Small Town Apocalyptic Values

Josh Stephens reviews James Howard Kunstler's novel of post-peak oil existence, World Made By Hand.

Photo: Josh StephensEver since humanity figured out how to split the atom, literature has been spinning cautionary tales in the form of spectacular doomsday scenarios. By bringing the horrors of nuclear apocalypse to the brink of reality, the likes of Dr. Strangelove, On the Beach, Fail Safe, and, most recently, The Road have stirred up enough terror to make pressing the button thus far unthinkable. But while we have been busy worrying about the Bomb, we have ignored equally grave threats, whose solutions – literary and otherwise – are slipping away.

In World Made by Hand, James Howard Kunstler, infamous land-use curmudgeon and caustic hero of the New Urbanist set, presages this new era with a new subgenre: he has written perhaps the world's first work of apocalyptic utopianism.

Just a few generations of iPhone into the future, energy policy, foreign policy, and urban planning have all failed simultaneously and spectacularly. Kunstler alludes to a buffet of destructive forces descending on the globe, including terrorists, radiation, rogue states, disease, resource wars, Chinese aggression, and, for good measure, the Bomb itself. But this time, the Bomb is only a metaphor, eclipsed in both scale and certainty by climate change and all the asinine things that humanity, cheered on by Ford, Exxon, Bechtel, and Lennar, has done to bring it about. Whereas a nuclear blast kills us before we can even apprehend it, in World Made by Hand we are already looking backwards at our own destruction.

After the Long Emergency

Kunstler has said that he does not exactly welcome climate catastrophe – and his worst-case scenario is, of course, far from certain – but he sees possibilities in it that might make it worthwhile. He first outlined his hopes and fears for an atomized, upended world in his book-length essay The Long Emergency. In the fictionalized version, the drama plays out in the town of Union Grove, in the erstwhile state of New York, where survivors butcher their own meat, erect their own houses, and embark on trading expeditions as would any hearty band of Yankees carving out a society in the wilderness.

In this atavistic conceit, big cities, which sinned by building out and not up, have met with detonation, as have power plants, highways, and Ma Bell. The office park, housing tract, big box, and other trappings of the "geography of nowhere" have been rendered obsolete because they are too spread out and too impersonal. In their wake, small towns regain their place as society's proper political and economic units. Everyone knows each other, and both love and rivalry flourish face-to-face.

Union Grove's reluctant leader is Robert Earle, a software engineer-turned-carpenter-turned-reluctant-savior whose measured demeanor and quiet ethics inspire the townsfolk to elect him mayor. Mayor of what, exactly, is unclear, because in Union Grove's soft anarchy everyone remembers law, order, and electricity but cannot reverse-engineer any of it. Earle's foils range from a deluded governor-king in Albany to some unsettlingly benevolent Christian fundamentalists to a band of tribal rednecks who preside over the local trailer park.

Adventures, such as they are, ensue. A journey to Albany, a murder investigation, public policy debates, and a showdown at Union Grove's own Thunderdome proceed at a brisk, engaging pace, but with none of the drama commensurate with the subject matter.

Small Town Survivalism

Whether its narrative takes the form of a quest, a battle, or resignation, the most gripping aspect of any apocalyptic tale is always the eschaton itself, the mere suggestion of which generates an unyielding tension between hope and despair. But the tribulations of Earl & Co. amount to a perverse come-uppance. They can never achieve salvation because, for Kunstler, destruction and salvation are the same thing. No longer imprisoned by companies and brands, the survivors of Union Grove rediscover that which Kunstler has insisted on for years: that the quaint, the historic, and the local offer the best hope for digging ourselves out from the sprawl, ugliness, and consumerism that have made modern America a horizontal Babel.

All this makes for compelling social theory, but anyone who hoped that the apocalypse would be an eloquent affair will meet with disappointment. Kunstler has, in previous writings, carried on the tradition of Jane Jacobs and Peter Blake by applying an incisive, eloquent, and often hilarious pen to the living junkyards of sprawl and misguided modernism. He is also the same author who managed to make the term "clusterfuck" socially acceptable (if only by pointing out things even more vile).

But the satire goes a step too far in World Made by Hand, not because it is offensive but because it is dull. World Made By Hand suffers from the same stilted dialog, flat characters, and melodrama common to many planets, from Dune to Hoth to, on occasion, Earth. There is little true drama because the worst has already happened -- turned out to be kind of OK. Kunstler's vacillation between regret and approval results in characters who aren't desperate enough to inspire sympathy but not hopeful enough to make us believe that we'd actually want to give up our SUVs and Profile washing machines.

Nevertheless, the pedantic side of World Made by Hand is another of Kunstler's well-taken, if obvious, jabs at the status quo. It highlights the choices that we should have made that will cease to be choices. We should not have given in to Wal-Mart and subdivisions. We should not have given in to the automobile. We should not have traded global domination for domestic tranquility, and we should not have put so much trust in government. What urban planners and public officials failed to do through enlightened land-use strategies -- create close, pleasant human settlements -- climate change and peak oil have done instead.

By illuminating the horrors of life after the nuclear holocaust, Kunstler's literary forbearers deserve some of the credit for enabling humanity to stick around long enough to become wedded to skyscrapers, superhighways, and 7-Elevens. Unfortunately, as the mercury inches upwards into the new century, World Made by Hand may be too little, too late.


Josh Stephens is a former editor of The Planning Report and the Metro Investment Report, monthly publications covering, respectively, land use and infrastructure in Southern California.

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