Thursday, April 24, 2008

Review of Kunstler's World Made by Hand

Kunstler's new book is an interesting read in several ways. As a piece of dystopian fiction, it certainly stands on its own two feet. The book opens in an upstate New York town after the collapse of modern society. In its rurality, the slow pace of life almost reads like a Wendell Berry of the future. Through the book we find however that it is neither necessarily peaceful, nor idyllic. Through the story our protagonist is drawn out of the shell of his former life and into a leadership position pulling his reluctant community together. This eventually sets him up for the dominant conflict of the book. The main antagonist is the group of remnant bikers living out by the dump/junkyard, who make their living scavenging useful bits and pieces from the garbage of the 20th century. The book certainly has a plot line and drive, and takes the reader through some disturbing visions as it wends it way toward the end.

As a piece of peak oil literature (for lack of a better term) it is quite interesting. The peak oil crowd wastes a lot of energy, and sacrifices some credibility, debating when the peak is/was/will be, trumpeting that every drop in production proves their case. Also among the peakers is a concurrent discussion of what the current economic climate portends. These include Kunstler who holds forth on his blog that as oil peaks economic activity also will peak, and the result will be a permanent contraction. Whether this is true or not, only future history will say for sure. Further, Kunstler also made this and all the other associated arguments for what peak will imply as we roll over the top in The Long Emergency. Instead, Kunstler (wisely) sets this piece of fiction far enough into the future, that such speculation surrounding the peak itself isn't really meaningful. It is clearly meant to be a fictional exploration, and I will focus here on some of the deeper implications I read into Kunstler's work.

Of interest is the political organization Kunstler provides. It is positively medieval, made up mostly of small chiefdoms with no official organization left in place, except for the one mad official in Albany who is attempting to hold the government together with his typewriter. Instead we are faced with the biker chiefdom, the capitalized farmer's peasantry, the religious organization of brother Job, and the monopolized mobster trading post down the river in Albany. What is implied that the religious leader is named Job and the last remnant governmental official is both mad and impotent?

Economics and labor in an energy scarce environment are dealt with as well. The protagonist is a carpenter and a musician, who used to be a computer professional. He barters his work to meet his needs, as do others in town. As life gets more difficult, more of the characters join up with the different factions around town. What trade is done with money is done with precious metal coins. These became valuable when the dollar was hyperinflated to oblivion – not surprising if one is familiar with the peak oil and associated literature. Production and trade are intensely local. Long distance trade is by barge shipping only 30 miles down the river. Many/most residents have gardens and very many of them are employed in the labor of agriculture.

The capitalized farmer is one of the more pleasant prospects to join with, and represents an interesting character himself. He runs a profitable little enterprise, providing food and shelter for his laborers. The laborers bring their families and move onto his place. It is feudal, but his is a generous reign. Importantly, he was 'peak aware' before the calamities hit and prepared for life after oil. Thus he was well capitalized, had important hand tools, and had been stocking up on heirloom seeds and old fashioned farming methods. When the calamities hit, his was one of the few places with excess capacity and the ability to help people.

The religious zealot is more sensible than I would have expected Kunstler to portray him. His followers are clean cut and helpful, but as we find out later, they are not afraid of violence when necessary. The religious group has traveled far, escaping persecution and trouble in the south, then in the DC area, and finally finding peace in upstate New York. Sort of a Mormon migration eastwards if you will. They take over the abandoned high school and start converting it to their quarters. Their numbers add a critical mass to the town which had been drifting aimlessly prior to the start of the novel. While the religious group is sensible and helpful, they are not above pure weirdness. This is illustrated by their building essentially a beehive for their queen bee oracle who appears to have some sort of supernatural powers. I have not figured out yet what the she means in the novel.

The criminal element is represented by the biker crowd out at the junkyard. In the novel they are scavenging off the remnants of the 20th century economically. They would appear to stand in for the less savory elements of modern society. First, they have taken over the junkyard/dump by simply by force. There is some discussion that the junkyard/dump should be a resource for all, but they stepped up and monopolized it first. Second, they are entertained by the most crass forms of public entertainment. In the absence of the vulgarity of TV, this crowd improvises, creating its own low-brow entertainment.

In the sociopolitical vacuum slowly being filled by these feudal peasants, religious compounds, and tribal warlords, our protagonist is (accidentally) instrumental in rebuilding the community that is the optimal solution to the problem of oil peaking. Our protagonist finally leaves his sadness for the past behind him, and takes over the leadership role forced upon him. He is instrumental in setting up peaceful relationships between the town and the farm, as well as the religious group. He is also key in eradicating the power base of the criminal element at the junkyard, removing their threat to the town. Personally, he also accepts the family responsibilities thrust upon him in the novel.

The novel thus resolves the central conflict and shows a path forward. Kunstler does not sugar coat the difficulties that his vision suggests. People die for lack of medical care, protective city, state, and federal security are non-existent. The lack of easy travel and communication that such a scenario forces on the town is extreme in its isolation. At the same time, by rebuilding communities, focusing on local production and trade, and building relationships with our neighboring communities, it seems Kunstler is suggesting that there May be a way to deal effectively with the problem of energy scarcity.

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