Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Nawida 2150: Q&A

I had some additional questions for Joe, the viewpoint character of last week’s Archdruid Report post. Despite his failing health, he welcomed the chance for an interview. We met at the village hall, walked down to the beach just south of it, and sat on a convenient piece of weathered concrete just above the high water line.

Q: I want to thank you for making the time to talk with me, Joe. I hope you’re not in too much pain.

A: Oh, it comes and goes. It’s not too bad today.

Q: Does the village healer have anything to help with pain?

A: Not for something like this. Sharon makes a willow bark tea that does a good job on cramps and headaches, and poppy resin can be had from merchants now and again, but it costs half the earth—more than a schoolteacher can afford, certainly.

Q: If you don’t mind my asking, how much money do you make?

A: Money? Very little; there’s not much of that in circulation these days. I have one student whose family pays me in money—they’re in trade, so it’s convenient for them. The rest pay in barter or rice chits—those are markers good for a fraction of next year’s rice crop. Most local trade uses one or the other. Still, you can’t buy foreign goods with them, and even if I sold everything I got I couldn’t keep myself in poppy resin for more than a little while. No, I found my remedy in a couple of the Old Time books in my library. You might have heard of Epictetus or Marcus Aurelius.

Q: The Stoic philosophers?

A: Good! If you were one of my students you’d get a treat. Yes, the old Stoics have a lot to offer these days. Any of my students who stay long enough to handle Old Time English prose end up reading them.

Q: How many students do you have?

A: Right now, fifteen. It’s up and down depending on the season, and of course school’s closed for planting and harvest, but it’s usually between ten and twenty. That’s not bad in a village with fewer than a hundred children of school age, you know.

Q: What about the other children? Can’t their parents afford to send them to school?

A: Partly that; partly, some people don’t see the point of schooling their children; and partly, some children just aren’t suited to book learning. They’ll be perfectly good farmers and crafters even if they can’t read a word of Old Time English, and the doors illiteracy closes to them probably wouldn’t open for them anyway. To my mind, as long as there are always at least a few who have the means, the desire, and the talent to learn, I have no reason to complain. It helps that the church encourages learning so much, of course. Any girl who wants to enter the priestesshood knows right away that she has to learn to read—they won’t even consider taking a postulant who can’t read the sacred books.

Q: What do you think of the Gaian church? I thought I heard a little ambivalence on your part in the Nawida essay.

A: Oh, I think the world of it. (laughs) Seriously, it’s a very good thing. The church does a huge amount of good in the world and not much evil. Of course that might change; I’ve read enough history to know what religions can do if they get tangled up in politics. Still, people need a place to hang their hopes, and that usually means some religion or other. In Old Time they tried to put their hopes on sheer material extravagance instead, but they ran out of resources long before they ran out of cravings to satisfy. That’s the advantage religion has, you know: salvation is a renewable resource. Since the church’s notion of salvation is all mixed up with ecological restoration, they’ve got an advantages most of the Old Time faiths didn’t.

Q: But you don’t actually believe in the Gaian teachings.

A: I can’t see any reason to think that a planetary biosphere has any reason to concern itself with what happens to any particular life form running around on its skin, even if the life form has two legs and a head chockfull of grandiose ideas about its own importance. Now I could be as wrong as wrong can be, but that’s the thing I can’t get my head around.

Q: What does the church think of that?

A: Oh, we’ve had our ups and downs. During the drought years I pretty much kept my mouth shut; those were hard times, and faith in Mama Gaia was just about the only thing that kept people going. Once the seas rose and the rains came, times got much easier, and that makes for tolerance. Anna—she was the priestess before the one we have now—she and I used to sit up late nights and argue about theology over a bottle of whiskey. A fine, well-read person. If the church turns out to be right and I wake up in Mama Gaia’s bosom after this old body finally shuts down, Anna’s one I’ll look for. She was the one who figured out that my Darwin book was something the church didn’t have.

Q: Which book was that?

A: The Voyage of the Beagle. That was one of the books in the old set of Harvard Classics I bought in ’38. Since Darwin’s one of the prophets...

Q: Wait a moment. Charles Darwin is a Gaian prophet?

A: That’s what the church says. It’s in the litany: ‘And for Darwin, who taught the holy truth that humanity is part of nature and bound by its laws—for him and his teaching we give thanks to the Earth Mother.’ Mind you, I sometimes wonder what old Darwin himself would think of that. At any rate, the church has big libraries in Denva and a few other places, and Darwin’s other books are in those, but as far as anyone knows mine was the only copy of The Voyage of the Beagle anywhere. That got me a great deal of tolerance from then on. It probably didn’t hurt that most of my best students went into the church themselves.

Q: How do you feel about that?

A: Oh, I have my ambivalent moments. When I was younger I had wild dreams about reviving technology and rebuilding a secular society, but it’s clear to me now that nothing like that is going to happen anytime soon. As I said, people need a place to hang their hopes, and after what happened to Old Time, there aren’t a lot of people willing to try the same thing again—even if that was possible, and I don’t think it is. I’ve read that when the last big civilization went under, the Old Believers did then what the church is doing now: preserving knowledge, trying to blunt the sharp edges of the times, and—well, look at that! You don’t see one of those every day.

Q: That ship?

A: A two-master up from Antarctica. It’s been close to a year since the last one came.

Q: Antarctica? Do people live there?

A: Quite a few of them. There were settlers in West Antarctica early in the last century; once the western ice sheet melted, it was opened for settlement. They suffered terribly when the big eastern ice sheet collapsed in 2119, of course, but that left the whole continent free of ice. The Antarcticans are great sailors, and trade with anybody who has something they don’t. That means almost everything except wheat, beef, gold, and timber, from what I hear. It’s hard to know what’s true and what’s travelers’ tales these days.

Q: Do you get much news from abroad?

A: Only when merchants or travelers come through, and then only what they remember and want to talk about. Even on this continent, it takes time for news to spread. We didn’t hear about the war between China and Mexico until it was half over, for example, and it went on for close to five years.

Q: Has war been a problem here?

A: Not recently. We had a brisk little border war with the Dakota Republic a few years ago over some territory up near the Missouri headwaters, but most often the Six Republics get along. Yes, that’s most of the old United States east of the Rockies and north of the sea. Generally things seem to have settled down since my childhood.

Q: As a final question, what kind of future do you hope your students will have?

A: Whatever kind they decide to make for themselves. It’s a bigger world than it was in Old Time, when you could step in a plane here and be on the other side of the ocean in a few hours. Now it takes weeks even to get to Denva, and that’s not far away by Old Time standards. A bigger world and not so many people means there’s room for many different futures. I wish I could see some of them, just as I’d probably be glad to be spared some of them. But that’s the way of things. I imagine the same thing was true in Old Time; there were good choices and bad ones. It’s just that the bad ones had so much impact. Nothing we do these days will have half so much, but I hope we can do better in our own small way.


gregon7 said...
The thing that strikes me about this series is that it is all focused on sadly looking backward to the peak of the gobal consumer economy ... with a sense of loss. I understand the literary poise that you strike to emphasize what is to come. But I think that one could look forward to the challenge and accomplishments of this oil-less, climate changed future with the same positive excitment as todays venture capitalists. The regret inherent in these dialogues suggests that the loss of materialism and convenience are a bad thing, a regression. That shouldn't be the case. Consider the meaningless consumerism, social isolation, cancerous resource consumption, ecological destruction and religous hubris of this time. This new age of vastly reduced petroleum consumption on a planet sustaining 2 billion people should be considred a breath of fresh air (literally) and a goal to pursued with excitement.

12/20/06, 7:58 PM

Mauricio Babilonia said...
gregon7, your observation is well-taken, but please don't be too quick to discount some of the positives that accompany the negatives you mention. Good public health, transportation and communications infrastructure are a few of the things I would miss, should the things JMG writes about come to pass. This is about more than consumerism, comfort and convenience.

Talk to someone who lived through the Great Depression and you might find your enthusiasm for the decline of our civilization tempered somewhat. Also, anyone who's done an honest day's physical labor will be able tell you what painful honesty is about.

12/21/06, 9:35 AM

FreeAcre said...
I love this series!
You know, tonight is Winter Solstice. Good night for a bonfire, maybe a little drumming, sage, kind thoughts for the planet and it's beings. No time like the present to honor our Mother, the Earth.

12/21/06, 11:40 AM

brenda said...
Archdude: Awesome! Anyone who writes like Ursula LeGuin shouldn't have to worry about the cost of medical insurance.

I hope you'll develop your series into a book. There is too much ignorance & denial in America about the peak oil crisis. Even though you describe tough times, you do it in a way that appeals to Americans brought up on tales of the pioneers. You make it seem do-able. Tough, harsh, ultimately do-able.

Solstice Greetings to everyone. The light begins to return starting today.

12/21/06, 12:52 PM

Tully Reill said...

I hope that in the near future you will consider some more of these tales. They have been both enlightening and a pleasure to read.

12/21/06, 2:26 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Thanks, all, for your comments. Gregon7, your point's a valid one, but it needs to be put into perspective. Take a moment to think about the people you know and care about. How many of them have chronic health problems like diabetes? In a deindustrial future, they'd be dead. How many have had heart attacks, serious infections, or the like? They'd be dead too. How many of them have had to declare bankruptcy? Most of those will have starved to death. How many are children? Around a third of those will have died before their fifth birthday. How many of them are women who have had children? A fifth or so of them will have died in childbirth.

I could go on, but I think the point is clear. Remember that population overshoot leads to crash well below long term carrying capacity, so there won't be two billion people on the planet at the bottom of catabolic collapse; there'll most likely be somewhere south of 500 million. That will be good for the planet, but getting there will entail a great deal of suffering and death.

Civilizations usually end that way. The tone of the stories, in fact, was my attempt to imitate the flavor of much of the literature of the European Dark Ages, which have that same backward-looking, elegiac quality.

For what it's worth, I don't see the end of the industrial economy as a regression, but then I don't believe in the mythology of progress in the first place. Our civilization took a disastrous wrong turning, and we're stuck with the bill. With luck and a lot of hard work, we can lay the foundations for a better society in the future. The way there, however, involves a huge amount of human tragedy, and it's crucial that we remember that and be willing to go through the grieving process.

Mauricio, thanks for the perspective! I lived in pretty fair poverty for a while and have done hard physical labor for a living, and can only concur with your comments.

Freeacre, well, you're preaching to the choir here -- pun not intended. My spouse and I had our private solstice ceremony last night, and we'll be celebrating with the local Druid grove this evening. I hope your solstice was a delight!

Brenda and Tully, thanks -- I'll consider more fiction pieces along these lines, though it may be a while. Many of the essays posted here are first drafts of material for a future nonfiction project; I've had zero luck trying to get my novels (science fiction, most of them) published in the past, and can't really justify banging my head against that particular brick wall just now. But we'll see.

12/22/06, 12:50 PM

Adrynian said...
For what it's worth, the publishing companies are largely reactionary and unimaginative bandwagon followers. These stories have been amazing and I hope you write more for us. My friend tried to get a few of his works published and he eventually just self-published two of them: a short story and a novel. He even did a small book tour with the novel and has had some success selling it through independent bookstores. He tells me it's a ridiculous amount of work, but I think he's glad to have it out there. Have you ever considered going that route? I'm sure there are lots of us out there who would like to read your writings.

On another note, I've been reading Richard Register's "Ecocities" (not finished yet), and I'm curious as to your opinion on his ideas (if you're familiar with them) about building dense, walkable city cores of multi-zoned buildings that are surrounded by supporting permacultural "working forests" & fields, followed by no-humans-allowed wild spaces (basically like "Cores & Corridors" in deep ecology)? If we're at peak now, we may still have ~20 years of relatively available (though increasingly shockingly expensive) resources left before declines overwhelm us, and if these resources are invested appropriately (reduced [energy] consumption via relocalization, increasing food security via same relocalization, etc.), I think they could provide at least *some* protection/insulation from the coming storm for at least *some* people. (I don't really think this will happen on any scale, just that it *could* happen in places if localities act with wisdom.)

I'm also curious whether you've read Engineer Poet's (at The Oil Drum) post about restoring soil fertility and fighting climate change by building Terra Praeta through adding charcoal to our soils? I'm not sure about his claims that this will enable us to support continued industrialism, but I do like the potential for improving our energy extraction efficiency from wood/biomass while also locking carbon away in soils for up to ~10,000 years.

I guess I'm just wondering how/whether you see ideas like these being incorporated into our/future societies. I don't think we can prevent civilizational collapse, as I strongly suspect it's too late (it seems we really should have been working on it *consistently* since at least the '70s if we were serious about it), but I do have some hope that people will begin to look for and implement creative measures to forestall their own destruction once the crisis appears imminent. Much of it may be "too little, too late," but I also think many ingenious ideas can go a long way towards laying the groundwork for what comes next.

12/22/06, 4:37 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Adrynian, I did the self-publishing gig in the 90s, producing a quarterly journal and a couple of books. It was a lot of work for very little result, and I don't plan on doing that again any time soon. Sorry.

As far as preparations for the downside of Hubbert's Peak, I'm familiar with both the discussions you cite, and am very much in favor of both -- though I suspect that the benefits may be a bit overhyped by their proponents, anything that could help cushion the way down is worth trying. Unlike the neoprimitivists, I'm fond of cities -- I'm a city boy myself -- and would like to see "green cities" take shape in time to survive the rougher parts of the approaching deindustrial transition.

Historically speaking, cities can be a sustainable human ecology in temperate climates -- there are cities in Europe and China that have been around for more than 3000 years, and are still surrounded by fertile fields. They don't work too well in arid climates due to the long-term effects of irrigation, and they're a mixed bag in tropical climates. Still, I see them as a new mutation that's still getting the bugs worked out. Give 'em another 5,000 years and they'll be fine.

As it is, though, very little is being done to turn our existing cities into anything that could be called sustainable by the furthest stretch of the imagination. Ideas are not enough -- somebody has to be willing to put them into practice, in the fairly short window of time we have left. So the question I'd leave to you, and indeed to everyone, is what you propose to do in your own life to make these things happen.

12/23/06, 7:20 PM