Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Under the Hood of Jim Kunstler's World Made by Hand

This week's theme: Survival +

OK, so it's a poor stab at humor to use the "let's look under the hood" analogy for a novel set in a post-oil small town in the U.S., but how fast would you have clicked away if I'd used the phrase "meta-analysis"?

A meta-analysis is either an analysis of many previous analyses, or an analysis of what's happening under the hood of a narrative, i.e. not the plot, characters, setting, conflict, dialog, etc., which are the elements of a story, but what powers the whole enterprise: the world-view, or the assumptions the story is built upon.

What's striking about author James Howard Kunstler's World Made by Hand: A Novel is what's not happening. Like Sherlock Holmes' observation about the dog barking--what struck him as remarkable was that the dog didn't bark--the interesting question is: what isn't in the book?

Some of the survivalist/post-oil-crash material out there assumes a precipitous collapse which can only be survived by duct-taping extra M-16 ammo clips to your calves (remember to shave your legs, or it will hurt like the dickens when you yank those clips free) and mowing down in Rambo-like fashion the crazed-by-hunger wild mobs of doomed urbanites who will be assulting your bunker in "Banzai" suicide charges.

Another assumption is that a setup akin to the mythical but amusing Mogambo Guru's Bunker will enable you and your family to live through the initial collapse and chaos--let's guesstimate six months, shall we?--at which point you emerge... and then the assumptions get murky.

If the world we know is toast, and you've been holed up for months picking off urban stragglers with your vast collection of weaponry (better hope none of those desperate souls manages to get a hold of some dynamite or RPGs or any other stuff which could be used to extricate a tunnel rat or bunker dweller--heck, even sealing the ventilation pipes would work in a pinch), then what will you eat when you emerge? Everything's been scavanged/consumed by the locust-like urban hordes before they passed away in their teeming millions.

Did you have a patch of ground to till during the collapse? Then you were easy pickings for one of the heavily-armed hungry ex-soldiers with a rifle and a scope. Or someone you'd come to trust will blow you away because you've got a generator and other good stuff. If it comes to that, a bunker just isn't much protection; in fact, all those goodies and the meta-message that you have something worth protecting make it a high-value, high-interest target.

(If you've ever hunted goats or equivalent with a bow, then nailing a big human with a rifle and scope will seem like child's play, even from hundreds of yards away.)

Kunstler's vision is more realistic: the oil-dependent world ends not with a bang but with a whimper. Transportation degrades, stuff stops working, repairs stop being made, and so on. In other words, life goes on during the decline. Yes, there was a nasty pandemic in the book, and it references a nuclear terrorist attack, but the world-view is one of decline, not a world-ending 1000-weapon nuclear strike many of us feared during the Cold War.

Kunstler also side-steps events such as global-warming triggered inundation of coastal cities and other more apocolyptic scenarios, I suspect partly because this has limited dramatic possibility--water rises, everyone leaves or dies, end of story--and partly because what interests him is how people make do.

As discussed in yesterday's post on the 13th century, humans have suffered true catastrophes in recorded history--starvation, cannibalism, pandemics, invasion by ruthless conquering hordes who raped/carried off the women and killed the men like they were insects, and so on.

(For evidence of this, we turn to National Geographic's report that 8% of the men in Eurasia carry Ghengis Khan's genes: Genghis Khan a Prolific Lover, DNA Data Implies. It is safe to assume not all of those hundreds of women he took into his tent were willing.)

According to historian David Hackett Fischer, parts of rural Britain did not return to the population density of the mid-13th century until the 1950s. That's how thoroughly the Midieval population was decimated by the Black Plague, crop failures, war, etc.

So Kunstler's point of view is the one history suggests is likely. Most people survive even apocalyptic pandemics and wars, and then get on with making do.

And how do they make do? In groups. In times of duress and turmoil, our instinct--and it encapsulates millions of years of adaptive survival--is not to borrow into the ground alone, but to seek out others with whom we can form a larger, far more adaptable, far sturdier and stronger survival mechanism: a group which through trust and shared goals can work together for the good of all individuals in the group.

Have you ever built a house by yourself? I've done quite a bit of various structures by myself, and it's lonely and dispiriting at times because the work proceeds so slowly. At certain junctures, even a child or an elderly soul or a person in a wheelchair would boost productivity. It doesn't take much to get a lot done when people work together.

Recall that humans are 1/3 chimpanzee, 1/3 bonobo and 13/ orangutan. In other words, we are a mix of quite different social structures and survival mechanisms. The orangutan is largely solitary, the chimps are highly hierarchical and completely social, while the bonobo are highly social but much less hierarchical; they use sex and touching to establish bonds of trust and communication.

Under the hood, Kunstler's book is securely grounded in this reality: post-oil, people will band together along various lines. You need look no farther than a schoolyard or prison to see how a stressful, potentially dangerous setting leads people to join various "protective" groupings. Why would the post-oil world be any different from the world we have inhabited in past calamities?
The groups in the book display certain characteristics common to humans in all eras; some groups are organized around a charismatic religious figure or religious faith, others are military-chimplike in their domination by an alpha-male, and others are more bonobo-like, in a "let's just try to get along" way. The appeal of each organization is communicated evenly; the book doesn't rank any one above the others.

And as with all human communities, the groups jockey for resources and alliances, uneasy, temporary, or enduring, as the case may be. People fall in love, seek the comfort of sex (bonobo-like behaviors) ands have affairs/illicit relationships, and some consider switching alliances.
Lastly, production of excess goods and trade are the key to improving one's lot. One of the more astonishing truths in recorded history is how trade springs up between centers of excess production, even over great distances and despite what we would consider primitive technology (small sailing ships, caravans, etc.)

Rome, China and India all exchanged goods before the Christian era; the rise of Islam in the Mediterranean region led to Arab traders faciliating trade between India and Renaissance Venice and other great Italian city-states.

Thus it seems entirely accurate to have the wealthy landholder set as the trader for the region; he has the excess production to trade with, and he has sought out the trade routes which enable him to trade his low-value excess goods (low value in the sense they are above and beyond what local demand can consume) for high-value goods which are excess goods in some other region.
This cycle of enrichment via trade is as old as civilization.

Those are a few of the moving parts I see under the hood of World Made by Hand . I'm sure I missed many others of importance, which is the ultimate value of fiction: it reflects the reader as much as the author.

What's For Dinner at Your House has been updated! Four cheap, quick, healthy tasty meals: Crockpot Lentil Soup, Skillet Stuff, Quick Chili, Frijoles Charros (Black Bean Chili).

These two Readers Journal essays are extremely relevant to this week's theme of Survival + ( read them all, of course):

The Power of Eight and Three (Reinventing our Native Cuisine) (Noah Cicero, June 23, 2008)
The Principles of Trading Also Apply to Life (Harun I., June 19, 2008)

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