Thursday, July 12, 2007

Adam's Story: Banners in the Wind

This narrative is the third part of an exploration of the five themes from my Archdruid Report post “Glimpsing the Deindustrial Future” using the tools of narrative fiction. As with the first two portions of “Adam’s Story,” the setting is the rural Pacific Northwest during the second half of this century.


Adam and Haruko spent most of the next three weeks walking south along the coast highway, with the sea never far away to their right and a half-empty land to their left. Here and there, where rivers laid down pockets of good soil, there were farms and the occasional village, and people willing to trade an afternoon’s work for a meal and a dry place to sleep. Elsewhere, empty towns huddled against the gray turbulence of the sea – fishing ports abandoned when the seas were stripped of fish, tourist towns long empty of tourists – and those offered shelter, if nothing more.

Twice they’d found places to stay more than a night. One of those was a religious commune, a dozen or so adults and half that many children living all together in a big barn of a place just off the highway. They’d left the city fifteen years back to follow their own revelation, though Adam never did quite manage to figure out what made theirs different from anyone else’s. Still, they had goats for milk and meat, and the two travelers happened to arrive right as the nannies were giving birth, which meant extra hands were more than welcome.

They stayed there more than a week in all, and Adam guessed they might have stayed there for good if they’d had any interest in the commune’s religion. No chance of that, though; Haruko was Buddhist, devout enough to pray the nembutsu every night; Adam wasn’t sure what he believed, but that one little group of people were God’s chosen and everyone else was going to fry eternally for the sin of disagreeing with them wasn’t it. When the last of the kids had dropped, he and Haruko said their goodbyes and started south again.

The second place was harder to leave in some ways, easier in others. Pells Falls was an old tourist town a week south of the commune, still hanging onto life with a fingernail grip; a few old people still had their homes there, eking out a living from backyard gardens. They had plenty of work for travelers, and made it clear that if those travelers were minded to stay, there were houses in good condition they could have for the asking. He and Haruko talked it over late one night and decided against it; the thought of keeping watch over another dying town was more than Adam could face, and Haruko surprised him by saying she was sure there was something better waiting further down the road. The two of them stayed three nights in Pells Falls and then headed on.

It was definitely “the two of them” by then. Throw any two people together in a situation where cooperation was their one shot at survival, Adam thought as they walked south one morning, and you could be pretty certain they’d end up either good friends or blood enemies. Despite cultural differences he wasn’t yet sure he could measure, much less bridge, he and Haruko had managed the first option. Friends, maybe more: he couldn’t be sure of that, hadn’t found a way to ask the question while the future ahead of them was still a blank.

That was much on his mind the morning they left Pells Falls, but by day’s end he had something else to worry about. Before noon, a distant rumbling in the sky sent Haruko bolting off the road. She was frightened enough that it took her several tries to remember the English for “airplane.” From the limited safety of a dense clump of vine maples, they caught glimpses of an angular shape high in the air. During the war with China, Haruko told him in a whisper, planes followed the Japanese highways and shot at anything that moved. She would not leave the maples until long after the sky was silent again.

The same plane, or another just like it, appeared in the sky ahead of them twice more that afternoon. Then, toward evening, while they were looking for a place to camp for the night, they rounded a curve in the road and found themselves facing a line of uniformed men with guns. By the time he was finished being surprised, Adam had sized up the distance; no point in trying to run. The flat expressionless look on Haruko’s face told him she’d already worked out the same harsh mathematics. Lacking any other option, they walked up to the line.

“So what’s all this?” Adam asked, hoping he sounded more confident than he felt.

The nearest soldier sized him up, decided he wasn’t a threat. “Cascade Republic Army,” he said. “We’re securing the coast.” Then, when Adam looked puzzled: “You get any news out here?”

“Not for years.”

The man let out a whistle. “You’ve missed a few things,” he said. “Washington fell last winter, so no more United States. Governor Mendoza’s declared a republic here.” He gestured back behind the line; two trucks stood there, each with an unfamiliar flag – white, blue, green in horizontal stripes – painted on the doors. “You’re headed south?”

“If we can.”

The soldier turned, called out, “Lieutenant Corson, sir!” The lieutenant left a clutch of men around a radio next to one of the trucks, and came over. “Couple of travelers, sir,” the man said, saluting. “Let ‘em through?”

The lieutenant gave Adam a much less cursory look than the soldier had. “Name and residence?”

“Adam Keely. I used to live at Learyville, up the coast.”

“How’s Learyville these days?”

“Pretty quiet. Nobody lives there now.”

The lieutenant nodded. “And her?”

That was the question that mattered, Adam knew. If they’d been sent to secure the coast, it would be nanmin they were securing it against. Doubtless he could shrug, tell the truth, and send Haruko to whatever fate they had in mind for the refugees from Japan. In the instant he had to consider the matter, he knew it would be easier to gouge out his own eyes. “My wife Haruko,” he told the lieutenant. On cue, she gave the man a bright smile.

The lieutenant’s gaze moved to her, back to Adam. “I don’t see a wedding ring.”

Before he’d finished speaking Adam thought of Sybil’s ring. “In the bottom of my pack. Didn’t want to draw thieves.”

“Show me,” the lieutenant said.

Adam took off his pack, fished in it until he found the little pouch with Sybil’s ring in it, held the ring up for the lieutenant to see, and then for good measure turned and put it on Haruko’s finger, guessing it would fit. It did. “Satisfied?”

He could almost see the thoughts moving behind the lieutenant’s eyes, suspicions pulling one way, doubts the other, and time and too much work to do casting the deciding vote. “Go on,” the lieutenant said, with a motion of his head back past the trucks. Adam thanked him, nodded to the soldier, and then he and Haruko were past the line. The soldiers around the radio gave them incurious glances as they passed. The sound of voices and the crackle of the radio faded into silence behind them as they tried not to hurry too obviously down the road.

Neither of them said anything until the soldiers were well out of sight. Finally Adam let out a long ragged breath. “Well,” he said. “I’m glad that worked.”

Hand on his arm, the pressure so slight he could scarcely feel it: “Thank you.” Then she looked away. “Should I give you back the ring?”

He’d learned enough of the elaborately indirect way she spoke about important things to guess at the question behind the one she asked. “I think it looks fine where it is,” he said.

“So do I.” Her smile, shy and fragile, woke responses in him that left him dizzied.

Later, as the sun was drowning itself in the sea to their right, they found an abandoned motel with a room still fit to stay in, and made a meal from food the folks at Pells Falls had given them. Later still, they slept, or Haruko did. Adam lay awake for a long time, feeling her warmth against him, the rhythm of her noiseless breathing. For all that, his thoughts were far away.

Washington fell last winter, so no more United States. The soldier’s words turned in his mind, impossible to ignore, impossible to accept.

Until then he had never quite realized how far down the roots of the old secular faith reached into him, how much of the deep places of himself still believed that the troubles would turn out to be temporary after all. Fourth of July parades from his childhood, official speeches watched over the last fitful web connection in his teen years, scraps of a patriotic song Marge Dotson used to sing in her reedy voice, all blurred together into a shape that seemed as permanent as anything human could be. To hear that it was not just eclipsed for a time but gone for good was like looking up one morning and finding that the sky wasn’t there any more.

He thought of the flag that used to fly over the Learyville post office, back when Learyville had a post office, and then of the new flag on the sides of the military trucks, and wondered how many more new banners were spreading in the wind that night. The old patriotic ideals rang in his head, wrapped up in Marge’s voice: O beautiful for patriot dream that sees beyond the years, thine alabaster cities gleam undimmed by human tears... The words brought him up short. When did America’s cities, those riotous patchworks in which alabaster was only one color of many, ever had a shortage of tears? How much of the dream was ever real?

As he moved into the borderlands of sleep, he thought he could see something vast and poignant called America, something made of dreams, stars, songs, marching feet and alabaster cities all jumbled together, tearing loose from its moorings in reality and rising into the abstract night. Maybe – the thought burned at him, but he could not turn away from it – maybe that was where it belonged all along.

Haruko shifted, bringing him back to the moment. He nestled against her as sleep finally took him.


Erik said...
rising into the abstract night... maybe that was where it belonged all along.

The American ideal will always exist in the abstract, as long as there are people who remember what that ideal is; and that will only happen as long as we keep working to make the ideal manifest. As the Pirkei Avot says, "You are not required to complete the task (of repairing the world); neither are you free to abstain from it." Many of our current problems are at least partially rooted in the belief that the task is complete - and the extremely dangerous corollary belief that therefore whatever America does is, by definition, a manifestion of the ideal.

7/13/07, 5:19 AM

Dwig said...
It's definitely interesting to see the evolving dynamics of Adam's and Haruko's relationship. Also, the fact that the army group was organized and disciplined enough not to demand bribes to let them through, or commit unprovoked violence against them, speaks to the level of social organization remaining in the "Cascade Republic".

Speaking of the collapse of the U.S., Jeff Vail has an interesting article on the potential collapse of Mexico as a nation-state over at The Oil Drum. In it, he references another interesting article of his, The New Map, in which he describes "decline of the Nation-State" and his alternative "rhizome" model for the kind of organization that's hastening the decline, and will possibly replace it. John, I'd be interested in your take on how his model of decline compares to yours, and on his rhizome model that he presents in detail on his web site.

7/13/07, 11:19 AM

Carw Gwynt said...
It's interesting to me to read of how relaxed the line of soldiers were on the coastal highway (and even that they were on the highway), despite the comment about "securing the coast". I don't know enough about the geography of the area to know how easy it is to travel overland, but their placement on the road appeared to make it difficult to see them at a distance and avoid them.

The overflights and the soldiers say a lot about the Cascade Republic: They have enough fuel for overflights (although we don't know what type of aircraft that they're using), they're organized enough to have a standing army, they're relaxed enough that the standing army isn't paranoid when travelers come down the coastal highway, but they're still understaffed and overworked enough that they don't question Adam too much. It appears to speak well for the Republic and its future.

I'm definitely interested in how Adam's story will turn out, and look forward to the remaining two installments (plus the regular articles that you post).

7/14/07, 6:46 PM

yooper said...
I'm really liking this story more and more.... Thanks John, for the link to the other peak oil story. I'll follow it closely also.

The best thing I like about this story is that it appears that the characters of this story do not seem to be over zealous that this "decline" has been bestowed upon them. Quite the opposite....hmmm. Something for alot of people to think about. If the slow decline or sudden collaspe happens, this simply cannot be viewed as "desirable". Especially for those that have left the land half empty, right? I suspect, those don't view anything at all, that includes "flying pigs". There will be many, that will, "die in shame", rest assured.

Up to this point, you've created a story that is believeable following the Olduvia theory. I'm slowly warming up to your thoughts and timeline. Again, history does back you're case, there's no denying this, it's fact.

For one, I'm sitting on the edge of my seat, for the next episode, thanks!

7/14/07, 7:06 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Erik, I don't see it as an exclusively American ideal - the US never had a monopoly on the ideas its founders borrowed from the political discourse of their time. As you suggest, it's exactly the notion that this one country embodies those ideals that's at the root of a lot of our current problems.

Dwig and Carw, in the world of "Adam's Story," the armed forces of the for-the-moment Cascade Republic consist of a small core of vets who survived the civil war and a lot of young men for whom it's basically a meal ticket; they've got a dozen former USAF planes burning some kind of ethanol derivative, and a couple of hundred trucks running on vegetable oil. That's it. The force sent to "secure the coast" consists of around a thousand men, a dozen trucks, and one old fighter-bomber flying out of an inland base. Their casual attitude has less to do with professionalism than with a keen awareness, tolerably common among makeshift armies in times of radical change, that the civilians they maltreat today could be the people among whom they might have to run for cover if the political winds blow the other way tomorrow.

Dwig (again), I think Vail's notions are valid in the short term, less valid in the long term. Other things being equal, a government with a territorial base is stronger than a nongovernmental criminal or terrorist network, especially when the high-tech infrastructure that provides the network with its communications as well as its targets comes unglued. The networks are so much more effective just now because most governments in the Third World are kept weak by policies enforced by the industrial nations. We get Third World kleptocracies precisely because the rulers don't have the option of trading in money for the headier coin of real power. Once that comes to an end, expect some very ugly events as national governments terminate their criminal and terrorist rivals with extreme prejudice.

Yooper, glad you like it! You've caught one of the points I'm most interested in getting across -- the very high likelihood that, for the vast majority of people caught up in it, the decline and fall of industrial society is going to be a very unpleasant experience. A lot of the people who are cheering for it now may change their minds when it brings them hunger, disease, hard physical labor, violence, and early death. That can be mitigated to some extent if people are willing to act now, but I don't think it can be prevented.

7/15/07, 1:10 AM

Christine Lydon said...
So if Washington has "fallen", who took it (felled it?)? Surely not an invading army from another nation? Was it a civil war? And who wants a city anyway in the future you are describing? Aren't the big cities all emptied out? Or are you using the word Washington to mean the federal Government? Is the government still being run from within the city? I am really curious, and wondering how much of the detail of this world you have sketched out in your mind.

7/15/07, 2:20 PM

dark matter said...
I would have thought the time of Adam is a time of disintegration. A time when there is little or no "tax" base to sustain a "military," especially a rather organized one with lofty objectives (Cascade Republic).

But then, just beyond the military patrol there may be a thriving bicycle-and-farm community, with its fair share of megalomaniacs, that needs protection!

(You are welcome to tear into my vision of near future at my very intermittent blog :-)

7/16/07, 2:09 PM

Erik said...
Understood. My point was not that we have a copyright on "the American ideal" (ideals, really)... It should be obvious to anyone that the "American Experiment" is the product of 18th-century political theory.

My concern is that too many people in America, particularly those in the halls of power, don't really understand or believe in our founding ideals - or, they don't believe that we *can* live up to them, which has the same net effect because then they stop trying and become motivated by all the lesser things, like fear and power.

In an America that was still striving to manifest our founding ideals, we would still have habeus corpus, and would NOT have legalized torture and indefinite detention; and we would (I hope) not have even 30% of the population still supporting an administration that did such lasting harm to our national character.

7/16/07, 2:26 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Christine, yes, it's a civil war -- that was mentioned in the story. As far as the cities "emptying out," though, that's a bit of apocalyptic folklore I really have to discuss in a post one of these days, as it's among the least common events when civilizations fall. It's far more often the countryside that empties out; cities shrink but survive, unless they're subjected to repeated military attack.

There's quite a lot of detail in this future history -- some of which will be showing up in the next few stories.

Dark Matter, disintegration is a relative thing. As long as there are people and farmland, there's a basis for in-kind taxes, and doubtless the independent fragments of the country have come up with currencies of their own, though how stable those will be is a good question. (My guess is not very.) As for lofty objectives, it's common enough in times of decline to dream big dreams, and go under while trying to make them real.

Erik, agreed -- the people in the halls of power take their moral tone from the population as a whole. When you've got an entire nation that thinks it's okay to cheat on taxes, of course you're going to have politicians who pocket tax revenues. The sinking approval ratings of the current White House incumbent have nothing to do with the moral failings of his administration, drastic though those are; they're a reflection of the fact that his policies have failed to keep the middle class paradise of cheap gasoline, rising real estate prices, and sweatshopped consumer goods running on track, and so people are turning on him. I wish it were otherwise, but that's what I see. (No, I don't think things will improve noticeably when we get a Demublican president in place of a Repocrat, either.)

7/16/07, 5:34 PM

Danby said...
I happen to be in Eureka today, and I was wondering about the location and extent of the Cascade republic. Your story is not very specific (as it should not be, since Adam has relatively little knowledge of geography and no real context for the idea of "California" vs. "Oregon"). Still, I'm envisioning him being somewhere north of Crescent City and south of Coos Bay.
The British Empire was built with sailing ships and horse-drawn artillery. In 1776 London was a sprawling metropolis of over a million souls. Lack of fuel does not mean that social organization, cities, or war are things of the past.

7/18/07, 8:15 AM

John Michael Greer said...
Dan, the landscape in "Adam's Story" is a pastiche made from bits of half a dozen areas of the Pacific coast, from Lake Quinault down to Arcata. As Melville said, "it is not on any map' true places never are."

As for the British empire, of course you're right -- but that empire could not have supported itself without the economic powerhouse of the world's first industrial economy backing it up. France and Spain both tried to maintain extensive overseas empires in the 18th century, and both went broke doing it, because neither had the industrial economy to make it affordable.

7/18/07, 6:36 PM

Danby said...
The point I was trying to make was that a certain level of social organization is quite possible in a pre- and most likely post- fossil fuel economy. What made London a metropolis was it's system of financial institutions and the centralization of trade. These things existed and can exist again, albeit not at anything like the current level of sophistication, nor at the current low cost.

Driving down yesterday, I passed a number of spots on both 199 and 101 that could have been the model for the border guard station of the Cascade Republic. I was amused at the thought and decided to ask.

7/19/07, 1:00 AM

Plamen said...
I think you were wrong there is no plan B. Plan B for the industrial civilization is nuclear energy, and most of the experts in the energy field would support this statement. No other technically proven energy source is capable of providing the amounts and the quality of energy as it does.

IMO from the very beginning of its development nuclear was thought of as plan "B". It was painfully clear that fossil fuels will not last forever and even early researches made it clear that nuclear would be enough for thousands of years after FFs are gone.

What the scientists/engineers/politicians at that time did not take into account was:
1) Humans are far from perfect and failures in a technology can be very dangerous. Hence Chernobyl and Three Miles Island and nuclear falling off the cliff in the end of the last century
2) That the fossil fuel fiesta would create a temporary "vacuum in rationality", in which people will continue thinking that unsustainable things can go on forever, and that the tough choices could be put out forever. Yet the time is approaching we are going to have to make the tough choices, no matter how much we resist them.

8/20/07, 8:53 AM