Sunday, January 31, 2010

Apocalyptic Fiction and you

He’d had this feeling before, beyond the dullness and the despair. The world shrinking down about a raw core of parsible entities. The names of things slowly following those things into oblivion. Colors. The names of Birds. Things to eat. Finally the names of things one believed to be true. More fragile than he would have thought. How much was gone already? The scared idiom shorn of its referents and so of its reality. Drawing down like something trying to preserve heat. In time to wink out forever.
-The Road by Cormac McCarthy

I fancy a good disaster novel. Whether it’s about a dome dropped over a small unsuspecting NE town and the malevolent hijinks that result, the collapse of the state, the rule of law and the power grid after a small scale nuclear attack or the worst case scenario-- it’s all gone to shit but you didn’t die and now your first decision upon waking each day is whether or not to commit suicide. The first thing to go in all these instances is power and communication, followed by the rule of law followed quickly by the establishment of tribes of varying flavors. Also varied is the degree to which these new protectionist social structures, usually formed around a guy with a rifle and the willingness to use it, abandon or strive to maintain their humanity. On the one side you may have predatory bands of cannibals that hunt and raise humans for meat. On the other side you may have communities that resolve to bring back the rule of law, fix the water lines and warily soldier on into a new reality.

For some, these books are unbearable. Lots of people can’t even confront the reality of what’s on their dinner plate never mind the realistic possibility of nuclear annihilation but in a nuclear age, nuclear conflict is not just possible but likely, even inevitable. In the same way I think people should have to watch The Pianist or some other holocaust movie at least once a year to remind ourselves how fast a ball can run downhill, it should be obligatory for everyone to contemplate the end game of nuclear “deterrence”. In the likely event that we are affected either nominally or grievously by a nuclear assault, will anyone stand up and say “that was totally worth it”? Not just worth the death and destruction and dislocation but the spineless and unconsidered tacit agreement not to demand the alternative? This is what I think of as I listen to people argue about keeping a poorly managed, leaky 40 year old nuclear plant open because they are afraid electrical rates might go up in the short term. How embarrassed are you guys going to feel when something goes wrong and your dead?

The ability to look forward and see where your current path leads and decide in the present (because that’s where all the options are, folks!) to change your direction is a sign of maturity and is the hallmark of a society that is interested in long term survival over short term luxury or entertainment (has war not become a form of entertainment: aggrandized, abstracted and denuded of consequence?) Be aware: I have no illusions. Most of American society is incapable of prophylactic reorganization (Billy Bob! It’s what’s for dinner, y’all!) but for those of us better nourished or better educated or just less indoctrinated, we must contemplate these almost inevitable circumstances if we are to engender the necessary will to change course.

What have I learned (and I do look at these novels as training manuals of a sort) from watching the world severely disrupted if not destroyed over and over again? First, when the lights go out and the gas runs out you should have some idea of how you are going to feed yourself and how you are going to provision yourself with fresh water. Fashioning a generator out of spare car parts may be in your future but you aren’t going to get there if you don’t eat and you’ll also be much less likely to kill or be killed by a neighbor if you aren’t worried about starving. Clearly, communities that have food and water contingency plans will be slower to fall into savage chaos. So, whether or not you’ll be looked at as an alarmist or a freak for tearing up your lawn and planting apples trees or cutting down your towering Norway Maple to get some sun to your gardens or installing a cistern or simply by taking the time to imagine how you’ll get through a short term supply chain disruption, it behooves us to go to that dark place and consider our options. Second, we live under a very thin veneer of civility due to being conditioned to be fairly helpless. When the state withers and the dictum stops being handed down, those who know their neighbors and have some knowledge of the art of local decision making will be less likely to fall under the thumb of the cunning and vicious ruler of next resort. Third, a rifle is probably a good idea.

The wisdom of a soft bunker mentality aside, the deepest value of these stories lies in the reiteration of what remains when the rest falls away. No one gives a shit about technology or any of the other attributes of our non-negotiable American lifestyle. After a relatively short period of time the new normal gets accepted and the ache for the noise of the old world (if not the people that used to be in it) falls away to some degree. The only desire that endures is the desire to see families and communities carry on in the noblest manner circumstances allow. There is nothing to stop us from embracing those values now and reducing the pressures on our survival while we’ve still got some options.

The only question I’m left with is whether, despite our amazing capacity for love and our tremendous will to survive, we are suicidal. At the moment of decision, whether it’s the decision of very highly evolved aliens to play a game of burn the ants with the inhabitants of the small New England town (it’s a global warming metaphor) or the decision to exercise the nuclear option in the middle east (war is peace. freedom is slavery. ignorance is strength.) the old paradigm is erased. Is it our ignorance or some deeper hierarchical hive mentality that prevents us from disposing of the paradigm BEFORE the air is filled with fire and ash?

Update re: my hive theory

from Chris Hedges The Information Super Sewer

“The crowd phenomenon exists, but the hive does not exist...There are some things crowds can do, such as count the jelly beans in the jar or guess the weight of the ox,” Lanier added. “I acknowledge this phenomenon is real. But I propose that the line between when crowds can think effectively as a crowd and when they can’t is a little different. If you read [James] Surowiecki’s “The Wisdom of Crowds,” he, as well as other theorists, say that if you want a crowd to be wise the key is to reduce the communication flow between the members so they do not influence each other, so they are truly independent and have separate sample points. It brings up an interesting paradox. The starting point for online crowd enthusiasts is that connection is good and everyone should be connected. But when they talk about what makes a crowd smart they say people should not be talking to each other. They should be isolated. There is a contradiction there. What makes a crowd smart is the type of question you ask. If you ask a group of informed people to choose a single numeric value such as the weight of an ox and they all have some reason to have a theory that is not entirely crazy they will center on the answer. You can get something useful. This phenomenon is what accounts for price fitting in capitalism. This is how markets can function. If you ask them to create anything, if you ask them to do something constructive or synthetic or engage in compound reasoning then they will fail. Then you get something dull or an averaging out. One danger of the crowd is violence, which is when they turn into a mob. The other is dullness or mundaneness, when you design by committee.”


  1. The observation of how quickly we could all be reduced to primitivism says much about how close we remain to the primitive; all our LED’s and 3G networks notwithstanding. This is certainly because civilization is not an accomplishment, but rather a commitment, like physical fitness or a good marriage; if you let yourself go, things fall apart, as the man says, not with a bang, but with a whimper,

    Beware the zombie apocalypse!

  2. We have nuclear relicensing boondoggle here in NJ as well, Oyster Creek. The first civilian reactor, now 40+ years, past any rational lifespan, with lots of proven safety deficiencies, a proven poisoner of Barnegat Bay, but they're dead set on relicensing it for another 20.

    But I don't think people will understand your post. It's just a movie. Entertainment.


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