Class, Race, Hierarchy, and Social Relations in 'The Long Emergency'

After the second novel in my World Made By Hand series (The Witch of Hebron) came out in 2010, I was beset by indignant reviews and angry letters from female readers over my depiction of gender and class relations further along in the 21st century.

The fictional future economy I described was, in its broad outlines, similar to the future sketched by Chris Martenson and his stable of writers — a re-set to a far more local, much less complex, and downscaled economy, with a lot of formerly modern comforts and conveniences missing from the picture. In my fictional world of Union Grove in far upstate New York, the electricity was no longer running, the Internet was dead, giant corporations and government had withered away, motoring was history, paper money worthless, and a lot of common institutions (courts, schools, supermarkets) no longer functioned. This was an economic order very different from what we’re familiar with now, and I had to construct a plausible social order to go with it.

To step back a moment, permit me to explain that I chose to depict economic collapse in fiction because so many of us had published non-fiction books and articles on the subject that, for all their merits, left out what it would look, feel, and taste like to live in that deeply transformed future society. I wanted to get to readers through the other side of their brains, to give them a vivid emotional sense of a plausible future. I also thought that a lot of the current so-called apocalyptic fiction, movies, and TV shows were just plain stupid, that they misunderstood the forces actually in motion that would drag us kicking and screaming into the new times, and what those times would actually be like. And, of course, I was fed up with zombies, vampires, and all the other clichéd trappings of story-telling that hitched a ride on the nervous zeitgeist.

The characters in my novels lived very differently than people do in these late days of turbo-petro-industrialism. The economy of their town and the county surrounding it — the extent of normal travel in the new times — was centered on agriculture and the activities that supported it and derived from it. The division of labor had changed drastically in my fictional world, household management especially. Without microwave ovens, washing machines, heating furnaces, and other mechanical slaves that we take for granted, running a household required a lot more work. It was my heuristic judgment (i.e., guess) that such conditions would likely propel work assignments back to more traditional arrangements between men and women, especially because the care of very young children takes place in the home and, despite the wishful propaganda of our times, such care happens to fall mostly to mothers among the higher primates. (The vaunted role of “house-husband” might be improbable if it were not for the fact that so many “breadwinner” jobs today can be done by anybody, male, female, or someone in between.)

Anyway, the reaction to this fictional experiment was surprisingly pugnacious. High and low, far and wide, women denounced my book in formal reviews and casual emails. There was a unifying theme to them, though: a refusal to consider the possibility that social relations might change no matter what happened to the economy. That, and outrage that anyone might suggest a retrograde path for the recent achievements of feminism. It seemed self-evident to me that a lot of this achievement was provisional, depending on larger macro historical trends. That idea alone was greeted, in my replies to reader emails, by the sharpest opprobrium, since it was assumed that the political victories of recent decades have become permanent installations of the human condition. I recognize that, as a principle of politics, privileges and rights attained are rarely given up without a fight. But I wondered at the failure of imagination I was witnessing, especially among educated women readers.

Relations between men and women were not the only feature of the altered social landscape in the fictional future of World Made By Hand. I also created a character named Stephen Bullock whose role in the county had become, in effect, feudal lord, though he disliked thinking of himself that way. I had imagined that Bullock, a shrewd, erudite lawyer who inherited a well-managed farm, had acquired the land of his floundering neighbors and attracted a cohort of able-bodied adults, who had lost their livelihoods and property, to live and work on his establishment, which the townspeople of nearby Union Grove had taken to calling a “plantation.” Bullock’s people, the former car dealers, pharmacists, realtors, and other jetsam of a collapsed industrial-technocratic economy, had “sold” their allegiance to him in exchange for food, security, and community — he had allowed them to build a “village” for themselves at the center of his property. They now labored together in teams or work-gangs to produce a lot of value from Bullock’s land, tending crops and livestock, making value-added market products (whiskey, cheese) from the stuff they produced, running a sawmill, and so on. In exchange, they were well-housed and fed, and led an ordered existence in very uncertain and fretful times. Bullock himself is often portrayed as conflicted by his role, which includes the additional (reluctant) duty of serving as local magistrate in the absence of functioning courts. Thus, I delineated a future that was tending toward what we understand as feudalism. That proposition was greeted with only slightly less consternation by readers than my outlook for male/female vocational relations.

The reason I am explaining all of this is to emphasize that these issues of how a society orders itself are freighted with a heavy burden of emotional cargo, wishes, assumptions, bad memories, fears, resentments, and grievances, which surely accounts for our trouble buying into any vision of the future not in accordance with what’s familiar in our particular moment in history. The stickiest element in my notion of the future might be stated as the issue of social hierarchy: that human beings inevitably fall into unequal status categories, and that the future may hold new status and class arrangements that might seem strange to us today. In the best world, of course, people should be equally free to pursue happiness, or to be all that they can be, but even in an ideal society people will land in one status category or another. In that ideal socio-political system we might also expect a certain elasticity of movement, depending on the choices and actions taken by individuals in their lives, and this “upward mobility” was indeed the engine of the American Dream for much of our history — so the loss of it would be a very harsh indeed on the national psyche.

There shouldn’t be any question that social animals, which people are, universally dispose themselves in hierarchies. The argument is often made that tribal people enjoy something like absolute equality or democracy in small bands, but I’d argue that that is a sentimental fantasy of the sociologists. Rather, simple societies have simpler hierarchies or pecking orders. So, it isn’t a question of whether human societies of the future will present hierarchical qualities, but rather what scale and degree of complexity they will exhibit, how their economies will be organized, and what will be the character of their hierarchy. Clearly, these propositions make a lot of people uncomfortable — to which I’d answer that one of the imperatives of our time for serious people is to learn how to get comfortable with being uncomfortable, because that’s how things are going to get for a while.

In Part II: The New Disposition of Things, we take a close look at the ways in which our current society is most likely to change, whether it wants to or not. The end of cheap, plentiful resources is almost sure to have seismic and retrograde effects on our way of life, our social relations, and our economic systems.

Those who understand the direction of these changes and invest today in positioning themselves for a resilient, graceful entry into this future will find themselves much better prepared (physically, financially, and emotionally) than those who blindly hurtle towards reality’s coming wake-up call.

Click here to read Part II of this report (free executive summary; enrollment required for full access)

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

Pareto Principle. 20% owns 80% of things, hold 80% of the power, etc.
The only reason most of us in the U.S. see affluence is because we and Western Europe and Japan and a few other places are the 20% of the world. The world's bottom billion or two live without electricity. The most affluent of them may own livestock or a bicycle.

When the energy goes, sophistication and specialized jobs will go, and freedom and security will have vastly different meaning.


I could accept the possibility of the first world being reduced to the global average wealth per capita, which would be an interesting idea to explore, but the scenario outlined above seems a trifle unlikely.  World Energy production per capita is keeping pace with population growth and is as strong as it has ever been.

…practicing his own version of "scavanger capitalism" by promiting his book "World Made by Hand" and if so I thought I could plug it for him again now as I do appreciate the fact that his mind works in the vancinity that mine does. As a romantic with fight not flight tendancies, I personally like the visuals Jim penned during this essay. Slow and easy sounds good to me. Especially the part where the status quo gets melted down to a more localized human existence.
I will not go to church, done that, hated it. I will however raise my eyes during many parts of my day giving thanks to the awesomeness of my life. To whom I lift my eyes to I haven't a clue but visually I like this invisable being very much. I will kneel as well in my private moments when peace is requested and those that I care for are made as happy as I am. I never pray for myself.

I was thinking how personalized I take everything in while reading Jim or anyone really, and then thought that while I may see things differently and have to adjust to the new normal, that the babies born into whatever world they face will just look upon things as normal, hopefully happily, and a joyful experience as they move forward in their lives. The adjustments will be ours but I just don't see where future generations will have issues with things they have never known so the world will be harmoneous for them providing we don't bitch so much and make bad decision to ruin their days.

I personally take stock in all my decades, I remember so much and honestly, where I was was home, and I worked for food. Here I am, having beaten back the tretchery of life with a great attitude still. My manifest destony then. I will admit to bad days too when a Tigers game was rained out or the season ended. The winning and losing never bothered me as much because it was all about the game, the great game of baseball. A shot in the gap that was fielded, then returned to the cut off man who threw home and nails Brock, or Robinson or many of the greats, and the umpire piercing his sword through the runners heart and declaring him "YOU ARE OUT"! My favorite play in all of baseball, bar none.

We will have baseball in Jim's imagined world, gauranteed.

Lastly, faced with a choice of electricity or no electricity (no matter the danger) then just look to Japan as it is my gut feelings they will start firing up them idle nuclear reactors up in the not to distant future. We'll see and do they even have a choice really?

Just to speak to JHK's point on egalitarianism: As an anthropologist who lived a year with a foraging society which was transitioning to a market economy (and who has read the old literature to which JHK is referring), he is both right and wrong, at least in my opinion. When it is claimed that small societies are egalitarian, it is most often meant in the sense of material possessions and in the difference of power between the most powerful and least powerful members. In the society in which I lived, the traditional arrangement led to a situation where material wealth remains constant because people who come into some kind of minor wealth are normally obliged by social pressure to distribute that among relations and acquaintances. He is not upset for this, because he will be the beneficiary next time someone else makes a lucrative trading arrangment or scores a big catch (they were excellent fishermen). Regarding power, the continua of power are multiple and cross-cutting-- older people have more clout and command more attention than younger (age continuum), the chief often has final say over movement (they were semi-nomadic) and poitical matters (political power), shaman over spiritual matters (supernatural power), the women (who could also be shaman) over domestic and foraging matters–this creates a balance which is more or less equality, but since people are called upon and respected for different matters, most people are respected, but people are not equal by warrant of being replicas of one another or being equally respected in every single one on one interaction. In other words, the society as a whole is egalitarian, but most of the interactions between individuals have a power gradient. More or less, I have to agree with JHK but I just wanted to share my personal experience on the particularities of "equality" in  small scale society with the readership here at PP

 World Energy production per capita is keeping pace with population growth and is as strong as it has ever been.

Haven't you watched the Crash Course?

There is this thing called peak oil…you may have heard of it…it is part of what we're about here at this site.  There is a finite amount of oil and other resources in the ground and just because we've been able to extract it at a certain rate for a certain period of time doesn't mean we'll always have enough.

Sure, with increasingly greater effort, we can keep world energy generated per capita steady.
But it comes at a price. It includes sacrificing more and more resources: raw materials, technology, knowledge, effort, money/debt, political will, parasitic drain, and energy, etc. into extracting and refining and producing that energy. Part of it is that the whole "energy cliff" of ERoEI (energy returned on energy invested).

The prices paid has been rising rather steeply and fluctuating rather much in the last decade, haven't you noticed?

All the additional expenditures in resources of the various kinds mentioned above means less is available for other things. Sure, debt and economic malaise of other causes can explain part of the problem. But it is also true that energy is not as cheap anymore. That means that buying it precludes buying other things. And other things made with energy will cost more.

Notice the retail sector is bifurcating (dollar stores versus luxury goods). Notice in a lot of industries, the players are growing by consolidation and attrition and cannibalization (Circuit City's demise fueled Best Buy's growth, which is now shrinking as it increasingly faces Walmart, Target, Costco, and Amazon, which uses brick-and-mortar stores as show rooms.). Notice companies like Exxon-Mobile increasing share prices by buying shares to reduce outstanding, prioritizing that over exploration/discovery. Notice the job market bifurcating - part-time, service-oriented drudgery versus a few high-end specialties. Notice the young not able to establish their own households, driving a lot less - the U.S. now seems to consume only as much fuel as it did in the 1990s - despite tens of millions more people. Downsizing, consolidating, simplifying.

But "world energy production per capita is keeping pace with population growth and is as strong as it has ever been, right"?





I give Mr. Kunstler much credit for looking into the future and seeing a different outcome than most.  What he envisions must be uncomfortable to many, if not most, in the 1st world. Of course he will not be 100% correct.  A 50% correct view into the lookinglass would be exemplary, IMHO.
I was fortunate to spend time working with a Hutterite colony in Manitoba several years ago.  It is a true communistic (and supposedly equal) society.  But among the population it is very easy to spot the natural leaders and also the followers.  It will always be so, regardless of the rules by which the society is organized.

As far as the reset is concerned, I look eagerly forward to it.  Industrialized agriculture has been a curse on rural America, decimating its population, requiring vast amounts of energy and debt to sustain itself. It will be good to see it disappear.

Quoth Hotrod: "As far as the reset is concerned, I look eagerly forward to it.  Industrialized agriculture has been a curse on rural America, decimating its population"Minor catch: the death of industrialized agriculture would mean the death of six or so billion people. Maybe 6.5 billion. That's "decimating the population" – in a very literal way.  But, fortunately, that won't happen, because the amount of energy it takes to produce and deliver food is only a small fraction of total energy currently being used.  Most energy is simply pissed-away on crap that no one needs.

(Olduvai article)

Our finite world (OFW)

World energy consumption per capita [E]

The points I made in my initial post:

  1. The possibility of the first world being reduced to the global average wealth per capita
This would be catastrophic. It would result in a loss of ~2/3rds of GDP for these countries.  It will also mean the developing world’s trade partners are weakened, damaging their economies as well. Of course the energy struggles of the coming decades will have huge effects across the world.
  1. The scenario outlined in the above article seems a trifle unlikely.
Figure 13 (Paul) shows world energy production. I believe this projection to be a little more pessimistic by the IEA, but even this one shows TOTAL world energy production to be the same in 2040 as it was in 1995. Figure 16 shows world consumption per capita [E] falls to 2/3rds the 1965 figure, which crudely reading from fig. 2 in the Olduvai theory article (which shows production, but I’m sure a slight blurring of definition will be forgiven) puts us back in the early 1950s.                                  

As a work of fiction the above article is perfectly fine, may well be a fun read and would certainly give a sense of what it would be like to live in that deeply transformed future. As a prediction of the future I believe it to be a trifle unlikely. The article outlines a future in which:

“the electricity was no longer running, the Internet was dead, giant corporations and government had withered away, motoring was history, paper money worthless, and a lot of common institutions (courts, schools, supermarkets) no longer functioned”

This is in NY state! Schools (collections of kids) of some variety will continue to function on an E equivalent to the 1950s because even if all kids are homeschooled, its more efficient to look after kids in a group than it is individually (the purpose of school being to free up parents for work).

The electricity will still be on in 27 years in a country that currently uses at least 50% more energy per capita than the European average, (figure 7 OFW) though it may be more expensive. Cars will still be around. Granted the amount of fuel available may well fall by 65% by 2040 (figure 14 Paul) so the total number of cars driven could fall by 50% by 2040. Reducing the number of cars / miles driven in NY state by half or two thirds is not enough to put motoring in the dustbin of history. Paper money and the associated government authority may well wither, and that would not be pleasant to live through, but that is nothing to do with energy.

The internet is not going to die. Maybe most computers will tiny and maybe new Ipads will be released at less frequent intervals and maybe server space becomes more expensive. None of that is enough to kill the internet though. The advanced technology of 2040 will be able to run the internet on an E of the early 1950s.

  1. World Energy production per capita is keeping pace with population growth.
The Olduvai theory shows E to have kept pace with world population from 1979 to 2003. Figure 10 (OFW) shows E to have increased since 2003.
  1. Energy per capita as strong as it has ever been.
E is indeed as strong as it has ever been, but I should have linked this back to my first point by noting that it will not remain this way and that significant damage will be done to the world economy because of this. The OFW article warns that “The fact that things haven’t fallen apart so far doesn’t give the assurance that things never will fall apart.” I just don’t see any evidence that we are going back to the Olduvai gorge.


  1. The crash course
 Pyranblade ... I watched the crash course several times before you signed up, it’s a good film but at no point does it predict what is outlined in the above article.
  1. “doesn't mean we'll always have enough”

Enough for what? Certainly not enough to live as energy inefficiently as we do today, but cars won’t become history and we won’t have to shut down the internet.

  1. ERoEI.
A good point. In 2040 the EROEI will be lower than in the 1950s.
  1. Job / goods market splitting. Companies growing by consolidation, attrition and cannibalization.  Lack of affordable family formation / Number of miles driven falling, oil consumption falling to 1990s levels.
Mainly due to the capitalist (as opposed to free market) system. The 1st world will feel the brunt of the energy drought as it gets less utility from the last unit of energy it uses than the 3rd world does, so it will give up that last unit more readily than the 3rd world will. Affordable family formation is an interesting concept to google.
  1. debt and economic malaise of other causes can explain part of the problem.
  1. But "world energy production per capita is keeping pace with population growth and is as strong as it has ever been, right"?

The above article is similar to the Olduvai theory in that cars become history and the electricity supply fails. The Olduvai theory has four postulates:

The exponential growth of world energy production ended in 1970 (Postulate 1 is verified). Average E will show no growth from 1979 through circa 2008 (Postulate 2 is confirmed from 1979 through 2003). The rate of change of E will go steeply negative circa 2008 (Postulate 3). World population will decline to about two billion circa 2050 (Postulate 4).

Postulate 2 was shown not to be the case, Figure 10 (OFW) shows E to have increased since 2003. Even if the recent increase in E is temporary and E falls to 1950s levels industrial civilisation will survive.

Note I am not predicting that the wealth of the 1st world will fall to the global average; I just acknowledge that it is possible. I am not predicting that the number of cars driven will fall by 50% in the next 27 years, I do not think this will happen at all. I am saying that the scenario outlined in the article may be a fun thought experiment and a nice piece of fiction, but that it is not an accurate prediction of the future.

Hi RDJ 1892.
I'm glad you had a chance to go into more detail and explain the underpinnings of your earlier post.

You added some comments and context of your thinking so I'll take the opportunity to do the same now.

As you know, there is a whole body of knowledge around peak oil that goes beyond M. King Hubbert.  Authors like Kunstler and Richard Heinberg have written a lot about the larger context. 

Let me back up a little first.  The idea behind World Made by Hand is not that things will be exactly like that in any predictable frame of time, but that it is a plausible scenario of what can or could happen someday if we keep consuming fossil fuels and don't prepare for a world with less energy. 

If everybody would have accepted and internalized Peak Oil in the 1970's and started working towards saving energy and not building freeways etc. then oil production at 1950's levels would be no hardship.  But what did we do instead?  We spent the last few decades building subdivisions of McMansions in far-flung suburpia and air conditioning the desert around Las Vegas. 

If we assume that your numbers are correct, the scenario is still dire simply because much of our world - America at least - is not, in any way, prepared to go back to 1950's levels of fossil fuel consumption.  Our entire economy is based on the assumption of continual exponential growth. 




I don't think anybody can reliably predict the future or reliably disprove somebody else's predictions.  So

To finish up:

On the one hand authors like Kunstler cannot accurately predict the future, but

On the other hand, how can any of us be so certain that he is wrong?

Using many of the same premises upon which Kunstler bases World Made By Hand, Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl (novel) and Pump Six (short stories) are both great reads.  Bacigalupi's future is a bit more dirty, frenetic, and at the same time hipper than Kunstler's, but both authors create an interesting future Earth that is not at all like the limitless technological progress of Buck Rogers or Star Trek.
The Windup Girl motivated me to read a series of non-fiction books on climate change, such as Hansen's Storms of My Grandchildren, Lynas' Six Degrees, Oreskes' and Conway's Merchants of Doubt, and McKibben's Eaarth, and peak oil, including Deffeyes' books and articles by Colin Campbell and Charles Hall, and more recently Aleklett's regretably titled but excellently researched and composed Peeking at Peak Oil.  

This had a pretty radical influence on my worldview and as I was reading, researching and writing about these ideas, I found Chris' Crash Course.  For me, there is nothing like fiction to spark the imagination and get me interested in non-fiction topics.

double post - sorry

… the infrastructure related to oil in the United States is well beyond its useful life. All the pipes, valves, pumps, etc…to get oil to all corners of our country is decades beyond what should have been replaced.
Out of site out of mind.

This infrastructure is under cities, in back yards, just a web of tubing that will have to be replaced.

So, what does this mean? Well, basically a rebuild, and we are smack dab into an oil crisis so just how much cash will be needed to maintain and replace this infrastructure? Especially when you have the NIMBY crowd screaming "Not  In My Back Yard".

Hell, we can't even build a modern pipeline from Canada to the Hubs in the United States now.

This in my opinion will be an issue that in the not to distant future will change the narrative toward something else as much as anything. Except, no one wants the stuff in their back yards. Now add to this a just as antiquated electrical infrastructure. We even abandoned our trains and tore up a lot of tracks for bycycle trails!

 I don't know about you Folks but if you want jobs, I have three pretty significant projects for us to contemplate, NO!, get done. Upgrade electrical first with light rail and commercial rail. Reward with Billions a battery storage system and stop the waste of using natural gas (stop exporting it as planned) to produce electricity that we waste to the tune of at least 30% to the atmosphere. Fix oil infrastructure. Other plans should include the R&D to make coal cleaner to burn. Stop exporting that too. 

I have mentioned the infrastrcuture issue before with very little commentary which tells me most of the Peak Oil believers of which I am firmly planted are only seeing/telling half the story. Again, out of sight out of mind. What a mess but doable and we would all benefit.

NOV is the play for this and in my opinion will just keep on giving.


Yogi,Since you mention infrastructure, below are some nice videos and presentations given at the Global Energy Systems Conference in Edinburgh in late June of this year.  Actually, I was hoping I could get some other people here interested in looking at some of these and discussing them.  I will try to post about that soon…
videos from day 2 of the GESC: The Future of the Electricity System
Sgouridis' powerpoint: The Demand Side: Steering the Energy Intensity of the Economy Towards a Sustainable Transition
All of the presentations that were uploaded to the GESC website.
If anyone out there is keen to discuss some of these presentations and/or videos (of the presentations), I'm definitely up for it!

…Questions though:  How long can our economy or that of the world be able to afford $108 oil and why is it so high with all this falling demand? When dropping (oil) with the next crisis due in September or earlier how low does oil go? If below $80 bucks you will loose marginal producers and you lose much needed supply, USA supply that provides jobs and do all that great stuff in N.Dakota. What if oil goes lower than $80 bucks? So many questions, so many problems, and to continue asking what concerns me would be showing off and attacking, both of which I do not want to engage in.We need an energy plan. Back ups to the back ups. Redundancies then. No oil, then trains, mass transit. Gotta keep the lights on right?

…I love research.One more point in speaking of infrastructure: Water. Old, laid out many years ago and in need of a complete upgarde. We need jobs that robots can't do (yet), and we have mentioned three very significant projects right here but the Fed p*ssed away our cash.

"There shouldn’t be any question that social animals, which people are, universally dispose themselves in hierarchies."
There is great reason to question this assumption. Here is a video in which Dr. Robert Sapolsky smashes some myths about inherent baboon (and human) nature and social stratification. 

"Another one of the things that baboons teach us is, if they are able to in one generation transform what are supposed to be textbook social systems, sort of engraved in stone, we don't have an excuse when we say there are certain inevitabilities about human social systems."



If there is one thing the past has taught us, the only thing predictable about the future is that it is unpredictable. Kunstler is incorrect by claiming that other authors' books are non-fiction. ALL books about the future are fiction…too many variables in the world. You've got to give him credit though, he is smart by writing a "fiction" book, because he knows no one can claim for certain what will happen tomorrow. In that sense, he is telling the truth. Ah the irony of it all.
But we love our prophets don't we?

I'm learning to live for today. I'm not preparing for something that may or may not happen. I continue to build resillience because it enhances my life, that's all. Hopefully this also enhances all life on our blessed earth.

Okay, going back into hiding.