Vision of a hardscrabble future

I wrote a post a couple of months ago entitled A prosperous industrial society without oil? about what life would be like after the affordable oil ran out if we successfully made a transition to nuclear, coal and/or green energy.  James Howard Kunstler anticipated my speculation in his 2005 book, The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the 21st Century. He said it’s not going to happen.

The “converging catastrophes” of the subtitle include global climate change and the rise of antibiotic-resistant diseases, but the most important one is the exhaustion of affordable oil supplies, which has already begun.

Oil is the basis of the American material standard of living.  The oil industry originated in the United States. When I was a schoolboy, the US was the world’s chief oil-exporting nation.  After our domestic production passed its peak, we turned to imports.  Now they may be peaking, too.

In my earlier post, I claimed that it would be possible to have a functioning industrial civilization without oil, based on some combination of nuclear power, coal and green technologies.  We could have electric trolley cars instead of automobiles, steam locomotive trains instead of airlines.

Kunstler anticipated my argument.  He noted that electric power, steam engines and the so-called green technologies are all products of an energy-intensive industrial civilization.  It would be technically possible to transition to non-oil energy sources, particularly nuclear power, provided this was done while we still had a functioning petroleum-based industrial economy.  But neither our dysfunctional government, our short-sighted corporate establishment nor we the people have the will to prepare for the future.  Once the emergency happens, it will be too late.  We won’t have any of the easy-to-get ores and fuels which were the basis of the original industrial revolution.

The Americans who will survive the emergency best, he wrote, are farms owners and small town residents in the Northeast and Great Lakes areas, who own farmland and possess traditional craft skills.  Mennonites probably will do well, he wrote; so will organic farmers who don’t depend on tractors, milking machines and seed companies.  Animal husbandry will be in great demand, he wrote; there will be few pets, but many working animals.  Horses will be as common as automobiles are today.

In his view suburbia will become literally as well as figuratively a vast wasteland. Big box retail stores, which depend on just-in-time deliveries over long distances, will cease to exist.  Big cities will not survive on their present scale, although he thinks certain sites, because of geography, will always will be urban centers – New York City, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Detroit, St. Louis, New Orleans and so on.  Most Americans, except for farmers on the land, will live in small towns whose economic purpose is to service the agricultural economy.

He thinks the South – “the Land of NASCAR” – will fare poorly because it depends on air conditioning and the automobile.  He doubts many people in the Rockies, the Great Plains and the Southwest will survive the collapse of the big irrigation systems.  People in the rainy coast of the Pacific Northwest will do all right if they’re not attacked by pirates (!) .

All in all, the survival of the world’s 6 billion people (at the time of writing) depends on industrial agriculture and petroleum-based fertilizers, he said; mass starvation will result when these are no longer available.

Kunstler himself has moved to the village of New Corinth, in northeastern New York near Saratoga.  He has learned the use of hand tools, and owns a gun “which is a great comfort.”  Most importantly, he has made connections with his neighbors.  Making yourself part of a community is the most important survival skill.

He emphasized that his predictions are not what he wants to happen, but what he thinks will unfortunately happen.  He said he would be pleased if some sort of miracle technological breakthrough restored the era of cheap energy, as when the peaking of the supply of whale oil sparked the development of petroleum technology, but it would be foolish to count on this happening.  As the saying goes, hope is not a plan.

After The Long Emergency was published, Kunstler wrote two science fiction novels set in the future world he predicted – World Made By Hand in 2008 and The Witch of Hebron in 2010.  They belong to the science fiction sub-genre known as the “cozy catastrophe,” in which the central characters survive and prosper despite the collapse of social order.

Both are set in the fictional village of Union Grove in the extreme northeast of New York state, which because of its location has escaped the worst of the violent social breakdown that has engulfed the United States.  The protagonist is a former software engineer who has reinvented himself as a master carpenter.

The village is cut off from the world.  Swiss army knives, nylon rope and other artifacts of the former industrial economy are no longer made and highly prized.  Scientific knowledge survives, but not advanced technology.  The local physician has no miracle drugs, but at least he knows germs cause disease.

The three most powerful people in the community are the Congregational minister, a local landowner, and the leader of a former drug-dealing motorcycle gang.

Life in the village centers on the Congregational church.  With no movies, radio, TV or Internet, social events at the church are the main source of entertainment. The church choir and amateur music are important.  Holidays are celebrated in festivals involving the whole community.

The landowner foresaw the collapse and took steps to make his estate as self-sufficient as possible, including putting in an electrical generator powered by a waterfall.  He offers security and survival in return for service.  He is like a medieval baron or a plantation owner in the Old South, except that his workers in theory are free to go – in theory, that is, because they have no place to go.

The gang leader and his followers can no longer deal drugs because everybody is free to grow their own marijuana and opium.  Instead they operate the community’s main industry – salvaging and reclaiming material from the local landfill, where they have established themselves.   If you want, say, a dozen 10-penny nails, you go to the landfill and barter.  Or you pay cash – two dimes or $1,000 in bills.

Into the community come members of a fundamentalist evangelical Christian cult from Virginia, led by one Brother Jobe.  He becomes the de facto leader of the community – the person to whom everybody turns to get things done.  He organizes a rescue operation for a missing trading party the big landowner has sent down the Hudson to Albany, his men protect the villagers against the depredations of the landfill gang, and he organizes the repair of the village’s gravity-operated water system.  Kunstler may have been making a point about the cohesiveness of evangelical Christianity versus liberal Christianity.

Intellectually I see the logic of Kunstler’s argument, but I don’t believe it on a gut level.  It doesn’t seem real to me.  I comfort myself with the fact that all my life I have been reading doomsday predictions that haven’t come true.  But then, the ending of the fable of the boy who cried “wolf” is that one day the wolf really came.

I know a man who has prepared for the coming bad years by buying a big sealed container full of beans.  When the collapse comes and there’s no food at Wegmans or Tops supermarkets, he’ll have beans.  I have no right to smile at this, because I will have nothing, not even beans.   I only hope that the collapse will come after I’m dead, or that I’ll die before the collapse, or that some miracle technological breakthrough will occur (not impossible, but not something to count on), or there’s some important fact I’m overlooking (please tell me what it is).

Click on Clusterfuck Nation for James Howard Kunstler’s web log.

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