Kennedy has been an environmental lawyer for 20 years. Reagan was short-termist ("How many trees do you want?" he famously asked) but, compared with Bush, he was cuddly. America's government is answerable to the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, which should function as a streamlined House of Lords, as a monitor and tweaker of legislation. But, for Bush, OIRA is a personal hit-squad. He is a corporate man through and through and treats the presidency as the Borgias treated the papacy - a handy addition to the portfolio.
Take one example, from agriculture. Smithfield Foods raises pigs. Each pig produces as much excrement as ten people and a typical Smithfield's unit, with 850,000 animals, thus produces as much ordure as London. One such has long been polluting virtually all the rivers of North Carolina. After some years, in 2000, Kennedy was able to bring a case against it on behalf of the environment lobby Waterkeeper Alliance.
Under the Clean Water Act, factories cannot dump inadequately treated effluent into rivers. The judge, a Reagan appointee, accordingly ruled that Smithfield must clean up its act. But this would have put the firm and its ilk out of business - exposing the lie that such farming is "efficient". One year later, the Bush administration declared that Smithfield's diabolical units should be subject only to the rules that apply to small farms, which are allowed to put manure (in small and useful quantities) on to the land.
OIRA continues to hammer home the point such that now, in 13 states, special "veggie libel" laws make it illegal even to criticise food from factory farms or industrial processors. When the law itself is on the side of the villains, what are the people supposed to do?
Kennedy's solution is for a truly free market. But markets do not operate in the interests of society unless bound by laws rooted in morality; and if the market is thus restrained, how "free" can it be said to be? But this is civilised discourse - the kind that used to occupy Old Labour and traditional Tories. What we have now is frank, legalised corruption. Bush's regime is fascist, says Kennedy, by definition: a state run by big business. Mussolini, an idealist of a kind, recognised that this is what fascism amounts to, and regretted it.
But, says James Kunstler, the US way of life and its global influence are on the way out. It depends entirely on cheap energy, and global oil production has peaked. More than half of all Americans live in rambling suburbs - a 30-mile drive to and from work, another 20 more to the supermarket. The average suburbanite makes five such journeys a day. In US cities, people typically live and work in the world's tallest buildings.
Meanwhile, big industry and farming have been "out-sourced" to less-advantaged people far away to carry out for slave wages, far from the gaze of pesky environmentalists.
Take away the oil or make it dear, and the whole bubble collapses. The suburbs become uninhabitable. Mortgaged home-owners find themselves stuck with junk. One power cut per year and people might struggle to the top of a skyscraper. But when the cuts become routine the towers must be abandoned - although too expensive to demolish. With industry gone and farming robotised there is nothing for anyone to do.
This is not fantasy. Already, big pulsing cities like Detroit are "donuts", the middle gone - reduced to slums and wasteland - and only suburbs left. Others seek to stave off decay with spanking new galleries and stadiums. But, says Kunstler, the only truly viable towns these days are small traditional ones, surrounded by farmland that once produced food for local consumption and could do so again. Like Kennedy, and unlike almost all the world's most influential politicians, Kunstler takes farming seriously. He recognises that the future, like the past, must be primarily agrarian if humanity and the world are to survive.
Kunstler sees the end of the global corporations: "Wal-Mart, Kmart, Target, Home Depot are all going to wither and die". He is surely right. But will the mentality that gave rise to them die as well? To some extent it must. Globalisation and hence the transnationals must peter out as the oil disappears and mass rapid transport becomes unsupportable.
But the old ways of thinking will persist. Corporations, like governments, are run by hawks, and hawks are always with us. Kunstler suggests that the hawks in a post-corporate, post-oil world may well manifest as new-born feudal barons, with the newly poor stranded suburbanites obliged to be their serfs.
As humanity moves into the post-oil world we need new ways of living. But we also need new forms of governance to ensure that we don't go on creating the same old dreary hierarchies. We need to design mechanisms of government that can pre-empt the rise of gangsters - in short, to make democracy work.
There are jokers in the pack which neither author spends much time on. One is the rise of IT, which in principle puts everyone in touch with everyone else. Energy may be too dear to ferry people and goods around the world, but we could run the global internet on solar power. This should seriously modify the isolationism of traditional economies. Another, more immediate joker, is the present economic shift.
Will China stand by while America decays? Will it put the boot in, or strive to prop it up? Or will its own economy collapse as global warming bites and the oil runs out? Before too many decades China's own Manhattan skylines, in Beijing and Shanghai, will surely seem just as forlorn as Manhattan's are going to.
Great Britain is a kind of joker. Our own role in world affairs under Blair and Brown is as an irritant, minor but perhaps crucial, supporting all the forces that are squandering resources, consolidating power in the hands of the few, and undermining the alternatives - a more civilised Europe, agriculture as a whole.
America's style of Protestantism has given rise to fundamentalism which, so Kennedy tells us, has created an apocalyptic mentality. People in high places truly believe that Christ will soon be back, and the world will end, so there is no point in thinking about the future. Bush may think he is the messiah; Blair and Brown seem content as disciples.
Those who feel that humanity should continue must circumvent these people with their narrow vision. Analysis is needed, and practical suggestions. The necessary literature is building up apace, and Kennedy and Kunstler are key contributors. If you give a damn, you should read these books.
Colin Tudge's book 'So Shall We Reap' is published by PenguinReuse content