Interview with James Howard Kunstler

I was fortunate enough to recently conduct my very first interview with James Howard Kunstler, author of The Long Emergency and most recently the novel World Made by Hand.

MS: What made you decide to write a fictional account of The Long Emergency?

JHK: Two things, really: first I wanted to vividly and graphically depict conditions in a future everyday America that I forecast in my previous book, The Long Emergency, which was nonfiction, of course. I wanted the audience to really sense the way this world felt, looked, and tasted — what it was like to smell the horses, and feel the tranquility of a place relieved of automobile traffic, and taste the cornbread fresh from the oven. I also wanted to put across the idea that, as different as this new world I depict may be, it is far from being a terrible place. In fact, the textures of life unmediated by electronic gadgets, free of incessant advertising and automobile traffic, begin to seem rather appealing when you spend a little time there, mentally. My second reason for writing this book is that I adamantly insist on being a “full-service” writer — I like writing fiction and I refuse to be pigeonholed as just a certain kind of polemicist.

MS: I think comparisons to Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’ will be inevitable due to the subject nature. Have you read that book and how do you feel about any comparisons? Personally, I see them as two very different stories. McCarthy has written the Odyssean epic and you’ve something that has pastoral aspects to it.

JHK: Frankly, I avoided reading other “futuristic” novels while writing World Made By Hand — though I am a fan and a reader of Cormac McCarthy through No Country For Old Men, which impressed me with its sheer dramatic velocity. But I do know something about the story in The Road from all the web chatter, and I like to joke that World Made By Hand is the antidote to it. Yes, World Made By Hand was conceived consciously as a “pastorale” — a work saturated with rural themes, and hence located firmly in “nature.” It also has elements of a classic quest story, in so far as the central incident of the book is a rescue mission down the Hudson Valley to free four local men held in a hostage-for-ransom racket. But mostly it is the story of what has become, by circumstance, a rather isolated rural community in a land that has changed severely.

MS: What made you decide to bring in religion? Are you religious yourself? It’s interesting that though this sort of fundamentalist religious movement moves into Union Grove, they’re not what you think they are. In the end, they’re not the group that wreaks havoc in the story. Instead, their arrival brings about new growth to the town.

JHK: No, I’m not religious myself. But it seemed to me that religion would have to furnish much of the structure of daily life that will have been lost in the demise of corporate jobs, government at all levels, school, and all the other trappings of complex modern society that had sheltered people in their daily lives previously. In World Made By Hand, the townspeople of Union Grove are very involved in their church. It’s all they have left. Now that there is no more canned entertainment, no CDs, movies, iPods, the townspeople have to make their own music, and a lot of it is organized through and around the church. For all that, however, the townspeople are not very pious. The minister of the First Congregational, Loren Holder, is one of the few characters in the book who uses profane language regularly. Another side of this, of course, is the New Faith Brotherhood, the evangelical group from Virginia that has moved to Union Grove (and bought the abandoned high school) in fleeing the disorders down South. When I began writing World Made By Hand, I assumed they’d be the “bad guys.” But I grew fond of them quickly, especially their leader, Brother Jobe, a comically dark figure who is a combination of Boss Hogg and Captain Ahab, and I went another way with them. They display a good deal of competence, earnestness, and bravery, though they certainly have a lunatic edge to them. Interestingly, almost all their attempts to proselytize others end in failure. Their targets all say they’re “not interested” in one way or another. Way back in my days as a newspaper reporter, in the 1970s, I kind of specialized in investigating religious cult groups, so I am not unfamiliar with their ways. I enjoyed consorting with them, though not a few of them were dangerous characters.

MS: So you’re saying that people will use religion as a means to gather together for all sorts of reasons. Entertainment will be hard to come by with no television or movies, etc. Do you see people falling back into religion in a world without oil?

JHK: Only in the social sense that the church provides a place for the enactments of communal life. In the book, actually, many of the characters express anger toward God, blaming him for their losses and hardships. Yet they all understand why the church has become the focus of what happens outside the household. The other structures of everyday life are gone. The New Faith sect, led by Brother Jobe, appears to be organized as much for practical survival as for worship. They’re not especially rigid in their habits. The New Faith brothers are portrayed as enthusiastic drinkers (and very effective killers, when the necessity arises). The women are described as sensuous and possibly even available. For what is left of the “mainstream” folks of Union Grove, the Reverend Loren Holder probably expresses their attitude most emblematically. He’s a minister who has lost God but finds his fellow man.

MS: How much research did you have to do to write about the details of daily life in Union Grove? They’ve gone back to a lot of what I always think of as the ‘Little House on the Prairie’ practices. Also, do you think people will really be able to function as well in a non-machine age?

JHK: Oh, I dug out the usual manuals of self-sufficiency and gardening and my girlfriend was a horse-owner and she was hanging out with the ox, mule, and draft horse crowd, so I picked up some useful information around that. I hasten to add that I am not myself anything close to being an expert — or even competent — in these skills. But in writing a novel, one’s job is, so to speak, to construct a “script” for somebody to run a movie in their own head. You don’t have to furnish the reader with encyclopedic information to accomplish this. (Moby Dick might have been a more successful book if old Herman held back some of those didactic chapters about butchering whales and rendering the blubber.) But I did think the reader needed a rich set of suggestions from me to bring out the sensual elements. For instance, I dwelt quite a bit on the cuisine of the “post-oil” age, partly because I am a good cook myself and interested in these matters, but also because it was a sure route to the reader’s sense-awareness. Mostly, World Made By Hand is an exercise in dramatic imagination. Personally, I am not what some might call “a survivalist” — I’m not hoarding brown rice in plastic tubs in the basement or acquiring an arsenal of firearms. I am an avid gardener.

MS: The social divisions revert back to the old ways: racial tension, a classist, almost feudal society, sexes go back to old labor division. Do you really see society reverting back to these?

JHK: I do believe that a lot of the “progressive” social relations that are normal for us today will fall by the wayside as our society stumbles into broad and deep economic distress. Many of the supposed triumphs of feminism, for instance, are, in my opinion, a product not of “higher consciousness,” but simply of overcoming age-old division-of-labor issues via the cheap and abundant energy supplies we enjoyed during the 20th century and a little beyond it. We’ll look back on that as a kind of odd luxury, I think. In World Made By Hand, however, none of the characters complain about the new disposition of those things. The corporate milieu no longer exists, so nobody’s concerned about the “glass ceiling” or hiring policies. They’re too busy surviving, and they’re all working within their obvious strengths and competencies. As for race relations, there are references to conflict in other parts of the country, but the news is so sparse that we don’t get a whole lot of detail about it. While I think there is plenty of potential for ethnic conflict in an unraveling USA — and I said so plainly in The Long Emergency — I didn’t see any benefit in dragging that onto center stage in World Made By Hand. Anyway, there’s plenty of conflict between the various local groups depicted in the story — the townspeople of Union Grove, the New Faithers, the crypto-feudal denizens of Stephen Bullock’s plantation, the lowlifes led by Wayne Karp of Karptown, who run the old town dump for salvage, and the gangsters who surround Dan Curry, boss of the Albany docks.

MS: The several factions that you mention above, are they archetypes? You’ve got Stephen Bullock’s peaceful yet rigid society, the chaos of Karptown, the more organized gangsters of Dan Curry in Albany, the religious folk of the New Faith, and the townspeople of Union Grove. Do you think that people will be able to survive at all on their own? It seems necessary for people to gather together in any way possible in order to survive. Is this how you see people reacting in the future?

JHK: The various groups are self-selecting factions. Wayne Karp’s followers are the lowlifes, petty criminals, and motor heads who have gravitated to each other by their predilection for trashy things (and it is no accident that their chief business is excavating the old town dump). Their community is not portrayed as “chaotic,” by the way — Wayne correctly states that he “rules with an iron got-damn fist” — but you sense that without him in charge, his tribe of followers would tend to act without a great deal of impulse control, shall we say. The people around the gangster Dan Curry are clearly in it to benefit from the order he imposes on the Albany docks (which is the city’s sole remaining center of business.) The people who live and work on Bullock’s plantation are portrayed as having “sold their allegiance for security” — in other words, they’re little more than landed peasants now, living under the rule of a rather benign feudal lord. The New Faithers have their obvious attractions to the Jesus myth and the security afforded by Brother Jobe’s charismatic competence. And so on. It is only the townspeople of Union Grove who are left without any obvious reasons for mutual allegiance other than the geographical happenstance of them occupying what remains physically of the town. They are the only group depicted in the book who are utterly bereft of authority, and suffering from it. As the one who created them in an imaginative exercise, I feel that they have an awful lot yet to work out in the years ahead.

MS: Death is more commonplace in your book. People die from basic diseases and also from violence more often. Today, in America at least, we don’t lose people that often. Do you think that the end of oil will bring society’s numbers back down in some sort of Malthusian episode?

JHK: Oh gosh, the America of our time is hugely violent. For starters, we have the 45,000-odd souls killed in traffic accidents every year — almost as many as died in the Vietnam War from 1963 to 1975!!! — and this doesn’t count the ones who survive the car crashes to live on merely maimed and brain-damaged. For the past year we’ve had a spate of campus shootings — including the one with the highest death toll to date, at Virginia Tech — and one just last week over at Northern Illinois University. Drug gang violence is going strong in LA, Miami, and many other metroplexes. The sheer demeanor of everyday people is startlingly bellicose – you should see the tattooed, Road Warrior-looking freaks at my local small-town gym! The nightly cable news is a veritable Grand Guignol of savagery (and that doesn’t even include what happens overseas, in Iraq and Afghanistan). The violence in World Made By Hand pales in comparison and scale. But what’s a bigger problem is the absence of the rule of law. At the center of all the incidents in the story is the fact that authority is no longer present. The police and the courts are not operating. The government is a memory. Nobody knows who to turn to when something bad happens. The restoration of authority — and of order and justice — is what concerns many of the characters most. Now, the question, what do I expect to happen demographically in “real life” is somewhat separate (and academic). I think it’s self-evident that Spaceship Earth (as we used to call it so quaintly) won’t support the current crew of 6.5 billion. In World Made By Hand, epidemic disease has enforced a powerful rate of attrition. Between that and the other “usual suspects” — war, and famine — the population has collapsed by better than half. Medical care is not what it used to be. The doctor lacks antibiotics and advanced anesthesia. Life is fragile.

MS: Are you optimistic about new alternative fuel technologies? Sales of solar panels are on the rise, more people are moving to smaller cars, biodiesel, composting, etc. At the very least, people are thinking about the impact of oil. Do you think oil is already on the way out and we’re just kidding ourselves? Or do you think we could avert some sort of big disaster by moving away from our oil independence?

JHK: I tell college lecture audiences that we will be hugely disappointed in what so-called can do for us. Across the nation right now, a delusion reigns broadly that some mythical “they” will “come up with new technologies” that will allow us to run Wal-Mart, Disney World, and the interstate highway system by other means than oil. Ain’t gonna happen. The popular political war-cry for “oil independence” is a companion delusion. There’s a lot we can do to get our collective act together, but we’re not going to run Phoenix on ethanol, solar, wind, and used-french-fry-oil. There’s a lot of confusion out there aggravating the wishful thinking. People think that energy and technology are interchangeable, substitutable, — if you run out of one, just plug in the other. We’re about to find out the hard way that that isn’t so. There’s no question that oil is on the way out. On top of the sheer geological limits to a finite resource, there are new geopolitical sub-plots developing that will aggravate the situation hugely, for instance the only-recently-recognized oil export predicament and the new oil nationalism — topics perhaps too complex to get into here. The bottom line of all this is that the basis for civilized life as we’ve known — cruisin’ for burgers in the good ole USA — it is about to wobble. At the very least, we’d better prepare to live a lot more locally and self-sufficiently so — and by this I mean in the community sense.

MS: I want to ask about the title World Made by Hand. How did you come up with that? I see it as sort of a double entendre. In the book, the people must create everything by hand now that the machine age is over. At the same time, the current world was made by the hands of man with the misuse of oil. Is that accurate?

JHK: Well, you’ve kind of got it. On the one hand (no pun intended) there’s the line from that old American gospel song I use in the epigraph about God’s holy city — “…and it’s not (oh no it’s not) not made by hand….” And then there’s the apparent situation in the book that the townspeople of Union Grove have been left both without the comfort of belief in God, and faced with the task of keeping their world going absolutely by hand. Whatever they make of their little corner of the world, Washington County, New York, will be a world made by hand.

16 thoughts on “Interview with James Howard Kunstler

  1. danny bloom

    You might find this climate site interesing:

    I am friend of Jim’s, via email: in Taiwan, not upstate NY

    And I saw this post on the DOT EARTH today: it’s good! Also related to Jim’s very important book!

    she says:

    “I have been keeping track of global warming for several years now. The main thing that I have observed is that every one talks about it in very high tech and scientific ways. I see nothing in down to earth simple talk. I really don’t care how global warming got started or who’s most at fault, that won’t make global warming stop. What I would really like to see is straight out honest talk about what us humans can expect to see happen. Don’t waste my time whinning about some exotic animal that I never heard of. Give me some idea of how to adapt and survive it that even us working poor can afford. Don’t waste my time with suggestion for converting appliances that will cost an intire years pay!!!”

    — Posted by Dee


  2. danny bloom

    I do believe Jim’s book will make a great movie someday, too. It might take some time to get the script done and the financing, but I think around 2015 this movie will touch many many people with a profound message, as the book is already doing, as we speak….



  3. Martin Clark

    Nice interview with a very thoughtful, bright writer. I emailed my “home” bookstore–it’s what you do when you live in the provinces–and ordered a copy…hard to resist when there’s a Boss Hogg/ Captain Ahab character from Virginia.


  4. Danny Bloom

    Dear BookDward editor, can you pls remove the above cooment about ATOMIC TYPO, because it was directed to you about an earlier comment that you deleted, so the comment now does not make sense standing there alone. Please delete. Thanks. I know you are busy, when you have time. No biggie.

    I do believe I received a post on my own Vaclac blog from Jim himself. He seems to have have written, although he did not ID himself, so it might have been someone else. But his remark about the movie makes it seem it was Jim himself making the “anonymous” comment:

    “Danny – Referring to your multiple [drunk?] comments at Bookdwarf on JHK’s ‘World Made by Hand’, take a chill pill. Or least get all of your thoughts to gether in one coherent comment.

    As for turning WMBH into a movie, probably won’t be any in 2015…

    he posted on April 2, 2008 at 1:54 PM]

    I told him: “You are right, need to chill, and I have since then. But NOT drunk, never drunk, never post when drinking, and have not been drunk in 15 years… but yes, good advice, chill out. Am doing that now. Thanks, if that’s you JHK!”


  5. Pierre

    I have read this novel, and it is a very entertaining as well as thought-provoking book. It’s an excellent complement to “The Long Emergency”.

    For any “Peakers” out there with skeptical or disinterested families, this could serve as an easy intro.


  6. GarryInNola

    > Danny

    Yes, I do think it would make a great movie. Only problem is that if Kunstler is correct, and I fear he may be, we’ll be deep on the downslope of Peak Oil by 2015 and the movie industry as we know it will likely be collapsing all around us. Hopefully it can be made sooner than 2015 as an independent film.

    I do believe Jim’s book will make a great movie someday, too. It might take some time to get the script done and the financing, but I think around 2015 this movie will touch many many people with a profound message, as the book is already doing, as we speak….


  7. Gregg Senne

    I often wonder what and when the cross-over point will be. When will people stop investing their income and hopes in the Happy Motoring World and turn their attention to the coming oil famine? The prices of some basic commodities are already rising due to the barrel cost of oil. Something tells me that high prices will pinch but the comming shortages will cut. Some will be weeded out of the system. Some demand will be destroyed after a die-back. For a billion or so humans, the Earth is bountiful. The question, as usual, is how do we get there from here? The opinion makers will soon be proved wrong if not insane. Systems of power will unravel as people are forced to withdraw their consent to focus on making a living in an oil-free environment. I don’t think the roads will deteriorate quite as rapidly as Jim predicts.

    We’re all in it together, kid. -Harry Tuttle


  8. jon

    While no one can forecasts how quickly things will unravel, there are a few sign posts:

    Millions of people are going hungry with accompanying increasing political instability, and one of the causes, from the future Museum of Unintended Consequences, is a new technology few people had even heard of 5 years ago, Biofuels–so new it still shows up as a misspelling.

    From the Harvard School of Public Health: after decades of increasing life expectancy, we are now see the leading wave of the decline.

    Japan, one of the richest countries in the world, has run out of butter and the government is having to intervene to purchase grains on the world market.

    From today’s Huffington Post: Major retailers in New York, in areas of New England, and on the West Coast are limiting purchases of flour, rice, and cooking oil as demand outstrips supply. There are also anecdotal reports that some consumers are hoarding grain stocks.

    Price of oil:
    1/03: $30,
    1/07: $60,
    1/08: $90,
    5/08: $120

    The prices of our houses are falling, gas and food are going up, our credit cards are maxed out, and our government owes foreign investors (including governments) $6,000,000,000,000, that is right 6 trillion dollars–at 5% interest per year, that is $2,000 for each working person.

    At the beginning of the new millennium one us dollar would purchase 1.21 of those socialist Euros. Today it will purchase .61.

    As the summer Arctic ice retreats and the sun heats the relatively shallow water along the extensive shelf off of Siberia, methane is being released from the “previously frozen” seabed–it has been detected in the air at about 5,000 ft above sea level. Is that bolus of life ending, as we know it, combination of Carbon and Methane going to suddenly do the big burp as this area gets exposed to more and more sun–experts say they don’t have a clue.

    Experts in Washington are certainly clear on one thing: you must not do anything to keep from growing the US economy and outputting more and more ethanol from corn– the increase in CO2 emissions and hunger and associated chaos around the world is for other people to worry about because life is once again good in the American Heartland.

    (See Connecting the Dots: From Human Behaviors to Ecosystem Decline at for a pedantic and dated explanation of the emerging crisis.)


  9. Craig

    I have been thinking about the whole peak-oil; global warming; excessive debt collapse situation for several years now.

    The first thing I have decided about the whole mess is that nothing moves in a straight line. Nature and social mood are likely to throw us enough wiggles along the way to confuse us about what to expect and what to do about it. Therefore we should begin with the end in mind and work steadily, in spite of whatever confusions ensue in the mean time, toward whatever we decide to do about these things personally. Just sitting and doing nothing personally about it is our own worst course of action.

    Second, those in the city will eventually think they want to get out. They know nothing about living in the country, farm or rural life in general. Many farm and rural people are not going to enjoy all the new company; especially when the newbies do not know anything about living in the country and when even the farmers way of living will have to change. All the old timers who knew how to do it have recently died or are in the process thereof. My 94 year old grandmother is the only person I know who still thoroughly understands, from a hands on perspective, how to live in the old ways that a post-oil society would require. When she passes I will no longer personally know a soul who really knows how to do it. I suggest everyone talk to those old enough to know about those times and pick their brains for the technical, social, orgizational and practical tid bits they can glean. 100 years ago 90% of the U.S. was an agrarian economy.

    Third, I do not see government dieing as conveniently as Mr. Kunstler envisions. Instead, I imagine that the societal supports of government will wan while the aggravations, taxes, rules, regulations, fines and constraints of government will live on. Tis only the extent to which we will be able to successfully ingore those impediments that I am unsure of.

    Fourth, there are very few horses per person available these days. Horses take a lot of attention. People are not going to like messing with horses as much as some people think, even if they can find some worth buying. (and they are unlikely to know which ones are worth having) People are not going to like chopping ice, feeding them in winter; keeping them out of things that can sicken and kill them; paying vet bills when they don’t; (if they can find and afford a vet. Veterniarians are likely to charge more than docs by then.) People are not going to like having to pull foals, nor even know that they need to or how to do it.

    Fifth, there is not enough fire wood to heat every home. The U.S. would look like Easter Island in about a year and a half if everyone was trying to heat with wood.

    Sixth, EVERYPLACE in the U.S. will have higher crime while this transition is going on. This should make forming alliances with friends and neighbors for mutual protection easier to implement. Everyone should make a point to befriend their neighbors. In addition to what you can pack into your brain those neighbors may prove your greatest asset in the future. Early American Indians were, and still are, called tribes for a reason.


  10. johhnytrash

    I’m not worried about humanity. I KNOW people will survive and eventually pull out of the Long Emergency. I KNOW there will always be enclaves of technology and electricity. Like for instance, what about the people near the Hoover Dam? That thing takes relatively small amounts of maintenance and can run for years. I don’t care if America or any other country survives, what I do care about and what scares me is will I survive to my 70s? Will things get so bad so quick that I’m doomed to die young? I’m middle class and in debt now, will I be doomed to poverty? Will a food riot crush me in it’s wake? I KNOW humanity will live on, I’m just scared it will trample me in the process.


  11. Nick

    @Craig – Kunstler envisions a much reduced world population in World Made By Hand – killed off by both pandemic Mexican flu, and nuclear exchange, and one presumes other bloodying exercises (including starvation and atrophy). I agree that after all of these, governments aren’t really going to operate in a meaningful sense – nothing will. Crime will also play a part, until people begin to organise some system of order that will discourage random violence into a more organised form.


  12. Joseph

    Both books The long emergency and World made by hand should be required reading for everyone. Personally i don’t see anyway out of the of the current mess we are in. Having finsihe both books very recently, I’ve had those views a long time now. The U.S. took the wrong turn when it went from simplistic living to a complicated and contrived method of living. Why?, do both India and China desire to follow our path of growth while both should be focusing on a new structure to there societies. It should be obvious to them that a purely industrail society is not the way of the future and not abandon the ag basis on which there two societies were based on. In all honesty i see no hope or way out. Obviously man will survive, probably at a “greatly” reduced scale but it will but a world as foreign as someone can imagine. And i see it happening within the next 30-50 yrs


  13. Peter

    round 100s and 100s of acres of land settled in the 1800’s and you’ll find drain tiles and it the library you’ll find books on underdraining. We don’t have to rediscover the laws of physics or the useful application of these laws, just figure what things are worth their salt and then set out to make the best whatever you can. Then trade for the things you don’t make. Some place used to and have returned to letting people work off their property taxes. That would alter many pressure points and where some of the return to the land efforts ran aground. Start collecting good history of technology, The Farm Book and some others like it and figure what safe seeds there are to preserve and have ready when you want them. Doesn’t even need to be seen as a crisis. Best not to be.


  14. Pingback: Humble Money » Blog Archive » links for 2008-08-24

  15. Joseph

    If you take a look at this weeks Barron’s Mag you will see Charlie Maxwells opinion on oil and the striking simularities of his society opinion with the Long Emergencies.


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