(Speaking Truth To Power) -- A review of the 2008 novel World Made By Hand by James Howard Kunstler (Atlantic Monthly Press)
"The world has become such a wicked place," she said quietly, just a statement of fact.
"There's goodness here too."
"Where is it?"
"In all the abiding virtues. Love, bravery, patience, honesty, justice, generosity, kindness. Beauty too. Mostly love."
"I'm afraid sometimes that we drove those things out of existence."
"No, we carry them in our hearts. They're always with us."
"I don't know what's in my heart anymore. It's too dark to see."
"Light follows darkness."
This dialog between the main character of World Made By Hand, Robert, and his housemate-become-lover, Britney, offers a glimpse into the anguish of those few survivors of collapse living in the small village of Union Grove, New York in a post-petroleum world.
As I sit down to write this review, I've just finished lunch-a generous bowl of organic broccoli slaw mixed with garbanzo beans, tomatoes, diced turkey breast, and Caesar dressing. For dessert, a bit of Hagen Dazs coconut sorbet chased with my twice-daily regimen of vitamins and supplements. In a "world made by hand" I would have none of this unless I were able to grow or raise it myself or trade something for these items, assuming that they were even available. I would be forced to rely on my friends and neighbors in close proximity, and they on me, for life's fundamental necessities.
I was riveted to this stunning novel by James Howard Kunstler even as my heart was laden with sorrow while turning every compelling page. Like nothing I've ever read or imagined, the book takes the reader into the smells, tastes, textures, sounds, and emotions of a post-petroleum world devoid of electricity, media, sophisticated technology, and a plethora of conveniences and distractions that are ubiquitous in twenty-first century Western civilization.
Robert is a former corporate executive who has adapted reasonably well, or so it seems, to a post-collapse world where "It was chilling to reflect on how well the world used to work and how much we'd lost." (4) In this world there are no cars, no rubber tires, no shopping malls, big box stores, healthcare systems, radio, television, or paper money. However, "Farming was back," and that was the only way people got food. Travel in this world is about walking, riding horses, or hitching horses to wagons with wooden wheels, and people make do by stripping everything in sight-houses, stores, cars-anything that will provide materials for survival. The residents of Union Grove and the surrounding area have survived horrible pandemics and were fortunate enough not to be living near Los Angeles or Washington, D.C. when nuclear bombs went off, apparently dealing the final blow to a tanking economy. Robert lost his wife to the flu epidemic and a son who took off with a friend's son to "see the world", and while Robert knows his wife is dead, he has no idea where or how his son might be.
Union Grove is fortunate to have a doctor of sorts-Jerry, who completed part of an internship but never received a license to practice medicine. Much of his equipment was stripped from nearby hospitals, but his inventory of medicine, anesthesia, and medical supplies is dicey at best and sometimes non-existent. As with the local dentist who holds similar credentials, opium is the substance of choice for numbing pain, and the patient is never certain how comfortable or how agonizing a visit to the doctor or dentist in Union Grove may prove to be, but at least the village has one of each.
The national political system has collapsed with some figurehead "president" ostensibly running the country from somewhere in Minnesota and an "acting" governor of New York maintaining a lone office in the dilapidated shell of what used to be the state capitol in Albany. All commerce and social organization is intensely local, and almost nothing is known of life outside Union Grove.
As I mentioned, no food is available in Union Grove unless one grows it oneself; however, some crops, such as wheat are especially challenging to grow due to "a persistent wheat rust in the soil that returned no matter how you rested a field."(16) In some instances, certain fruits and vegetables are luscious and abundant, and in other situations, people make do with whatever is available at the time. Hints of global warming abound amid a record-breaking summer heat wave, and we can only speculate the degree to which climate change may be affecting the soil.
Most people have little access to electricity and generally leave their radios on constantly just so they might know when the power is on and when it isn't. News from electronic media is almost non-existent as are newspapers. In fact, about the only thing that a listener might hear on the radio is the ranting of fundamentalist Christian preachers. One or two members of the community appear to have powerful generators that offer a minimal and unreliable power source, but refrigeration to prevent the spoilage of food or the decomposition of dead bodies is unavailable.
In the summertime people fish rivers and streams that are less polluted now that industrial society had collapsed. But no longer is fishing a partially recreational pursuit but rather an absolute necessity. Nor can individuals obtain new books with which to distract themselves; old ones have to do. Likewise, "diversions like television or recreational shopping" are no longer available. As is often the case when societies collapse, Robert is now freer to pursue his hobbies, and he has created a woodworking workshop on his front porch and has greatly improved his musical skills with daily practice of the fiddle. Moreover, Union Grove survivors are forced to live physically active lives which involves intense gardening and walking. Theirs is not a world of couch potatoes and the sedentarily obese.
Early on in the novel Kunstler sets up a dichotomy between a large group of newcomers of a religious sect, the New Faith group, and the mostly non-religious residents of Union Grove. Eccentric, austere, and proselytizing, the New Faithers at first appear to be adversarial newcomers but over time prove to be invaluable allies of the community. In the absence of an official justice system, the values and survival skills of the group are useful to Robert, who eventually becomes mayor, in containing the barbaric lawlessness and sadistic violence of a local pot dealer who could only be described as a quasi-Hells Angels, trailer trash outlaw.
At one point Robert and a half-dozen other Union Grove residents journey by horseback to Albany to retrieve a boat and crew who had disappeared after sailing down the Hudson from their village. There, they discover incomprehensible corruption and violence so egregious that shots are exchanged, and Robert is forced defend his life by shooting someone who had fired at him. Hardly the utopia hailed by some proponents of ecovillage living, Kunstler's post-petroleum world is volatile and often savage. It clearly behooves anyone who wishes to protect herself and loved ones to own and sometimes carry a weapon.
While Union Grove is a village in which people still know how to party, make music, and dance long after the world around them has collapsed, and although they are incredibly resourceful in distilling mood-altering beverages and cooking up scrumptious, festive dishes, one cannot read Kunstler's exquisite description of them without feeling the gray pallor of sorrow that pervades their community. More than once while riveted to the saga I could not put down, my throat constricted, and my eyes moistened.
Not infrequently in and around Union Grove, insanity and suicide prevail. "Depression" was a word the residents of Union Grove had dropped, according to Robert, because "despair was a spiritual condition that was as real to us as the practical difficulties we struggled with in everyday life." (17) And on another occasion he states, "I tried to avoid nostalgia because it could destroy you. I was alone now."
In terms of an immediate family, Robert was alone, but in ways that were both poignant and lovely, he was held in a community of survivors and friends who assisted each other with dogged loyalty and a quality of compassion that neither cynicism nor despondency could erode. The spirit of cooperation demonstrated by the Union Grove survivors was stunning-so much so that the reader must acknowledge it as one of the most desirable byproducts of collapse.
I didn't need to begin the first chapter of World Made By Hand to be moved to tears. That began when I opened the book to a quote by my favorite poet, Rilke, immediately following the dedication:
Whom will you cry to, heart? More and more lonely,
Your path struggles on through incomprehensible
Mankind. All the more futile perhaps
For keeping its own direction,
Keeping on toward the future,
Toward what has been lost.
Every time that I have allowed myself to deeply and graphically imagine, without restraint or rationalization, a post-collapse world, I experience a bone-marrow sorrow and a palpable sense of loss that defy words. Jim Kunstler has captured those emotions masterfully in World Made By Hand. In fact, this novel provides extraordinary reinforcement for an ongoing theme to which I've devoted a great deal of writing in the past year, namely, how can we possibly expect to prepare ourselves to live in a post-petroleum, post-collapse world by attending only to the stockpiling of food, water, land, and skills without emotional and spiritual preparation? How can we not acquire the tools necessary for navigating the emotions of sorrow, despair, overwhelm, grief, rage, terror, and yes, clinical as it may sound, depression? What will give us meaning? What will console us? What will allow us to keep going when any sense of purpose has eluded us? And perhaps most importantly, how will we communicate with each other? How will we skillfully and compassionately speak our truth and listen deeply to each other? What specific skills in these areas do we need to learn and practice right now? Personally, I find it difficult to believe that the residents of Union Grove, or any other post-collapse community, could function as harmoniously as they do in the novel without transforming the interpersonal land mines all of us have incorporated from living in the soul-murdering milieu of industrial civilization.
These questions are not addressed in World Made By Hand or any of the few fiction and non-fiction works so far published on collapse, each one of them underscoring the urgency of my own forthcoming book The Spirituality Of Collapse: Restoring Life On A Dying Planet. So I thank Jim Kunstler for his extraordinary novel, not only because he is bolstering my commitment to my own work, but because he has provided us with an incredibly well-written depiction of the demise of civilization and what that has already begun to mean and will mean for all of us and for future generations. At the same time, World Made By Hand offers a desperately needed dose of reality and an exhilarating reverence for the kind of world that human beings were meant to create and cherish. After all, light follows darkness.