Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Christmas Eve 2050: Q&A

I had some questions for Jane Average, the viewpoint character of “Christmas Eve 2050,” and fortunately I was able to arrange an interview. We met in the lunchroom of the metal recycling plant where she works.

Q: Jane, thanks for taking the time for these questions. I’m afraid you may not want to answer some of them, though.

A: Like what?

Q: Well, for starters, how much money you and your husband make, and where it goes.

A: Oh, that’s nothing – you had me thinking you wanted to talk politics. I make N$250 an hour, like all the office staff. Flat tax is 30%, so for a fifty-hour week I take home N$8750. Joe’s on the factory floor so he makes less, even though he’s a foreman. The two of us make a bit over N$16,000 a week. That’s all in new dollars, of course, so figure $320,000,000 in old money.

Q: That sounds like a lot of money, even in new dollars.

A: Well, but remember that a bottle of milk is N$85. Half our income goes for food; even with rationing, it’s not cheap, so figure around N$8000 a week. Energy used to be close to half that in the winter, with our share of coal for the boiler, but it’s cheaper now that the new solar plant has gone online.

Q: Does the plant use solar cells?

A: Good lord, no—the raw materials for those hubberted years ago. No, they’ve got big dish mirrors and Stirling engines driving the generators. Joe Jr. could tell you more about it than I can. He wants to build them when he grows up. But where was I? Rent is a bit less than N$1000 a week—prices are coming back up, though they’re still pretty fair. I remember during the war you could get a place to live for the asking, there were that many empty buildings.

Q: Wow. What’s a gallon of gas cost?

A: Gasoline? I don’t have a clue. Jon? Any idea what a gallon of gasoline costs?

Jon (at the next table): N$450 if you can get a ration coupon. If you’re off book, the sky’s the limit; start around N$1500, maybe, if you’re lucky.

Q: Off book?

A: Under the table from an illegal dealer. If you get caught and the judge is in a bad mood, you could do a year in labor camp, too, so add that to the price.

Q: You mentioned labor camps in the Christmas Eve essay, too. How do those work?

A: Crooks used to go to jail, right? Well, after the war started they couldn’t be spared from the work force, and jails cost too much to run anyway, so the government moved the convicts to camps wherever there was work. These days convicts mostly do fieldwork on big farms, drought reclamation projects, that sort of thing.

Q: What are conditions like in the camps?

A: Well, convicts are supposed to get three meals a day and so on, but you know that doesn’t always happen. When food’s short, it’s twice as short in the camps, and convicts don’t get much health care. That was how we lost our friend Bill. He had some kind of heart condition, and he didn’t get medicine or anything, so he just dropped dead one day.

Q: That seems pretty harsh.

A: Yeah, but what are you going to do? There isn’t enough to go around, so one way or another you have to decide who goes without. Bill was a dear, but you know, a lot of people put everything they had into his firm, and lost it all in the crash of ’41. Joe and I tried to talk him out of going into derivatives in the first place, but you know how people are when they think they can get rich. It wasn’t anybody else’s fault; he hubberted himself.

Q: You used that word before, didn’t you? “Hubberted,” I mean. Do you know who M. King Hubbert was?

A: He’s the guy who figured out that oil was going to hubbert someday, wasn’t he? But it’s a word people use a lot. When you get to the point that you can see the bottom of the sugar jar, you say the sugar’s about to hubbert, but you also use it when something or somebody takes any kind of nosedive. A lot of banks hubberted in ’41, for instance.

Q: Tell me about the ’41 crash. What happened?

A: I don’t know much about it, really. The markets are always way up or way down, and there’s a crash every few years. ’41 was big, though. That was after the second currency reform, when inflation broke 500% a year, and they funded a lot of postwar rebuilding with derivatives sales. Things got really giddy for a while, and then of course it all fell apart.

Q: You mentioned the war several times in the essay. I don’t know anything about that, remember, and I'm curious about the details.

A: Oh, that's true. But I’m not sure where to begin. We were fighting the Persians before I was born – they were called Iranians then, weren’t they? There were wars in ’07 and ’12, before Daryavush took over the country from those religious people – I forget what they were called.

Q: The mullahs?

A: Something like that. Anyway, Daryavush made himself emperor of Persia in ’20. At first people said he was going to side with us against the Chinese, and then he sided with the Chinese instead, and then we were fighting him, and then we were fighting the Chinese, and then we were fighting just about everybody. We sent troops all over the world, and you saw gold stars in a lot of windows by the end of the war; my brothers were drafted and never came home. Jeff was killed in action in Africa, and Matt’s unit got hit by a briefcase nuke in Mexico.

Q: I’m sorry. Did a lot of nukes get used in the war?

A: Mostly just the little briefcase bombs. A few big ones got tossed between Persia and Israel around the time Jerusalem fell, and we used some tacticals in Africa, but that’s all. Toward the end of the war, when we were trying to hold onto Mexico in ’34 and ’35, everyone was scared to death that we were going to go nuclear with the Persians and the Chinese in a big way, but the peace treaty came first. You can’t imagine how it felt when the bells started ringing all over town and we knew the treaty was signed. We still had hungry days after that, with reparations and everything, but the war was over and we didn’t have to worry about the bombs.

Q: Reparations?

A: Well, we didn’t win, you know.

Q: I didn’t. But another question one of my readers had was about your adopted daughter Molly. Why can’t she get into a school?

A: The charter school only takes kids who pass the entrance tests, and the public schools shut down during the war to save fuel and money. The government says they’re going to open them again one of these days, but I don’t expect it any time soon. I worry about Molly a lot. She tries, but reading is just hard for her. If we can’t get her an education, she’s going to have a hard life.

Q: But Joe Jr. is doing well.

A: I’m so proud of him. He’s already talking to engineers about an apprenticeship once he leaves charter school. As long as we can keep him out of the army he’ll be fine.

Q: What’s the problem with the army? Are you worried about another war?

A: No, but we’re getting a little too close to politics, you know. Let’s just say that the army has things to do on our side of the border these days.

Q: Got it. Maybe I should finish by asking what you think the future holds.

A: I hope it brings better times. I know we can’t go back to living like it’s 2000, the resources just aren’t there any more, but I’d like to see our money go a little further, and I’d like to see Joe Jr. and Molly have better lives than Joe and I have. Still, if we can hold on to what we’ve got now that won’t be too bad. I hope we can do that. I really hope so.


taran said...
How utterly depressing. I really hope you are off the mark...

11/22/06, 5:00 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Yes, I thought a lot of people were missing the point of my previous posts. The future we face isn't business as usual with a coat of green spraypaint, or a hitching post for utopian fantasies, or some satisfyingly dramatic catastrophe that punishes the people we like to blame for our problems. It's the decline and fall of a civilization the way this process actually happens: slow and messy, as real history always is.

Mind you, I'm not silly enough to claim that this fictional narrative is what the future actually holds. My point is that this is the kind of future we can expect: a future in which the same sort of political, economic, and social crises we've experienced in the last two centuries keep happening, against the backdrop of contracting energy supplies and slow but massive climate change. You'll get a clearer idea of where it's going when next week's post goes up.

11/24/06, 11:11 AM

norlight0 said...
There are certainly some real life examples in our own tiime and own hemisphere. Much is made of Cuba's own energy descent since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Another example is the disappearance of the middle class in Argentina after the financial collapse of a few years back.
I am increasingly seeing our current situation in the light of peak oil. Today is Black Friday and the orgy of excess and materialism continues unabated. It is all a little hard to take.

11/24/06, 2:09 PM

Óskar said...
I discovered this blog just two days ago and I finished reading all of it, every single post including the comments, last night. I'm simply awed by the clarity of your thought and the quality of your writing.

The text on this blog already amounts to that of a good book. As a tribute to this "book", which I've read free of charge, I decided to compile all the text into a nice printable word document. That's mostly so I can print it out for my parents or someone else less inclined to read lengthy internet blogs. I included all the comments too because I must say the quality of the discussion here is remarkable and definitely enriches the original posts.

I would of course be very delighted to share this doc with anyone interested :)

I particularly appreciate your historical approach to the peak oil subject. I am myself a history enthusiast and just like you I've felt that the survivalist apocalypse ideas don't rhyme well with real history, anymore than the delusions of infinite progress. Ironically, the faith in those two ideas are similar to people's attitudes in a variety of historical situations similar to ours (just as many Romans believed in the invincibility of their civilization, while Jews or other minority groups at the time awaited the Apocalypse).

Although you write primarily for an American audience, I'm finding this very relevant for my native country, Iceland, because we're "more American" than most other Europeans, in terms of consumer habits and urban culture. Icelanders here are more deluded by progress than even most other Westerners, mostly because until the 20th century ours was one of the most backward countries in Europe while now we're one of the world's richest countries (per capita). Regression will be extremely hard for my country to face, psychologically.

Anyway, more on topic, the story of Jane Average is very good, so I eagerly await your take on 2100 and 2150!

~ Óskar

11/26/06, 8:28 AM

bunnygirl said...
Thank you for this-- I'm looking forward to more!

I have a conventionally-written series I'm working on that focuses on post-peak, civil war and climate issues. Unfortunately, I'm currently sidetracked with with a character who demanded her own life and her own diary: Diana's Diary

I've found that there isn't much of a market right now for speculative fiction of this nature. Or rather, publishers and agents don't think there's a market, which ends up amounting to the same thing. So I'm just writing, tinkering and editing, keeping an eye on the news and markets. I may eventually take my novels and go print-on-demand.

Do you have anything like that in the works? Your writing is solid, and you have an audience. You could do well.

Mainly, I'm just thrilled to see that I'm not the only one writing this kind of stuff. But I'm puzzled by the absence of civil wars and disturbances in your speculations. Have you just not gotten around to mentioning them?

In the scenario I've chosen for my fiction, whole sections of the country secede in disgust after the breakdown of civil order and the depradations of the draft for the resource wars.

Some northern regions want to join Canada. The southwest (where my fiction takes place) is torn apart by those who want to join Mexico, those who want to join the Republic of Texas, and those who would rather just go it alone. Some areas of the former United States have devolved into race riots and religious wars. And in other places, it's more like what you have described-- poorer and more authoritarian, but still American.

Thanks again for writing this-- I've had people read my fiction and say it brought home the issues in a way economic articles never could.

Get the message out however you can, right? Throw in a love interest, and even someone who would rather read a Harlequin than The Oil Drum might start looking at the world a little differently.

11/26/06, 8:51 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Dead on target, Norlight -- I mostly used examples from 20th century European history to create the ambience of 2050, but could just as well have used the examples you've cited. As for seeing today's news in the light of tomorrow's crises, it's an excellent habit: one of the few ways to keep from being blindsided by the retrospectively obvious.

Oskar, I appreciate your enthusiasm. The material on this blog, along with some of my other essays, will be the raw first-draft material for a book. So you're a bit ahead of the curve. No, I don't have a publisher in mind yet -- the publishers of my other books publish in the alternative spirituality field (that's where Druids hang out, after all) and don't do current-affairs books. I don't anticipate any trouble finding a publisher for it, though.

Bunnygirl, I spent most of a decade and a half trying to break into print in fiction, with zero results -- I have a bunch of unpublished science fiction novels in the file cabinet. As I write for a living these days, I don't anticipate doing much fiction outside of scenario pieces like "Christmas Eve 2050." As for civil war, historically those take quite a while to get going -- people will normally exhaust every other alternative before trying the very risky project of challenging a national government on the battlefield. It took close to half a century for the sectional discords that launched the US Civil War to go from angry words to cannonballs hitting Fort Sumter. Open civil warfare is still in the future in my imaginary 2050...though Jane's evasive comments about what the army is doing these days may suggest it's not that far off. Stay tuned!

11/27/06, 11:20 AM