Oil has climbed past $100 a barrel for the first time in US history. Some folks believe this is merely the result of market speculators driving up the price so that they can cash in on some serious profits. But for James Howard Kunstler, the astronomical prices are just one more sign that oil, the liquid foundation of techno-industrial civilization, is entering into a long state of emergency.
Kunstler’s 2006 book, The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of Oil, Climate Change, and Other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century, argues that we have been running on nature's credit, and the bill is long overdue. With a diminishing supply of oil, Kunstler argues that the byproducts of an oil economy—global warming, terrorism, and a rash of diseases spread quickly through global commerce—will coalesce to bring civilization as we know it to a crippling end.
In Kunstler’s novel, World Made by Hand, he provides a fictional story of what might happen after oil’s collapse. In Union Grove, NY, the book’s setting, epic disasters have already happened. Oil is gone, as is long distance transportation and the goods it once brought, everything from wheat to pharmaceuticals. Islamic terrorists have destroyed Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. with nuclear weapons. Pandemic flu and encephalitis have ravaged the population, leaving no family untouched. There may be a government, but its reach is limited and its existence matters little to the residents of Union Grove. Kunstler paints a picture of a world not unlike Rome after its fall or Europe in the time of the bubonic plague.
The novel is narrated by Robert Earle, a former marketing executive who lost most of his family to disease, with his only living son traversing the country like a depression-era hobo. His former job lost, Robert "was fortunate to have carpentry skills to fall back on and to have a decent collection of hand tools." His best friend is Loren, the town's minister, and together they work through the depression that has fallen over everyone, attempting to bring some civic life and responsibility back to the town as they rebuild from the ashes.
At the center of the novel is a group of religious fundamentalists, the New Faith Brotherhood, who move to the town and take over the abandoned school. The group is lead by Brother Jobe, named presumably after the Biblical Job, who believes he suffered personal disaster as a test of his faith. These fundamentalists wear all black, sing in minor keys, and seem not unlike the flagellists who populated Medieval landscapes during the plague.
The town's store, the "General," is located by the city dump where motorcycle gangs raid the town's landfill for goods that were once tossed out in better times. The Wal-Mart and K-Mart have been gutted for scraps and sit abandoned on the outskirts of the town. The car lots now hold only an "inventory of sumac bushes where Land Cruisers and Priuses used to sit parked in enticing ranks."
The only person well off in this world is a wealthy farmer, Stephen Bullock, who valued self-sufficiency before it became a necessity. His farm produces most of what it needs to support itself and enough extra to trade for what it can’t produce itself. Former executives and college professors now work for him as semi-serfs on this apocalyptic plantation.
World Made by Hand is a powerful novel, a warning from a future we must escape. It shows the strength of a community coming together out of need, but it also shows us a lawless world of suffering. Kunstler is both a prophet and a curmudgeon, and as such he lacks the subtlety to be a fine novelist, often too ready to tell rather than show us the effects of the Long Emergency. But his vision is sharp, and whether it is told well or badly, he illuminates the world to come if we don't change our ways now. World Made by Hand, by James Howard Kunstler, Atlantic, 317 pages, $24.00.