The Wrong Kind of Magic

Carl Jung and his physicist friend Wolfgang Pauli suggested in a too rarely read 1952 book that synchronicity—an "acausal connecting principle," to use Jung’s carefully phrased description—brought events that occur at the same time into a relationship of unexpected meaning. Whether or not they were right in general, there are times when synchronicities arrive with all the subtlety of a cold wet mackerel across the face, and last Friday was one of those.

That afternoon, after a busy couple of weeks centered on the hundredth anniversary of the Druid order I head, I finally had the spare time to put my feet up and do some reading, and the book at the top of the stack was James Howard Kunstler’s latest, Too Much Magic: Wishful Thinking, Technology, and the Fate of the Nation.  Anyone who’s read Kunstler’s previous work will no doubt already be guessing that Too Much Magic is lively, curmudgeonly, and highly readable, as indeed it is.  It’s best described as a seven-year update to his bestseller The Long Emergency, and its message is stark: the storm is upon us.

Then, not long after I finished the book, the storm really was upon us.

Meterorologists can tell you exactly what it was that sent a wall of powerful thunderstorms a couple of hundred miles wide sweeping eastwards across the Rust Belt from Wisconsin straight to the Atlantic coast, leaving chaos in its wake. Here in Cumberland, we noticed the haze thickening in the west toward late afternoon, taking on that drowned murky look that everybody locally recognizes as a warning of bad weather on the way.  By nightfall, lightning was going off like flashbulbs at a 1950s press conference, and about a quarter to nine, hurricane winds and sheets of rain struck as suddenly as though somebody had flipped a switch. The winds and the rain pounded us for an hour or so, and then gradually faded out; the lightning kept flashing for another hour or so after that.

Like the smartest of the three little pigs, Sara and I had provided ourselves with a brick house, one that was built well before the post-Second World War vogue for cheapjack building methods that Kunstler has rightfully excoriated in several of his other books. We got by without any real damage—granted, the big mulberry tree out back dropped a half ton or so of limb onto our driveway, but since we don’t own a car, all it did was scare the bejesus out of the local woodchucks. We lost power, but since we don’t use a lot of electricity anyway, that wasn’t a huge problem; we had a late dinner by candlelight, and then broke out the hand-cranked LED lamps and spent the rest of the evening by their light. By morning we had power again, but if we hadn’t, it would not have been a great inconvenience.

Yes, I’m including the lack of air conditioning in that. Cumberland gets hot and humid in the summer, but Sara and I don’t use air conditioning; that was a deliberate decision of ours, when we moved here three years ago. Human beings evolved in an equatorial zone, without air conditioners, and billions of us get by in very hot climates without them today; given the opportunity to adapt, the human body can handle hot and humid conditions easily. Of course the opportunity to adapt is precisely the issue here. I have immense sympathy for the people who found themselves suddenly evicted from air-conditioned comfort into the subtropical heat of a mid-Atlantic summer; if I hadn’t spent three years getting used to an unfamiliar climate, researching and relearning the skills that people here once used to get through summers in relative comfort, and making use of features built into a house that dates from long before air conditioning and was designed to be livable without it, I’d be miserable too.

It’s arguably high time that more people began acclimatizing themselves to a world in which they can’t simply turn on the air conditioning any time it gets hot and muggy.  In a broader sense, that’s the core message of Kunstler’s book. Since the end of the Second World War, most Americans—and, to be sure, a fair number of people in other countries—got used to being able to call upon practically unlimited amounts of cheap energy to do, well, just about anything they happened to want, so long as somebody else could make money off it.  Strawberries in winter? No problem; we’ll just fly them in from the other side of the planet. Rocks from the Moon?  Easily done, since all it takes is nearly unimaginable amounts of energy.  Cold dry air indoors in August?  Sure thing; we can just throw some gigawatts at it.  In the phrase Kunstler uses, we’ve all gotten far too used to getting things done by magic.

Regular readers of this blog will be expecting me to quibble about his use of that last word, and indeed I will.  Let’s save that for a bit, though, because what Kunstler is saying here deserves attention. The sort of magic he’s talking about is the kind you find in fairy tales and The Thousand and One Nights, not to mention an endless stream of shoddy fantasy novels and Hollywood extravaganzas churned out more recently, and the factor that defines it is that the people who use it never have to worry themselves about how it works.

Consider the old story of Jack and the Beanstalk.  All Jack has to do is plant the magic beans; he doesn’t have to figure out how they’re going to produce all that plant tissue overnight, so he can climb into the sky the next morning. For that matter, he doesn’t have to figure out how the giant’s castle stays up there in the sky, violating the laws of medieval and modern physics alike. He doesn’t have to do much or understand anything; it all just happens. That’s the sort of thing you get when the elegant symbolic narratives of an earlier age get dumbed down, stripped of their interpretive context, and relegated to the nursery. 

To be fair, many of them had been there all along, for good reason.  Most societies that haven’t gotten around to writing, and a good many that have, teach their children by telling them colorful stories, and then teach their adolescents a good deal more by explaining to them what the stories they learned and loved as children actually mean.  Since the end of the Renaissance and the abandonment of the lively sense of the symbolic that permeated medieval and Renaissance culture, only the first half of the equation remained in the Western world; the stories themselves were retained for a few more centuries out of a vague sense of nostalgia, until they were finally pushed aside in our era  by shoddy mass-marketed consumables whose only meaning or lesson is that somebody wanted to make a fast buck.

I’ve come to think, though, that the rise of modern technology over the three centuries since the dawn of the industrial revolution was guided, in no small part, by the lingering echoes of these old stories. No law of nature or of human nature required us to use the gargantuan treasure of nearly free energy we took from the Earth’s carbon stash in precisely the ways that we did, after all. Some of the things we did with all that energy packed enough of an economic or military advantage that it was a safe bet that they’d be tried, no matter what stories were rattling around the crawlspaces of the western world’s collective psyche, but that’s hardly true of all. Visit a large department store sometime, go up and down the aisles, and ask yourself: how many of the things for sale there imitate some detail in a fairy tale?

The magic garments and ointments and jewels that turn serving girls into beautiful princesses, the magic boxes that bring summer in winter and winter in summer, the magic boats that sail under the waves and the magic birds that carry people through the skies, even the beanstalks of smoke and flame that took a modest number of space-suited Jacks (and a very few Jills) up through the clouds to look, unsuccessfully, for a giant’s palace—we’ve got them, or more precisely, we think we’ve got them. In point of fact, what we’ve got are simulacra of these things, the nearest approach to them that you can get by throwing terawatts of energy and the raw materials of an entire planet at them, which in most cases is not actually that close.

In a brilliant passage in Where the Wasteland Ends, a book that has lost none of its relevance or power forty years after its publication, Theodore Roszak compared the dream of flying to the tawdry, tedious experience of air travel. He was writing at a time when airlines still boasted about the quality of their in-flight meals and the leg room their passengers could enjoy on the flight, and when airports were not yet quite so reminiscent of medium-security prisons, complete with armed guards herding inmates toward the confinement that awaits them. Nowadays?  A ride in a New York subway is more inspiring, not to mention more comfortable. The same is true, by and large, of the other simulacra of fairy-tale magic that surround us these days: we may be able to get strawberries in winter, like the little girl in the Brothers Grimm story, but they’ve been picked green, artificially ripened with ethylene, and squirted with imitation strawberry fragrance, and they taste like mildly sugared sawdust.

That is to say, the fake magic that clutters up our lives today doesn’t satisfy the needs it claims to fulfill. We all know this.  We’ve all had our faces rubbed in it as long as we’ve been alive, starting with those childhood Christmas presents that looked so enticing in the store and turned out to be so bleakly vapid once the artificial glow of emotionally manipulative marketing wore off them, and extending straight through the upcoming election, which will inevitably be packed with rhetorical bluster about hope, change, and other vacant buzzwords destined to be discarded in favor of four more years of business as usual the moment the polls close. We all know this, and yet so many of us keep chasing after the latest shiny simulacrum, like greyhounds on a racing track in hot pursuit of a mechanical rabbit they’ll never catch and couldn’t eat if they did.

That futile pursuit of fake magic is a central theme of Kunstler’s book. It’s on display most memorably, perhaps, in his encounters with Google employees who insist that the Long Emergency can’t happen because, like, we’ve got technology, or with the TED conference attendees who flocked to hear the latest rehash of that weary 1950s fantasy, the flying automobile. (I’m asked now and then whether I’ve been invited to give a talk at one of the TED conferences. I haven’t, and I don’t expect ever to get such an invitation; any audience that can be entranced by jabber about flying cars will pretty much by definition not be interested in anything I have to say.) From vertical farming aficionados whose skyscraper-centric vision ignores the rising spiral of factors that are turning skyscrapers into an obsolete architectural form, to green energy wonks who can’t imagine why a society in freefall might not be able to scrape together the resources required for their favorite gargantuan construction program, right up to Ray Kurzweil, the computer geek’s Harold Camping with high-tech Rapture prophecy to match,  Kunstler spends much of the book exploring the ways in which wishful thinking founded on a debased, fairy-tale image of magic has come to replace reasoned thought in contemporary American culture, to our immense peril.

Last Friday’s storm, again, was a useful lesson in the nature of that peril. Behind the magic boxes that keep the heat of summer away stands a huge and hypercomplex system of power plants, transmission lines, transformers, and the whole suite of services and social structures that go into keeping the system running. None of it can be dispensed with, and none of it comes cheap, but it’s only when something pops up on the far end of the probability curve and knocks the system silly that most people are forced to notice that the whole thing doesn’t work by fairy tale magic—and even then a great many of them spend their time complaining because the relevant authorities can’t make the magic pop back into being overnight, like Jack’s beanstalk from those magic beans. The slow shredding of the infrastructure that makes the magic possible rarely enters into the collective conversation of our time, and the logical consequence of that process—the statistically inevitable point at which, for each of us in turn, the magic goes away once and for all—goes not merely unmentioned but unimagined.

Still, that’s where we’re headed. We haven’t yet reached the point at which people in outlying areas whose homes lose electrical power in a storm are quietly informed that they will have to pay the full cost themselves if they want power back, or told that they’ve been put on a list and it may take weeks or months or years before their turn comes up. Still, given the increasingly long delays in restoring power after increasingly frequent weather-related disasters—well, the Bob Dylan line is inescapable: you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.  The same wind from a different quarter is blowing through the lives of all those jobless Americans who are losing their unemployment benefits and dropping off the far end of the nation’s joblessness statistics; nonpersons in very nearly an Orwellian sense, they’ve been tossed out of our imaginary happy land of fake magic into a harsher world.  That world is waiting for the rest of us, too, and we’ll each arrive there sooner or later.

Getting ready for that harsh transition, it seems to me, is one of the crucial tasks facing any thoughtful person in our time. It’s not going to be easy, quick or cheap, and a great many of those people who are busy finding reasons why they should cling to their fake magic just that little bit longer are, I’m afraid, going to find it very awkward to discover that the time they spent doing that would have been better spent acclimatizing themselves to the post-fairy tale world.

One of the more useful tools for that task, as I’ve suggested more than once in these essays, is magic—the old art and science of causing change in consciousness in accordance with will, the stuff that I wrote about in my recent book The Blood of the Earth, the stuff that the fake magic of wand-waving movie stars is meant to imitate.  It’s not the only important tool that will be needed, to be sure, but it has something significant in common with every one of the other things that belong on that list:  they all require hard work. You can’t just plant some magic beans in the garden and expect someone or something else to make things happen.  You can’t wait for the authorities to take care of it, because they won’t; you can’t wait for some inventor somewhere to solve the problem for you, because it’s not a problem that can be solved, and the inventors are too busy daydreaming about flying cars to get around to it anyway; you can’t wait for the Rapture or the Singularity or the space brothers or something to make it all go away, because it’s only modern culture’s monumental sense of entitlement that makes people think that some supernatural agency is going to come at a run to bail them out of the consequences of their own actions.

That is to say, if you’re waiting for any of these things, you’re relying on the wrong kind of magic.

Now there are plenty of things that individuals can do right now to make it easier for themselves, their families, and their communities to make the shift to what I’ve called the post-fairy tale world. I wish Kunstler had put a little more of his book into talking about those options; it’s important to try to shake people out of the delusion that everything’s going to be just fine if we just have faith in progress or what have you, but it seems to me that it’s at least as important to give those who do wake up some alternative to the paralyzing despair that comes so easily to those who have been taught all their lives that the only alternative to business as usual is misery and mass death. Even so, Too Much Magic is a useful glance across the topography of the postpeak world in which we now live.

Speaking of books, I mentioned a while back—it was in a discussion of After Oil: SF Visions of a Post-Petroleum World, the forthcoming anthology of peak oil science fiction written by readers of this blog—that if anybody ever decided to create a magazine for post-peak SF, there would be no shortage of talented writers to fill its pages. I’m delighted to say that the challenge has been taken up. Post Peak Fiction, edited by Arwen Hubbard, is a new quarterly magazine with exactly that focus. Hubbard is currently offering subscriptions and soliciting donations via this link on, and is also inviting story submissions via the magazine’s website. I’d encourage readers who enjoyed the story contest, and want to see more of the same, to help get this project under way.

End of the World of the Week #29

"The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now." Those two sentences opened Paul R. Ehrlich’s 1968 bestseller The Population Bomb, a book that proclaimed in strident terms that with three billion human beings on the planet, overpopulation had gone too far, and mass death in the very near future was the inevitable result.

It was a popular belief at the time, and fed into a great many then-current predictions of imminent doom, not to mention such dystopian films as 1973, Soylent Green. For that matter, it’s all but certain that in the long run population levels on the far side of three billion will prove to be hopelessly unsustainable, though the exact mechanisms by which the excess will be reduced may be rather more complicated and prolonged than Ehrlich proposed. Still, the point that a great many of Ehrlich’s fans have tried to evade since the 1970s is simple enough: his prediction was wrong. The global death toll from starvation during the 1970s was not that much greater than it had been during the 1960s, and world population continued to climb past three billion to its present seven billion without triggering any of the catastrophic scenarios Ehrlich detailed.

—for more failed end time prophecies, see my book Apocalypse Not