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73 of 75 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fine for connecting the dots, not for beginners in Peak Oil
Kunstler's latest book is more like a collection of essays than a coherent book. Essentially what he is doing here is bringing his earlier book "The Long Emergency" up to date, and providing responses to his critics. If you are new to Peak Oil, this is not a great book for you. Start with The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of Oil, Climate Change, and Other Converging...
Published on June 11, 2012 by Paula L. Craig

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103 of 111 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Warmed Over Stew
For twenty years, James Kunstler has been arguing that post-WWII suburban sprawl has not only destroyed the character of American life (1994's "The Geography of Nowhere") but has tied us to a cheap oil-based economy that will ultimately lead to civilizational collapse ("The Long Emergency" in 2005). This new book updates this thesis by arguing that the 2008 economic...
Published on May 10, 2012 by Nowhere Man


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73 of 75 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fine for connecting the dots, not for beginners in Peak Oil, June 11, 2012
By 
Paula L. Craig (Falls Church, VA United States) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Too Much Magic: Wishful Thinking, Technology, and the Fate of the Nation (Hardcover)
Kunstler's latest book is more like a collection of essays than a coherent book. Essentially what he is doing here is bringing his earlier book "The Long Emergency" up to date, and providing responses to his critics. If you are new to Peak Oil, this is not a great book for you. Start with The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of Oil, Climate Change, and Other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century first when exploring Kunstler as an author. I would also suggest Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update before trying to read Kunstler.

However, Kunstler remains a fine writer. Some of the chapters are worth the price of the book by themselves. I especially liked the chapter where he takes on both the Democratic and Republican parties, pointing out how both have gone completely wrong in different ways. Chapter Seven on fracking, shale oil, and shale gas is the best treatment I have seen on this subject.

Overall, Kunstler's point is not that different from that made in Limits to Growth's 30-year update. The collapse will not come because America completely runs out of oil, or coal, or natural gas. Rather, when problems come swiftly and in multiples--like energy shortages, climate change, out-of-control banks, lack of capital, pollution, budget deficits, deteriorating roads, corrupt politics, agricultural problems--a society eventually runs out of ability to cope.

Other reviewers have mentioned the sense of frustration that pervades Kunstler's work. I don't mind this because it matches how I feel myself. The U.S. seems just as clueless today about the cause of its difficulties as it was seven years ago. My husband is an intelligent man with a college education, but he is still convinced that technology can solve any problem, including energy. I don't know what to say other than "well, give it another seven years, and see what things are like then." I think that's likely to be Kunstler's vindication, too.
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103 of 111 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Warmed Over Stew, May 10, 2012
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This review is from: Too Much Magic: Wishful Thinking, Technology, and the Fate of the Nation (Hardcover)
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For twenty years, James Kunstler has been arguing that post-WWII suburban sprawl has not only destroyed the character of American life (1994's "The Geography of Nowhere") but has tied us to a cheap oil-based economy that will ultimately lead to civilizational collapse ("The Long Emergency" in 2005). This new book updates this thesis by arguing that the 2008 economic collapse has only hastened our decline and our faith in technological fixes will not rescue us. As with all of his nonfiction books (I haven't read his novels), Kunstler writes in an angry, impassioned style that both carries you along while confronting you with unpleasant facts and inconvenient truths - such as the diminishing returns in shale oil extraction.

Although his larger argument about our increasing unsustainable mode of suburban living is frighteningly convincing, "Too Much Magic" is far less focused than his other works. He goes after a range of disparate subjects whose relevance isn't always made clear. It's nice to know that he doesn't think much of Ray Kurzweil's "The Singularity Is Near" but he hasn't given us a sense of how influential or widespread this book's ideas are (and I suspect not as much as he thinks), so it comes off as little more than score-settling. Similarly, Kunstler provides a cogent rundown of the financial chicanery that led to the 2008 economic meltdown but doesn't really connect this to his broader argument on diminishing fossil fuels. He asserts that the meltdown was due in part to our reaching peak oil but the connection isn't made particularly clear. You sense he's trying hard to graft on an environmental cause so that the collapse fits better within his thesis but reporters like Matt Taibbi, Michael Lewis, Nomi Prins and others have established that it was due to bad debt and market-rigging, not a decline in oil production.

Ultimately, I think "Too Much Magic" tries to do too much and doesn't do a lot of it particularly well. He laments the mediocrity and venality of our current political class, body-piercing, infantile boys who wear their jeans too low, multiculturalism, the moon landing (what was that about?) and popular culture, but these seem to be mere bursts of exasperation. Both "The Geography of Nowhere" and "The Long Emergency" were passionately informed books and at its best, in the chapters on suburbia and on alternative energies, this new work certainly adds to them. But Kunstler's evident and justifiable anger here risks making him sound like a crank. Those unfamiliar with Kunstler should start with the two earlier works; those who are familiar with his arguments will find this an interesting hodge-podge that at its best conveys where he thinks we're at now.
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57 of 63 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Exactly what I've been thinking, June 14, 2012
This review is from: Too Much Magic: Wishful Thinking, Technology, and the Fate of the Nation (Hardcover)
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It is difficult to write a balanced review of a book that says almost exactly what I've been thinking for the last twenty years or so, which indeed I might have written myself if I had the background knowledge and literary skill of Kunstler. Sadly, I have never encountered his novels, but from the brief references he has made to them in this non-fiction discussion, I think I would have enjoyed them.

Kunstler is, of course, a true prophet - one who sees things as they are, states reality honestly and in unequivocal terms, and projects logically to the most probable outcomes if current trends continue. He does so in a writing style that contains just enough humor to somewhat defuse the painfulness of the truth he states so unflinchingly.

The basic premise, which is unavoidable to anyone with even a modicum of scientific understanding, is that the Second Law of Thermodynamics is real, and technology does not replace energy, indeed demands ever-increasing energy input to function. The real issue is of course related directly to the ubiquity of the internal combustion engine, exacerbated by the suburbanization of our culture. Anyone who wants a clear and cogent discussion of the circumstances surrounding the fact that globally we have encountered "peak oil", and the connection between this and the current economic crisis, definitely needs to read Kunstler's book.

I have seen what the author describes clearly in my own personal life. When I was a child growing up, my parents didn't own a car; as artists, they had a minimal lifestyle, used public transportation or walked. Going to graduate school, it soon became obvious that my own family life would essentially be impossible without a vehicle, and from one we went to two - though we never quite got to the point where each of our five kids had their own car while still living in our household. Now, in retirement, we're facing the possibility that we can no longer afford two cars, yet it is obvious that there are no really viable alternatives on the horizon.

Kunstler's conversation with Google executives, described in the first chapter, is a delicious irony. Is it really possible that these ultra-intellectual computer nerds actually don't realize that you need electricity to run technology, and that electricity has to be generated? Apparently so; and though I am perfectly willing to enjoy the benefits of the Internet while it continues to exist, I am not about to throw away all my paper books in favor of e-books. It might be salutary for every American to spend a few weeks in a place like the Dominican Republic, where my husband has visited regularly in the past two decades, to see what life is really like with sporadic and unreliable electrical service.

In any event, this book is honest, perceptive, frightening and yet profoundly entertaining as well. It will be useless, of course, for humans who are determined to imitate other members of the animal kingdom like ostriches, opossums or turtles, and hide defensively from reality which may very well plow them under while they are doing so.
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25 of 27 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Separating Kunstler's Message From Kunstler's Mush, May 12, 2012
This review is from: Too Much Magic: Wishful Thinking, Technology, and the Fate of the Nation (Hardcover)
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I always find it awkward when I agree with a book, but have to recommend against it anyway. A book may be factually accurate, and accord with real-world concerns, yet still fail in the goals it sets itself. That's the problem with James Howard Kunstler's latest jeremiad. Though he (mostly) hits the target squarely, he touches so many topics in such a slim book that he loses coherence, does none of his concerns justice, and sounds like a curmudgeon.

Kunstler inveighs mainly against "techno-grandiosity," his term for the hubris of assuming that technological innovation can solve the problems technological innovation creates. Cheap energy, material innovation, and boundless optimism have created a world of unprecedented plenty. But Kunstler believes this will be seen by historians as an anomaly. We face imminent fuel shortages, agricultural failure, and a world too crowded for its diminishing resources.

Unfortunately, our best and brightest assume, because society has seen an upward trajectory to this point, nothing can stop us now. If we run out of hydrocarbons, so what? We have technology to circumvent those shortcomings. We can build our way out of this cul-de-sac. The mere fact that current technology relies on the cheap, abundant energy that only hydrocarbons provide doesn't penetrate the heads of these relentless cheerleaders.

So far, so sound. Kunstler's claims make sense, they accord with the evidence we outside the halls of power see around us daily, and they sound persuasive. But instead of expounding on this core shortcoming, which bolsters every other claim Kunstler makes, he caroms through every ramification he can imagine, sometimes too briefly for us to comprehend them. Only somebody already in agreement with Kunstler will even want to follow his frenetic thought labyrinthe.

It's hard to dispute Kunstler's warnings about peak oil, unsustainable urban design, the false promise of post-humanism, and more--if you follow his hyperactive reasoning. Because he voices concerns I share, though more eloquently than I could, I agree with Kunstler. But he doesn't stay on one topic long enough to do any of them justice. I'm persuaded because I'm already persuaded. If I came to this book cold, I doubt he would change my mind.

Kunstler also follows some weird cow paths. For instance, though he mostly addresses abusive reliance on technology, his longest chapter barely mentions that topic, focusing instead on the circumstances around the 2008 Wall Street implosion. Kunstler's explication is less thorough than Robert Kuttner's A Presidency in Peril--though Kunstler is funnier and more pugnacious. Still, telling a story well doesn't matter if the story feels like an appendix.

Worse, both Kunstler and Kuttner miss the most important lesson of the meltdown: while media and government in the runup lionized pirate financiers, they also demeaned routine work. Laborers, teachers, and local service providers heard themselves openly described as "slackers," "parasites," and worse. No wonder they marched on Zucotti Park when not one bankster was indicted for the 2008 shipwreck.

Maybe that highlights the problem I have: Kunstler highlights the top-level malfeasance which created the current impasse, without really parsing what it means for the ordinary Joe who wants to earn a living. Peak oil, with its charts and histograms and sweep of technology, alarms those of us who care about umbrella issues. It means something different on the ground, where stats show that, the poorer you are, the further you probably live from your job.

Car-reliant suburban sprawl, one of Kunstler's biggest bugbears, will certainly become a major menace when oil becomes so scarce that the poor can't drive to work. But such sprawl was willed into existence, not out of malice, but because people need homes they can afford. And as the rich, who initially fled urban life, have now crowded the working poor out of city centers, people with hourly wages have moved where they can afford.

Kunstler, unfortunately, misses this. Though I can't claim he's unaware of the contemporary two-tiered social structure, he addresses it only fleetingly. Thus, while I cannot disagree with anything Kunstler says, I fear that when he addresses the audience who most needs to hear his message, his words will fall on deaf ears. Indifference, in politics, is so much worse than opposition.

I support nearly everything Kunstler says about what he justly calls "America's war against its own future." But if he doesn't learn to pitch his message in terms that will penetrate his audience's barriers, he might as well shout down a hole. I fear that's what he's doing already.
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14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Long "I Told You So", or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Collapse of Civilization as We Know It, May 17, 2012
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This review is from: Too Much Magic: Wishful Thinking, Technology, and the Fate of the Nation (Hardcover)
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The end is nigh! Oil is running out, and when it does, civilization as we know it will fall to pieces. Quickly. Brilliant new scientific and technological developments will not save us. Prepare for the mid-21st century, where electricity is gone, cars are obsolete, roads are dirt, horses draw the plows, cities wither, and suburbia is dead, dead, dead! Don't worry, it'll be fun ... if you survive the consequent famine, can remain sane without your iPhone, and don't mind getting your hands dirty.

This is the vision of James Howard Kunstler, professional prophet, gadfly, irritant, and novelist. It is, I gather from his bibliography, a vision he has been honing and refining for more than two decades. In his 1994 book "The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America's Man-Made Landscape," Kunstler denounces the ugliness, wastefulness, and negative social and ecological consequences of suburban development. In his 2005 book, "The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of Oil, Climate Change, and Other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century," Kunstler warns of the coming social, political, and economic consequences of "peak oil," which he further illustrates in his post-apocalyptic "World Made by Hand: A Novel."

In "Too Much Magic," Kunstler updates his argument from the "Long Emergency", talking in particular about the 2008 financial collapse (which he claims to have predicted) and its connection to peak global oil production, which he says was reached between 2005 and 2008. (Even the most optimistic estimates place peak oil no later than 2030.) More importantly, he amplifies his critique of magical thinking--the "build it and they will come" optimism that allows entrepreneurs to take big risks and students to wait until the last minute before studying for finals.

One of Kunstler's targets is the late economist Julian Simon. Simon famously observed that, "in a free society, solutions are eventually found. And in the long run the new developments leave us better off than if the problems had not arisen." While Kunstler cannot prove Simon wrong, he does his best to discredit this view. The magic isn't coming, Kunstler says. Oil is going to run out, and nothing on the drawing board today has a chance of succeeding it; in fact, he argues, none of the alternatives are viable without oil and other resources that are disappearing even more quickly. We can have faith and, like Wile E. Coyote, run off a cliff at full speed, or we can slow down, take stock of where we are, and take serious steps to adopt a simpler, more efficient, healthier way of life.

Kunstler, on the other hand, sees no realistic hope for a change in direction. Neither political party is capable of adapting to changing circumstances; they're both blinded by past experience and bound by current arrangements--what he calls "the psychology of previous investment"--and Americans as a whole show little inclination to think outside the voting booth. On the third hand (or foot or whatever), Kunstler not-so-secretly agrees with Simon that "in the long run the new developments leave us better off than if the problems had not arisen." Many, many people will die in the economic collapse he forecasts (something he barely alludes to, oddly), but, in the end, we will have the simpler society he idealizes.

Bottom line: Kunstler is a strongly opinionated writer who goes out of his way to offend just about everybody (Republicans, Democrats, feminists, suburbanites, working class people, etc.). He is almost certainly wrong in many particulars. What matters most, though, is that he is right about one thing: oil is running out, and it is likely to run out more quickly and more spectacularly than most of us realize. If this book doesn't cause you to rethink your views about our collective near future, it's either because you already agree with Kunstler or because you don't belong to the "reality-based community."
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Apocalypse!!!, August 17, 2012
By 
E. Swope (Kaneohe, HI USA) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Too Much Magic: Wishful Thinking, Technology, and the Fate of the Nation (Hardcover)
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I picked this book up because as a scientist and skeptic the approach appealed; that is, I think there is an awful lot of "magical thinking" around, and, I have to admit that there's a danger of self-confirming bias here.... I was likely to read things which confirmed what I already believed. While that proved to be the case, to some extent, I was disappointed in the lack of reference: facts or pointers to solid research & journalism. While there was a bit of that, this work is very light on the references, and is something of a long-winded polemic based on reasoning from assumption, not all of it self-evident.

In a nutshell, "Too much magic" is an exercise in logic (with foundations which, if not shaky, are not substantiated) on where we are going given how much of our economy is petroleum-based. He assails wishful thinking (to include that we can go on as we have, consuming more than we produce, e.g.) and challenges people to take a more realistic look at some of their assumptions.

Most of the book proceeds from the assumption (which I am not in a good position to gauge) that we have reached peak oil. It is indisputable that there is a fixed quantity in the ground,but analyses regards how much, how easy to get to... vary considerably. I am also not sure that I accept that there is no substitute for petroleum or that technology will not provide one in the future. (I do not believe it is magical thinking to believe that science, exploration and research can provide solutions to some of our challenges). I also know that there are quite a few people who know more about what is being done, and what is possible than I. I wish there were more of that in this book, and do not find it particularly reassuring when he states that his position is exactly opposite that of Ray Kurzweil (someone whose thinking and accomplishments I respect).

Some assumptions I find particularly questionable. In the first chapter he states that we have reached the end of globalization. When did that happen? (references please!) No matter how sound the logic, if it is built on faulty assumptions, the entire tower topples.

I find some of his reasoning logical, if not reassuring (e.g. that suburbs and exurbs become less viable as the cost of commuting goes up), HOWEVER there's also quite a bit of conflicting reasoning (or maybe, indeed, every solution is doomed). He argues first that the suburbs were an unnatural failed experiment and that cities provide the only viable solution. He then describes how cities are failing and that the cost of transporting food makes the model he just put forward unviable!

It is an easy read, although at points I would call the writing style hysterical and am a bit put off by the numerous pejoratives. I can understand the sense of urgency from someone who feels that we are sliding rapidly towards the demise of our civilization, but it would be more acceptable if it were not presented in a way which reads like a street-corner polemic. If nothing else, this book will have me checking my own assumptions, and maybe even my rhetoric ;)
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Found the book uneven in it's focus., September 12, 2012
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Just finished the book, and I am at a loss as to why this book was written. While I enjoyed the updates on big oil and especially the section on natural gas, I found many sections of the book to be little more than pedantic rants. This is Kunstler's style on his blog, and it works there because most of the time the rants are narrowly focused, or in a few cases, wonderful pointed summaries of where things stood at that time. When these rants are repeated in book form, the reader looses focus rapidly at the bewildering barrage of banalities. I liked "The Long Emergency" and I enjoy most of Kunstler's blogs, however I could not in good conscience recommend this book to other readers.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Unabashed social critique of our society, an expression of dismay. Editing sorely needed, July 4, 2012
This review is from: Too Much Magic: Wishful Thinking, Technology, and the Fate of the Nation (Hardcover)
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This book articulates our common concerns and fears for the future. It's not watered down at all. Like everything Kunstler writes, Too Much Magic is devoid of qualifiers, hedging, and attempts to balance sentiment or even footnotes or bibliography. Kunstler doesn't back up his many assertions with academic references and economic tables. He expresses himself.

I recommend this book for a certain type of audience. Some readers might turn pessimistic and that's not favorable. I felt optimistic reading this book because it made me realize how others out there are also not satisfied by the news we get through major media. Kunstler will not win any corporate sponsors. He says suburban sprawl has run its course. If true, that has major implications.

Be forewarned - this book contains several long rants that I didn't find engaging. The paragraphs are overly long not just in word count but also in terms of number of ideas expressed. Therefore, much is asked of the reader. I had to work for the rewards of this book yet it was worth it. I experienced an unadulterated account of a common lifestyle that at least from a logical standpoint will not be forever maintained.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Book good at describing where we are at and how we got here, August 6, 2012
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This review is from: Too Much Magic: Wishful Thinking, Technology, and the Fate of the Nation (Hardcover)
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The author, though he denies it, is a doom and gloomer. Though I don't subscribe to what he envisions, I do think there is credibility in it for a longer term than he sees, so it is definitely worth learning what he writes so the reader can better know what challenges are ahead for humanity which do require more serious policy decisions by the US than which are currently in place. Here's some of his thoughts in the book.

1. He sees a worse crisis than the crash of 2008.
2. We are already past peak oil and population overload.
3. Warnings - BP oil blowout, Fukoshima nuclear meltdown, lots of tornado's, hurricanes, floods, droughts, etc.
4. Time frame We've already entered the zone of middle-class dissolving and no consensus about what to do.
5. Jevon's paradox, Tainter's model - greater complexity and diminishing returns?
6. Something for nothing mentality/legalized gambling. Cheap fast food, happy motoring, air conditioning. Peak everything. Then came housing bust after 2005. Roman culture took centuries to wind down.
7. We had peak debt which leads to deflation/contraction which we will never emerge because less money for auto loans,etc. Lack of public funds to fix roads. Auto bailout money should have made car companies make railroad stuff since will need a betterrailroad system.
8. Entropy - beginning, middle, end with only one direction. "Too much magic/"complexity. Farewell to drive-in utopia, suburbia over.
9. After WWI - suburbia building boom, roaring 20's, impetus for bubble economy, 1929 crash, then after WWII suburbia boom continued..
10. Women's lib in 60's really just 2 workers needed to continue suburbia,run lives of families.
11. GOP he calls the party of stupidity, mostly in sunbelt - suburban sprawl complete with oil, air.cond. - future bleak - "rural idiocy." Total bailouts (incl international) = $77T.
12. Hopefully towns will be redeveloped - more compact/dense/inland since climate change will flood coastal areas. - skyscrapers will be obsolete because electricity costs will be too high. Since San Diego near Mexico, there will be a fight over the terrain. Unable to garden grain crops. "New Urban-ism" still car centric, too complex.
13. Thinks Ray Kurzweil's "Singularity" where technology will solve problems is the vision of a mad scientist - AI can't transcend biology, genetic engineering, virtual sex, eternal life, nanotech robots/nanobots in humans, elsewhere is nonsense. He has no idea of diminishing returns or the dark side of humans. Gaia Theory where Earth is a living organism is just a so-so theory.
14. Party politics began to decline in 60's. Clinton turned over the economy to WS, continued with GW Bush. WS went from 5% of the economy to 40% - repeal of Glass-Steagell - neo-liberal economics. Lobbyists dictated healthcare and regulations with Obama. GOP led wave of anti-intellectualism. We benefited from post WWII - Highway system, cheap gas, FDR programs -TVA, military bases/military middle class + a prosperity gospel in churches - "God rains money on the favored."
15. Reagan turned the US from largest creditor nation to largest debtor nation. Began the corporate takeover of America by WS.
16. After WWII the US was in charge - no competition for goods, lent countries money to buy goods, #1 in oil/energy - an empire. In 60's began to crumble. Reagan lucky - north sea, Mexican, USSR's oil. Clinton lucky - leveraged buyouts, but then US went from manufacturing to junk bond mess and the S+L mess. Then the housing bubble and derivatives - Brooksly Born warned, but government didn't listen. Peak oil, peak debt, peak banking.
17. Solar panel makers use 11% of silver supply. Wind and solar energy use rare earth minerals which are rare, radioactive, pollute and cause other problems. By 2100, sea level is predicted to rise 3-17 feet and temperatures 3-7 degrees F. Most critical effect of climate change is food scarcity. US will become balkanized because not every immigrant learns English and adopts culture. The space shuttle retired/science compromised because US is out of money.
18. The only thing complex societies haven't been able to do is contract which will be necessary.

So, the author is good at describing the path we are on, but I'm not big on fortune tellers - I doubt things will go exactly as he says. But, the bok is an interesting read and does describe well the sequence of major events and where they have led us and what future changes are.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting Take on where we are and where we're going, July 20, 2012
This review is from: Too Much Magic: Wishful Thinking, Technology, and the Fate of the Nation (Hardcover)
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I noticed a lot of the other reviews are from the perspective of those who have been a meaningful part of our economy for the past 20 years-they are all great reviews, but I am only 27, so I read this book from a completely different perspective-not better, like I said, just different.

I have not read any of Kunstler's previous works, so that left me a bit lost in the first 3 chapters or so. He keeps referencing his New York Time's Best Seller "The Long Emergency", so it reads a little bit like an "I told you so" list of all the things he surmised correctly. Not really my cup of tea, but I suppose he is just trying to connect with his return readers and illustrate his expertise to his new readers, like myself.

Once you get into the book, he really brings up some very good observations about our society-he discusses the idea that our party politics have not only limited us as a nation, but created a system that allows little to be done to actually prevent the types of financial disasters that we saw in 2008. He also discusses the danger of believing that our technology is going to solve our issues.

I felt like a lot of what he said was very superficial so that he could make as many points as possible, b/c let's face it, the more claims you make, the more of a chance you have of being right about one of them....Not that what he says is wrong, I just get the impression that he has a notepad in his pocket and every time he heard something that he didn't like or wanted to offer an opinion about, he wrote it down and just took that notepad and converted it to a book-a little too much topic and not enough content. I tend to value quality over quantity.
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Too Much Magic: Wishful Thinking, Technology, and the Fate of the Nation
Too Much Magic: Wishful Thinking, Technology, and the Fate of the Nation by James Howard Kunstler (Hardcover - June 19, 2012)
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