Thursday, May 03, 2007

Pre-postap hoopla

It's raining postapocalyptic novels! Cormac McCarthy's The Road has pulled off a neat little trifecta—Pulitzer, Oprah and film deal. Matthew Sharpe's Jamestown and Jim Crace's The Pesthouse are getting reviewed everywhere Crace got Francine Prose in the Times and Joyce Carol Oates in The New Yorker—double whammy! Personally I found the latter book a flimsy little read, with too many plotholes (I'm willing to buy that America has reverted to feudal times while Europe seems to do relatively better, but why hasn't anybody ever returned from across the pond to report, if it's so great over there?)

Readers of this blog know that I love postap fiction, so I'm pretty psyched—if not exactly reassured, in the grand scheme of things—by this onslaught. And let's add to the list. Of course I'm going to be fascinated by someone who describes American cities as being surrounded by rings of "necrotic suburbs,"somone who paints a future in which "aviation will become an increasingly expensive, elite activity as the oil age dribbles to a close, and then it will not exist at all," while "the circumstances we face with energy and climate change will require us to live much more locally, probably profoundly and intensely so. We have to grow more of our food locally, on a smaller scale than we do now, with fewer artificial 'inputs,' and probably with more human and animal labor."

Except these visions aren't from any of the aforementioned novels but courtesy of James Howard Kunstler via his 2005 book-length essay The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century and his blog Clusterfuck Nation. Yes, Kunstler is among my favorite pre-postap (are you following?) doomsayers. That I essentially agree with many aspects of his pessimistic predictions (while being frustrated by his occasional embarrassing social conservatism) makes him even more compelling.

Kunstler's theory is simple: The American way of life is built on the abuse of unsustainable energy sources and is bound to crash, leading to changes that will be beyond radical. He exposed this basic idea in the book and has been expanding on it ever since, most recently in an article for Orion, which I quoted above. And no, switching to ethanol or french-fry oil or whatever the hell is pushed as an alternative energy source this week won't change a thing: "The truth is that no combination of alternative fuels or systems for using them will allow us to continue running America, or even a substantial fraction of it, the way we have been."

Among the many consequences is that our age of global economy would disintegrate as communities would need to become more self-reliant, as they did before the industrial revolution facilitated the transportation of goods and people. Say goodbye to that cheap T-shirt from China, American teenager! Most U.S. cities would be in real trouble (enter the necrotic suburbs, a memorable expression worthy of the best postap fiction), relying as they do on the ferrying in of food and of pretty much every consumers' product they need. This change will also have repercussions on large and/or national bureaucracies such as the education system and government itself, which will be as unable to function as the cities.

If this isn't postap in its rawest state, I don't know what is.

What to do about it? Everybody from politicians to Times columnist/flatearther Thomas Friedman (one of Kunstler's favorite whipping boys) is accused of delusional myopia that leads them to a single-minded emphasis on finding new sources of energy while we should instead focus on, among other things, "walkable communities and public transit." Europe, with its well-developed public-transportation network, smaller cars and inferior energy waste (there's a lot less air-co in summer over there for instance—I grew up in the Mediterranean but never encountered large-scale systematic air-conditioning until I moved to the US in 1987) is way ahead of the US on this count, though by no means perfect.

No comments: