Book Review: World Made by Hand

world_made_by_hand-james_howard_kunstlerAs part of the Bloody Theater project, I plan to read more than just the Martyrs Mirror in order to understand how my family got to its current state and where it could go from here. One of the ideas I’ve been entertaining is the Great Depression II scenario, in which my Old Order Mennonite family suddenly becomes a going concern again when this country’s oil economy collapses. They still know how to live without electricity, television, the Internet and regular showers. They could suddenly be role models and community consultants.

Well, apparently, I’m behind the curve. Renowned doomsayer and Luddite James Howard Kunstler, of Clusterfuck Nation fame, wrote a book in 2004 imagining just such a scenario, sort of. I decided to read this short novel for inspiration, but found it to be more of a aging hippie wet dream than a plausible roadmap for plain living in the event of economic collapse.

Like many Boomers, Kunstler is still waiting for his apocalypse. His generation was repeatedly promised one by nutty fundie preachers and thermonuclear war planners, but it never happened. Now, as the post-World War II world order is unwinding, the specter of international terrorism has again rekindled those hopes. Kunstler’s fantasy land was created by two nuclear blasts in D.C. and L.A., which plunged the nation into turmoil and collapse. Nevermind that the effects of the bombs Kunstler describes would have to come from multi-megaton city killers, not the kiloton tactical pop caps that radical Islamists would actually have access to. But Kunstler’s scenario soldiers on, oblivious to plausibility, and employs the second punch of a flu pandemic just to polish off the social order.

As a result of war and disease, the country instantly (conveniently?) plunges into a sort of dark age mess with New York’s Hudson Valley sealed off from the rest of the world in its own little pocket of agrarian hell. And Kunstler unimaginatively imagines a New England town that reverts to the kind of 19th Century self-sufficiency post card that never existed anywhere outside of the television Kunstler watched as a child. Into this decaying landscape, Kunstler then introduces a close-knit religious group whose plain dress, communal living and obsession with facial hair bring to mind a strain of Anabaptism. But these New Faith Bretheren are not pacifist, and they are relentless recruiters, working to bring the town back to life.

The self-sufficiency and self-reliance themes of this fairly well-written book are, however, marred by its strong suggestion that the only thing holding up feminist ideals is the fragile strings of modernity. As society fell apart, Kunstler’s women reverted quickly to being housewives, caretakers and sex scene devices, and his stoic first-person narrator exhibits little interest in treating them as otherwise. We learn more about their breasts than their thoughts as Kunstler’s author fantasy insertion persona describes them like a man whose sexual life long ago faded into idealized memories.

Kunstler wants to hit the reset button on modern life, and go back to a time that he thinks made sense. In that respect, I think he is a lot like my aging Mennonite relatives. But anything less than the improbable scenario he imagines would not result in the world he wants. Life after the oil economy will be different, but it will not be unrecognizable. And it won’t necessarily require horse-drawn buggies.

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