World Made By Hand by James Howard Kunstler

200810061205 In the sweet and sad novel, World Made By Hand by James Howard Kunstler, the population of the United States (and most likely, the world) has been decimated by an energy shortage, starvation, plagues, terrorism, and global warming. The story takes place in an unspecified time in the near future (I'm guessing it's around 2025 or so). Kunstler is the author of the non-fiction book The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of Oil, Climate Change, and Other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century, and World Made by Hand is a fictional account of what life might be like if things go the way he describes them in Long Emergency. (Here's a TED video of Kunstler from 2004. Thanks, Erik!)

The story is told by Robert Earle, who used to be a software executive. Now he's a hand-tool using carpenter living in a town in upstate New York without Internet, TV, or newspapers. The electricity comes on every couple of weeks for a few minutes at a time. When that happens, nothing's on the radio but hysterical religious talk. Rumors of goings-on in the rest of the world are vague.

There's no fuel or rubber tires left for cars, and even if there were, the roads and bridges are shot. Earle can't afford a horse or donkey, so when he needs to buy carpentry supplies, he takes his hand cart to a compound on the outskirts of town called Karptown. It's a trailer park next to the dump that's been taken over by a dangerous gang of former bikers and motorheads who roam the neighborhoods salvaging scrap materials from abandoned houses and buildings.

The town is loosely run by a group of 15 men (no women) who half-heartedly try to maintain law and order, which is hard because no one wants to stand up to troublemakers like the folks at Karptown, who conduct occasional raids on people's homes.

The story kicks off when Earle (who lost his wife and daughter in the plague and hasn't seen his 19-year-old son since the boy took off a couple of years earlier to find out what's happened in the rest of the country) is elected mayor and joins a search party to look for a freight boat and its crew, which disappeared on its way to Albany. Their horse-mounted odyssey takes them on a tour through a post-apocalyptic world of insanity, greed, kindness, corruption, and ingenuity.

While life in Kunstler's world is lawless and harsh and populated with opportunistic characters that make Boss Tweed look like Glinda the Good, it's not without charms. Local communities are active and productive. Neighbors all know each other and look after one another. People grow and trade their own produce and livestock, and meals are tasty -- lots of buttery corn bread, eggs, chicken, vegetables, streaks, fish. They get together and play music a lot, and because people aren't stuck in their living rooms watching TV, they actually attend live performances.

As a budding urban homesteader, I found the way of life in World Made By Hand, fascinating. No one can predict the future, and I doubt our future will be much like the one depicted here, but I think its possible that Kunstler has come closer to showing us what's in store than anyone else. Buy World Made by Hand on Amazon



  1. A lot of this reminds me of the book Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank. The circumstances were different, but the brand of postapocalyptic-ness sounds the same.

  2. Peak oil, climate change, and Republican misgovernance may have us well and truly fucked, but that doesn’t change the fact that Kunstler is an absolute crank. Nine years ago, he was positive that y2k would sweep away the suburban sprawl he hated so much, (check his archives for a laugh or ten) now it’s Hubbert’s peak.
    It is pretty entertaining, though, that he wrote up his post-apocalyptic alter-ego as a virile, paunchy sex-god.

  3. This kind of world will never come to pass. If and when the “end of everything as we know it” comes to pass, there are so many guns and so much anger in this country that the bloodletting would be beyond comprehension. There wouldn’t be much of anything left.

  4. I’ve been reading apocalyptic novels for 40 years. None of them has come remotely close to being predictive, because they underrate the power of technology and the resourcefulness of human beings.

    I’ve also read my share of techno-optimistic visions. They haven’t come true either, but some of them have come closer to the mark than the doomsayers.

    Ten years from now, we may be using gasoline created from biomass by genetically engineered bacteria, and “peak oil” will be a memory. Twenty years from now, we could be enterting the Diamond Age, in which nanomachines build everything we need from carbon.

  5. Read it when it first released.

    The characters are two-dimensional, often in the extreme. The plot, such as it is, is trite and unimaginative, and there’s far too much deus ex machina going on for my taste, as well as way too damn much coincidence. What are the odds that a dead coyote in your water system for a year produced no disease? Or that, in a lawless time, the band of wanderers that happens into town just happens to also have several members who were soldiers and remain talented gunslingers? Yeah.

    All that said, the picture JHK paints of the post-oil future is interesting. As long as you’re reading for that, fine. But don’t expect literature that rises to even a middling level.

    IMO, of course.

  6. Feh. Just read Riddley Walker by Russel Hoban.

    And it’s naive think that reverting to an agricultural society is going to improve people’s lives…those times had problems of their own.

  7. Here we stand
    Like an Adam and an Eve
    Waterfalls, The Garden of Eden
    Two fools in love so beautiful and strong
    The birds in the trees are smiling upon them
    From the age of the dinosaurs
    Cars have run on gasoline
    Where, where have they gone?
    Now, it’s nothing but flowers

    There was a factory
    Now there are mountains and rivers
    you got it, you got it

    We caught a rattlesnake
    Now we got something for dinner
    we got it, we got it

    There was a shopping mall
    Now it’s all covered with flowers
    you’ve got it, you’ve got it

    If this is paradise
    I wish I had a lawnmower
    you’ve got it, you’ve got it

    Years ago
    I was an angry young man
    I’d pretend that I was a billboard
    Standing tall by the side of the road
    I fell in love with a beautiful highway
    This used to be real estate
    Now it’s only fields and trees
    Where, where is the town
    Now, it’s nothing but flowers
    The highways and cars were sacrificed for agriculture
    I thought that we’d start over
    But I guess I was wrong

    Once there were parking lots
    Now it’s a peaceful oasis
    you got it, you got it

    This was a Pizza Hut
    Now it’s all covered with daisies
    you got it, you got it

    I miss the honky tonks,
    Dairy Queens, and 7-Elevens
    you got it, you got it

    And as things fell apart
    Nobody paid much attention

    you got it, you got it

    I dream of cherry pies,
    Candy bars, and chocolate chip cookies
    you got it, you got it

    We used to microwave
    Now we just eat nuts and berries
    you got it, you got it

    This was a discount store,
    Now it’s turned into a cornfield
    you got it, you got it

    Don’t leave me stranded here
    I can’t get used to this lifestyle

  8. #3, you’re right, unfortunately.

    I just read somewhere that someone once said that in a nuclear war between USA and USSR, the USSR would win, because the all the guns available in the US would lead to a bloodbath, and people shooting each other over food and resources.

    WW4 will be fought with sticks and stones. –Einstein

  9. I’ve read this book. Kunstler envisions a future that doesn’t fit the usual “Mad Max” idea of a post-oil world or the overwhelming gloom of “The Road”.

    The story is filled with details that make it come alive, from what people eat, to the music they listen to, and how they remember the past with a mix of nostalgia and bitterness.

    Some readers might find Kunstler’s world a little too idyllic or even sexist. If you’ve read Kunstler’s blog you know that he shows no mercy in his contempt for the current urban landscape of big-box stores and mcmansion homes. He doesn’t hold back from kicking the rotting corpse of future suburbia.

    If you like this book, check out Dmitry Orlov’s “Reinventing Collapse” and Kunstler’s “The Long Emergency” as well.

  10. #2, You’d be hard pressed to find any post-apocalyptic fiction that isn’t populated with Gary Stus. I like the genre in general – cut my teeth on a garage sale copy of “Alas, Babylon” – but most of it is just beta-male fantasy about how cool life will be once disease/war/magical mishap conveniently removes all the alphas from contention.

  11. I’m glad Boing Boing has turned on to Kunstler. This is what makes this blog so great: you are never afraid to take on things that don’t exactly sync with past favourites. Sure JHK is a bit of all the things people say above but these days he’s sounding more wrong than right.

  12. …the population of the United States (and most likely, the world) has been decimated by an energy shortage, starvation, plagues, terrorism, and global warming.

    A population drop of 10% would likely be noticed, but would that be dramatic enough?

  13. I haven’t picked it up yet, but I’d be curious how it compares to another didactic but compelling book, Ecotopia, by Earnest Callenbach.

  14. Honestly, if this were to become the future I had to live in, I’d utilize my ‘9mm Opt-Out’ plan.

  15. It’s interesting as a medievalist to look at such writing, primarily because it assumes that this world has to be imagined. Actually, we have a pretty good idea of what men will do if civilization shreds itself into the stone ages. It’s called history ~ if I recall, the Romans did quite a lot with some basic engineering tools and a bit of imagination.

    I’ve read a number of books along these lines, and they all imagine a world in which somehow, along with electricity, basic knowledge disappears. It’s simplistic and, frankly, a bit insulting.



  16. @15

    dec·i·mate /ˈdɛsəˌmeɪt/
    –verb (used with object), -mat·ed, -mat·ing.

    1. to destroy a great number or proportion of: The population was decimated by a plague.

    2. to select by lot and kill every tenth person of.

    3. Obsolete. to take a tenth of or from.

    I like the origin of the word too but nobody uses it that way anymore. The context is totally fine here.

  17. I am so sick of dystopian stories where a future world is dominated by the kind of blue collar male lower class trash that presently dominates lower class neighborhoods. The world of the future as the South Bronx, complete with biker gangs.

    How about a non-dystopic novel where the dumb and aggressive male trash is gone, and where people have
    200 plus IQ’s and spend their time in the pursuit of pure math or science or art? A world no longer dominated by the dumb–or by the brainwashing done to semimorons by the big companies. How about a world where nobody cares that much about owning fancy stuff or dominating others–but does care a great deal about understanding the structure of the prime numbers?

    Of course, that kind of science fiction will NEVER appeal to the semi-intelligent gearhead males
    who feel disempowered and have fantasies about
    how their “superior minds” will give them an edge
    in a “Mad Max” world–living as happy farmers, where they are faced with a level of 18th century technology that they think they could master.

    The real future will be dominated by superintelligent gene engineered people with
    nanotech links to computers—and it will totally different from what people today can imagine–we are just too dumb.

    Hopefully, they will induce sterility in dumb and aggressive people–so that the world will no longer carry that burden. Similarly, there will be no need for males. Maybe they will have them, but likely not.

    So, it will be a world full of brilliant girly people–not a world full of aggressive male street gang bikers and male chauvinist semibright farmers. No Mad Max but lots of pretty clothes and
    lovely math theorems and advanced physics.

  18. meals are tasty

    Meals are tasty… when you can get them. In the good years. In bad years, there’s nothing, people die.

    Without medical care, there’s one-third child mortality and childbirth itself is barely safer than Russian roulette. Minor sniffles and injuries turn into life-threatening conditions. People die.

    The primitive life is nasty, brutish and short.

  19. I completely agree with charlesplatt.
    Out here in farm country, resourcefulness is the way of life.

    Generating electricity and fuel is simple technology that at this point almost anyone could figure out how to do. It’s not like when society collapses, that information disappears.

    I just finished “The Place Called Attar” and I had the same problems with the scenario. There’s no way it would take those farmers 5 years to get a wind generator running, or methane generators.


  20. Anon @21:

    Go read Schismatrix by Bruce Sterling. I just finished it and it’s exactly what you’re craving for (including “pretty clothes and advanced physics”). Well, there still are a few people wanting to dominate others, but that’s just (post)human nature, I guess…

    Anyway, it became my favourite book of all time and I can only recommend it, especially to people like you.

  21. Can’t believe no one has mentioned “The Devil’s Children,” one of my favorites from when I was a kid. Check it out.

  22. Just finished reading “World Made by Hand” the other night. I wished that it would never end. Beautiful.

  23. Added this book to my Amazon wishlist way back when this was originally posted. Just wanted to follow up and say, “thank you.” Very refreshing indeed.

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