Books for surviving the impending apocalypse
Via SF Weekly’s blog, here’s a review of a few new books on surviving the impending apocalypse. Some take a tongue in cheek look, while others are pretty sure you might have to eat someone’s tongue to avoid starving, so pick your poison. Or your antidote, depending.
“Books for surviving the impending apocalypse” by Bryan Banducci.
Bad now? There’s worse to come
Too Much Magic: Wishful Thinking, Technology, and the Fate of the Nation by James Howard Kunstler (Atlantic Monthly Press, $25)
There are damn few things you can count on in the world, but a view of what’s coming for civilization from James Howard Kunstler that’s dark and gloomy—and accurate—enough to keep you awake nights is always one of those things. His latest book, which serves as an update to The Long Emergency, also makes some interesting and noteworthy points; mostly, we’re too attached to “magic”—the miraculous things that are woven into the fabric of our lives—to seriously consider the sort of major changes that a warming planet with dwindling resources will demand of us.
In short, we’re so busy looking for alternative fuels to keep our car culture that we don’t examine our car culture itself to see if it can or ought to be sustained. Real change isn’t going to happen as long as we continue to believe that we can have “magic”—hydrogen fuels, solar car batteries, algae biofuels, anything so we don’t have to give up our cars, our habits, our stuff.
Kunstler runs down the list—warming planet, peak oil, overpopulation, tanking economies—and makes connections most of us are afraid (or unwilling) to make.
For example, global climate change means the emergence of diseases in areas where they’ve never been seen before, but even if we have treatment for them, rising energy costs, coupled with a staggering delivery system and a crappy global economy may make it impossible to get medicine and health care where it needs to be. A whole lot of people will die, not necessarily because there’s no cure, but because we can’t move things cheaply any longer. Of course, that will go a way toward reducing the population, but only the pre-ghost visitation Scrooge would suggest such a thing is a good outcome.
All the things we expected from the future are becoming out of reach, even in “first world” countries. Is it really any surprise that young people seem to long for a zombie apocalypse, when they’re $40,000 in debt for a B.A., juggling two barista gigs, and living at home? At least the apocalypse will get them out of debt and provide meaningful work.
“And, by the way, where are the flying cars? I was promised flying cars in the future.”
That’s a quote from Red Forman, the grumpy, blue-collar conservative dad on That 70s Show. The sentiment is pure American; technology will solve all our problems. However, as Kunstler points out, the tech that was always going to save us has never dones so. In fact, it tends to make things worse. Sure, cheap oil made it possible for (almost) everyone to have a house in the suburbs, but now that the oil’s not so cheap, those suburbs are a mess.
Seriously. Have you been out there lately? Hot, paved, and empty during the day.
The bottom line, accoding to Kunstler, is that we’re hitting the place—and the global financial struggles highlight this—where there isn’t any magic technological fix. We can’t make more things because, when it comes to resources, there simply isn’t any more.
Consider, for a moment, the recent murder of a Chinese manager at a coal mine in Zambia. Employees were upset and protesting poor working conditions and low pay; the manager was killed accidentally. But get this: It’s now necessary for China to own and operate coal mines in an African nation in order to get enough cheap energy to keep their economy moving. As even this fails, Kunstler would remind us, we’ll have a hotter, more violent planet with which to contend.
And, as he points out, those the tech geniuses and their colleagues in the “creative class” are primarily concerned with things that are “cool,” not necessarily things that work simply, easily and sustainably. What good is a really “cool” new computer tablet if there’s no power to charge it? And what value does storing thousands of songs in the cloud have, when the “cloud” can no longer be accessed because all the servers are unable to get powered up?
While Kunstler gives a lot of credit to the New Urbanism—a move toward sustainable, walkable cities that rely less on cars—he also notes that the ideas have been co-opted, resulting in a lot of unsustainable development that only looks like New Urbanism. It doesn’t function that way.
If anything, Kunstler makes an argument for function over form. The basic human needs, unchanged for millennia, for food, water and shelter are going to become increasingly difficult to meet. Take a close look at what’s already in store for us, short-term: Drought in the grain belt means that the price of food is going to go up for the next year). When the supply chain starts to break down, the system we’ve currently got—in which most stores have no more than a three- or four-day supply of commodities, depending on regular deliveries—is going to leave a lot of people hungry.
That’s bad enough, but the real stress here is on our way of thinking. For just so long as we continue to believe that there will be a technological “save” and we’ll be able to go on pretty much as we always have—using more, consuming more, having more—we’re not going to make the adjustments that might avoid a catastrophic collapse.
It’s our own magical thinking that makes this civilization-wide apocalypse inevitable.
If you haven’t read The Long Emergency, start with that; if you have, this follow-up is mandatory reading.
Read my interview with James Howard Kunstler about Sacramento’s plusses and minuses for sustainable living.
Apocalypse now and then…
Via Religion Dispatches, reviews of a couple of recent books on millennialism, which is a particular form of Christian apocalypse.
One thing the review clears up? What it means to be a millennialist:
The term “millennialism” does not refer to the year 2000, or the turning of the millennium. Rather, it takes its misleading name from the Christian belief that Christ will return to Earth and rule for one thousand years. The apocalypse, rapture, Second Coming—these are specific events in specific forms of millennial ideology.
Read “Apocalypse now and then: Our global death wish” by Jay Michaelson.
The Last Policeman
The Last Policeman by Ben Winters (Quirk, $14.95)
An asteroid large enough to wipe out the planet is set to strike Earth six months from when our story begins (pages between the sections tell us the date as well as the asteroid’s progression toward Earth), which means that we’ve got an opportunity to explore human psychology when what slight constraints we might have on immediate gratification have been lifted. There’s also more than enough depression, nihilism and existential angst to go around as everyone—literally everyone—on the planet tries to figure out how—or whether—to hang on until the end.
In Detective Henry Palace, the narrator of Winters’ tale, we have a young man with an unerring sense of duty. An orphan raised, along with his younger sister, by grandparents, Henry is determined to be a good detective. When something doesn’t feel quite right about a suicide found in a McDonald’s restroom—and, in the final months before the asteroid hits, suicide is common—Henry can’t help but follow up.
This annoys nearly everyone—fellow cops, district attorney, witnesses, suspects—since they’re all going through their own grieving process over not only their own impending death, but the death of everything but the rock we’re living on. Henry runs across a handful of kindred spirits, people who are able to delay or displace their existential anxiety because they’re doing what they want to be doing, but for the most part, his obsession with finding out what really happened makes him a puzzle to those around him.
The mystery itself is interesting, with plenty of twists and engaging characters. However, the main thing that attracted me to this book was Winters’ skill in showing what happens to people under stress, particularly of the existential type. Everything we see in wartime, multiplied a thousandfold, shows up in little Concord, and Henry notes it. The result is that The Last Policeman succeeds both as a mystery, with a quirky detective and an intriguing whodunit, and as a piece of apocalyptic speculative fiction. That’s good news. The even better news is that this novel is supposed to be the first of a planned trilogy, with each case occurring closer to the moment when, as Henry repeatedly notes, “Bam!”
Not the zone you want to be in
The future looks pretty bleak for Arizona, no matter how you slice and dice it. In our own reasonably non-warlike timeline, it’s set for environmental devastation (see “Singed feathers,” a review of Andrew Ross’ book Bird on Fire: Lessons From the World’s Least Sustainable City).
But in the alternate, post-apocalyptic future Nathan Yocum envisions in The Zona, it’s an even worse hell-hole. In this future, after California is partially destroyed by storms and sea-rises (thanks, global climate change) and further trashed by cannibal-cults, Arizona becomes the home of what’s left of the god-fearing.
And we do mean “god-fearing,” or at least “church-fearing.” It’s now the Arizona Reformed Theocracy, and our hero, Lead, is a Preacher with a capital “P.” That means he seeks out sinners and returns them to Purgatory–a prison-slash-reeducation camp designed to resemble Dante’s circles of hell–by either “rope or blanket.” If rope, he ties ‘em up and brings ‘em in. If blanket, he kills them and covers their bodies with a blanket.
Yeah, it’s that grim, and it’s got a bit of Hollywood Western to it, if only because that’s the template from which these new Westerners take their culture (for example, the Preachers call their holster rig a “Van Cleef” without knowing why, but it’s got to be a reference to the rig actor Lee Van Cleef used in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly). It’s also fascinating as we watch this preacher lose his faith and try to run. And Yocum has an interesting structure which makes the flashbacks—to the inundation of San Diego and the nuking of Las Vegas, for instance—work as integral parts of character development.
It’s a particularly prescient book to read while watching campaign news. The willingness to embrace religiosity in times of hardship and uncertainty is simply breath-taking, and Yocum’s book makes clear that order is often preferred by the average folk, even if it means giving up their own freedom. That’s certainly a theme we’ve seen played out over and over, and Yocum gives it a particularly dark spin in The Zona.
Graphic violence, but if you like post-apocalyptic wasteland fiction with a serious overlaying of references to classic literature and classic Westerns, you’ll like this.
Cross posted from Bibliolatry.
Why Armageddon-believing hurts us
Matthew Barrett Gross and Mel Gilles have a new book coming out this month—The Last Myth: What the Rise in Apocalyptic Thinking Tells Us About America.
Apparently, one of their themes is that our fascination with how things will end keeps us from working on things in the here and now. They’ve got an essay on Salon, “America’s endless apocalypse,” in which they draw this conclusion:
When we free ourselves from the hypnotic spell of apocalypse, when we let go of our desire to see how things will turn out, we are free to answer a more important question. Not, are my beliefs correct ? But, how do I live in accord with my values right now ? Our insistence that a new world is coming later is a delusion; it is already here. We have met many who say that they will go start an organic farm when things come undone. We have met others who are already farming and say that they are doing it to prepare for the Great Unraveling. Why not choose to farm, as one example, because you value independence, self-sufficiency, and the environment and want to live in accordance with your values, rather than framing your life through the prism of the apocalypse, hoping to be proven right and others proven wrong ? The answer as to how to live into our values is different for each of us — it may be about traveling the world as much as manning the ramparts. But the right public policy prescriptions and personal decisions will come only when we abandon our expectations that some future cataclysmic moment will eventually prove us right.