Warning: Spoilers (but not many)
Read “The Long Emergency” and you get the idea that James Howard Kunstler sees trouble ahead for industrial society, read “The World Made by Hand” novels and you enter into the dystopic remains of the United States that he envisions. As a fan of Classic Kunstler, “The Geography of Nowhere” and “Home from Nowhere” I became increasingly concerned as his podcast and his blog touched less and less on the “tragicomedy of suburban sprawl” and more and more on finance and diminishing returns of technology; now I know why.
I am fairly certain that Kunstler himself would not classify his novels as prophecy, I assume that of the many plausible futures his imagination could conjure he chose the one which best aligned with creating an exciting narrative, and this 4 part series is filled with thrilling episodes. With that in mind this critique will not be a literary one per se, I’ll leave that to much more qualified professional reviewers. No, this analysis is from the perspective of Rational Urbanism, from the perspective of someone who not only understands but agrees with most of what Kunstler has had to say about America’s post war development pattern, and who views our current path as unsustainable.
This is extremely personal. When I decided to enter the housing market after the crash of 2007 I was focused on finding a place that would have a future. It is not a coincidence that I bought a home with a central flue system connecting 4 fireplaces, in a walkable neighborhood, on multiple public transportation routes, within a 15 minute walk of a north-south and east-west rail hub, and 10 minutes from New England’s longest navigable river; that is all out of the JHK playbook. It’s a beautiful house and I was always likely to end up downtown, but the list I made of “must haves” before I began my home search was heavily influenced by Kunstler.
The first and eponymous WMBH novel takes place in Greenwich, New York…I mean “Union Grove”, New York. It’s interesting that JHK decided first to set his novels there, and then purchased a home just outside its town center; this is a man who likes to walk the walk. Being a town on a much smaller scale than Springfield it is clear that the state of Union Grove bears only slightly on the future of more relevant communities to our purposes here at Rational Urbanism, but don’t worry, he will get to those.Union Grove seems to have lost anywhere from 75% to 90% of its pre “Long Emergency” population, but it will become very clear over time that Kunstler views that as a somewhat better than average outcome in this “history of the future”. Washington D.C. and Los Angeles are gone, victims of nuclear terrorism, and New York City is never discussed except to describe it as a place from which to escape; Snake Pliskin anyone?
Anyplace made up of strip malls and big box stores is now a no place. If I were to venture slightly into literary criticism I would say that Kunstler is a touch ham-handed in his descriptions of dilapidating suburban sprawl. It may be that as a fervent reader of his non-fiction I hear to readily that particular voice in his fiction, but it was the one part of every narrative that consistently reminded me that this was an instructive exercise and not just story telling. Suburban areas, all of them, are completely abandoned except for “pickers” who live off the scraps by selling now hard to find finished materials for use in places that still have value.
The first glimpse of a city that falls in the range of my writings here at Rational Urbanism is of Albany, New York, and that glimpse explains why you don’t hear a lot from James Howard Kunstler on urban design any more. The reason? All of those cities implode. He seems to go to great pains to not make their implosion racial in anyway by which I mean that the bad guys, strongmen, and warlords who rule Albany, and Syracuse for example, are White. This may be because a Black nation, New Africa, has been established in the states of the Deep South, and are at war with the White Appalachian southern states now called The Foxfire Republic.
Interestingly both Albany and Buffalo are cities which occupy, in Kunstler’s non-fiction words, “significant sites” and are bound to rebound in their importance as the long emergency plays out. In the novels Albany is at first controlled by a strongman, but by the end appears to be more and more being brought back under the rule of law. Buffalo is a bustling place and, as with all of the region of the Great Lakes, appears to be the area best prepared to thrive in the long emergency.
This should be kept in perspective however; both Albany and Buffalo seem to have lost 90% of their population as well.
Kunstler rejects the label of “doomer”, and it may well be that the extreme levels of die-off and of technological retrogression are intentionally hyperbolic and/or accelerated so as to more easily depict the path of industrial society, but despite the occasional joy experienced by a few citizens of Union Grove, this future seems bleak for some and apocalyptic for most of the rest. Even in the bustling, reinvigorated waterfronts of upstate New York there exists mostly just lawlessness in the newly built wood framed structures around the docks and slips and everything else is wasteland.
Utica, New York, and Waterbury, Connecticut also get brief mentions: the former as being nearly totally abandoned despite its proximity to the Erie Canal, the latter overrun by refugees from New York City and therefore uninhabitable. This is informative because often in urbanism talk references are made to “small cities” for example, and it’s hard to know exactly what is meant. I read an article in the Boston Globe about the “small city” of Indianapolis hosting the Super Bowl. Meaning, I suppose, that there is only one “large” or “mid-size” city in the entire Midwest (Chicago), and only 13 such cities in the entire United States! It’s clear that when Kunstler references “small cities” as being where the action will be in the long emergency he means communities of fewer than 200,000 people at most, and preferably fewer than 20,000. Amsterdam, New York, and Syracuse have survived (with perhaps 5% of their current population), while Utica is abandoned and what remains of Rochester is dying. It seems population is not the only metric; immediate proximity to water transport (not rail) and to farmland are key.
I was tickled by the fact that western Massachusetts figures prominently in the final installment, “The Harrows of Spring”, if not in a complementary way. Two characters from greater Springfield, both former employees of an Indian casino turned faux Native American marauders, turn up as desperate wretches seeking plunder in Union Grove. They are from Chicopee and Agawam; communities which have retained their Indian names. I would assume from their need to plunder that the Connecticut River won’t be as significant or as successful as a water highway as the Hudson, despite the fact that a few repairs to the Windsor Locks in Connecticut and certainly the barge craft Kunstler describes could travel at least as far north as Holyoke.
Be that as it may, I was tickled by the casino reference related to Springfield, despite the MGM casino being built here having no connection to any tribe of Native Americans, because I think that it is quite possible that the reference may very well be connected (weakly, tangentially) to my conversation with Chuck Marohn, and some communications I’ve had with Kunstler’s old pal Duncan Crary about the MGM project. Mixing and matching Springfield with Ledyard and Uncasville, Connecticut, and MGM with Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun is a narrative sleight of hand used to avoid complications in the real world I suppose. I’ve always found it interesting that Kunstler is so down on casino gambling when his long time hometown of Saratoga Springs owes much of its existence, stature, and vitality to casino gambling and horse racing…but there you go. To me it shows that, perhaps, you should keep your friends close, and your gaming closer!
Finally, my favorite insight into the four novels set in the four distinct seasons of the northeast of the United States is in no way connected to urbanism. It is that the “Weekend at Bernie’s” character who is the inspirational leader of the wicked leftists from the Berkshires can be none other than Alan Chartok! This shadowy figure, named Glen Ethan Greengrass, controlled an NPR dynasty out of Pittsfield before the onset of the long emergency, and his people are now headquartered in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. While the real “Northeast Public Radio” is based in Albany, it looms over the Adirondacks and the Berkshires and beyond with fully 28 stations, and Alan Chartock, who lives in Great Barrington, is its president and CEO, with a constant presence on air at WAMC. Making him a buffoonish, cartoonish, not-so-nearly-nearly-headless broadcaster carted around like so much meat is clearly an editorial last laugh on the part of JHK. I was surprised that the topic never arose when Jim was interviewed on a Northeast Public Radio program about the book! I was looking forward to a hearty belly laugh followed by a slippery denial!
WAMC’s broadcast reach:
In any case, in a world made by hand almost no one will get by unscathed, even thoroughgoing preppers, embodied by Bullock in the novels, will not be able to hold on completely to the finer things such as recorded music, and electric light. In the end, just as Albany appears to be coming once again under the rule of law, Bullock is transforming from benevolent feudal master to warlord. Kunstler wouldn’t describe his outlook as predicting doom and gloom, but I think most others would. Its message serves, as with contemplating worst case scenarios in stoic philosophy, as a call to do better, to separate the wheat from the chaff in our modern existence, and to prepare for the changes which must inevitably come as we seek to perpetuate civilization on a finite planet.