The prototypical disaster

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

Comments 21

  • Guy,
    Your last sentence is a bit of a mixed metaphore; sports and the theater. Maybe, since sport carries so much more weight in the empire than the stage, you should suggest that we play on nature’s team. Our lack of freewill doesn’t imply that we our doomed as a species to be an invasive exotic. My hero is the beaver, and if, by some miracle, the facists and the mauraders leave me alone, I intend to stive to be a keystone.

  • Guy
    the following link maybe
    of interest
    the melbourne age is quite
    a good newspaper, even by
    world standards (made the top 20
    a few years back)
    the economic gloom is featured
    daily from here and abroad,
    we often get syndicated pieces
    by your friedman, krugman and stieglitz (sp?)
    we are not completely daft over here
    in terms of foreclosures I dont know
    of it happening to anyone here.
    The IMF has recently rated Australia
    quite highly, in terms of its economic
    conditions. Not say that the shit wont
    hit the fan soonish. I have been quite
    negative to friends and work mates
    regarding economic conditions for the
    last 18 months, hence my hoarding of cash.
    I simply can not see any value out there and
    the down side risks look too great.
    Particularly when one gets a handle
    on the relationship between cheap
    energy and growth.
    I believe too that we are too wedded
    to the economic growth paradigm,
    there is a belief that if we dont grow we die,
    actually the opposite is true – ie overshoot etc.
    Having said the above i believe the collapse will be
    generational. Please challenge me on this,
    historically is there any evidence for a
    fast collapse of a sophisticated civilisation?
    nice post by the way, you almost sound hopeful towards the end. 🙂

  • Matt,
    As with climate change, we can no longer reliably gauge the future by the past. The fast crash scenario, to my mind, comes down to one simple fact: food. If the peak oil scenario is correct, and it sure appears as though it is, there is just no possible way in which the world can feed 7 billion people. Global human population is beefed up to its current levels by petroleum, pure and simple. We are literally made of oil. For every one of us that is lucky enough to have the luxury to tinker around with permaculture and attempt to construct a lifeboat, there are thousands more caught hopelessly in technology traps. For them, there is no way out. Economic decline, as it is talliede by the empire, may be generational. Starvation is not.

  • Que sera,sera.And there is nothing we can do about it.
    The only rational reason to go to Davos is for the skiing–Davos is a ski resort.
    The last time it snowed in Davos was December 2,which means the skiing is lousy.
    That’s all you need to know about Davos.

  • there is an overriding assumption
    here and elsewhere that
    energy descent will precipitate
    a fast collapse/die off scenario.
    It has become apart of peak oil
    mythology/folklore, a ‘fact’ or
    assumption that is never question.
    Not withstanding the population
    explosion of the oil age etc,
    acknowledging this suggests that
    when it comes to peak oil –
    all bets are off, starvation
    is guaranteed.
    my question still goes unanswered,
    any evidence of civs experiencing
    a fast collapse?
    besides war and revolutions,
    they are by definition a collapse
    of a civil society.
    when its come to racism, yes,
    I know its sounds naive,
    but I always thought that it was
    someone elses problem,
    – to roughly parphrase condi rice.
    A poorly priviliged black women
    makes second in command for a
    republican party no less.
    A question I have asked before, how
    real is racism over there?
    It went unanswered…
    turbster did suggest that when
    the SHTF that gangs and racism
    could become more of a pronounced
    issue. No other comments were
    made to suggest otherwise.
    we dont have the degree of embedded
    racism that you guys may have other there

  • Matt,
    I live in an area inhabited between 200 and 1150 ad by a peoples called the Mimbres, part of the larger Mogollon culture in the American southwest. They were a settled, agricultural peoples that became more and more and more dependent over time on corn calories to fuel their civilization. They are best known for the extraordinary black on white pottery they made in their classic phase from 950 to 1150. The Mimbres experience a population explosion in their classic phase. Fuelwood along the rivers where they lived was depleted. Big game species were depleted. By 1000 AD it was all about corn precariously supporting up to 40,000 people in the region. Then the climate shifted and the rivers ceased to allow flood irrigation on the scale needed to support that wobbly edifice. It all came down in a hurry, By 1150 they were gone. Their pottery is all that remains. But at least the Mimbres had options. They got up and walked away. Most probably left for emerging city-states in northern Mexico. For the first time we are without the prospect of dispersal to a new locality. Its a global overshoot. They are no greener pastures elsewhere. Corn, oil, in our time its pretty much the same thing.

  • Matt — The events of 1989 indicates a fast collapse can happen, even to a superpower.

  • Dear matt,
    Please give us your first hand account on the fires.

  • More on 1989:
    The Nikkei,Japan’s Dow,modeled after the Dow,and started at 1000 when the Dow was at that level,topped out at 38,915 on the last trading day of 1989.The Nikkei is now under 8000,about an 80% decline.We can expect at least as big a decline in the Dow.
    Worldwide economic collapse is proceeding at an exponential/parabolic downward curve.

  • I am forced to point out that though the Nikkei is just below 8000, it has still been twenty years and they are still very much kicking.
    Now maybe equating it to the current bailout scam to the disaster that Argentina became back in the late 80’s – early 90’s would be a better analogy.

    Give it a read. It’s one guy’s account of what happened when his economy crashed. (Argentina)

  • Sorry for triple posting, but I can’t emphasize reading that link I posted enough. Read it, it is hugely informative.

  • Tim Geithner,the new Treasury Secretary,does not inspire confidence.He’s definitely lacking in gravitas.As Gertrude Stein said about Oakland,CA,”there’s no there there.”
    So much for his style.But he also lacks substance–witness what the stock market did today when he opened his mouth on TV.Of course he also tries to ignore his taxes.He’s totally feckless,but as I’ve been saying,it’s better to get this over with as soon as possible,so he’s the right man,in the right place,at the right time to lead the world into the abyss.

  • Mike,
    what you describe is a decline not a collapse.
    I will respond later…
    thanks for asking,
    the worst of the fires (kinglake precinct)
    are within and adjacent to my muncipality.
    (20km from home)
    I ride through those hills 2-3 times a week,
    all of us know someone who has been affected by the
    Background – Saturdays temp was 48c/120f,
    100km gusty northerlies (winds) from the
    central australia. I dont know if you
    guys have felt 48c, but even in the shade
    it feels like the air temp can burn your skin.
    Friends/colleagues haver died and friends have lost
    their homes – 800 homes, police believe around 300
    people have died, 150 in the kinglake area alone.
    A friends father had the task of checking cars for bodies,
    on many occasssions he reported there were no bodies
    present, once forensics moved in they said there were
    bodies in the cars. Police believe many people will
    never be identified, they were completely incinerated
    trying to leave.
    My wifes cousin lives in kinglake with his 5 kids,
    they are safe, he now has five families living with him.
    He was interviewed on the tv, describing how he went searching
    for his neighbour in the dark (it was daytime but the smoke
    turned it into night), he found him smouldering in his backyard,
    he is still alive. Its unbelievable, so many stories…
    I have to go a meeting… later

  • more fire news…
    the flames were 100ft high
    travelling at 60kmph, the radiant
    heat ignited trees 300ft away,
    the tinder dry canopies combusted
    (eucalyptus regnans – tallest flowering
    tree in the world) creating a very fast
    moving fire storm. Trees were continually
    combusting ahead of the fire front.
    the residents of kinglake were not given any
    warning, the residents rang the authorities,
    to ask what is going on,
    they knew nothing about the fire, it was
    30km away to the west in kilmore, it moved
    so fast, one resident was told it was 2-3hours
    away, in ten minutes his house was incinerated.
    a landscape architect colleague was
    incinerated with his wife and
    two young daughters sheltering in
    their home hoping the fire front would pass,
    the radiant heat was so extreme outside.
    (he designed land management plans for the area)
    Half of the blokes in country areas
    are members of the CFA (volunteer
    fire fighting service). The chiefs of the
    CFA said there was nothing anybody
    could have done. The whole ‘leave early
    or stay and defend’ policy has been called
    into question. It was indefensible.
    They have announced a royal commission.
    One man described how he had a 100ft fire
    break around his house, all the pumps and the
    water at the ready, when a fire ball lept
    out of the forest and landed on his
    house, he said his house burnt down
    in less than 2 minutes.
    a man said he saw his first dead body
    – a rib cage on the side of the road.
    two teenage sisters went to save their horses
    – they were incinerated and so on….
    and the mother of all under statements-
    typically australian
    in Marysville 35km east of kinglake an elderly
    women noticed dead birds blowing in on the
    100km winds (knowing the fire front was approaching)
    she turned to her husband and said in a droll calm
    voice I think it time to leave love.
    Marysville is now a town completely obliterated,
    it no longer exists.
    One CFA volunteer said ‘at the end of the day
    mother nature decides’.
    anyway back to the grim reality of peak oil,
    some thoughts, I will paraphrase David Holmgren
    – ‘Energy descent’ misses out on the two polarities
    ie techno optimism and the collapse. It is less
    fatalistic, it is a less scripted hollywood style apocalypse,
    that is energy descent is muddier and greyer,
    and much harder to define.
    The same structures will not be the same going
    forward into the future. There will be a decrease
    in the complexity and capacity of industrial society.
    Not a collapse. We could develop a cultutre of adaptation
    towards energy descent.
    We have a culture of change, this should be seen as an
    asset going forward. Constant and continuous change
    could adapt us to the realities of peak oil.
    Learn to have less, is much more difficult than learning
    to have more. But it can be done, a collapse
    is possible, but highly unlikely.
    Russia is still chugging along, although lately not so well.
    Cuba has shown that it can be done. It was a highly
    industrialised society before the Soviet Union
    collapsed. They were very fortunate to have several
    australian permaculturalists turn up on their
    doorstep and show them how to compost and grow food
    organically. With great success, although now
    the cubans are trading doctors for oil with
    Venezuala (sp?).
    I think I will start a counter blog to Guys called
    Landscape Architects for food in the time of energy descent!
    I know the title needs some work,
    cheers guys, enjoying the conversation
    turboguy, I hope you have now rolled your sleeves down

  • after reading the link turboguy
    I think I am a ‘dim witted’ optimist
    with a ‘butterflies IQ’
    I always thought Argentina was
    more first world and refined.

  • matt:
    You might have gotten than impression of Argentina(“–first world and refined”),because
    Argentina is the most cosmopolitan,and most like Europe, country in Latin America.

  • matt:
    The 120%+F we get here is a dry heat.You still have my invitation to come on up here to
    experience it for yourself.It’s not that bad in the Sonoran desert.

  • Frank
    perhaps in the winter

  • In Arizona summers they sometimes have to stop landing jets at the Phoenix airport because the tarmac turns into goo plus the air gets very thin. I recall hearing the temp was 122 F during one of those spells in June, or 50 Celsius. I live 250 m away, farther south but 3500′ higher in elevation, and don’t recall it ever getting over 105/40.5, which wasn’t all that uncomfortable if one were outside in the sun but in moving air. You just have to drink non-stop, 5 or 6 liters of water a day needed with only a moderate level of activity.
    I’ve been involved in local Firewise community programs designed to educate homeowners to create defensible space, and one of the biggest challenges is to get people to really believe that a disaster can happen in their home town on the scale it just did in Australia, when nothing in their lives to date has happened that comes close. You’re asking people to prepare for something they can’t really understand from direct experience. People in coastal areas all over the world now can “get” the hazards of a tsunami, whereas up to Dec. 25 2005, attempts to educate would have been pretty ignored as hyperbole.
    People have no idea how fast a fire can move, nor how hot it gets. I remember worrying the paint on my car was going to start to scorch when I was still 1/5 mile from an active Florida palmetto-scrub fire on level ground, blowing my way so the heat was ahead of the fire, flame lengths no more than 20 feet.