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