Book Review: Too Much Magic

Book reviews are posted every few weeks on Tuesdays. I tend to read books about urban planning, the built environment, demographics, sociology, cultural anthropology, and the environment. They are not always new books, but a good book will not be dated and will keep coming up when discussing current issues.  Click on the “Book Review” tab to see all reviews.

Too Much Magic: Wishful Thinking, Technology, and the Fate of the Nation by James Howard Kunstler

If you’ve never read Kunstler, you have to prepare to feel powerless, discouraged, offended (and you have to go back and read The Geography of Nowhere). But, you can also expect to be entertained, enlightened, and downright dazzled at his writing talent. He looks at how we are unprepared for a future that could include less or no access to fossil fuels, meaning a crumbling of our house of cards built on cheap energy and dependent, endless electricity.

Seriously, if you read only one chapter this year, it should be “Farewell to the Drive-in Utopia”, where Kunstler rips the suburban lifestyle to shreds. I admit, I don’t want to be or try to be, but I’m kind of an urban/charming college town snob (if you couldn’t tell already). I had a perfectly happy childhood growing up in the suburbs, I love getting “suburb food,” as I lovingly refer to Chili’s, every once in a while, and I completely understand and agree with reasons people live in the suburbs (this being really the only realistic choice for the vast majority of people). It’s not a judgement. But I’ve seen first hand the real damage that a life of commuting and being car-dependent can do, and these effects have of course become painfully obvious as major problems (traffic congestion, obesity, social isolation, etc).

This sort of thinking may seem doomsday or overly negative until you really look at inhumane infrastructure-highways, lack of sidewalks, huge parking lots-especially side by side with walkable urban spaces. I feel anxious when I’m in a neighborhood where you literally have to get in your car to do anything, sort of a reverse claustrophobia. Meant for freedom, as Jeff Speck says in Walkable City, the slave has become the master. We have taken away all other transportation choices in the vast majority of the country and isolated ourselves in places where you have to get in the car to pick up a gallon of milk.

Although not as enthralling to me (as a total Luddite who held on my to taped-together Discman well into the iPod age), Kuntsler also goes into the dangers of relying on technology, especially when he has doubts about how long access to the internet will be around.

As a cautious pragmatist, I tend to look on the bright side of things, and see the potential in retrofitting our suburbs and finding alternate energy sources. I see everything from a designer’s perspective, where the world is just a design problem to be solved. Maybe I’m just in blissful ignorance and would like to stay there, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy my trip down Doomsday Lane reading this book.