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World Made By Hand

by James Howard Kunstler

This World Made By Hand review written by Grinning Planet.

World Made By Hand places us a couple of decades into the future, when today's globalized high-energy techno-industrialism is gone, replaced by a hyper-local, low-energy, low-tech existence—an uninvited, unwanted change borne of natural limits, pandemic losses of life, and the general ineptitude of today's leaders.

We learn that...

  • there was an influenza pandemic, wiping out a large portion of the populace;
  • there is no longer any central governing authority, or at least not one that plays any role in local affairs;
  • petroleum products have vanished;
  • biofuels' problems—low "net energy" and competition with food supply—have apparently caused them to vanish too;
  • grid-supplied electricity is a thing of the past, and apparently none of the characters ever bothered with solar panels (though to be fair, 20 years down the road, most installed solar energy systems might have ceased to function anyway);
  • electric-powered devices are kaput (which includes tools, hence the book's title);
  • almost all food is grown locally, with minor supplementation through purchases from not-too-distant towns and trading posts;
  • pharmaceuticals are a things of the past, with only rudimentary medicines available.

In such a world, anyone who had hands-on professional skills (such as doctoring or farming or cheese making) or selected hobby skills (such as woodworking book cover for World Made by Hand, by James Howard Kunstler, 2/11/2008 or sewing or raising horses) is immediately useful. Others learn fast or fade away.

James Howard Kunstler became nationally known, at least to the Peak Oil community, via his rants on the sterility of the Ameriburbs and his musings about the coming collapse of our petro-powered society, most famously in the book The Long Emergency, as well as through appearances in movies like The End of Suburbia. In contrast, World Made By Hand offers few specifics on how this fictional society collapsed, and there isn't much about how the book's fictional town evolved (or devolved) to its current state. This is initially frustrating, but once having accepted the fact that we are simply there, two decades into the future in a sort of Amish hell, the reader is then free to relax and enjoy as the plot unwinds.

The characters in World Made By Hand have adapted more or less well. One of the better-adapted individuals is the lead character, Robert Earl, once a business executive, now the town's most skilled carpenter. He has accepted the new way of things and doesn't spend time pining for the past. He just goes about his business of being a carpenter; the daily chores of gardening and bartering to make sure he has enough food; implementation of make-shift home amenities like a wood-fired heated shower; and a couple of interesting relationships with women.

But even Earl's acceptance of modernity's fate pales in comparison to the cheerful, industrious, irascible Brother Jobe, who, along with his multi-dozen band of followers, arrives in town early on to create challenges and opportunities for the townspeople.

The real action in the plot commences when a local man is shot without apparent cause by a roughneck at a nearby salvage yard. The murder lifts the townspeople from their lassitude and reawakens their sense of community. Even in this ungoverned new era, some injustices just cannot be allowed to stand, and an action plan is formulated to address the crime. In time, the turns in the plot take us to a couple of nearby locales, which helps broaden the characterization of how life works in this new era.

The pacing of the book works well—leisurely at the beginning, allowing us to soak in the characterization of post-industrial living; then quick in the last quarter, as the plot accelerates to its climax. There is even a nice Twilight Zone-style twist near the end.

If you're a Peak Oiler, World Made By Hand is a must-read. If you're not yet convinced that Peak Oil will be a serious concern for society, this is still a good book to try—it shows just how much things would change in a world without ample supplies of energy, with global supply chains keeping stores stocked with just-it-time deliveries. The characters are believable and generally likeable (in about the same way people today are more or less likeable), and the plot is engaging, thoughtful, and entertaining. You will find yourself eagerly turning the pages full of words made by Jim Kunstler's hand.

Check out  World Made By Hand  at


In World Made By Hand, most folks are just trying to get along and survive in the new order of things. Sure, there are those who are too quick to resort to violence and there are those who extort their trading partners, but here these types are all presented within the context of the ersatz commerce system that has evolved since things fell apart.

What Kunstler doesn't deal with is the roving bands of thugs that are likely to emerge during any extended period of societal chaos. Even in our world today, there are plenty of bad guys, from murderers, rapists, and robbers, to part-time miscreants who are willing to siphon your gas, break into your shed, or otherwise get mischievous after a few late-Saturday-night beers. There are also plenty of low-paid, generally pissed-off people who are already living at the edge—it would not take much systemic breakdown to push them to the Dark Side in a world that seemed pretty unfair to begin with. So, if society starts to break down, we will no doubt have a period of Mad Max-style bands of thugs roving around—if not in Jeeps or 4-wheelers, then on stolen horses—looking for food, gas, guns, and equipment to steal, or well provisioned houses to commandeer.

No era in history has been free of thuggery, at least not absent a well-armed, well-organized opposing force intent on dissuading them from their ne'er-do-well ways. While there are some episodes of violence in World Made By Hand—and they are indeed realistic and well written—the problem of roving bandits is ignored entirely.

Fortunately, this is not a fatal flaw—the book succeeds without the bad-guy hordes or inclusion of other society-in-chaos scenarios that would seem ripe for treatment. Perhaps to have included more information about the transition period or more out-of-control violence in the future world would have turned the book into a sort of Mad Max meets The Stand, and that would not have been an improvement. So, in the end, World Made By Hand turns out to be very fine, just as it is.

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