World Made by Hand

ISLAMIC FUNDAMENTALISTS have blown up Los Angeles and DC. That puts the global economy into a smoking tailspin. A flu pandemic has wiped out a good third of the population, maybe more. Oil, or access to what’s left of it anyway, is as good as gone. The Chinese have reportedly landed a man on the moon, but that’s probably more legend than fact in these paranoid times. The federal government has retreated to Minnesota, of all places (because who would attack them up there?), and with resources limited, race wars have erupted across the South. The globe is no longer flat (sorry, Tom Friedman!). It’s as round and as large as it’s ever been.

Such is the fictionalized world envisioned by James Howard Kunstler in his new book, World Made by Hand. This isn’t a sci-fi view into a future one hundred or fifty years away. It’s anti–sci-fi, set maybe ten to twenty years out.

I first met Jim Kunstler in the fall of 2005, shortly after the publication of his best-selling nonfiction book The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century. In it, Kunstler lays out a journalistic argument that the world is running out of cheap oil and that we will soon surpass the 50 percent mark of extractable oil.

The oil that’s left will be stretched thin by ever-increasing demand and industrial, political, and military competition on a global scale. In the geopolitical trade they call it “peak oil.”

So say sayonara to the suburbs and New Zealand ski vacations and all the big-dollar jobs that come along with an oil-fueled economy. Even if we weren’t at the “peak,” Kunstler argues, the global oil infrastructure is so fragile, and the globe so volatile, that any series of ill-timed catastrophes would be enough to send the world spiraling into chaos. When we met, Kunstler was traveling the country on a sort of Eve of Destruction book tour. Even in the sprawling exurban cities of Dallas and Houston, places that Kunstler had come to despise for their collective cluelessness about the future, he had developed a following of people who embraced his view that the world was about to become one fantastically miserable place to live.

But what exactly would that world look like? How would we survive without microwaveable chicken fingers, Sub-Zero refrigerators, flat-screen TVs, and taxpayer-funded law and order? Which brings us back to World Made by Hand. It is, in essence, a companion to The Long Emergency, but you don’t need one to appreciate the other. The story takes place in an upstate New York town called Union Grove, which sounds pretty much like Kunstler’s real hometown of Saratoga.

There’s an old center of town, but the ruins of suburban sprawl still litter the periphery. Union Grove has gone semi-feudal with many from the former middle class signing on as quasi–slave labor for an essentially benevolent landholder named Bullock. The rest of the townies scrape by doing odd jobs and farming, and are kinda-sorta led by Robert Earle, a former marketing executive with a Boston software firm who now makes his living by trading carpentry work in barter. A mysterious and well-armed group of religious zealots called the New Faith Congregation has shown up in town, having fled — and even taken part in — the race wars in Virginia and Pennsylvania. On the outskirts lives a tribe of outlaws called the Wayne Karp crew — identified by the wing-shaped tattoos over their eyebrows. The Karp clan does its best to control the drug trade, but its real profit center is a booming business in strip-mining tract homes and abandoned property for recyclable materials.

The battle lines between the rival groups are set, and the story of how this bloody summer unfolds makes the book worth reading. But it’s Kunstler’s ability to catalogue with an anthropologist’s precision what the world will look like that is just as compelling. Farmers have begun growing poppies, not for the drug trade, but to keep the local doctors stocked with powerful painkillers. The local dentist stays in business using a salvaged pulley drill, and patients bring in their old gold jewelry to use as cavity fillers in place of the high-tech composites used by dentists in ol’ 2007. The electricity doesn’t work anymore, but people in town still get water thanks to the gravity-fed reservoir. There’s no more Amstel Light but plenty of hard cider, home-brew, whiskey, and wine. No more Stouffer’s Lean Cuisine, but at the wake for a victim of one of Wayne Karp’s outlaws, there was “spinach cooked with bacon and green onions, radishes, rocket . . . and new beets.” There were coffee cakes made from ground butternut meal and honey. Sounds pretty great, actually!

Anybody who has ever read Kunstler or seen him live has experienced his excoriating jeremiad. But the soft underbelly of Kunstler’s rage against what he perceives as America’s obliviousness is that he’s actually a true believer in humanity. Yes, he really does think the future is going to look like it does in World Made by Hand, and that’s a scary, scary, place. But if you believe Kunstler, it doesn’t have to be half bad either.

John Galvin has written for National Geographic, Wired, Outside, The New York Times Magazine, and other national publications.