“World Made by Hand” Book Review

World Made by Hand, Part II

One of the Last Outposts

The premise of World Made by Hand, James Kunstler’s new book, is apocalyptic. For a variety of reasons related to Peak Oil and economic collapse, American civilization simply broke down. The wheels just fell off. The economy collapsed. Commerce broke down. The entire social construct of over 200 years vanished.

The small, 19th Century town of Union Grove, New York was a lost backwater during the buildout of modern American suburbia. But in post-Peak Oil America, Union Grove became one of the last remaining outposts of some small measure of stability. But what sort of stability?

In Kunstler’s vision, Union Grove is a futuristic, yet in many respects colonial, frontier society. But Union Grove is no Fort Apache. Indeed Union Grove is isolated, and that is its saving feature. It is so small that few bother to go there. Like Ireland during the Dark Ages, it is too remote and isolated for the barbarians to want to conquer. And that suits the locals just fine.

The contact between Union Grove and the outside world comes through the occasional traveler, or via water-borne commerce down the Hudson River with the city of Albany — or what’s left of it, which makes for a scary couple of chapters.

And what is left of civil society in Union Grove is a ragtag group of citizens who barter with each other over goods they’ve ransacked from the ruins and landfills of 20th Century America. People live in utter simplicity, farming as best they can and living off the land.

A New Form of Social Construct

But life in Union Grove is far from primitive. There are houses with fairly tight roofs. There are brick ovens and fresh-baked bread. There is a small-scale hydropower system that both channels running water and delivers a modicum of electricity. There’s a sawmill, and metal-forging operation. And there is a modest-scale farming, dairy and poultry operation staffed by a new sort of laboring class that resembles serfs of old.

Serfs? Kunstler offers a quick summary of social regression in a low-energy community:

“All the (Union Grove) trustees were men, no women and no plain laborers. As the world changed, we reverted to social divisions that we’d thought were obsolete. The egalitarian pretenses of the high-octane decades had dissolved and nobody even debated it anymore, including the women of our town. A plain majority of the townspeople were laborers now, whatever in life they had been before. Nobody called them peasants, but in effect that’s what they’d become. That’s just the way things were.”

Indeed, in previous days there were ample amounts of cheap energy. Cheap energy was, both literally and figuratively, a great force for social mobility, and political harmony. And over time the social-enabling process of cheap energy became second-nature. Using energy released by ancient deposits of coal and oil, the U.S. built much of its 20th Century social construct.

But in World Made by Hand, Kunstler asks us to reconsider the entire concept of our social arrangement in the vanishing light of a low-energy existence. There is no “Americans with Disabilities Act” in Union Grove. Indeed, most Americans with disabilities have died off.

The new world is hard, if not harsh. The old world of niceness has vanished. The society that has taken its place offers a living example that is reminiscent of the Old Testament.

The implications of this can shock the unprepared mind. But don’t blame Kunstler, who merely poses the questions and invites the reader to extrapolate the answers.

The Aesthetic Sense

Kunstler explores another key issue of post-Peak Oil modernity as well. Can people recover a sense of aesthetics in the low-energy world of the future? In Kunstler’s book, Union Grove is cut-off from its larger past, as both part of a great nation and as part of a mass-culture.

In the new world, Union Grove is not subject to any outside dictates of contemporary standards — whatever those may be. So any aesthetic sense now has to come from within. In other words the days of the mass-culture, of aesthetics being handed-down and blessed — if not jammed down one’s throat — by the likes of Oprah or Martha Stewart (let alone the architects on retainer with McDonalds or Midas Muffler) are over.

The simple lawn of Kunstler’s narrator Robert, for example, is a raised-bed garden. Yet it may as well have been designed by Palladio, if not the ancient Imhotep. “It was geometrical, a cruciform pattern, the beds transected on the diagonal as well, with brick paths carefully laid. With our many material privations, it was not possible to live without beauty anymore.”

The Personal Life — the Pursuit of Happiness

In Kunstler’s Union Grove, life is local. It has to be. And for this reason alone, people actually know how to party. They get together for local festivals, at which people eat real barbecue — something of a rarity and delicacy in a low-energy society.

Lacking the boom-boom tools of sound amplification, old-fashioned folk music emanates from simple instruments and sincere voices. People get drunk, smoke pot (cannabis plant grows wild) and make eyes at each other — all of which leads to some interesting hookups in a world where people are a diminishing and endangered species.

And in Union Grove there is even intellectual opportunity. There are books to read, although a limited selection of titles. In one short scene, for example (and Kunstler at his best in his use of micro-detail) the narrator ponders the meaning of Inside the Third Reich by Albert Speer, architect and Minister of Armaments under Adolph Hitler. Really. Kunstler chose to highlight Albert Speer, of all people. It’s brilliant.

Things Can Get Worse — and They Do

At the end of the world, though, things can still get worse. A fundamentalist sect rolls into Union Grove and begins to assert a creeping, if not creepy, sort of control. In one instance, the sect members confront townspeople on the street and force them to cut their shaggy beards. It’s sort of a post-Peak Oil version of the modern PETA activists hurling blood-balloons at people who wear fur coats.

Yet the religious sect offers an angle to Kunstler’s story that is nothing if not intriguing. Most of the sect members are decent folk with important mechanical skills. And some are warriors. That is, some former soldiers are tough-as-nails and well-worth having on your side in a fight. And Kunstler’s narrator Robert gets into a fight or two in this book.

On a higher plane, Kunstler has devised a scene that is just astonishing. It actually leaves the reader wondering if God has truly channeled divine powers through one sect-member in particular. You’ll have to read the book and make your own call on that one.

A Fall from a Great Height, if Not from Greatness

Let’s stop right here. Kunstler’s book was published in March, when oil was selling near $100 per barrel. Now a few months later oil is well over $145 per barrel.

What a difference four months and $45 dollars makes. High cost oil burners are already confronting disaster. Airlines are crashing financially, and we are on the way to “Silent Spring” by next year. Trucking is breaking down under the strain of $5 diesel, while American motorists are going broke with gasoline over $4 per gallon.

So since Kunstler’s book hit the shelves, we are further away from the past we know. And we will probably never go back. And we are much closer to a future that is yet unknown. Sad to say, we may arrive there sooner than we expect.

All of which is why World Made by Hand is an important book, as well as a pleasure to read. Kunstler’s book is thoughtful. And it will push you to the edge of your comfort zone. The book is harsh, without being nightmarish. It is cautionary, without being overly judgmental. And Kunstler’s book even offers glimmers of hope.

Kunstler’s writing style is careful, in a way that is reminiscent of fine work of F. Scott Fitzgerald. No, World Made by Hand is not exactly The Great Gatsby. But like Fitzgerald, Kunstler tells a summer tale and writes with grace, elegance and astonishing attention to detail.

Through it all, as with the protagonist Nick in Gatsby, Kunstler’s narrator Robert relates the story of a fall from a great height, if not from greatness. At one point in World Made by Hand, the narrator Robert recalls how he used to fly from coast to coast — Boston to Los Angeles — as a matter of routine, with his old job at the software company.

In the days of old Robert flew so high, and moved so far. But his paradise is lost. He has been cast down to where he now dwells, near the Zip Code for Pandemonium. Robert is challenged just to journey forty miles or so, down a failing road to Albany where people might kill him for his shoes.

How far has Robert traveled in his life? And how far has he been brought down? Now in Union Grove — and fortunately for him — Robert is surviving. He is a troubled man, living a post-apocalyptic life in a low energy world. His daily existence is filled with dark shadows of a lost past. And you finish the book wondering if you will one day be so lucky.

Until we meet again…
Byron W. King
July 14, 2008

P.S.: Kunstler’s fictional story is certainly enough to scare us. Imagining a world where Peak Oil has ravaged our current lifestyle is just the incentive we need to start coming up with a solution now. That’s where the oil vacuum comes in. This new invention is one of the best innovations of the past decade and could easily be a big part in the Peak Oil solution.