Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Christmas Eve 2050

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.”

15 comments:

Jan Steinman said...

A touching look at the future!

You might enjoy my imagination of five years out and fifty years out.

In reality, I fear such scenarios are much further out, perhaps 100 years or more. This is a two-edged sword: we have more time to take action, but we're much less likely to get serious about it amid the "noise" of the usual business cycle -- boiling frog syndrome.

Jon Springer wrote a scenario that is spread across four generations -- perhaps closer to what will happen? Who knows!

Tully Reill said...

JMG, I eagerly await your next two. This warmed the heart and chilled the bone all in one.

Adrynian said...

Really excellent writing! I want more!

norlight0 said...

Good way of talking about what life might be like and the type of issues people may face! Jane's question at the end will be very common. History will judge us collectively very harshly. Looking back people will wonder why, knowling what we knew after the oil embargoes of the early and late 1970's, we didn't respond more appropriately to our challenges. And, what will we say when our grandchildren ask, "So, what were you doing back then?" (to make a difference)

RAS said...

JMG, good post. Your fiction is as good as your nonfiction. Part of me is afraid that you're all too right about the future -and part of me is afraid that the picture you paint is not grim enough!

I am curious though. Two of the religions you mentioned -Gaian and Seven Powers -are those ones that exist now or manifestations therof? Or are they completely made up?
Thanks!

nwlorax said...

We don't have to wait for this future---almost anyone on a Reservation in the Dakotas or a shantytown on the Texas/Louisiana border would be glad to have a house made of something other than cardboard and tin, regular meals and a job.

I don't think you are so much pointing to problems that are possible as situations that are already here. How do we fix the problems of rural poverty and hunger, let alone urban blight?

John Michael Greer said...

Many thanks for another round of good feedback. Jan, I read both your scenarios quite a while back -- they're among the reasons I chose to use that technique here, and also among the reasons I'm focusing on an ordinary American family rather than somebody in an ecovillage or the equivalent: different viewpoint, different history.

Tully and Adrynian, there's more in the pipeline. Look for installments from 2100 and 2150, though next week's is something a bit different.

Norlight, of course you're right -- but then that's a good incentive to do something now.

Ras, one of the common features of the collapse of civilizations is the expansion of minority and ethnic religions. The Gaian and Seven Powers faiths don't exist yet, but they're envisioned as offshoots of existing religious movements -- the Gaians of contemporary Neopaganism, the Seven Powers of African diaspora faiths such as Vodou -- just as Christianity started out as an offshoot of Judaism, one of the many ethnic religions of Roman times.

Gordon, you win the gold star. You caught the fact that my scenario is modeled on poverty in rural America, and ordinary life in third world countries, circa right now. The difference between now and 2050 is that in my scenario, the lifestyle of a Pine Ridge Lakota or a Guatemalan farmer today has become that of the average American then. My guess is that this, rather than either the business as usual scenarios of CERA and the like, or the crash'n'burn fantasies of the survivalists, is where we're headed.

I wish we could talk about solving the problems of poverty and hunger, but I think it's long past the time for that; poverty and hunger will be familiar guests in our homes and those of our descendants for a very long time to come.

The 2100 and 2150 scenarios are also based on models -- historical ones, this time. No, I won't say which one, though I'd entertain guesses. (Hmm -- what kind of beer do guesses like?)

Sean Carter said...

A very thoughtful presentation!! I loved your post!! Would look forward to some more thought provoking ones!!!

galacticsurfer said...

Beautiful. Maybe I'm just a soft touch, but I cried and I'm sitting here in the office. I look forward to the next installment and with real fear to my kids(now 4 and 7 years old) and possibly me living this life described.

nwlorax said...

JM, I have a small but stubborn bit of hope for addressing some of the poverty in rural communities through traditional horticulture and micro-credit. I recommend "Buffalo Bird Woman's'Garden" to folks interested in seeing what can be done on almost no resources. Gardening doesn't need money---all it needs are gardeners and moderate cooperation from nature.

The microcredit movement has been an amazing success in India, and there's no reason we could not try it in the West.

FreeAcre said...

Thank you, John, for humanizing our vision of the future. Perhaps the best we can do for our children and grandchildren would be to learn to develope those tactics and systems that support and nourish the poor we have now. That would be a start.

I keep going back to Daniel Quinn's question,"What works?"

norlight0 said...

Twenty percent of the population is downwardly mobile at any time, but what are the implications when it involves a while society. Much of the adjustment to a post peak oil world will be a matter of attitude. Some articles on other sites maintain that attitude is almost everything in adjusting. For purposes of illustration I will mention another literary effort, LITTLE HOUSE IN THE BIG WOODS by Laura Ingalls Wilder. My wife teaches this book to her fourth grade. One of her questions to the class is what did the children receive for Christmas, and the answer is darn little. Some candy, a piece of fruit. For one of the daughters it was her turn to receive a home made doll. Their Christmas was a good one. The differences between Christmas in 1875, 2006 and 2050 may be a matter of attitude and adjusting our expectations.

Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...

Thanks very much, John. This is a most worthy addition to your earlier scenarios at http://www.oilcrisis.com/whatToDo/decline.htm
(in your essay entitled "The Long Road Down: Decline and the Deindustrial Future").

I have a small question, which I direct both to you and to the general readership of your blog: have we any positive lessons to learn from the work of St Benedict of Nursia in the sixth-century collapse of Rome? Benedict was the most important of the founders of Western monasticism. Can something like his work be replicated in the twenty-first and twenty-second centuries, as we try to revive the ancient virtue of friendship-in-community? As we investigate this virtue, have we anything to learn from Ivan Kauffman's essay "The New Saint Benedict", at
http://www.newmonasticism.org/writings/index.html?

I'd also like to remark, since we are talking about and referring to Web-published scenarios, that I, too, tried my hand at this worthwile literary task. My work, from 2003, is entitled "Utopia 2184". It's available at http://www.metascientia.com. "Utopia 2184" does not, however, address the potentially important question of monasticism, and gives a scenario which is a little more rosy than I would favor now, in 2006.

Finally, it is worth drawing attention to still FURTHER scenarios on the Web: Robert Waldrop's "Life During the Great Oil and Gas Decline", at http://www.energyconservationinfo.org/greatdecline.htm
and Ran Prieur's "The Slow Crash", at
http://ranprieur.com/essays/slowcrash.html.

John Michael Greer said...

Gordon, I don't disagree. One of the things middle-class Americans like hearing least is the suggestion that their prosperity is paid for by poverty elsewhere -- as suggested in some of my previous posts, and documented in Alf Hornborg's brilliant The Power of the Machine, the industrial system is ultimately a way of manufacturing economic imbalances. Microcredit systems are a means for rebuilding local economies, and have a lot of potential in the context of a renewed civil society.

Freeacre, agreed, Quinn's question is timely. We've had enough ideology. What works?

Norlight, you also get a gold star. Attitude is crucial, and books like Wilder's actually have a lot to teach us. One sign I find very hopeful these days is the profusion of reenactment societies, recreating the lifestyles and practices of the past. A lot of them focus on much simpler and materially more impoverished cultures, and they remind us that material wealth is not the final measure of value in life.

Tom, good to hear from you! I've been a lousy correspondent, I know -- way too much to do. The theme of monasticism is one I've discussed in other essays, and it's going to be much more central to some of the posts here down the road. Benedict can't be neglected, and neither can other sources -- I'm partial to the early medieval Irish monastic traditions in the West, and to Taoist and Japanese Buddhist monasticism as well. Times are different, and the needs of a quasimonastic community in our future won't be identical to those faced by the examples I've cited, but there's much to learn. Hang on for more on this theme...

Loveandlight said...

I know that good authors freaking hate it when people make suggestions for "improving" their stories, but I thought of just such a detestable idea. A good way to bring the informed reader into this story is to create a supporting character to which they can directly relate. I was thinking you could do this by having the main character have a little bit of dialogue with an very elderly friend of the family who is a guest in the Average home for Christmas dinner. This old man or woman could be a Gen-Xer born in 1968 or 1969 who lived a bit more than half of his/ her life in the pre-crash world. I can imagine this person saying something to the effect of "I don't know how I've survived this long, and sometimes I wish I hadn't." When Mrs. Average asks her question at the end of our crotchety surviving Gen-Xer, Gen-X would scratch his head, sigh deeply, look Mrs. A. right in the eye and say, "The answer to your question is one simple little word, my dear: Denial."