-sufficient, growing your own food, having solar panels, a compost toilet and rain barrels will suffice. Some think that the way is to arm yourself of ammunition and weapons to defend your family of hordes of starving people. Some talk about building community, as if you start one day knocking your unknown neighbours’ doors and suddenly all become friendly and earth loving creatures eager to build a utopia with you.
    The reality is:
    • No matter how many books one reads or how many blogs we follow, nobody has a magic ball to foresee the future, and what’s going to happen is new: nobody has lived through anything like that before.
    • Whatever happens may not happen all of a sudden or to all at the same time, so the levels of response and awareness will always be uneven.
    • People are resilient by nature: some may panic at the beginning when facing the reality in their own private lives (the only way we humans can truly perceive something, all the rest is “mental”). But most will adapt, look for ways to survive and even thrive. That’s how it has been for most of our human history. Many will perish, but never without trying to survive.
    • Whatever happens groups of skilled and resilient people will have more options than “self-sufficient” isolated families. So yes, the best may be actually knocking your neighbours’ doors and see what happens.


  1. C:\Keyword C:\Keyword C:\Keyword hydraulic wood splitter

    Say it isn’t so: Review of J. H. Kunstler’s “Too Much Magic” – Peak Oil Blues

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