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Mr. Toad in Union Grove: Review of A History of The Future by James Howard Kunstler

Pulling a copy of Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in The Willows off a bookshelf, Andrew Pendergast, without question James Howard Kunstler’s most autobiographical character in this series so far, sits at the bedside of his friend Jack Harron, who is recuperating from a deadly fight with an assailant bent on murdering them both.

“What’s it about?” Jack said when Andrew held up the cover.
“A rat and a mole and a badger and a toad who mess around in boats down by a little stream in the English countryside.”
“They all get along, all these different animals?” Jack said.
“They’re all friends,” Andrew said. “It’s a book about friendship.”
 
A History of The Future is a book about friendship. It describes another hard won Christmas season in the lives of the citizens of Union Grove, a Hudson Valley town that we have come to know and appreciate in previous installments of the World Made By Hand series. Back are many of the earlier characters, including some we have not seen for quite some time, and new and even more interesting refugees enter our circle of friends.
 
The novel is an exploration of the process of rebuilding a broken civilization, even as the old continues to decay and collapse in both expected and unexpected ways. Civil society cannot be rebuilt by solitary individuals, religious charismatics, wealthy aristocrats, or fascist dictators although all those find a place in this future world. It takes the whole lot — the rats, the moles, the badgers and the toads — struggling to cooperate as friends, to find common ground and stand a chance.
 
Kunstler is a moralist. His good guys win. The bad guys get what they deserve, or are just left to inhabit whatever Hell they’ve made for themselves. The tale, though, revolves around what a good guy has to do, just to survive.
 
The Yiddish word beshert refers to that which God has given. And, in Judaism — as in Islam, Hinduism, Christianity and probably every other religion — there has always been a heated debate about how much of fate is determined by higher authority — a monster in the sky, as Paul Erhlich says — and how much is the result of human choices — good and bad. To quote Maimonides, “Every human being can be righteous or wicked, merciful or cruel, avaricious or charitable. There is no compulsion exerted upon one. A person chooses one’s way with one’s own determination.”
 
Maimonides, who lived in Spain at the end of the 12th century, also did not think of progress in terms of technological or cultural advancement, as cumulative. Maimonides said it was cyclical. This is the aboriginal view, and for someone in his time and place, or even now, it’s quite a radical notion. For Kunstler, we can foretell our future by simply surveying the contemporary milieu — global Ponzi economics, gas gauge on ‘E’, weather getting weird — but history is circular. After the cataclysm comes another Christmas.
 
We have often disagreed with Kunstler’s provincial view of the American South as it occasionally pops up in his nonfiction essays and books. Kunstler is such a devout Yankee that he has often portrayed New England wisdom and ingenuity as the sole province of the old Union; that below the Mason-Dixon Line there be nothing but Skol-chewing bubbas, hearing-damaged NASCAR fanatics, racial bigots and fried food junkies imprisoned by air conditioning.
 
The War of Northern Aggression, in our humble opinion, was, like most wars, all about energy. The North was rich in coal and the factories run by that magnificent jewel of fossil sunlight. Then, mid-18th century, Col. Drake discovered bubbling “coal oil” in Pennsylvania, a real game changer.
 
In contrast to these überpowerful energy slaves, the Southern states operated on the old economy, you know, the human and animal-powered one. The one that built the pyramids of Egypt and Mesoamerica, and Machu Picchu and the Great Wall. The Southern plantation economy was based on imports of African slaves. The North had the luxury of enough fossil energy slaves to afford emancipation of its human ones. The moral rectitude to actually do so gradually arrived, in fits and starts. Then they had to lord it over everyone else.
 
Until Texas and Louisiana discovered oil half a century later, the South had no such leeway. In the epic 19th Century contest between machine power and humans, the machine won. A region of the United States that was militarily superior in the acumen of its Generals, the skill of its cavalry and the esprit of brotherly men in arms was occupied and enslaved, then punished for more than a century, reduced to the lowest echelons on every index of human welfare, and finally addicted to talk radio, NASCAR and air conditioning. But don’t count them out.
 
Surprisingly, Kunstler doesn’t. He takes a more generous tack in A History of the Future. The South, while enthralled by Christian bigots, has established itself as a rival government to what is left of the federal sovereignty, rumored to be somewhere up in the Great Lakes. The center of this rival government is at Franklin, Tennessee, a town with which we are personally very familiar — Old Highway 31S is a route we’ve bicycled.
 
Franklin today embodies much of what Kunstler-the-non-fiction-expert-on-urban-design lauds. It revitalized its pedestrian downtown by moving traffic out to encircling corridors; enshrined its landmark buildings; in-filled the broken teeth on Main Street with antebellum vernacular; and revived the local arts, theater and music scene. While it has become for now a tony bedroom community for wealthy Nashville commuters, it is a perfect setting for a national capitol in a more austere and decentralized future. In many ways, Franklin Tennessee is Union Grove, only hotter.
 
The World Made By Hand series gives only short glimpses of the changes in weather that lie in store for any future history. There may be a shortage of wheat or a ruined season for other crops, but Union Grove still gets snow in winter. Sacramento is still above water and apparently no one has died of insect swarms or clathrate flares. Changes in climate, which are almost certain to radically alter our lives in the next 50 years, are not really part of this story.
 
In any science fiction yarn that becomes a series a writer has to be alert to the danger of revealing too much backstory lest new narrative choices are straightjacketed in with the old, or worse, the details he describes are so ludicrous in light of actual events that his work later falls into ridicule.
 
In his first two novels, much of Kunstler’s imagined history remained cloaked in mystery and conjecture. As the dust jacket tells the casual browser, “The electricity has flickered out. The automobile age is over. The computers are all down for good. Two great cities have been destroyed. Epidemics have ravaged the population. The people of a little town named Union Grove, in upstate New York, know little about what is going on outside Washington County.”
 
The third novel gives a much larger sweep of the shocks that presaged the predicament in which the people of Union Grove find themselves. Our “messenger,” Robert Earle’s long lost son Daniel, arrives back on Christmas Eve, near dead from exhaustion and hunger, to tell the story of what he saw “out there.”
 
So gripping is his story that in the print edition, Grove Atlantic has set it apart with a change of font and format. It is a novel within a novel, and we would defy anyone to set it down for longer than it takes to refill a teacup. With Daniel’s story Kunstler has us in his grip, but he teases us with the intermittent resumption of the “real time” plots and subplots, leaving us hanging onto our curiosity as we wade through the needs of Union Groves’ badgers and moles for their part in the tale. Kunstler is teaching us patience, an attribute that our digital world is trying hard to render obsolete. It is an essential skill for the turn that our collective sense of passing time is poised to make.
 
When you walk from home to work, or to shop; when you sit out to watch the sunset instead of the television; when you spend a day teaching yourself bicycle mechanics, watercolor, or cheese making — you are once again present in the world. To the uninitiated, peering in at this scenario for the future, it all seems so very quaint. Hardly.
 
“I got forty-six highly motivated skilled men with good tools,” Brother Jobe tells Magistrate Stephen Bullock. “That’s my insurance. And, by the way, if you thought that was funny, it ain’t.”
 

Albert Bates is author of his own positive vision of the future, The Post-Petroleum Survival Guide and Cookbook (New Society Publishers 2006), and provided a practicable remedy for global carbon imbalance with The Biochar Solution (New Society Publishers 2010). When not giving workshops at Mother Earth News Fairs he teaches permaculture and natural building in an ecovillage in Tennessee, future capital of the New South.

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