Human beings make sense of their lives by telling stories, and the tools of narrative fiction have enormous value for putting facts in context – especially when the context is as unfamiliar as the aftermath of peak oil will be to most people in the industrial world. With this excuse, if any is needed, I’ve sketched out the first of three glimpses of what life might be like for an average American family in the deindustrial future. This one’s set in 2050, about 40 years postpeak, during a respite from one of the first waves of catabolic collapse.
Jane tucked the pie into the oven, wound the timer, and allowed a smile. Though her last name was Average, courtesy of some forgotten Ellis Island clerk who garbled the Eastern European surname of her husband’s great-great-grandfather, she felt better than average this Christmas. She felt lucky, special. They’d been able to get a Thanksgiving turkey and a Christmas ham, for the first time since the war, and though they’d had to hoard ration coupons all year to do it, she didn’t regret all those dinners of squash and beans from the garden. There were presents for the children, candles for the table, more than enough food for all: just like old times.
For the first time in years, things looked bright and the future didn’t seem quite so threatening. She and Joe both had good jobs at a metal recycling plant; she did bookkeeping, and he’d just been promoted to shift foreman. Nothing the company depended on was about to hubbert, too, so their jobs would be around for a while. Inflation was down to 20% a year after the last currency reform, which was a big improvement. Food was still expensive, but at least you could count on getting it, and electricity was cheaper since the new solar plant went online last spring. All in all, life was good.
“Honey?” Joe’s voice, calling from the living room. “Everybody’s ready.”
“Pie’s just in. I’m on my way,” She took off the oven mitts and went out of the kitchen to where Joe and the children were waiting.
Memories from Jane’s childhood jarred against the little living room, with its single bare light bulb and the radio playing tinny holiday music in one corner. Back then, Christmas meant snow, colored lights, the balsam scent of a Christmas tree, crowds of relatives from all over, TV and internet entertainment blaring in the background. All of that was long gone, of course. Jane hadn’t seen snow since the big methane spike in ’24 sent the climate reeling. Electricity cost too much to waste on lights, and nobody cut down trees these days, though it wasn’t a labor camp offense the way it was when fuel ran short during the war. Traveling across country was for soldiers, prisoners, government officials, and the very rich. TVs were too expensive for most people, and the government and the army hoarded what was left of the internet after e-warfare and electricity shortages got through with it. Still, there were cards and decorations on the Christmas shelf, and stockings to hang underneath.
They always opened one special present each on Christmas eve, but the stockings had to go up first, and that brought a sad moment. She and Joe hung theirs, then stepped aside for Joe Jr. He had three stockings in his hands: one for himself and two for the children they’d lost. With all the solemnity a twelve-year-old could muster, he put the stockings on their hooks: one for him; one for Cathy, who died age three from drug-resistant pneumonia; one for Brett, who died age eight when hemorrhagic fever came through in ‘45. Then he stepped aside, too, and turned to look at the fourth person there.
Molly wasn’t Jane’s daughter, though it was hard for either of them to remember that sometimes. She was the child of their friends Bill and Erica. Bill was a derivatives broker who got caught cooking his firm’s books in the crash of ’41, went to labor camp, and died there. A very pregnant Erica moved in with Jane and Joe, gave birth to Molly, and died in the same epidemic as Brett. So Molly had three stockings to hang, too. She was small for her eight years, and had to stretch to get the stockings on their hooks.
Once all the stockings were in place, Joe crossed the room to his armchair, sat down with a grin, and took four small packages from under the end table with the air of a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat. Each one was wrapped in a bright scrap of cloth. Jane recalled wrapping paper from her own childhood, used once and thrown away, and wondered why anyone even in those days put up with such waste. Didn’t people have better things to do with all the money they used to have? Jane was more sensible; once the Average family’s presents were unwrapped, the cloth wrappings went back to the quilt drawer where they came from.
Joe Jr. got his present unwrapped first. “Sweet,” he said in awed tones. “Look at it.” The slide rule sparkled as numbers slid smoothly past one another. He had a gift for math, so his teachers said, and he’d won a cheap slide rule in a contest when the government launched a Sustainability Initiative two years back. The government was always launching Sustainability Initiatives, but this one actually made some sense: pocket calculators cost close to a month’s wages these days, and word on the street was that some of the minerals needed for the chips were about to hubbert. Jane knew what that meant, so she and Joe worked extra hours to afford a professional model for Joe Jr. He’d need tech skills and an exempt job to stay out of the army, and those who went into the army came home maimed or dead too often to take any chances.
The wrappings of Molly’s present came open a moment later to reveal two books with bright flimsy covers. Jane caught the flicker of disappointment before the child put on a bright smile. Molly hadn’t tested high enough to get into charter school, and since the war, that meant no school at all unless she could get her scores up next year. She was bright enough when it came to practical things, and good at math, but reading was a challenge. One of the old women who kept themselves fed tending and teaching the neighborhood children guessed that Molly had dyslexia, but what exactly that meant and what could be done about it, Jane had never been able to learn. She gave Molly a hug, hoping she would understand.
She and Joe opened their presents, knowing that each contained something they already owned – one of Joe’s ties and a pair of Jane’s earrings, wrapped up late at night so the children wouldn’t know. After the slide rule, Molly’s books, and the ham, there wasn’t money for more luxuries. The rest of the presents, the ones that would wait for morning, were clothes and other necessities. They always were; it would take much better times to change that.
A chime from the kitchen caught everyone’s attention. “That’s the pie,” she said. “First one in to help set the table gets an extra slice.” The slice was for Molly, of course, though Joe Jr. made a game of it, racing her into the kitchen and losing on purpose. Jane and Joe followed at a less hectic pace. The four of them had the table set in minutes: ham and applesauce, sweet potatoes, cabbage, mashed carrots, a plate of homemade Christmas candies, and the squash pie steaming over on the counter: more food in one place than Jane ever thought she’d see again during the worst part of the war, enough for everyone to get gloriously overfull for a change. The plates and silver were Bill and Erica’s, real 20th century stuff.
They mumbled their way through grace, an old habit not yet quite put away. Jane and Joe belonged to one of the Christian churches years back, but drifted away around the time the last traces of religion got shouldered aside in favor of political propaganda for one of the prewar parties, she didn’t remember which. These days, you saw a lot of churches lying empty or converted to something else. Most of the really religious people Jane knew belonged to some other faith, Buddhist, Gaian, Seven Powers, or what have you. She’d thought more than once recently about visiting the Gaian church up the street. The Gaians took care of their own, and that appealed to her a lot.
She loaded her plate with food, glanced at the window. Warm December rain spattered against it, blurred the windows of the apartment building across the street into vague yellow rectangles and turned the unlit street into pure darkness. Joe Jr. chattered about the slide rule and his hopes of getting an apprenticeship with an engineer someday. Jane glanced across the table at Molly, then, and saw past the taut smile to the too familiar look of disappointment in her eyes.
Somehow that was the thing that brought the memories surging up: memories of Christmas from Jane’s own childhood, when her family lived in a sprawling suburban house and the world still seemed to work. She remembered snowmen in the yard and sled tracks down the street; the big Christmas tree in the corner of a living room bigger than their apartment was now, sparkling with lights and decorations; dinners where even the leftovers made a bigger meal than anyone could eat; driving – in a car, like rich people! – to a bright sprawling place called a shopping mall, where anything you could think of could be bought for money you didn’t even have yet; gifts that didn’t have to have any use in the world except the delight they brought to some child’s eyes; all the extravagant graces of a world that didn’t exist any more.
Tears welled up, but they were tears of anger. Why, goddammit? She flung the question at the memories, the bright clean well-fed faces of her childhood. Why did you have to waste so much and leave so little?
Joe saw the tears, but misread them. “Beautiful, isn’t it? Just like old times.”
She kept her smile in place with an effort. “Yes. Yes, of course.”