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A Hand Made Tale

World Made By Hand. James Howard Kunstler. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2008.

Warning: this review gives away minor elements of the plot, but nothing major beyond what you could glean from the book flaps and the bookís web site, or which is quickly revealed in the opening chapters.

Is World Made By Hand the "Uncle Tomís Cabin" novel of peak oil activists? Will it have the same galvanizing effect on a world confronted with fossil fuel depletion, as the other, more famous anti-slavery novel had in the United States before the Civil War? Apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction is not new -- think of Dr. Strangelove, The Day After, and Forty Days of Rain. But what is new in World Made By Hand is that the apocalypse is not a nuclear catastrophe per se, but at its root an oil-depletion and energy-depletion catastrophe.

Kunstler does an excellent job in creating a visceral feel for what it would feel like to be alive in Union Grove, a fictional small town north of Albany (which we suspect is based on Saratoga Springs), in the wake of such a catastrophe. Thereís a bit too much violence in the book for my taste, though I think that most readers will not be bothered by it. If it were a movie, it would be rated R for violence, though in written form the novel comes across as PG-13. It would also probably be rated R for some sexuality, though that isnít really a strong theme in the book and it doesnít bother me. Actually, Kunstler may have been a bit too reticent about exploring the sexuality of the New Faith community, something which is alluded to at various times but never fully described. (Maybe heís saving that for the sequel.)

The Setting

Kunstlerís fictional disaster is not a straight line effect of the decline of oil supplies. Rather, it is a series of second-order political disasters resulting from attempts to cope, badly, with a declining economy that can no longer be supported by oil. One minor weakness of the book is that this connection is never spelled out. Promotional material for the book has said that it is a novel of "the long emergency," referring to his previous nonfiction book on the incipient crisis over declining oil supplies. But if you just picked this book up in a bookstore or off a library shelf, you might not get that point. The characters know that there used to be oil, and there isnít any longer, but the connection is not visible to them. All they remember is the accompanying social and political disasters.

The time is a decade or two in the future, and the United States has turned the world against us through intervention in the Middle East. The "Holy Land War" has ended disastrously; there has been a military coup, and a nervous return to civilian rule; Los Angeles, and then Washington, D. C. have been targeted with nuclear bombs. Much worse than this, however, are the devastating epidemics of the "Mexican flu" (avian flu, probably) and encephalitis which have swept away sizable chunks of the population. Kunstler is cagey in not spelling out what year this is or how much of the population is gone, but he leaves clues that the year is about 2020 and about half the population of the U. S. is gone. The economy, the electrical grid, and most law and order have all collapsed. There may be a President, and he may be in Minneapolis.

Could It Happen Here?

So how persuasive is his book? Is there still time to turn the public back from the lunacy of ignoring fossil fuel depletion? Or is the book so far fetched that it is an embarrassment to environmental activists everywhere? I, for one, do not find Kunstlerís vision all that unrealistic, and I hope that itís turned into a movie. Or perhaps better yet, it could be turned into a video game, where you control one of several factions in Union Grove: the regular townspeople, the New Faith church, Stephen Bullockís semi-feudalist outfit outside of town, or Wayne Karpís gang of rednecks who control the town dump. You could model it after one of the "city building" games, like Caesar III or Zeus: Master of Olympus, in which Union Grove expands its economy and links up with other communities in the vicinity.

No one knows how far-fetched Kunstler's apocalypse is. With our fiasco in Iraq becoming tremendously unpopular, I would hope that the idea of "decisive" U. S. intervention in the Middle East to secure oil supplies would be dead as a doornail. But peak oil has still to really hit the American economy, and when it does, who knows what kinds of crazy military interventions may be proposed, especially if the "100 years in Iraq" Republicans manage to actually win this November. Avian flu is a time bomb waiting to happen; factory farms are a breeding ground for a virus that has already affected humans, and if a contagious variety evolved, it could be far more deadly than the flu epidemic of 1918. Finally, if we really did convince the Muslims that we had a "clash of civilizations" between Christianity and Islam, well, Pakistan has the bomb already, so itís just a question of getting it close enough to Los Angeles or Washington, D. C. to explode.

So while each element of this basic scenario may seem unlikely, they all could happen, and if they did, it would be a world-changing disaster unlike anything since the fourteenth century, indeed unlike anything since the beginning of civilization. Itís a novel, for crying out loud, and if we donít grant the basic premise, we wouldnít have a novel, weíd have an economic or political treatise, which wouldnít be nearly as interesting (and which in any event Kunstler has already given us in The Geography of Nowhere and The Long Emergency).

The Culture of Union Grove

Granted that, how realistic is Kunstlerís fictional world? Much of it is quite convincing. The rather rapid decay of the infrastructure, given the quick decline of the goverment which maintains it, is very instructive. Alan Weisman, who wrote The World Without Us -- a nonfiction book telling us how most of what we have created would decay if humans suddenly departed the scene -- wrote a blurb promoting the book, and Kunstler has evidently read and understood Weisman's book. Trees are growing up through the pavement, the town dump is pillaged to recover resources no longer easily available, and even bicycles become impossible with the collapse of an industry to support their manufacture.

The main form of entertainment is acoustic music that heretofore has been cultivated only by musicians and contra dancers interested in that genre. I found this intriguing, because Iím a big fan of this kind of music. Fiddle tunes like "Possum Up a Gum Stump," and shape note hymns in the Sacred Harp and related traditions spring up everywhere in the novel. Before the radio came to Appalachia in about 1920, that was what entertainment was -- and obviously after the grid collapses, thatís what weíll probably revert to. The hero is propelled to early prominence in the novel because of his abilities as a fiddler.  At this point, Kunstler's world is rich with down-home community spirit and it almost becomes a utopia instead of a dystopia. 

Most especially prominent in town politics is the role of religion. Given Kunstlerís secular-left tendencies and his open contempt for the Christian right, religion comes out looking pretty good in this novel. In fact, there are not one but two competing religious groups in the novel, one roughly representing the "main line" Christian churches, and the other roughly representing "evangelical" churches -- though really, the New Faith church is not so much fundamentalist, as it is a syncretistic combination of Billy Graham, the Amish, and Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (later known as "Osho").

This is really terrible to say, but the church and corresponding institutions in other religions, as flimsy as they are, are one of the few strong and truly local institutions left in American life today. Everything else, from entertainment to industry, has pretty much been taken over by national or international groups, but religion remains truly a local affair. So it should not be surprising that it is the institution that comes out of the woodwork to dominate the life of Union Grove.

How Would Union Grove Actually Work?

I have a few minor complaints about the novel. First, as I mentioned above, the connection of this collapse with fossil fuels is unclear. Surely Kunstler could provide at least one character who could say, "yeah, I remember in the old days people warning about Ďpeak oil.í" In fact, if the year is about 2020, then the collapse apparently occurred fairly quickly and fairly completely. There would be quite a bit of oil, and even more coal, still in the ground, but because the economy has collapsed, the technology and infrastructure to mine it (or to transition to anything resembling "solar and wind") is gone.

In fact, there is one respect in which Kunstlerís novel may actually be more optimistic than is warranted, and that concerns keeping warm in the winter. Even if the U. S. population was (say) half or even a third of what it is today, is there enough wood in the U. S. to sustain that sort of population through winter, given our leaky houses, and the presumed lack of technology and infrastructure to insulate them? By placing his novel in the summer, Kunstler evades this question.

Kunstler postulates an almost total collapse of communications with the outside world. "There may be a President, and he may be in Minneapolis" summarizes what Union Grove knows about the outside world. Wait a minute here. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the United States had a population and a technology less developed than that in World Made by Hand, and they knew about the outside world. It took weeks for news of the Battle of New Orleans and the end of the War of 1812 to cross each other in the mail, but the news did travel -- why wouldnít the news travel, albeit slowly, in Kunstlerís world?

Kunstler is (perhaps purposely) vague about what percentage of the population has been destroyed by disease, perhaps just as a hedge against these kinds of objections. Based on clues in the book, it appears that from 30% to 80% of the population has been wiped out in Union Grove, a pretty wide range. Is Union Grove more or less lucky than the rest of the world? We donít know. Perhaps they were lucky and the reason thereís no communication with the outside world is that it isnít there.

Unhappiness in Union Grove

There is another aspect which isnít completely convincing, and that is the high rate of depression among characters in the novel. The hero comes into contact with several minor characters who commit suicide. One of the key female characters in the novel seems perpetually depressed and periodically breaks into tears.

Sure, this could certainly happen, but it's misleading. Depression and suicide are more typically consequences of not having a social connection, rather than simply declining living conditions or adverse circumstances. Suicide among Jews in Europe during the Second World War was quite rare, and (while the data is sketchy) apparently remained rare among survivors, although it increased as time went by so that elderly survivors 60 years after the death camps had three times the "normal" suicide rates. Moreover, the evidence appears to be that suicide in the U. S. increased a bit at the beginning of the Great Depression but then, at the depth of the Depression, actually started to decrease, a decrease which continued through the Second World War all the way to 1945, the end of the crisis period.

From "Vital Statistics of the United States, 1940 - 1960," available at this CDC site.

Itís true that the suicides in Kunstlerís novel were socially isolated characters, but itís misleading to imply that this would plausibly be a pervasive problem. One of the features of Kunstlerís world is full employment -- there is a labor shortage, something specifically stated in the novel. There are greatly reduced living standards, but everyone has a job and no one, apparently, is going hungry. This implies a high degree of social cohesion. Even Kunstlerís characters know this: after one of the suicides, Brother Jobe comments that it was a pity, because he could have offered the person a place in his community.

Social Cohesion

Which brings me to the next feature which I can complain about, the social cohesion of Union Grove, or really the lack of social cohesion. Union Grove is a place in which, pretty much, anything goes. There is no police force, there is no court system. There is a murder in town early in the novel -- in broad daylight -- in which the perpetrator, the victim, and the circumstances are pretty well known to everyone. Yet it takes the entire length of the novel for the key characters to come to grips with this situation, after theyíve taken a rather lengthy detour of the countryside -- a detour in which they find similar lawless conditions elsewhere in the vicinity.

The only corresponding situation in history would be the Black Death in the fourteenth century, which eliminated 30% - 50% of the population of Europe, affecting rich and poor alike. But you did not see an ongoing breakdown in social order at that time. In fact, the Black Death barely caused more than a slight delay in the Hundred Years War. Some towns did in fact "collapse" if their population fell below critical levels, but in many or most places, the living buried the dead, filled their shoes, and life carried on as before. Itís true that feudal Europe was much less technologically developed, but I would not automatically assume that a social disaster means social chaos. It could mean exactly the opposite.

We shouldnít automatically project the social dynamics of the 1990's and early 2000's, when we had Enron, day-traders, stock options, and culture wars, onto the post-apocalyptic Union Grove. I suspect that a more likely alternative would be the social dynamics of the 1950's, where social interaction was more tightly controlled. In the 1950's, as the old saw goes, the problems in schools centered around running in the halls and chewing bubble gum, but in the 1990's it was guns, drugs, and violence. Depending on your situation, the 1950's were not necessarily a better place to live; it was also a tightly controlled world in which people complained about being a cog in the machine, and the 1990's offered an unprecedented freedom of opportunity.

So this wouldn't mean that Union Grove would necessarily therefore be some sort of utopia. But it would more likely be a rather tight small town reminiscent of what it was like in 1950 rather than 1990. If a brand new church wanted to move to Union Grove, they might not have gotten into town without extensive negotiation.  If someone was murdered in Union Grove in broad daylight, the leader of the rednecks who controlled the town dump might have just given the murderer 24 hours to get out of town.  

In Kunstlerís defense, the general drift of these possibilities I have mentioned (and others of similar nature) occurred to some of the characters.  The community brushes them aside, only to be forced to return to them as the novel progresses. But I would say that a town and a set of characters that cannot figure out the need for some sort of law and order after half their population is wiped out due to disease and Washington, D. C. is blown to smithereens, is a little slow on the uptake. 

Kunstler may be a curmudgeon, but heís our curmudgeon, so we like him. Hereís hoping that people read the book and that it prompts them to think about the kind of future weíre creating, and to reflect on the fact that the world postulated in World Made By Hand is very possible. In fact, all it would really take to bring it about would be, well, just to continue what weíre doing now.

Keith Akers
March 26, 2008 (slightly revised March 27)

UPDATE March 28 on the Supernatural:

After looking at what others have said about Kunstler's novel, I feel I should add one more thing, about the "supernatural" element in the book.  My apologies to readers of this review:  what follows will not be comprehensible unless you've actually read the book.

When I read the book through the first time, I actually did not notice a supernatural element.  Then I started looking at what other reviews were saying about the book, and among them came across an interview of Kunstler posted on the book's web site -- in which Kunstler explicitly mentions that there is a supernatural element.  Bwa-ha-ha-ha-ha!

At first I didn't know what he was talking about.  What supernatural element?  And then it occurred to me: there was one plot element (towards the end) that did not seem to make a lot of sense.  (Basically I don't want to give this element of the plot away and it would take too long to explain it anyway, so I will just identify it for those of you who have already read the book.)  The hero wakes up, saying:

My clothes were damp.  It took me a moment to remember what I was doing there.  I had no idea what time it was.  I felt hungover despite not having drunk anything . . .

Subsequently, he discovers an unusual coincidence in some recent deaths, something that must have happened -- in fact -- in the very room he found himself in.  Uh, I think that this coincidence is the "supernatural element." 

Sorry, at the time I didn't think it was supernatural at all!  When I read the book, I said to myself, "that's odd.  I wonder what the explanation is?"  There were two possibilities that occurred to me as I was reading it: the first was that the event had a perfectly natural explanation, in fact the explanation that the hero suggests to Brother Jobe, and Brother Jobe just shrugs his shoulders, not admitting or denying it.  After all, the hero had suffered some serious trauma in the previous 24 hours, and his memory might be a bit off. 

The second was that I hadn't understood the scene correctly, that I was missing some plot details that had been gone over earlier, or that the truth would be revealed a bit further down in the novel.  I waited for further clues, but there were no other clues.  The book ends.  Oops.  Well, I said to myself, maybe I'll go back and re-read the book and I'll understand that section. 

Now I get it: it was a supernatural occurrence!

Doing a Google search on other reviews of World Made By Hand, I can find no other references to this supernatural element except in one other review that said that it hit a "sour note" in an otherwise fine novel.  I agree.  If I hadn't been told that this was a supernatural event, it might have never occurred to me, and I'll bet there are a significant number of other readers who will feel the same way.

It would be fairly easy to change, since nothing else in the novel seems to depend on it.  Maybe in version 2.0 of this book, he'll change this element or explain it further, or add an "epilogue" in which he explains just "what the heck" he is talking about.   Maybe add some sentences recounting the story and adding:

"To this day, I do not have an explanation of that amazing coincidence.  Over and over again, I turn over what is in my memory, as if it were a drug-induced hallucination.  It stands in my life as a gap, a yawning chasm, a black hole in my brain, for which I have no explanation.  When I try to fill in this gap, I attribute it to the role of Divine Providence, or supernatural forces, possibly even demonic forces, which intervened in our town that day --  perhaps the same demonic forces which led our late, supposedly great, nation down the path to destruction."

There is nothing else that suggests the supernatural in the novel, so basically I think that this is a problem for the novel.  Sorry, Jim, I just didn't get it.