Thursday, April 30, 2009

This Side of Thunderdome

If you want to make the gods laugh, an old proverb suggests, tell them your plans. The three years since I first started posting these essays online make a tolerably good case for that claim. When I launched The Archdruid Report three years ago, I had no great expectations for the project, and I certainly never expected to end up facing the business end of a video camera on a Los Angeles sound stage, talking about Mad Max.

Still, that’s exactly where I was yesterday, doing my peak oil talking head routine while the camera rolled and the time I usually spend writing my weekly post here went elsewhere (which is why this post is a day later than usual). Warner Home Video is gearing up for a 30th anniversary DVD rerelease of Mad Max, with the usual assortment of bonus tracks, and one of the bonuses will be a documentary feature looking at the dystopian future portrayed in the Mad Max movies. When the producers started looking for – what do you call experts on dismal visions of the future? Doomologists? – my name came up; the result, after a flurry of emails, was a quick flight down to Los Angeles.

It’s popular these days to despise Los Angeles, and certainly there’s a lot about it to dislike; the gray smoky soup that passes for air comes to mind, not to mention the relentless rush and clamor of seven million people or so crammed into a modestly sized coastal valley between the desert and the deep blue sea. Still, I have a grudging fondness for the place. Though it often seems as though every single one of those seven million people are there for one purpose – to make a fast buck or, rather, as many fast bucks as possible – it’s almost refreshing to see that fact so nakedly on display, free of the bulky garments of hypocrisy that so often bundle them up elsewhere.

It’s also not too hard, while strolling along Promenade Park in Santa Monica or peering through the smog at the harsh brown slopes of the mountains all around, to glimpse what the area was like before it became Exhibit A in any study of metastatic urban sprawl. Nor is it too hard to imagine what the same region will be like a few centuries from now, when the inevitable dieoff is a matter of fading memory and salvage from all that sprawl will most likely be the economic mainstay of the small population that remains. If you want to talk about apocalyptic futures, in other words, greater Los Angeles is not a bad place to do it.

Nor is it an inappropriate place to talk about the way that our collective imagination of the future is shaped by the most unlikely influences. If you asked people to put together lists of believable sources for visions of the future, low-budget action films would probably not appear very often. Yet Mad Max and its two sequels have had an extraordinary impact on the contemporary imagination. Suggest that the near future will look like the settings of Zardoz or Logan’s Run, to name two other dystopian-future films of the same decade, and you’ll likely get blank looks from those who’ve forgotten the movies in question, and horse laughs from those who do. By contrast, if you suggest that we’re likely headed toward a “Mad Max future,” you can be tolerably sure that everyone present will understand what you are saying, and at least a few of them will agree with you.

Now of course this is partly because the story lines of Mad Max and its sequels are old hat to anybody who hasn’t been hiding under a rock for the last four decades or so. Mad Max is simply another 1970s good-cop-gone-rogue action film set in a vaguely defined future instead of the present; the title character is a member of an elite highway patrol whose running fight with a motorcycle gang ends up costing his wife and son their lives, sending him on a quest for vengeance. The Road Warrior maps the plot of a thousand and one Westerns – the lone gunslinger seeking redemption by rescuing a community threatened by bandits – onto a more detailed future of social collapse and brutal violence. Even Mad Max 3: Beyond Thunderdome, which strayed a little further from this sort of formulaic plot, is pieced together from a dozen or so reliable Hollywood themes.

As a framework for thinking about the future, a reliance on familiar plot formulas has some severe and predictable problems. Think of the way that the late and unlamented Bush administration based its foreign policy on a storyline that was essentially borrowed from superhero comics. We’re the good guys, therefore anything we do to the bad guys is justified; they’re the bad guys, therefore their behavior is motivated solely by their own badness, nothing need be done about the abuses they claim to be avenging, and everyone can be expected to cheer when the good guys clobber them. It’s a familiar story line. Apply it to war and politics in the real world, though, and it turns into an epic source of failure.

The same risk faces attempts to use the formulaic framework of the Mad Max movies in any simplistic way to make sense of the future. Still, certain themes in the movies are at least worth some reflection. The collapse of civilization over the course of the series, in particular, is not a sudden thing. In the first movie, some semblance of government and ordinary society still exists, though both are fraying catastrophically; in the second, civil order has broken down temporarily in a mad scramble for resources; in the third, new social structures with their own laws have begun to emerge, and alternative energy resources have come into their own – I can’t think of another attempt to portray a deindustrial future that has achieved the gritty realism of Beyond Thunderdome’s Bartertown, with its methane energy economy driven by fermenting pig feces.

Nor, I am sorry to say, is the violence central to the film’s storyline entirely out of place. My inflight reading on the trips down to Los Angeles and back again was an old favorite, John Morris’ The Age of Arthur, the only really comprehensive attempt so far to use the tools of history to make sense of the original context of the Arthurian legend – the collapse, partial recovery, and final defeat of Roman Britain in the fifth century. It’s a hefty volume, but worth reading for anyone who hopes to get a sense of what the collapse of a civilization actually looks like. The collapse of social order was a lived reality at that time; Lord Humongous, the hockey-masked leader of the raiders in The Road Warrior, had a close equivalent in the canny Saxon pirate Hengist, who took advantage of civil war among British magnates to ravage Britain and lay the foundations for the later ascendancy of the English; the fragmentary records of that time, with their references to unchecked violence and the collapse of civilized life, find ample confirmation from archeologists.

What makes so much current talk about a “Mad Max future” problematic, it seems to me, is simply the assumption that this sort of catastrophic unraveling will be a universal experience. This is a little like suggesting that anyone who lived during the twentieth century must have spent time huddling in an air raid shelter or been interned in a concentration camp. In any future we are at all likely to face, the collapse of social order will be a significant fact in some regions, and the raids and mass migrations that swept away most of Roman Britain and built the kingdoms of the Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy on its ruins will likely have equivalents in certain places; this is the sort of thing that happens when civilizations break down. Other places, however, will follow very different trajectories, because another thing that happens when civilizations break down is that historical events downshift to a more local scale. To borrow Thomas Friedman’s metaphor, civilizations flatten out the Earth, but this is a temporary effect; when civilizations decline and fall, roundness returns, and communities once bound into a sprawling whole find themselves cut loose to shape their own histories.

It may be possible to anticipate at least some of the regional differences that will take shape as the industrial age comes to an end, and next week’s post will suggest some of the issues involved. In the meantime, it might be a useful exercise for those of my readers interested in exploring the subject to sort through their own images of the future, to get some sense of how many of those images come from media of the Mad Max variety, and to compare them with the way some tolerably well documented example of collapse actually occurred – the fall of Roman Britain is only one of many possibilities, though libraries in the English-speaking world tend to be tolerably well stocked with books on that particular example. Though the Mad Max movies went zooming off beyond Thunderdome, most of us will likely end up a good deal this side of it as the industrial age creaks and clatters toward its end.


Bill Pulliam said...

Your post left me and my wife laughing. Thunderdome was the first movie she and I went to see together; I though it was a date, she just thought it was going to the movies with some grad student who happened to be hanging out at the Institute on a Saturday afternoon. In her reckoning, by the way, our actual first date was a couple of months later, and the movie was Weird Science.

"Bartertown" is the main part of the movie that stuck with me. It was surprising to see self-sufficient alternative technology portrayed in a mid-1980s dystopian action film; but at the same time it highlighted the widespread lack of understanding of the ecological fundamentals undergirding all human societies. That latter thing is hardly a criticism of the film; what do you expect from a Mel Gibson franchise? The thing that was noticeable missing from Bartertown was the ultimate source of energy. Recycling garbage into methane (the rallying cry of "Not ***t, energy!" has been a catch phrase for us ever since when reusing organic waste and byproducts) recaptures energy that might otherwise be wasted, but it doesn't give you new energy. You have to be growing or mining or capturing something to get the energy in the first place. It's a worthwhile thing to note, that this concept is missed by most non-scientists (i.e. most people), even fairly well-educated ones. Recycling reduces waste, but it gives you no net gain. We will probably have to be constantly reminding people of this for many generations to come, as energy issues climb every higher into mass consciousness and social well-being. In reality, a Bartertown-like outpost would probably be mining a garbage dump or some similar concentration of offal from the time before.

By the way, since we were both in Athens GA at the House that Odum Built, I found it fun to rephrase the slogan as "Not ***t, emergy!"

nutty professor said...

Archdruid, quick historical question: do you know of any cases for comparative study where the decline and decay of a civilization led to the rise of self-appointed "guardians" who, very much like a priestly class, were entrusted with specialized knowledge concerning the preservation of the peak technologies and sciences? Akin to the dark ages prior to the period of the recovery of learning? Rather than rotting rusty cars and vicious gangs, all of the action in my futuristic film scenarios seems to center on the noble libarians, the secret societies, the keepers of science, and the quiet historians whose existence is stumbled upon by accident by the hero who discovers a time capsule or an esoteric code that provides the keys to understanding the past and deciphering the future. Not the best action movie, but appealing to some of us. Or does the possible existence of these knowledges always become the stuff of modern legend, like the library at Alexandria or the marvels of Atlantis? How might these roles be conceived in the contemporary imagination?

Lloyd Morcom said...

It's well worth thinking thinking this through. Oddly enough the original "Mad Max" was filmed not too far from where I live in southern Australia, in an area I'm tolerably familiar with (the rather bleak and wind-swept plain between the cities of Melbourne & Geelong with it's characterless towns and low-rent beach-side holiday retreats).

However I would think this is one of the last places to suffer a real "Mad Max" meltdown. There is no hinterland for gangs to retreat into from which they can stage raids into more civilised areas. Instead there are arid plains and marginal farms with a few fertile valleys and small towns, but everything dominated by the great bulk of the city of Melbourne with it's current population of four million.

I foresee a continuation of the current trends, which are a collapse of agriculture in the marginal areas (which is the bulk of farming in Australia) and a remoresless grab for resources by the elites controlling each city. Cities are far enough apart in Australia for them to rarely be in conflict with one another.

The cities in turn will split along familiar lines with the poor outer suburbs being left to decay while the inhabitants of the inner ones, the middle-class managerial classes, do whatever they need to do to maintain their dominance over the whole.

We can expect lots of refugees from the north but they will of course rarely penetrate through to the inner circles in the inner suburbs. I can also forsee the regrowth in power of the rural landholding elites who were an important political force until the middle of the last century.

No doubt there will be an occasional outbreaks of violence, but I think the most likely outcome is a slow change to a much more stratified, less egalitarian society with a pale-skinned elite and a coffee-coloured underclass, growing ever more conservative and inward-looking and with individuals becoming more focused on spiritual preoccupations as well as personal survival if they're down the bottom of the pecking order.

Not very exciting.

Peter said...

Even more obscure than Logan's Run was the Australian film The Quiet Earth, which is unfortunate, because it to attempted to bring some nuance to the genre (or maybe that's my romantic memory "colorizing" the film-it's been at least 25 years). There, it was the metaphorical disappearence of most of humanity in a science experiment gone awry that is the plot-only a few people who were dying at the moment of "inversion", or whatever they called it, actually lived. Except for the happy ending, bringing back the human race, the film conveyed for me a sense of the stunned disbelief that will one day be all too common-"How did we do this....?"

Jacques de Beaufort said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
martinhayes said...

Lloyd Morcom: sorry to be a pest by commenting on a comment, but isn't the "most likely outcome" for Oz that one fine day you'll be looking out across Botany Bay and there on the horizon you'll see thousands of Chinese landing craft?

An underground legend of the 1970s had it that world maps in Chinese classrooms labelled Australia "New China".

das monde said...

I also think that Mad Max scenario will not be that widespread as assumed. Most of the survivors will be in the communities lucky or able enough to avoid big internal or outside conflicts. The way to survive is to put necessary efforts together, and not worry much about outsmarting your neighbor.

The big conflicts will be where interests of the continuing elites lie. Spurring Mad Max craziness widely might be in their basic interests, by the way. Without open or disguised zeal of big "leaders", people might not be that much into robbing each other. And what is the sense of resource wars, if those wars would cost just as much resources? How many clear examples of wars specifically (and objectively) for resources can you name anyway?

Threep said...

@nutty professor:
Not exactly a comparative study, but a very good SF novel with this keepers of science/quiet historians as a major theme:
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Blue Peter said...

Thanks for reminding me of John Morris’ The Age of Arthur. It takes me back to the happy days reading it in the school library,


Kevin Anderson K9IUA said...

If one wants to wax nostalgic about major cities, all one needs to do is look at the various Robert Cameron photo books in his "Above (name of city)" series. For instance, "Above Los Angeles" or "Above San Francisco," both of which I have. Even though I've never been to Los Angeles and only know it from movies and television, from the perspective of a helicopter on only clear-sky days, the city is definitely beautiful and easy to fall in love with. Unfortunately from a 1,000 feet you miss all the dirt, grime, crime, expense, crowds, noise, etc., that make up the real city. What made me think of these books when I read this essay is how with several of Cameron's books, such as the LA one, he has included all sorts of before and now pairs of pictures, typically photographs from the 1930s and now (or when something like a sports stadium was first built and now). When I look at those books, I feel like all the more I could have loved the cities of the 1930s more than I would love the cities of today. Even though these major cities were already too big and unsustainable in the 1930s, they still exuded a more human scale that at least give one the impression (albeit likely false) that something more sustainable might have yet still been possible with these cities had we known and resisted all the growth and redevelopment that has taken place. Oh well. Cheers.

Blackbird said...

Not to turn this into a movie critique, but it always struck me how different the worlds of the 3 Mad Max movies were. In the first movie, Mad Max, we are never sure what caused society to fall into the state it is in but we are left some clues. In particular, there is evidence of lots of fuel and no shortage of food. For example, Max Rockatansky's drives a V-8 and while the police barracks are in shambles, they don't seem to have a budget for fuel. On top of that there are still road-side cafes and ma and pa 5th wheels on the road.

In the 2nd movie, "Road Warrior" the beginning of the movie has an intro where it talks about great clans warring with each other and the insinuation that there was some form of a nuclear war. Fuel is now limited, but Max still seems to get by. Ammunition seems very rare and food is a problem (“That's my snake! I raised him and I am going to eat him!”).

In the 3rd movie, "Beyond the Thunderdome" there seems to be no fuel whatsoever, but there is suddenly lots of ammunition (automatic weapons). Food looks scarce and only produced my local means.

It seems to me that the 3 movies are not congruous; rather they represent 2 different forms of collapse.

In Mad Max, it is a local collapse where the central control of the government no longer really exists. Max's new car is an attempt to keep him on the force, much as a pay raise might do the same thing today. The collapse that this movie portrays might be something akin to a worldwide financial collapse followed by an overthrow of a government and the years between a new stable government forming.

In the 2nd and 3rd movies the collapse might be indeed a result of a nuclear war, peak oil, peak resources, or a combination of all the above.

To get to the exercise you mentioned, I think that the future of my area will be akin to the collapse of the Soviet Union. I live in Vancouver, BC Canada and here we have a very friendly climate combined with extensive hydro power. I built a greenhouse a few weeks ago to build upon the success of our veggie gardening last season. I imagine a time when all households will have veggie gardens and many will have chickens or goats. It will not be as pleasant as it seems on paper. We will have gangs (it has been very bad lately with gang members shooting each other in public and in daylight) and while we live in a very fertile area there will be many who will not have enough to eat. Eventually (years? decades?) it will sort itself out into some sort of regular consistent day-to-day system with the usual aches and pains of governing, policing and regulation. It just won't look very similar to what we have today. I imagine that governance will the affairs of smaller local neighbourhoods (1-3000 people) without much in the way of any form of larger governance (neighbourhoods controlling their own state of affairs with some form of general governance in charge of helping to allocate the communal responsibilities of road, bridge, water and energy (hydro) maintenance). Where it could get sticky is if the Stave Lake district, where almost all of our hydro power comes from, and North Vancouver, where almost all of our fresh water comes from, turn into powerhouses. Hmmm... that could be tough.

Whew! Sorry for the long post. Is it possible to be a pessimistic optimist?


FARfetched said...

I'm sure you're familiar with the fictional novel Firelord, a rather believable retelling of the Arthur legend — like the rest of them, though, it ends with his death and says nothing about the final collapse. I'll have to see if I can get the local library to find me The Age of Arthur.

But you remind us all of a good point: in a time of acute energy shortages, all crises will be local. Here in north GA, we won't devote much thought to what's happening NYC or LA — Atlanta would be a different story, as it would be our primary market for agricultural exports and manufactured imports. Likewise, New Yorkers or Angelinos would be too busy with their own business (or lives) to give us much thought.

Perhaps the most difficult task of all, even more difficult than the business of getting by, would be to collect the disparate histories of locales during the collapse period… passing on what works to mitigate the problems, and more importantly what doesn't, to the succeeding generations. Perhaps monks attempted and failed to do the same for 4th/5th-century Britain — although I think it's safe to say we know it's a really dumb idea for elites to fight over the scraps of civilization when bandits are all too ready to take advantage of the distraction.

Dwig said...

As a lifetime L.A. resident, I'd like to mention that your point about the variety of experiences awaiting this world/country is also true of Southern California, and even the L.A. basin. You neatly captured the kind of character that symbolizes the place to most of the rest of the world, but it's far from universal here. The L.A . basin is quite diverse in its geography, climate, and population, and there are many initiatives underway to create community responses to the challenges facing us. No guarantees, of course, and climate change may leave the place uninhabitable, but it's worth a serious try.

Note: I wrote the above before reading Jacques' comment. A good example of the variety of experience. Certainly his comment describes much of what you'll find, but there are other currents going on. An interesting example is the ongoing saga of the South Central Farmers (start with the Wikipedia article:

Speaking of the variety of responses to the emerging crises, I've been following Lyle Estill's Energy Blog ( with growing appreciation for his spirit, humanity, and pragmatism (I got "introduced" to him through his book "Small is Possible"). If any group can move successfully through the coming seres, doing what needs to be done at each stage, I think that'll be one.

The Dude said...

There's a new addition to the post-apocalyptic genre: One Second After : William R. Forstchen. Foreword by Newt Gingrich, who has collaborated with Forstchen before, but don't let that put you off - nothing really stringent in the way of partisan politics makes its way into the story. Plot involves an EMP strike above the US instantly destroying almost all electronics, with attendant descent into savagery. Quite the page turner if this is your cup of tea. First heard about it from a post by TOD contributor WNC Observer, who says he's a friend of Forstchen's. Both live in Black Mountain, near Asheville North Carolina, where the book is set.

John Michael Greer said...

Bill, granted! It would have been nice to see Bartertown surrounded by fields or some other form of primary production; still, I was happy to see even the briefest nod to alternative energy resources -- and especially to one that has a great deal of promise, as methane generation does.

Professor, the standard examples are monastic communities -- Christian monks in Ireland and early medieval Europe, Buddhist monks in Japan, Buddhist and Taoist monks in China, and so on. It's by no means uncommon for the quest to recover ancient secrets to catch the popular imagination, by the way -- the recovery of lost Buddhist sutras by Tibetan monks after a severe persecution by a medieval king spawned an entire mythology; in the 20th century occult community, similarly, the concept of the "seedbearers" who brought the knowledge of Atlantis to Egypt and elsewhere had a great deal of resonance.

Lloyd, if Australia could count on being left alone, you might be right. Look north; some of the world's most crowded nations are within a fairly short voyage.

Peter, thanks for the suggestion! I managed to miss that one.

Jacques, epidemics usually take the heat off social pressures -- there's something obvious to worry about besides each other, and they tend to decrease population pressure. I'd be more concerned about economic contraction and its social impacts.

Martin, at least two science fiction authors -- E.M. Forster in "The Machine Stops," and Cordwainer Smith in his Instrumentality stories -- assumed a Chinese conquest of Australia in the not too distant future. (In Smith's future history, what's now Australia is known as Aojou Nambien, and it's one vast ruined city from sea to sea.) Myself, I'd consider armed mass migration from Indonesia and Malaysia a more likely prospect, but then I have my doubts about China's ability to hold together once things get tight.

Das Monde, both the wars currently being fought by the US qualify, and there are plenty of other examples -- seizing agricultural land, one of the most important resources for any settled society, is an ancient and frequent reason for war. Of course a Mad Max future won't take place everywhere, but there will likely be bursts of violence and struggles over resources in a great many places.

Threep, a classic, yes.

Peter, that's where I read it first, too -- fortunately there's a copy gracing (and weighing down) my shelves these days.

Kevin, I find Los Angeles horrifying from the air, one vast gridwork of sprawl disfiguring the landscape like some sort of geometrically ordered leprosy. It's when I'm down in the midst of it that it becomes more human, and more bearable.

Blackbird, Antonio Gramsci argued for exactly that: pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will. How does your projected history of British Columbia cope with the likelihood that once global food trade breaks down, millions of Japanese who face starvation at home are one not too difficult voyage along prevailing currents from the west coast of North America, with BC the first logical stop? It's a common mistake to assume that populations will stay put; in past collapses, the opposite has generally happened.

Farfetched, yes, though it's not my favorite fictional retelling of the historical Arthur -- that's Rosemary Sutcliff's Sword at Sunset, one of the very few adult novels by a brilliant author of children's historical fiction. If you haven't read it, might be worth considering.

Dwig, my guess is that the next century or two are going to be very hard on LA, but the Hispanic city state that will likely take shape there after the rubble stops bouncing may well have a long and creative future ahead of it. Thanks for the link, too.

Dude, this is one of the many reasons why I encourage people to get a slide rule and learn how to use it. Oh, and reviving vacuum tube electronics is a good idea, too -- they're rugged and slow enough that EMP doesn't fry them the way it fries solid state gear. EMP terrorism or military attack is one possibility; I'm also far from sure that anybody's thinking hard enough about what's going on with the Earth's magnetic field right now.

Red Neck Girl said...

There will be as you say, City States here in the west. Game parks and wild animal refuges will have released their big cats and other exotic game into less populated areas. (The US of A has the most tigers now existant in the world!) Perhaps there will even be a few genetically resurected species from the past like woods bison, (who wouldn't want to encounter a giant bison standing 7 feet at the shoulder?) or a mammoth or mastodon? It would only take a little tinkering here and there!

Towns would have to be surrounded by moats and palisades to keep out the big predators and hunter would be a highly respected occupation to keep settled areas and plantings safe.

People with a dedicated spiritual inclinations will form settlements, perhaps like the early Christian settlements in Britain, where married couples lived a religious life. I wouldn't be surprised if a warrior priest settlements like Buddhists with martial arts doesn't 'evolve.'

Personally, I think there really is no such thing as a dystopian or utopian future. IMO, human interaction goes in waves of what can be viewed as good or bad. It can only be judged to be negative or positive in retrospect.

Being of some Native American heritage I could say the last 300 years are bad but for those descendants of European heritage they can say it's been pretty good. History gets written by the winners.

Fed up completely said...

There is always the problem of extrapolating the future from the limited viewpoint of the present. I remember reading about a chap in New York at the turn of the century who worked out mathematically the likely increase of the population, and then made the prediction that the city would be unlivable due to the amount of horse manure that would accumulate from the increase in horse drawn carriages needy to transport the people around town.

Blackbird said...

"How does your projected history of British Columbia cope with the likelihood that once global food trade breaks down, millions of Japanese who face starvation at home are one not too difficult voyage along prevailing currents from the west coast of North America, with BC the first logical stop?"

I have heard this argued before by Kunstler. However, I must point out that the coastline of BC is VAST! I can't stress that enough. Not only is it vast, it is very tough country. We get wicked storms along the true 'west coast' I would be surprised more than 1 out of 10 of those who make a 'current' voyage across 1/2 the world's surface don't get smashed on the rocks of the 'wet' coast let alone the tough reality of staying alive for the journey on the ocean's currents. Really, you must take a walk along our shores and watch the rollers that have formed in the pacific shatter on the granite rocks to get an idea of what I am talking about. Not only that, but Vancouver is not even on the west coast. You would have to go around the Juan de Fuca to get to Vancouver. The whole of Vancouver Island is in your way. To keep scale into perspective the land mass of Vancouver island is the same as Maryland. Kunstler points toward some sort of organized invasion which seems like left over WW2 mentality. Look at how much effort the landings of Normandy were and that was a 9 iron away from Britan - let alone 8000 km journey from Japan.


Thirra said...

martinhayes - What a pity you have used the name of the greatest Irish fiddler of all time.

As for Chinese landing craft in Botany Bay or anywhere else for that matter - A reality check is in order.

The Dude said...

Was heartened to learn from the forward that this is another topic Roscoe Bartlett is beating a lonely drum for.

Fortschen's prose isn't scintillating exactly, but solid enough to get you wrapped up in the story. WNC pointed out that it's much more brutal than Kunstler's novel, which put me in mind of Brian Aldiss's phrase "Cozy Catastrophe," which he coined to describe post-nuclear holocaust stories from the likes of John Wyndham, where the protagonist fends off the hordes of mutants and proceeds to have a quite fetching existence amongst the ruins. Wow - Union Grove has no less than 5 working treadle sewing machines! In a town of, what, 3k? Possible but what if one's missing the needles, or flying bobbins? Good luck machining a replacement. That, and Robert having a buddy who knows how to make fiddle strings. Everything I've read about this suggests it's way too complex for people who are busy scrabbling out enough food to survive to pull off - finding the right breed of animals, stretching, cleaning, soaking in salt baths. Perhaps you could pull off some very rude gut strings that would be a real chore to keep in tune or avoid breakage with - probably very rough to finger, too. Even the old timers in the Foxfire books finished their homemade violins with a set of Black Diamond steel strings from the local store.

Just a little kvetch of mine. Mostly enjoyed Jim's book regardless of these faults. Didn't really register with me as funny at the time - his chief beef with critics. Fortschner's novel has scarcely a yuk. The protagonist catching himself viewing the world through cinematic experiences was a nice touch - I've found myself doing that as well. How lame, why aren't I comparing my life to something that happened to the Artful Dodger or Ignatius J Riley? Will stop there. What is it we say in this brave new digital world? Er...Spoiler Alert!

aangel said...

It seems to be that living anywhere on the planet soon will be hard, but a few places will turn into social conflagrations. Some cities are already tinder boxes. As memmel points out on TOD, it's not unreasonable to expect the riots to start first in LA, Oakland, Atlanta, Baltimore and so on. Businesses will flee as it becomes unsafe and unprofitable to do business there.
How quickly will the riots burn themselves out? Federal troops will undoubtedly be called in and perhaps a cap can be put on the outright looting and so on for a time.
As the economy in general deteriorates, the prospects for jobs and economic improvement melt away, the cities become largely uninhabitable due to crumbling infrastructure, public health deteriorates as raw sewage is released untreated, etc. eventually food must be brought to the people or, as you point out, the people will migrate. Probably the first for a time but certainly the latter before too long.
Smaller towns may have a better go of it if they aren't swamped from the city dwellers looking for an escape to healthier and safer living arrangements. However, their municipal bonds are on the verge of defaulting across the country as property taxes plummet and soon city, county and state government employment will be cut.
We may not get to Mad Max everywhere, but I'm reasonably sure it will be far from rare across the country for some amount of time (perhaps until the population lowers and new social structures are set up), and in full display in some of the cities mentioned above.

Damien Perrotin said...

I'have read Morris' Th Age of Arthur, in fact it figures prominently in my library besides Stuart Laycock's Britannia the Failed State and Léon Fleuriot's Les Origines de la Bretagne. I have understood it is a bit outdted, however, as he put too much reliance upon texts written centuries after the events they intent to describe. Hengist's famous feast, for instance, is a common theme in Germanic legend and has an equivalent in the Nibelungenslied, only this time it is Attila who ambushes the Burgondians. Needless to say h never did, it is Aetius, a roman strongmen who destroyed the first Burgondian kingdom.

As I understand current researches, Breton tribes recovered their independence after the Roman left and warred among themselves, importing Saxons mercenaries to do the heavy fighting in their place. That would explains why many early battles mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle were fought near or at Breton tribal boundaries. That would explain also why the first Wessex king had Celtic names

Of course, this does not change anything to your point. There was a lot of fighting, petty tyranny and rampant warlordism. The whole society crashed down the Bosnian way, but experienced periods of temporary recovery and even of expansion.

Fortunately I don't think that Brittany will experience such turmoils in the future. France has virtually no natural resource left and its reliance upon nuclear power will become a serious liability as will the weight of its administration, so at some point it will collapse and it probably won't be nice. The population is a bit higher than before the industrial revolution, but not much and whatever power will emerge after the first or the second cycle of crisis will have an large supply of historical narrative to found its legitimacy upon, including the Arthurian one. Besides, there is no overpopulated country anywhere near. The only problem I see is the Nantes region, lower lying, more populous and under a different and on the long run weaker administrative authority.

Normally we should survive, probably better than in most places in Europe, even if of course, there is always the possibility we make a total mess of an otherwise relatively good situation. We did a pretty good job last time.

As an aside, manufacturing methane out of swine manure was proposed as a solution to the energy crisis by a Regional Council Paper. I remember reminding the vice-president that pig farms use corn grown far away and depends upon a working transport network

Ricardo Rolo said...

I always find that the Anglo-Saxon world tends to see the dawn of a civilization in much darker colors than the Continental Europeans... I really don't know the reason, but probably has a lot to do with the way that Roman Britain fell ( and how untypical was the Roman collapse in that area compared with the rest of the empire ). Britain was pretty much abandoned by the Roman government far before the real invasions ( I can only compare it with Dacia )and it was caught in the middle of the self-rearrangement process by the bulk of the Saxon invasion. The rest of the empire tried to deal with the invasions with still pretty much of the Roman governmental machinery working. That ultimately gave some time for rearrangements as it was growingly obvious that help from Rome would never come and it would be even unhelpful if it came ( the classic example is Honorius sending troops to kill the 2 usurpers that were the only thing holding the Visigoths form entering in the Iberian peninsula.... ), while in Britain the Saxons only found small communities fighting each other and too busy to pay attention to them.... that provoked a much bigger collapse than most of the other provinces of the Roman empire suffered. When you analyze the story of the collapse of the Roman empire in almost any province ( except Britain ), you'll see always the same pattern: the local communities trying to organize themselves against the invaders, improvising militias and ripping outer houses of their materials to improvise walls, various level of success fighting the invaders ( from the successful fight of Byzantium to pretty much failure everywhere else ), accommodation of the invaders in the social order ( not assimilation .... there wasn't any place where the invaders were fully assimilated until 2 or 3 centuries later, and in some places apartheid style wars were implemented, like in the Visigoth Hispania ) and finally some kind of reorganization, if no other invasion came, of course. Those reorganizations were strongly influenced by the society of the place: from attempts to rebuild the Empire that ended in full feudalism-style systems ( Odoacer attempt ( he managed to rule both Italy and Hispania and had plans to drive out the Franks and the Vandals out ) and Byzantium... Charle Magne is far later ) to uneasy balances between strong local communities and a feudal-like aristocracy ( like it eventually happened in Visigoth Hispania ). Britain suffered a much worse fate, because the partial recoveries were halted by the Saxon invasion and the Norse raids, leading that Britain only truly recovered after the Norman conquest, that at least brought some calm to the island. That was enough to destroy Britain society to a level far below the Roman conquest, where even wheel pottery had to be imported...

All of the above was just a prelude to say that most of the views of the downfall of civilization from Anglo-Saxon countries have, in my opinion, a too much darkened tone that , in my opinion, comes straight from the unusual fate of Roman Britannia. And in here I include Mad Max... Mad Max implies a brutal and fast collapse of the government, a thing that ,as Greer pointed, is a perfect mirror of the Roman Britannia downfall. If the government is not that quick to go down ( a much more plausible premise ), Mad Max scenario is highly unlikely, because it will give time for the local communities to prepare themselves while the government is still trying to hold the building of collapsing ( a necessary step both now as it was in Roman times, where the citizens were ( and are ) actively discouraged to make anything out of the central plans ( from self-defense to auto-sufficiency in any level ), to the level of using violence to stop it ... if they don't need us why would they obey us? )

There are , as usual some differences that make the Roman example not perfectly applicable: the Roman collapse was created by lack of human power, and that obviously meant that there wasn't much people around. Today there is too much people, even for our own best case scenarios.... that, in case of collapse, will mean that a human life will be considered very cheap or even with negative value, especially if the person has no particular valuable skills. This alone will create the scenario of huge population flows received at gunshot point and/or to slavery in probably less than a generation ( or governments sending people to die in wars for resources in a scale we never saw ... if you only have food for 1 out of 10, you may better give a use to the other nine that will die anyway ( this is the ratio between the current population of my country and the one it had 2 centuries ago, before coal and oil... ) ). I can definitely see already sensible migration corridors, like Gibraltar strait or certain areas of the USA border becoming huge butcher grounds with governments trying to deplete the bullets of the enemy with bodies of people they can't sustain anyway...

To resume: I think that the collapse has the potential to be bloody, warlike and a great destroyer of lives. It will destroy the social tissue of most countries and it will probably give rise to feudal-like societies ( that is a very common response to collapse periods.... just read the story of China's rise and falls ), except in the places where even feudal societies are too onerous for the sustaining abilities of the area ( like fertile valleys separated by inhospitable terrains ). But most likely no Mad Max... except in fringe areas.

P.S I really am amazed how the average citizen discards the problem of energy. Between the dreams of perpetual machines that come and go from time to time ( the waste biofuel is a good example, but also the self-recharging electric car, that bouces in the news every now and then ) and the fact that in average the agriculture used today is highly inefficient in terms of energy ( some cases have 1 to 1000 eficiency ratios in terms of energy or even worse... apples have 1 kcal of apples by 22000 kcal of energy input, between Haber process made fertilizers for some years before the apple tree is ready to give apples, human work and transports of all the necessary humans and fertilizers by machines, needed for those huge monocultural tracts of apple trees ). The problem is always the same: humans, as most animals ,tend to neglect anything that is constant, and our super inneficient apples, lots of garbage and cheap oil have been here for quite a while ....

John Michael Greer said...

Girl, have you read Edgar Pangborn's postcollapse SF novel Davy? He's got tigers roaming the jungles of a future America half swamped by global warming. (Not bad for a novel from the 1970s...)

Fed Up, that's approximately the reason why I have trouble believing the contemporary faith in perpetual progress -- it's the same sort of indefinite extrapolation of present trends into the future.

Blackbird, I'm quite familiar with the BC coast, having grown up in Seattle. You can be sure that a large number of Japanese fishermen are also highly familiar with it. Neither Kunstler nor I are suggesting an organized invasion, by the way; he's arguing for a renewal of piracy around the Pacific rim -- hardly unlikely in the light of current headlines -- and I'm arguing for disorganized but massive migrations, by sea as well as by land, of the kind that occur routinely in the twilight of civilizations.

Thirra, once the US nuclear umbrella no longer protects Australia -- and it won't do so indefinitely -- what do you suppose would prevent a Chinese invasion? (Certainly not the tiny and underequipped Australian military.) A mass uprising of kangaroos, perhaps? It's a common fallacy in times of peace that war and conquest are things of the past, and that some special grace protects current national borders, but a glance at history offers a useful corrective.

Dude, remember that Kunstler is talking about a relatively slow collapse while Fortschen's is nearly instantaneous. Kunstler's is a bit cozy for my taste, too, but he's making the quite valid point that life goes on.

Aangel, the belief that the cities will inevitably turn into Mad Max territory has been popular in the US for well over a century -- it's a bit of rhetoric out of of the old cultural divide between the urban coasts and the allegedly more virtuous interior. Certain cities will be in deep trouble, but then so will some outlying areas, and some of each will likely end up in much better shape. I'll be discussing this in more detail in next week's post.

Damien, my guess is that most of the Celtic fringe of Europe will be able to weather the approaching storm in surprisingly good shape. The areas of Europe where the Celtic peoples remain are precisely those rugged and relatively isolated areas that are hard to invade and easy to defend, and traditions of subsistence farming are still a matter of living memory in some areas. I don't know what the chances are that governments in any of the Celtic nations will make useful preparations, but even without that, there are plenty of options for local groups and individuals.

yooper said...

"I foresee a continuation of the current trends, which are a collapse of agriculture in the marginal areas (which is the bulk of farming in Australia)", I can't agree more. In fact, I mentioned the very same thing about North America, not too long ago.

If one really thinks about, a lot of land that once was considered as prime has now been marginalized.

The Dude said...

Pangborn published Davy in 1964 - even more impressive a call. Well, some who were following the Keeling curve apparently raised flags around then too. Other vivid portraits of steamy futures: Aldiss's Hothouse (US title: The Long Afternoon of Earth), set billions of years in the future where mangroves have overrun the whole planet and the remaining diminutive green skinned humans compete with enormous insects and descendants of predatory plants like the Venus Fly Trap - really far out read - and Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker, written in a future cant scarcely recognizable as English, and set in England, around Dover, or as it's now referred to, "Do It Over." Also really far out. Sort of Chauceresque as you'd imagine, really makes your head spin reading about these guys recycling scrap iron while conversing in this quasi-Middle English.

I need to give Davy another shot, tried to slog through it years ago but my attention span was on the fritz at the time or something. Loved some of his shorter works, like Angel's Egg. Hmm, I see here that was his debut in SF, too.

feonixrift said...

It seems to me that one of the deepest assumptions in post-apocalyptic literature is the destruction of Los Angeles. Sure, it's a giant repulsive cesspit of humanity, but I do wonder. If it were so non-resilient, perhaps fewer authors would need to find extravagant ways of destroying it. Or perhaps they are merely expressing their own disgust.

Kevembuangga said...

Sorry but I find this post and the whole comment thread absolutely ludicrous.
How can you base any plausible forecast on WORKS OF FICTION?

Edde said...

Don't know about Mad Max but we'll keep dancing around here. We danced the May Pole Friday evening under the spreading live oak tree.

Looks like issues of "the enlightenment" are back on the agenda, eh. Perhaps we can implement a genuine "age of reason" this time around.

I'll certainly raise a glass to universal human rights (universal species & environment rights).

Good post, John Michael. THANKS!


John Michael Greer said...

Ricardo, that's a very interesting point. Still, I don't imagine it was particularly fun to be in Gallia when the Franks came over the Rhine.

Yooper, no kidding. Farmland reclamation will be one of the major tasks throughout what's now the industrial world in the decades and centuries to come.

Dude, thanks for the correction -- you're quite right, of course.

Rift, good. I'll be talking about that in the upcoming post. Note, though, that I didn't say LA was going to be destroyed -- just that it was going to go through some extremely rough times.

Kevembuangga, all our attempts to imagine the future are works of fiction -- yours, mind, everyone's. Some of those imagined futures find their way into literature, film, and the like, and give us useful ways to talk about certain possibilities.

Edde, definitely keep dancing. Mad Max or no Mad Max, spring is worth celebrating.

Sincity (offlist), trim the profanity from your post and it'll get through. By the way, I don't own a hybrid -- or any other kind of car, for that matter. I walk or use public transit.

Blackbird said...

"...he's arguing for a renewal of piracy around the Pacific rim -- hardly unlikely in the light of current headlines -- and I'm arguing for disorganized but massive migrations, by sea as well as by land, of the kind that occur routinely in the twilight of civilizations."

I think piracy will become more commonplace and I agree with you about mass migrations. I guess I just have a hard time wrapping my head around people in a container ship waiting for the currents to take them to BC. I am well aware that the currents eventually do lead to BC (a fairly famous event proved this when a container ship lost a load of shoes that helped show the prevailing currents). But what a horrible mental exercise to imagine an unpowered container ship of people slipping into the event horizon of the great pacific gyre...

For what it is worth, however, I think the mass migrations will be more of a south to north movement - paralleling the N/S movements of people and technology that Jared Diamond writes about in 'Guns, Germs and Steel'. I can envision desperate Californians moving north, Oregonians being displaced into Washington and subsequent bump into BC. The coast of BC will always be temperate - and while BC is very big, the vast majority of it apart from the coastline suffers from very extreme and long winters.

Oh, how I hope that this doesn't come to pass for a loooong time...


Dwig said...

JMG's phrase "pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will" reminded me of one of my favorite posts by Sharon Astyk: "No. Just No." (

feonixrift: "Or perhaps they are merely expressing their own disgust." Or envy? I imagine that L.A. won't be facing any worse problems than San Diego, Phoenix, or Bakersfield, but for some reason, L.A. seems to have a special mythical status among folks who haven't spent much time here. JMG has described the syndrome of "doomers" who look forward to the demise of the current civilization with eager anticipation, and the anticipated painful fall of L.A. seems to elicit a special delight among some folks.

John Michael, I think you're right that L.A. will wind up culturally being a largely Latino city, in no small part because it's currently the home of a large cadre of people who are quite familiar with making do in difficult situations. They may become the "backbone" of what emerges from the local collapse. (However, not all of the people fitting this description are Latino. For example, we've had a recent wave of immigrants from Southeast Asia who have similar characteristics. The L.A. of 2100 could have a very interesting mix of cultural "flavors".)

steb said...

Here on the north coast of Lake Michigan I expect things will look somewhat the same now and then. As we speak, the vacation homes are being abandoned leaving loggers, fisherman, and farmers.

As we are known to say in the UP, a recession doesn't really get this far north, or, we are still in the last recession how are we going to recognize this one?

The biggest change may be dependent on who owns land and who owns in partnership with a bank and will not own soon.

I see a whole series of individual reactions that looks like a community effort. We have or are soon to be getting meat, fish, milk, eggs, bread, vegees and fruit from just a few miles of my home. Heat is going to be tough, but the resource is there for when the loggers lose their current clientele.

I suppose my optimism is quaint but after a five years of e-cubed panic (economic, ecologic, energy) it feels good today.

spottedwolf said...

Tell me something, my friend....

Do you sit on your laptop after posting and expect such an array in futility or abundant speculative while smiling or laughing....engrossed by your ability to stir this pot?

Sean Taylor said...

I always enjoy reading this blog, but I think people here are indulging in fantasy when they imagine a post-industrial future that looks like their favorite science fiction novel or period of European history. The idea that industrial civilization must inevitably collapse and be replaced by a world more to our liking seems like wishful thinking of the highest order. We aren’t Rome, and there won’t be a collapse back to a medieval world of druids and monks. We’re a nuclear-armed, globally connected technological civilization with nowhere to go but forward. This may take us over a cliff, but it won’t take us to Middle Earth or Bartertown. Given the technologies we already possess and are still developing, the most likely collapse scenario is total annihilation, leading either to extinction or survival at a very primitive level. John von Neumann had an epiphany when he imagined supernovas to be the last acts of civilizations that had learned to harness the forces of nature, and this may be more than wild speculation. Technological civilization is, I suspect, a terminal condition, whose collapse will mark the end of the human story and give us the answer to Fermi’s paradox in our time.

John Michael Greer said...

Blackbird, I expect quite a bit of south-to-north migration as well. It's just that there are a lot of extremely overpopulated countries around the Pacific rim, and when you're facing death by starvation, a boat and a favorable current with a relatively uncrowded continent on the other side of it is likely to look like a gamble worth taking.

Dwig, Mexico's a Latino country even though it has a very rich and complex ethnic mix. My guess is that much the same thing will be true of a future Los Angeles.

Steb, granted -- it's worth keeping in mind that different regions will have very different experiences as the decline and fall unfolds.

Spotted Wolf, I don't use a laptop, and what I'm trying to do is stir up some thoughts.

Sean, I wonder if you noticed that, having dismissed other commenters here for indulging in science fiction, you proceeded to offer us another classic science fiction image of the future. It's only in the imaginations of believers in progress -- the established faith of our time -- that we can "only go forward;" history argues otherwise. Since our forward motion was purely a product of the reckless way we burned through half a billion years of fossil carbon in a few short centuries, we can expect that movement to reverse itself as the carbon runs short. Granted, it won't be identical to the aftermath of Rome, but the similarities will be there; history may not repeat itself exactly, but it does rhyme.

Red Neck Girl said...

Not to be a pest and post again but perhaps Michael, we have 'been here' before. There is the city of Nan Madol built out of basalt 'Lincoln logs' on coral atolls near the island of Ponepe in the pacific, the city along a river emptying into the sea off the coast India. The city runs for quite a long way along the submerged river bed beneath, (I believe its) the Bay of Bengal. There's the stone platform at Baal Bek in Iraq, three stones so massive we can't move them with our current technology as well as the stones under the temple mount in Jerusalem and no sign of how it was done.

Perhaps we should pay more attention to the Vedas from India with their vimanas, (flying chariots?) and their aerial battles.

Of course when I think of the end of that civilization I think of the cometary impact off the coast of North America marching into deep water. The planet ringing like a bell from the hammering impact of a large comet breaking up on entry and splashing into the ocean raising a wave that destroyed any cities around the Atlantic basin. The vibration of the impact causing unstable slopes in one of the fjords to slide exposing two deposits of frozen methane which bubbled up through the ocean and into the air speeding the slow end to the last ice age with catastrophic speed. The survivors of an incipient planetary civilization eking out a living as hunter gathers in the chaotic weather of a rapidly changing climate. Perhaps they retained enough memory to create solar calendars to try to predict another such catastrophe in order to avoid it.

Of course that theory could be the setting for a heck of a SciFi book or just my conjecture based on some very enigmatic structures in our world the look to be older than this interglacial period.

Now I'll go back to being just a redneck girl.

Pangolin said...

Nice discussion. The future is ALWAYS science fiction. My kid has a cell phone that Captain Kirk would have sold Nurse Chapel to get his hands on. Her I-pod has more power than any computer built the day I was born in 1965. OTOH we have homeless scavengers wandering our streets and eating pigeons.

The most ridiculous thing about the Mad Max/Road Warrier scenarios was that all the asphalt had been recently laid and never roadblocked. Roadblocking, as is common in Africa, Iraq and Afghanistan is an almost universal reaction to social distress. Erect a barrier and charge tolls; any troll can do it.

The asphalt in much of the world is in bad shape NOW and only going to get worse. Very little new pavement went down in 2008 due to materials cost and now governments are broke. Cars don't have high speed chases in the third world. They have off-road technical skirmishing from the backs of Toyota pickups with mounted guns.

California has enough food, water, power and clout that it will survive barring a massive climate shift. If the snows on Shasta and Lassen fail to arrive a big chunk of the world starves because we won't be sending them any rice. We'll still eat. If some form of government in Los Angeles survives they will keep land and rail routes over the Tehachapis open. There won't be any mass migration north without cars because there is a long dry spell and then a cool wet season neither of which lend to foot or bicycle migration in hostile territory.

My guess is the worst regression will be to 1910 physical technologies with leftover wind turbines and solar panels powering interurban rail systems. Trollies are cheap and easy to make and rail has been, and always will be, cheaper than pavement for trunk lines.

The east slope of the Sierras to Kansas is anybodies guess. There are far too many people living in the desert and far too few resources. Most of the people have nothing that resembles an actual skill other than banking and real estate. The rich will buy up the oasis and everyone else will blow like tumbleweeds.

My imagination is that the worst the US will see in the next century will be better than any part of Africa today. Not always pleasant, but survivable.

yooper said...

Agreed, John. However, that is not what I was implying, what once was fertile land has now been marginalized through industrial measures.

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