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Thinking the unthinkable

January 06, 2012

James Howard Kunstler is an American writer who enjoys a large following for his prediction of a looming future in which our technological civilisation based on oil dependence will have failed us, and for his almost uniquely courageous and insightful (as far as I’m concerned) articulation of the ways in which American society, in particular is going to have to dismantle and reconstruct itself, and soon, if we want to avoid a very hard landing indeed.

His tone and style are not to everyone’s taste; he can be abrasive, profane, and sometimes insulting. But sometimes it’s important for somebody to be impolite, for the sake of saying things that otherwise might not be said, and Kunstler usually handles that role with aplomb and panache. He also affects a gentler and more compassionate vision in his World Made By Hand series of novels set in the aftermath. I’ve been reading his weekly blog faithfully ever since a friend gave me a copy of his book The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-first Century, about five years ago.

Kunstler’s concern with oil means, of course, that he can’t avoid addressing issues of geopolitics, and more specifically of the West’s relations with Muslim countries. Iran’s threat this week to close the Strait of Hormuz is an example of something he would, and probably will, write about. But his main theme is how American society has lost its way with its obsessive grasping after the suburbanised “American dream” and its related dependence on automobiles. When he is writing about this, Kunstler is at his prophetic best.

But, like any ambitious writer with a universal vision, Kunstler occasionally strides all too confidently beyond his own authority. He also – again, like any of us – is animated partly by personal and visceral sentiments and resentments. Thus this week, in his long look ahead at trends for 2012, he wrote:

“It is hard to think about the bizarre case of India, a nation with one foot in the modern age and the other in a colorful hallucinatory dreamtime. Their climate-change-related problems are doing heavy damage to the food supply. Their groundwater is almost gone. The troubles of the wobbling global economy will take a lot of pep out of their burgeoning tech and manufacturing sectors. It wouldn’t be surprising if these travails prompted distracting hostilities with its failed-state neighbor, Pakistan.

Pakistan, with its inexhaustible supply of Islamic maniacs, could easily start a rumble with some crazy caper like the Mumbai hotel assault of two [sic] years ago, but this time India would answer with a heavy cudgel, perhaps even a nuclear sortie designed to neutralise Pakistan’s dangerous toys at a stroke. And that would be that. Like cleaning out an annoying neighborhood crack house. It’s not a very appetising scenario, but what else can you do about failed states with nuclear bombs?”

I quote this passage, even though I consider it flawed or just plain wrong on several points as well as dangerous, to show Pakistanis what your country is up against, in terms of American perception. For what it’s worth, Kunstler doesn’t think America is in very good shape either. Part of Kunstler’s problem, though, is that while, legitimately given the kind of writer he is, he takes the whole world for his bailiwick, he consistently treats Muslim countries as if they were all about Islam and nothing else (and he doesn’t mean that in a good way), and he gives a pass to any country, such as India, that’s positioned against a Muslim country or countries. This doesn’t invalidate his credibility overall, but it does reveal a large blind spot.

It’s unavoidably true that India is the dominant power on the subcontinent, but part of what’s missing from Kunstler’s drive-by geopolitical analysis is a recognition that several of the problems he identifies as India’s, from climate change to water to “dangerous toys,” are also Pakistan’s. Speaking of which, as every Pakistani knows, it was India’s then-BJP government that raised the stakes in 1998 by testing a nuclear bomb first. It’s maddening, and telling, how Westerners tend to forget that awkward fact, or don’t even know it in the first place.

In any case, if India were to hit Pakistan with a preemptive nuclear sortie that would not be that, to put it mildly. Would Pakistan retaliate? Probably tens of millions of people would die on both sides of the border. We think – and hope – that such a scenario is unthinkable. But if, as this ominous new year begins, we cast our minds back over the past decade, we should all be chastened by an awareness of how many previously unthinkable scenarios have already come to pass.

Kunstler’s provocative prognostications do raise hard questions: Does Pakistan have an “inexhaustible supply of Islamic maniacs”? Is it – or, less provocatively, could it become – a “failed state”? Could, or would, Pakistan “start a rumble” with India? Above all, who’s in charge? Pakistan needs nothing more than it needs mature, responsible, patriotic (as distinct from nationalist) leadership. Then again, that’s also more than anything what my own country needs.


Ethan Casey is the author of Alive and Well in Pakistan and Overtaken By Events: A Pakistan Road Trip. He can be reached at and

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.