“World Made by Hand” Book Review

World Made by Hand is a beautifully written novel about a very difficult time, post-Peak Oil. Some books hit you in the gut and force you to think; and this is one of them. You may go where you don’t want to go. But it’s quite a trip.

The book begins innocently enough. Two men are fishing in a stream near an old railroad bed. They are talking, enjoying each other’s company. It is “sometime in the not-too-distant future.” And thus does a story unfold over a couple of summer months. The only hint that something is amiss comes when the narrator states that he “couldn’t remember a lovelier evening before or after our world changed.”

The world changed? Then the two fishermen gather their belongings and walk back to town. They are walking, of course, because there are no motorized vehicles. In this world there is no oil. But the lack of oil is just the beginning of this summer’s tale.

Welcome to Union Grove, Where there is No Oil

No, this is not a story about how the world has “run out” of oil. In the big scheme of things, the world will never run out of oil. The Peak Oil concept means a lot of things to a lot of people. But one thing that Peak Oil does NOT premise is that the world will “run out” of oil.

The key idea of Peak Oil is that output of crude oil will reach some maximum level on a global scale. Then world oil output will decline over time. (We may already be there.) There will be oil, but not enough to go around in amounts that people and nations desire. “Not enough” is not the same as “run out.”

In the future there will be oil — plenty of it, perhaps — in some parts of the world. And there will be very little oil, or none, in other parts of the world. And that’s the problem.

Which gets to the point of James Kunstler’s marvelous new book. In the “not-too-distant future” you won’t find oil in the small, upstate town of Union Grove, New York. Union Grove is an isolated, low-energy hamlet. For Union Grove, the Oil Age is over. And in this futuristic setting, Kunstler plays out a prophecy that may be closer than you suspect.

Quite an Apocalypse — And Quite the Post-Apocalyptic Novel

Kunstler’s novel falls within a genre called post-apocalyptic literature. The author’s premise is that there will be an apocalypse. Bad things will befall mankind. Lots of people will die. And some people will survive. This is the survivors’ story.

So in a literary sense, World Made by Hand is similar to some famous Cold War-era novels set in a post-nuclear-war world, such as On the Beach or Level 7. Kunstler is writing fiction about survival and survivors, describing what might happen.

A fictional world creates a new set of boundaries. Some things are not plausible in our “real” world. But good fiction makes possible events and reactions that might not otherwise occur. Within fiction, some events take on a new form of logic or plausibility.

But to be convincing, we have to trust the author or the narrator. With enough trust, we can accept a story based on the narrator’s perspective. The narrator becomes our eyes and ears. So the narrator must come across as reliable.

In World Made by Hand, Kunstler’s narrator “Robert” — a former executive at a software company, turned carpenter — mixes science and technology with well-established economic and political trends. You can believe what is happening in this book because so much of it seems rooted in what you already know to be so.

Overall, Kunstler paints a grim picture of the future. Oil or no, life goes on. It’s like the oil-scarce world of Mad Max, but without the madness. All of life’s emotions are still there, but in different proportions than what we’ve come to expect in our well-energized time. Really, on occasion life is tender in the future. It’s even sweet. In some scenes this book tells a story that is funny. Yes, you are allowed to laugh as you read this book.

The Grim Part

Let’s discuss the grim part. What sort of apocalypse occurs? Well, Kunstler never just hits you in the face with it. Like a grand master, he plays his cards subtly. Kunstler offers you only enough information at any point for you to feel the chill winds of a terrible disaster.

In one exchange of dialogue between the narrator and a young man, the youngster grits his teeth and shakes his head at the current plight all around him. And then the young man refers bitterly to the older fellow being part of “the generation that wrecked the world.” What happened, you wonder? Don’t worry. You’ll find out.

Throughout the book, Kunstler tosses out clues. For example, Kunstler spells out how in the past, worldwide demand for oil far outstripped the available supply. So prices for oil began to skyrocket. People became desperate and did desperate things. Sound familiar?

Kunstler makes passing reference to a war in the Middle East. But Kunstler never goes into detail. He doesn’t have to, really. The details are not critical to this story line. But you learn that during the war, things got out of hand. There was immense loss of life, and most of an American army never came home.

On this last point, Kunstler is not just economical in his use of words. Indeed, he’s downright parsimonious. But with just a quick bit of dialogue, Kunstler puts a chill into your spine if not the fear of God in your heart. With a fraction of a sentence, it’s as if you are reading The Peloponnesian War, where Thucydides describes the loss of the Athenian army in Sicily. “Everything was destroyed,” wrote Thucydides, “and few out of many returned home. Such were the events.”

Kunstler mentions in passing two horrific acts of terrorism. The bad guys (guess who?) managed to set off two nuclear weapons on U.S. soil, obliterating Los Angeles and Washington, DC. Within a short time national commerce broke down. Communications disintegrated. The economy crashed. The capital city of the U.S. moved to Minneapolis. Any semblance of control by a central government just vanished.

But post-disintegration, the U.S. did not become some sort of Libertarian Eden. It was certainly not a place that Dr. Ron Paul would recognize. Indeed, if nothing else the nation could have used some public health control.

There is just a single, short sentence in Kunstler’s novel that refers to a pandemic of “Mexican flu.” Uh-oh. This one disease apparently spread like wildfire and killed off scores of millions of people in the U.S. alone.

For those readers of an Earth First-sort of bent, if not the “deep environmentalists” out there, it’s your wish come true. Finally, a population crash. Whew! It’s as if you died and went to heaven. Except in Kunstler’s book it may well have been a large number of the environmentalists who died and went to heaven. They sure don’t live in Union Grove.

Within Kunstler’s deft narrative, things in post-Peak Oil America just fell apart. The center did not hold. Food supplies dwindled. The power grid broke down. Health care stopped functioning. Roads and highways quickly become impassable due to lack of maintenance, as well as marauding bandits. People starved. Population centers contracted, most in a catastrophic fashion.

And then there were ethnic and racial tensions — small-scale civil war, really. People migrated from one marginally inhabitable part of North America to another. Along the way they stole and fought over whatever booty they could loot and snatch.

In World Made by Hand, Kunstler answers the question posed by Rodney King in 1992 during the Los Angeles riots. “Can’t we all just get along?” Well, no. Not in an unraveling land of rapidly diminishing resources. It’s the same continent, but a different world.

There is a profoundly discouraging message embedded here. For almost everyone in this post-apocalyptic future, life in the U.S. has become, as the saying goes, “a bitch.” And you know what happens next.

Until we meet again…
Byron W. King
July 10, 2008

P.S.: I’ll return shortly with part two of this review. But until then, if you haven’t taken the time to really consider the effects of Peak Oil and how we’ll soon be reaching the realities painted in Kunstler’s book, you’d better start. We’re right now seeing how our lack of oil is impacting our daily lives. The only problem is, we still have a long way to go before it’s all over. Cheap oil may well be a thing of the past.