Sunday, March 29, 2020

Living in the Long Emergency, and Other Things

The universe demonstrated its sense of ironic timing the other week when I was informed by Amazon that my copy of James Howard Kunstler's new book Living in the Long Emergency had been held up. Apparently it was deemed a non-essential item in these times of emergency. This sucked, as I'd had the book on order for some time and had been looking forward to getting hold of a copy. Luckily - and perhaps this was just another sign of crossed wires and systems overload - my copy arrived on time anyway.

I'll get onto my review of it further down, but first I wanted to say that my fictional 2016 novel This Seat of Mars has been re-released as an eBook. The story concerns a mysterious event that throws a spanner in the works of the modern world, and follows a series of protagonists as they attempt to navigate this new and unfamiliar landscape they find themselves tossed into. It's mostly set in the UK where a sweating, overweigh old-Etonian is notionally the Prime Minister (until he becomes sick and can no longer function), although he seems to be controlled by a sinister bald-headed man with a different agenda.

Chaos ensues as people are stranded in remote locations and unable to get home, the army puts people on lockdown and key workers are asked to report for duty by text message. Conspiracy theories abound. We follow the fortunes of an anarchic young prepper with a penchant for survival (and revenge), a teenage goth girl who finds herself flung into a web of deep state intrigue and a millennial city couple who - stranded on holiday in Cornwall - are forced to decamp to a makeshift commune far outside their comfort zone.

It's a breezy story, not without its lighter parts, and I'm planning to release a follow-up as soon as it's written. This Seat of Mars eBook is all yours for the dirt cheap price of £2.99 / $3.60.


Okay, now onto Living in the Long Emergency. For many, James Howard Kunstler needs no introduction. His reputation as one of the cadre of original writers who delivered the unwelcome message about peak industrial civilisation was cemented back in 2005 when he published The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of Oil, Climate Change, and Other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century. Kunstler's contention is that we've over extended ourselves, plastering the landscape with an unserviceable suburbia that has destroyed small town America, while beholden to an over-financialised economy that delivers benefits unevenly and produces almost nothing of value except for those at the top of the pyramid. He followed this book up in 2012 with Too Much Magic, a critique of modern culture's obsessive focus on technological solutions - including renewable energy harvesting methods - to predicaments that demand radically different ways of thinking. To demonstrate his projections in narrative form Kunstler went on to write a well-imagined set of novels - the World Made by Hand series - which vividly described what life might look like after a cataclysmic sudden end to the unstable edifice of techno modernity.

This latest book completes a trilogy, with the author travelling across America to seek out people who took his original message seriously and have either radically altered their lifestyle accordingly, or simply adapted in place by making the best of what resources are available to them. It's more than that, though, with Part 1 providing a kind of recap of our predicament (the first chapter is titled: Hey, what happened to peak oil?), and Part 3 (entitled: Now what?) offering an explanation as to what has been happening in the realms of energy, economics, politics, society and the biosphere as a whole since he wrote The Long Emergency, and what happens next. Sandwiched between all of this is the real meat of the book, that is the characters who have set out to deal with this overarching set of challenges in a range of original ways.

We get to visit Mark Shepard, who jacked in his job in a research lab firing bullets at Kevlar helmets and moved to the wilds of Alaska, only to return to Wisconsin and set up a model of silviculture (that is, using fruit and nut trees in an agricultural manner) that he hopes can reverse the ruination exacted on the land by modern agribusiness. There's also the woman who set up an off-grid bakery against the odds, a man who battled bureaucracy to establish a low-impact whisky distillery, and an odd couple of musicians who set up a permaculture farm above Puget Sound.

It's not all rural escape however, with one chapter following the life of a black man in inner city Baltimore, who says: "We need a common "American" culture based NOT on what you look like, but how you act (behaviour)." Josh Wickett (not his real name), a musician living in the ghetto, had found meaning in and was structuring his life around the teachings of Neely Fuller, in particular a code of conduct that seeks to avoid the psychological mind games that serve to split and fragment peoples who should ordinarily band together. He sees social media especially as a way technology is being used to weaponise people against one another. Wickett lives in a kind of post apocalyptic ruined house with rubble in the hallway (to deter looters) in what he calls "the black undertow of ghetto dysfunction" and yet maintains a mostly positive personal outlook, despite his bleak forecast for our collective future.

Another chapter follows KMO (Kevin Michael O'Connor) - Gen Xer, sci-fi graphic artist, ayahuasca partaker, original Amazon employee, radio presenter and friend of Kunstler - who some readers will be familiar with for his podcast The C-Realm. KMO, a liberal who found himself voting for Trump, finds himself living in Bellows Falls, Vermont, eking out a living in the post financial crash American landscape and counting himself lucky to have got this far. He explains the delusional outlook held by many: "... if you're doing well in a system which is collapsing, it's in the interest of your own psychological comfort to imagine the collapse is a fairy tale, that it's really just lazy people who should get to work and stop complaining."

KMO was the person I related to most closely of the ones Kunstler chose to include. As a Gen Xer myself, I too have felt for some time I've had one foot in the 'old' materialist world created by the boomers, and one foot in the 'new' paradigm of straitened energy dynamics and lowered material horizons that we are moving into. Also, like KMO, I have found myself bouncing around from pillar to post, never quite being able to make jobs work out or to earn a living from my own piece of land, and instead being forced to inhabit a kind of liminal limbo land where radical ideas of 'escaping the system' are dreamed of but tend to evaporate due to the way our over centralised systems reward efficiency and penalise the smaller players.

Jim Kunstler was an editor at Rolling Stone back in the 1970s, as well as an op-ed writer and journalist for the New York Times and Washington Post, and as such his pedigree as an old-school journalist could be considered pretty solid. What's more he has a reputation for going places others don't dare, and it's perhaps for that reason he included a white nationalist as one of his character study vignettes. The man, known as Rob, lives in a flyover Massachusetts region which Kunstler observes as: "... factory villages where the elegant Victorian redbrick mills with their once-proud cupolas stand empty and abandoned, wistfully evoking a bygone America of people who had something to get up for in the morning. A striking sample of the folks I saw on the streets in these places looked dishevelled, pushing shopping carts along the sidewalk, far from wherever the shopping carts originated."

It's in these decrepit and forgotten places that unsavoury politics can grow like mushrooms, bursting forth from the damp leaf litter of cultural decay. The author - himself Jewish - meets with Rob, who amongst other conspiracies claims Hitler was a British agent, and delves into his past to discover why he holds such opinions. As with all his other subjects, we are treated to a sometimes lengthy back story that shows their path through life and attempts to make sense of the choices and actions that brought them to where they are today. In the case of Rob, an intelligent and thoughtful man with convoluted views on race, had had a rough childhood and an adolescence in which his friends had once tried to sacrifice him on a fire in a Satanic ritual. It would seem that Kunstler included him as an illustration that in a society where the centre cannot hold, more extreme points of view will become more normalised. For anyone who has followed Kunstler's blog Clusterfuck Nation, they will be well aware of his contention that one day we might see a "corn pone Hitler" voted into power by disenfranchised and forgotten voters willing to trade liberties for security.

For the most part, however, it was the stories of the back-to-the-land folks I found most instructive. Nobody should imagine that the type of skills we would need to learn in a post-fossil fuel abundance world will be easy to come by, although perhaps we can hope the bureaucratic hurdles to making a living in a sustainable manner will be lowered. Kunstler himself indicates this in the last chapter when he writes about his own journey from New York City to a small, economically battered upstate town, and his travails with growing his own food (spoiler: the wildlife had other ideas).

I enjoyed reading Living in the Long Emergency. It deals with the converging nature of the crises we have, for the greater part, sleepwalked into, but reminds us that not everyone was asleep. It's reassuring to know there are people out there who are 'practical intellectuals', and Kunstler defines the term intellectual to be someone willing to engage in an idea and take action on it. These are the people who are searching out new modes of living that don't rely on the hyper-complex yet fragile industrial model we have come to think of as normal. Furthermore, these pioneers have taken a long and hard look at the situation, realised that salvation is not going to come in the form of a government handout, an economic miracle or even Elon Musk's brand of techno-narcissism, and decided to take matters into their own hands.

I'll be honest, there were sections of the book that I found myself skipping over. There is a fairly lengthy section towards the end on the minutiae of recent American politics, focusing on the political dishonesties on both sides of the aisle that I, as a non-American, found a bit tedious. But this was only a minor point in an otherwise decently-constructed, timely and well-written book. And Kunstler's eloquent prose is a marvel to behold, keeping the story flowing from page to page and raising the occasional chuckle. For example, here he is describing the rise of Donald Trump:

"History is a prankster. You order a Gray Champion, and cosmic room service sends up a casino developer and New York real estate mogul with a laughable hairdo, a big mouth and no experience running a government. And yet here he is, a rococo crypto-monarchist in gilded plastic trappings, living in the White House, oddly representing the most hapless segment of the electorate, the dispossessed, flyover deplorables, who had been cruelly ejected from a secure and comfortable middle-class existence when so much US industry was loaded on that slow boat to China."

To wrap up, this latest book from one of the elder statesmen of collapse could be a template for others to follow. When the hysteria surrounding the current COVID-19 panic subsides, and people realise that the economy has fundamentally changed while they were looking away and will not be returning to normal again, they'll be looking around for inspiration about ways to inhabit this planet whilst earning an honest income and maintaining their sense of human decency. Surprisingly upbeat at the end, Living in the Long Emergency might be just the book to dispel and sense of complacency and open people up to the numerous possibilities that still remain available.

Living in the Long Emergency is available here (UK) and here (US)