Ben McGrath has an interesting article in last week’s New Yorker on “The Dystopians“– people who look forward, with barely concealed glee, to complete social collapse.

They have a point– the late-20C American lifestyle is not economically sustainable– but it gets lost in priggishness.  McGrath spends some time with James Kunstler, who gets points for predicting the housing crisis, and loses them for having predicted that Y2K would be a big disaster.  Among Kunstler’s signs of the apocalypse: obesity, tattoos, ugly buildings, large cities, kids and their bongs, Wall Street investors, flat screen TVs, Wal-Marts.  Basically, anything they don’t like becomes a sign of the upcoming barbarity.  It becomes a pleasant revenge fantasy to picture people “studying to be hedge-fund managers” and ending up “supervisors of rutabaga pickers.”  (I guess even after the apocalypse, American managers will think they can manage things they don’t understand.)

Some of the doomsayers are busy making plans– one guy has relocated to a boat, so he can become a maritime trader after the collapse.  Kunstler has a shotgun.  Planning is admirable, but these preparations strike me as another type of fantasy, a hope that the post-apocalypse will basically resemble the 1840s.  Somehow we’ll bypass all the nukes and wars and plagues and looting and just settle into a more rural, more virtuous lifestyle.

Doomsaying is an ancient business, and given human nature, it’s sometimes accurate.  But it doesn’t perceive– it doesn’t want to perceive– human adaptability.  Kunstler describes the 20th century as a “horror show”, and of course it was.  But it was also a dizzying display of progress.  If a European of 1900 would be dismayed at two upcoming world wars and a clash of totalitarianisms, he would also be astonished at the European Union, unparalleled health and prosperity, the Internet, and the progress of China and India from basket cases to powerhouses.

Also, a hint to aspiring dystopians: if you don’t want to look risible in twenty years and validate the scoffers, don’t foresee an early collapse.  2012 is wishful thinking.