A Peak Oil Prophet Imagines Life in America After Wal-Mart
By Michelle Nijhuis
James Howard Kunstler's new novel describes a small town in upstate NY where a chain of global crises has forced the community to fend for itself.
Author and social critic James Howard Kunstler, known for predicting our post-peak-oil future in nonfiction works such as The Long Emergency, has also brought his forecasts to life through fiction.
His newest novel, World Made By Hand, describes the near future in a small town in upstate New York -- not unlike the place Kunstler himself lives today -- where a chain of global crises has forced the community to fend for itself.
Despite the tragedy and violence that surround his characters, Kunstler says his vision of the future isn't nearly as grim as it might seem. "I resent the idea that I'm an apocalyptarian," he says. "I'm describing changes that we face, but I'm hardly proposing that it's the end of the world. It may be the end of the Wal-Mart experience, it may be the end of see-the-USA-in-your-Chevrolet -- but that ain't the end of the world." Grist recently spoke with Kunstler about prophesying -- and preparing for -- life after Wal-Mart.
Michelle Nijhuis: So you've wrestled with peak oil, climate change, and disease in nonfiction books. Why did you decide to address them in a novel?
James Howard Kunstler: I wanted to present a very vivid experience for readers, so they could feel what it might be like, sense what it might be like, to live in this post-oil world -- a world in which the tyranny of automobiles is over with, and people are living very directly with the planet and each other. The whole issue of farming and food production comes closer to the center of life, with all of its practical requirements and ceremonies. When you're living in that kind of economy, your society tends to follow the seasons, and a lot of the social content of everyday life is geared to planting, harvesting, and tending -- it's very different from the electronically mediated world of cubicle work.
Many of the characters have transitioned from the everyday world we know today -- so they certainly have a vivid memory of what they call the old times, and they're making the necessary adjustments to the new times.
MN: Did you have this world fully imagined from the start, or did it change in the process of writing?
JHK: There were a lot of things I knew about this world I was going to create, but I discovered a lot of things along the way. For example, it became apparent to me fairly early on that my characters would not all be riding bicycles as in some kind of ecotopia, because they would have trouble getting the materials necessary to make them.
I also realized in the first chapters that the fact that the pavement was so broken up on the roads would have a big effect on how people did things and moved around on the landscape. As far as characters, I'd originally thought that the evangelicals would be the bad guys, but they behaved rather valiantly. I also became very fond of their leader, Brother Job, who's kind of a combination of Boss Hogg and Captain Ahab. He's kind of a darkly comic buffoon, with a deep air of mystery about him. I like that.
MN: The world in World Made By Hand is very grim, but there's some beauty in it, too.
JHK: I'd contest the idea that I'm presenting a wholly grim world. It's a world that's very different, a world in which there are quite a few challenges and quite a few losses, but I'm not at all convinced that the people are necessarily more miserable. Their medical care has become much more primitive, and they work harder, but they're working very directly with their neighbors on things that matter to them. Their ceremonies are much more direct and social in nature -- in other words, they party a lot.
They're also continuing to go through a transition. Their way of life is not settled -- they've left behind the world of happy motoring and consumerism and cheese doodles and Pepsi-Cola, but they've entered a world in which the terrain of everyday life is once again very beautiful. Their best friends are no longer made-up characters on TV shows, they're eating food that they've raised themselves and requires some skill to process, and they're making their own music. So what I'm describing is a world of social riches that we've left behind -- left behind in our eagerness to become the slaves of our electronic gadgets.
MN: It sounds almost like you'd welcome this world.
JHK: Let's say there are elements that I'm not fearful about.
MN: You've described this book as funny, and complained that people don't notice the humor.
JHK: This drives me up the fucking wall! My books are always funny -- even The Long Emergency had some funny moments. Brother Job is a very funny character -- half the things that come out of his mouth are hilarious. A lot of the dialogue is funny, even in the places where there's a lot at stake. I don't know, maybe it's too subtle. In college I was a theater student, and I was very caught up in Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter. Beckett was always chagrined that the critics didn't regard Waiting for Godot as a laugh riot, but it is -- it's a form of vaudeville.
MN: This novel is set in small-town America, and some of the characters are escaping from greater chaos in and around cities. You've written a lot about the unsustainability of suburbs. But do you see a future for urban life?
JHK: I see it differently from many commentators, who just assume that cities are going to get bigger and that people will flee the suburbs for the cities. I think we're going to see something completely different -- I think we'll see a reversal of the 200-year-long trend of people leaving rural places and small towns for big cities and metroplexes.
I think that the big cities of America -- Houston, Atlanta, Dallas, Washington, D.C., Boston -- these places have attained a scale that is simply not suited for the energy diet of the future, and in my opinion they are going to contract substantially, even while they densify at their centers and around their waterfronts, if they have them.
If there is a huge demographic movement -- and I think there will be -- out of suburbia, eventually it will resolve into people moving into smaller towns, smaller cities, that are scaled appropriately to our energy diet -- and to places that exist in a meaningful relationship with productive land. We're simply going to have to do agriculture differently, no question about it, and the places where this is impossible, like Tucson and Las Vegas, are really going to dry up and blow away. In the Northeast, where I live, many of the small towns and cities have about reached their nadir -- but they have many virtues that are going to become apparent in the years ahead, not least that they have a relationship with water, both for navigation and for drinking.
MN: Are you making changes in your own life to prepare for what you see coming?
JHK: The short answer is yes, I am, but not in any kind of peculiar way. I've been gardening for decades, so that's not new for me, though I might do it in a somewhat different way in the future. I don't work for "da man," so I don't have to escape a cubicle. I've had experience writing books in every method from scribbling in a notebook to composing on a Mac, so I'm confident I could continue to communicate one way or another. I've even put out a local newsletter at times over the past 10 years, so I have experience running a kind of local news bureau.
Most of all, I have a pretty rich and deep social network where I live. I've noticed that American life, for many people, is shockingly lonely. It certainly seems no wonder that people take so much Prozac and Xanax -- the American way of life seems to have become one of the greatest anxiety and depression generators in the history of the world.
MN: What effect do you hope to have on your readers? It doesn't sound like you want them to fight to head off this future.
JHK: I'm really rather worried that we're going to squander our remaining resources on a campaign to sustain the unsustainable. I'm inclined to think that we might be better off yielding to some of these realities that are going to assert themselves, whether we like it or not. That's why I get so annoyed when I go to environmental conferences and the only thing people talk about is how they're going to run cars on chicken fat or French fried potato oil. To me, maintaining the happy motoring system is a waste of our resources, and hugely destructive anyway. I want people to be prepared to accept the changes that really are unavoidable.