Arnold Toynbee reminds us that all civilizations fall (cf. also Diamond). We are arguably at a cliff edge, over which the U.S. is by many accounts already tumbling in slow motion, possibly dragging much of Western civilization along with it.

Both non-fiction and fiction about American collapse are now well-established genres; only fiction so far portrays post-hegemonic American futures in granular detail. [1] As the U.S. becomes ever more self-involved and isolated, most post-apocalyptic fiction published there continues to imagine future outcomes only inside the country. Unlike the international sensibilities that permeated much U.S. Cold War culture, the current American collapse genre pays little attention to the implications of our current axial moment for European countries like Ireland.

Some of these works, however, deploy themes of social collapse and community isolation that resonate with tropes common in Irish cultural sensibilities over the past two centuries. James Howard Kunstler’s World Made by Hand trilogy, for example, portrays a post-apocalyptic, rural upstate New York. The lives of his twenty-first century protagonists have devolved back into forms resembling those of the mid-19th century. [2] Survival requires rehabilitation of older solidarity networks, closely echoing the reproduction since the 1850s of forms of conviviality and social capital still discernible in today’s rural Ireland.

In World Made by Hand, the collapse of the U.S. follows war over fading oil reserves, the loss of all allies, and jihadist bombs in L.A. and D.C. [3] The electric grid has broken down and the virtual economy is obsolete. With a last tank of gasoline, the protagonist Robert leaves Boston with his family to live with a relative in upstate New York.

The first book in the trilogy starts ten years after this initial collapse. Most of Robert’s clan have died, along with two-thirds of the population, from disease. While much of the U.S. is in civil war, the remote village of Union Grove—a stand-in for Kunstler’s real-life retreat of Saratoga Springs—is settling into an agrarian 19th century mode, without much news from the outside: [4]

Loren and I walked the railroad tracks along the river coming back from fishing the big pool under the old iron bridge, and I couldn’t remember a lovelier evening before or after our world changed. Down by the rushing stream, banks of wild yellow irises shimmered in the twilight, and up in the vaulted corridor that the tracks cut through the trees, the mild June air was filled with twinkling green fireflies. We’d both been drinking some of Jane Ann’s wine. (Kunstler, World Made by Hand 1)

Robert, once a marketing executive, falls back on carpentry. Similar adjustments are made by the former choir conductor, mayor, and local policeman. A neo-feudal order is emerging nearby around a landowner who offers people food to become his indentured servants. Meanwhile, a Fundamentalist/Latter-Day-Saints-type Christian group fleeing the chaotic South turns the local school into a cult center—complete with a charismatic, morbidly obese female healer hooked on junk food.

Robert becomes mayor and tries to get rough justice for a local murder, which at the end can only be achieved with the help of the Fundamentalist commune. More fundamentally (pardon the expression), Kunstler imagines how places like this might evolve over time. The books have been criticized for putting both women and men back in “regressive,” pre-industrial roles. Kunstler does not champion the countercultural, as does James Callenbach in Ecotopia. [5] Post-collapse Union Grove represents rather the return of traditional society [6]—the quid pro quo for escape from the toxicity of modern life, a better appreciation of nature, and a close-knit community.

Kunstler’s vision transcends the specifics of the U.S. landscape. His post-collapse Arcadia shares much in common with the world of Alice Taylor’s To School Through the Fields—a North Cork milieu similarly hard, but also idyllic. As Ireland’s embrace of neoliberal consumerism is very recent, older ways of collectively experiencing the world have persisted, especially in rural areas. Few other parts of Europe have so preserved, albeit barely, the existence of old-style lifeways (open fireplaces, pubs as extensions of private living rooms, rambling house nights). Although even deepest rural Ireland no longer grows its own food for sheer survival, essentially pre-modern community structures are often still in place.

Arguably however, rural Ireland is no place to portray the onset of apocalypse, because after the Famine and the destruction of the big-house order in the Revolution, it already is a semi-collapsed, perhaps further-collapse-proof, landscape—even before the long-term consequences of the crash of the Celtic Tiger in 2008.

The island has followed a Toynbee-esque pattern of challenge and response, with emigration as an additional safety-valve for problems of impending collapse. This is reminiscent of Poul Anderson’s fictional portrayal of Brittany/Armorica, another fringe and Celtic location caught in an earlier collapse—the Roman-Imperial—in his novel The King of Ys. After the city of Ys has been destroyed by flooding brought about by the efforts of Niall of the Nine Hostages, the survivors and the ex-Roman soldiers relocate and start to farm.

The ruin-landscape of modern rural Ireland is a permanent alternative to stressful urban life (Peddicord; see also Kockel). As in New Zealand, white cosmopolitans fleeing future unrest in Anglophone cities the world over will understand both Kunstler’s World and today’s real-life rural Irish landscapes as desirable refugee destinations. [7] However, both island nations are unlikely to enjoy benign neglect in a collapsing Anglophone world system. The ports, airfields, and data trunklines of Ireland’s west coast remain strategic assets in any Anglo-American retreat from global hegemony back to the core North Atlantic. Fleeing to Dublin will be no solution either, according to Sarah Davis-Goff’s imagining of an Irish zombie apocalypse in Last Ones Left Alive, in which even a coherent memory of the Republic is gone.

The question is rather: can enough of the old rural network survive coming, troubled decades, to be reactivated post-crisis? Will younger Irish generations embrace another collapse, or persist in the game of catching up materially with Europe? Outsiders understand the value of rural Ireland in any escape from neoliberalism; younger “culchies” disparage their home advantage. Books like World Made by Hand suggest the consequences.



[1] See a selected bibliography at the end. For current scholarship about the post-apocalyptic novel see Hicks (2016) and De Cristofaro (2020).

[2] Harris’ post-apocalyptic crime novel The Second Sleep and Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, along with many other novels, get similarly medieval after an atomic war. Together with Hoban’s Riddley Walker, they emphasize the importance and danger of books—a theme pursued further in Greer’s Star’s Reach, where libraries have become once again places of importance.

[3] Before his current collapse phase as covered in The Long Emergency, Kunstler wrote about unsustainable suburbs and techno-consumerism in The Geography of Nowhere and Too Much Magic. I don’t agree with his political views—for example, his views on Palestine and his colour-blindness—but this should not prohibit us from taking his projection about a possible future after a collapse seriously.

[4] There is no nostalgia here for central government services, as in Kevin Costner’s film The Postman.

[5] See the book review by Greenberg. For other utopian and partly self-sustaining communities, see Atwood’s The Year of the Flood and Feffer’s Splinterlands.

[6] Kunstler places his community in a landscape that preserved a lot of the old infrastructure (e.g., the reliance on waterways). Another book taking 19th-century life as a prototype is Williams’s When the English Fall, in which a rural Amish family unaffected by a collapse of the U.S. economy has to flee because of encroaching urbanites and local law and order breaking down—aspects which Kunstler largely avoids.

[7] “Right after the presidential election, visits from U.S. citizens to the Immigration New Zealand website soared. Think 56,300 visits in 24 hours versus the usual average of 2,300” (Bloom). Cf. also O’Connell. The “utopia” of Erewhon might turn out to be a dystopia if a second Pacific War – this time with China – would erupt in the future.


Works Cited

Bloom, Laura Begley. “Tempted to Move out of the U.S.?” Forbes, 27 Feb. 2017, Accessed 4 July 2020.

De Cristofaro, Diletta. The Contemporary Post-Apocalyptic Novel: Critical Temporalities and the End Times. Bloomsbury, 2020.

Diamond, Jared. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Viking, 2005.

Greenberg, Paul. “Recipes for Disaster.” New York Times, 20 Apr. 2008, Accessed 3 July 2020.

Hicks, Heather J. The Post-Apocalyptic Novel in the Twenty-First Century: Modernity beyond Salvage. Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.

Kockel, Ullrich. “Countercultural Migrants in the West of Ireland.” Contemporary Irish Migration, edited by Russell King, Geographic Society of Ireland, 1991, pp. 70–82.

Kunstler, James Howard. The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America’s Man-Made Landscape. Simon & Schuster, 1994.

—. The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century. Grove/Atlantic, 2005.

—. Too Much Magic: Wishful Thinking, Technology, and the Fate of the Nation. Grove, 2013.

O’Connell, Mark. Notes from an Apocalypse: A Personal Journey to the End of the World and Back. Granta, 2020.

Peddicord, Kathleen. “The Cost of Retirement in Ireland versus Arizona.” U.S. News, 3 Mar. 2015, Accessed 3 July 2020.

Taylor, Alice. To School Through the Fields: An Irish Country Childhood. Brandon, 1988.

Toynbee, Arnold. A Study of History. Abridgements by D. C. Somervell, abridged version, 2 vols., Oxford UP, 1946 and 1957.


Selection of Post-Apocalyptic Fiction

Anderson, Karen, and Poul Anderson. The King of Ys. Complete Edition, Baen, 1996. (1, Roma Mater, 1986; 2, Gallicenae, 1987; 3, Dahut, 1988; 4, The Dog and the Wolf, 1988.)

Atwood, Margaret. MaddAddam Trilogy. McClelland and Stewart. (Oryx and Crake, 2003; The Year of the Flood, 2009; MaddAddam, 2013.)

Callenbach, Ernest. Ecotopia: The Notebooks and Reports of William Weston. Banyan Tree Books, 1975.

Davis-Goff, Sarah. Last Ones Left Alive. Tinder, 2019.

DeLillo, Don. The Silence. Scribner, 2020.

El Akkad, Omar. American War. Vintage, 2017.

Feffer, John. Splinterlands. Haymarket/Dispatch, 2016.

Greer, John Michael. Retrotopia. Founders House, 2016.

—. Star’s Reach: A Novel of the Deindustrial Future. Founders House, 2014.

Harris, Robert. The Second Sleep. Hutchinson, 2019.

Hoban, Russell. Riddley Walker. 1980. Introduction by Will Self, Bloomsbury, 2012.

Kunstler, James Howard. World Made by Hand Trilogy. Grove Atlantic. (World Made by Hand, 2008; The Witch of Hebron, 2010; The Harrows of Spring, 2016.)

Mandel, Emily St. John. Station Eleven. Picador, 2014.

McCarthy, Cormac. The Road. Alfred A. Knopf, 2006.

Miller, Walter M., Jr. A Canticle for Leibowitz. J. B. Lippincott, 1959.

Shriver, Lionel. The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047. HarperCollins, 2016.

Williams, David. When the English Fall. Algonquin Books, 2017.

Womack, Jack. Random Acts of Senseless Violence. HarperCollins, 1993.


Selection of Post-American Literature

Bacevich, Andrew. The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism. Metropolitan, 2008.

Berman, Morris. Why America Failed: The Roots of Imperial Decline. John Wiley & Sons, 2012.

Jacques, Martin. When China Rules the World: The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order. Penguin, 2009.

Massie, Justin, and Jonathan Paquin, editors. America’s Allies and the Decline of US Hegemony. Routledge, 2019.

McCoy, Alfred. In the Shadows of the American Empire: The Rise and Decline of US Global Power. Haymarket, 2017.

Todd, Emmanuel. After the Empire: The Breakdown of the American Order. Columbia UP, 2003.

Zakaria, Fareed. The Post-American World. W. W. Norton, 2008.