The Financial Times gives us comprehensive coverage of the “disaster” in Davos even as unrest breaks out throughout the industrialized world (e.g., France and England, but not yet in the U.S., likely because we still have food at the grocery store, water coming out the taps, and American Idol on the television). As we descend further into the abyss of the industrial economy’s unwinding, we can expect widespread rioting to spread further, finding its way to the U.S. within the year. Considering this backdrop, it’s informative to glimpse into history at similar events. Since we’ve before never witnessed the end of industrialized civilization, I’m turning to a fictional account.
George R. Stewart’s 1949 disaster classic, Earth Abides, provided the template for all subsequent disaster books and films. Stewart puts the disaster at the center of the book, giving it as much depth as any character. The disaster becomes the thread stitching together the plot, and it’s also the material from which the novel is woven. Although it is categorized as science fiction, there’s nothing “science” or futuristic about Earth Abides. Except, of course, that is tells us right where we’re headed.
Disaster strikes at the outset of Earth Abides when a virus wipes out a huge proportion of Earth’s human population. The few survivors try half-heartedly and unsuccessfully to rebuild civilization. For their purposes, human capital proves insufficient in the face of an unrelenting Earth. Assuming we avert a biological disaster within the next year, our situation will be much different, at least with respect to one important feature: We lack non-human capital to rebuild civilization, but we have a far larger human population than will persist in the face of declining planetary resources.
When the industrial economy fails, “the spike buck will graze farther from the thicket without knowing why, and the fox cubs [will] play beside the dry fountain in the square, and the quail [will] hatch her eggs in the tall grass by the sundial.” That’s from chapter 2, by which time Stewart is telling us what we all know, deep in our hearts: Nature bats last.
Twenty pages later, the book’s protagonist is trying to drive across the country when his route is blocked by trees felled by a recent storm. “Highway 66, that famous road! [Remember, it’s 1949.] Here it was, blocked by the chance falling of a tree! A man [or a woman … remember, it’s 1949] might cut his [or her] way through this obstruction, but there were, or would soon be, others. … in a few years, to take a car from Chicago to Los Angeles on Highway 66 would be a task for a pioneer in a covered wagon.” [For which, of course, horses would be damned handy. In 1900, we had about 30 million people in the U.S., to go along with 30 million horses. Now we have about 300 million people and 3 million horses. Clearly, the problem is not too many people, but too few horses.]
When our traveling protagonist meets his first small group of “settled” people, “he began to think that the Negroes [remember, it’s 1949] had really solved the situation better than he. He was living as a scavenger upon what was left of civilization; they, at least, were still living creatively, close to the land and in a stable situation, still raising most of what they needed.”
At this point, before 60 pages have passed, Stewart recognizes there are essentially two routes to pursue when civilization fails. I am choosing the route of sticking to a specific location. More adventurous — and I believe wiser — souls will choose the route of the road in the years ahead.
Stewart addresses the culture shock experienced by characters in his book with language that serves as a wonderful predictor of forthcoming psychology: “Destroy the culture pattern in which people lived, and often the shock was too great for the individuals. Take away family and job, friends and church, all customary amusements and routines, hope too – and life became walking death.”
It’s as if Stewart could imagine Americans without American Idol.
Most of Earth Abides describes life in the small village that settles around the book’s protagonist. For the most part, the villagers are a hapless, hopeless lot, as revealed when the reservoir upon which they’ve relied for more than two decades dries up: “Here they had been for twenty-one years merely using water that continued to flow, and yet they had never given any real consideration to where the water came from. It had been a gift from the past, as free as air, like the cans of beans and bottle of catsup that could be had just by walking into a store and taking them from the shelves.”
Do you know where your water comes from? I don’t mean the tap.
As the book winds down, it becomes clear industrial civilization cannot be restored. It’s a once-on-a-planet event. “Was it all for the best? From the cave we come and to the cave we go!”
And finally, in the book’s final pages, Stewart comes to an epiphany of sorts: “Yet certainly he [the protagonist] could not help thinking that the men had lost that old dominance and the arrogance with which they had once viewed the animals, and were now acting more or less as equals with them. He felt that this was too bad, and yet the young men were going along just as unconcerned as ever, cracking their little jokes and not feeling that they had been at all humiliated by having to detour the lion, any more than if they had had to detour around a fallen tree trunk or a ruined building.”
In the final pages of Earth Abides, Stewart gives us great hope. He envisions the day civilized humans will give way to worldly humans, abandoning dominance and arrogance for coexistence and humility. He imagines humans living with the world, instead of apart from it. He imagines us becoming part of nature, so that, when nature bats last, we’ll still be on the planetary stage