Shuck and Jive

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Remnant

I started this blog three years ago concerned about our future. I have pontificated about all kinds of things since then, but I continue to return to my central theme: what kind of world are we leaving our children? I am pleased that my four nieces and my one nephew have reproduced. As I think about them I wonder what will our world be like when my great-nieces and great-nephews are my age or even the age of their parents?

Paul Roberts in The End of Oil, writes:

Thus, the real question, for anyone truly concerned about our future, is not whether change is going to come, but whether the shift will be peaceful and orderly or chaotic and violent because we waited too long to begin planning for it. p. 14
I have been concerned for some time. Optimistic actually. I am a big fan of Star Trek.

I dreamed someday of driving my own flying car.

For the past twenty years I held out hope that our best scientists from around the world would put their heads together and come up with alternative energy systems and that our leaders would help us cooperate, share and use wisely--in other words, be sustainable.

I am no longer optimistic. What sealed the deal was when Americans began driving the Hummer. It was as if we had all decided to give our collective middle finger to our descendants. I am not picking on Hummer owners exclusively. We are all responsible.

But the marketing of the Hummer was the sign, the symbol, the "desolating sacrilege" Mark 13:14 that signified our highest blasphemy. It represented to me that corporations, our government, and the American people simply didn't care.

I began to doubt if there ever will be any great "Manhattan Project" for energy and the environment. We make no plans, not even emergency plans, for any energy disruption. Environmental concerns? It's not my business, we said.

I don't blame anyone. I think what has happened is the natural result of a species that in the end is no smarter than yeast. We like to party until the party's over. If the transition from party to hangover is chaotic and violent, well that's just the way we roll. We
  1. Multiply.
  2. Consume every resource.
  3. And die.
Doesn't every species? So hey. Lighten up! You are forgiven.

Te absolvo

Let's read some fiction.

Not enough people can make it through books like The End of Oil, The Long Emergency, The Party's Over, or The End of the Long Summer.

They are important, thoughtful books and it is pretty hard to argue with them. Each author presents a compelling case.

But they are hard to read. It isn't that the concepts are difficult. It's just
too real. Holy-shit-like real.

So we don't totally shut off the message, we need a little distance. I suggest some post-apocalyptic fiction.

John Updike, Toward the End of Time

Published in 1997 and set in 2020, (note that we are closer to the novel's setting than the date of publication), Updike paints a world following a war between the U.S. and China that has thinned the population and brought social chaos. The main character, Ben Turnbull, still plays golf (and since it is an Updike novel, contemplates his penis). But things have changed. The federal government is weak. The dollar has been replaced (in his area) by Massachusetts scrip. The neighborhoods are run by thugs. Mexico is threatening to take back Texas.

Updike takes the reader on a journey through time as humans have contemplated time and its end. Occasionally he leaves the main character's world. One of my favorite parts features monks in the middle ages wondering about their end:

"Those who study the mind of heaven agree that the world must surely end before the year 1000, since a year of more digits than the Trinity would be a certain blasphemy."
It is not science fiction. It is speculative fiction. It is a portrait of a real possibility that is close at hand.

Closer at hand, and even more realistic is James Howard Kunstler's, A World Made By Hand.

Kunstler, author of The Long Emergency, and with the persistent whine of a Hebrew prophet, blogs weekly at Clusterfuck Nation. The blog title tends to give him away. Our industrial suburban experiment is pretty well effed and we are facing a big crash and a long emergency. He has the facts on his side.

This novel was a surprise. It is truly a novel not a screed in fiction form as you might expect. It is set in upstate New York, near Glens Falls about 15-25 years from now, but no date is ever provided. Dwindling oil production has resulted in resource wars. LA and Washington DC have been attacked by nuclear weapons. The "Mexican Flu" has devastated the population. The Federal government may exist. There are rumors that it is headquartered in Minneapolis. There is no media. No electricity. No roads. No cars. Just ruins.

Depressed yet? It is not so bad. The air is cleaner. People are alive. They are managing to grow things. They are working to build again a life for themselves including civilization, this time by hand. I don't see this as a warning novel, of what could happen unless we change our ways, as much as what we ought to expect from the path we have already taken.

It is a touching book, filled with humanity. Kunstler is not religious. Yet his novel expresses the hope that we find throughout the Hebrew scriptures, the hope of the remnant, the righteous branch that grows from the stump.

Continuing the theme of remnant, "we are carrying the fire," is Cormac McCarthy in The Road.

This is a dark, compelling read. The main characters are not even named, a man and his son. The world is lifeless. The only living things are human beings, the survivors of some kind of holocaust caused by some sort of war. The man needs to keep his son alive. They are on the road, trying to find anything to eat or use to keep them warm that has not yet been picked over. They are trying to avoid others who are out to eat them. It is gruesome.

This is the darkest of the three books, yet it expresses the hope of the remnant, life that carries on and loves and seeks out the good guys, because even in this hell there are some. Filled with religious symbolism, it is the best commentary I have read on this line in the Apostle's Creed: He descended into hell. The boy is the hope, "the tabernacle in the dark." In this hell is the divine breath.

There are four paths in Creation Spirituality. One is called the via negativa, the way of letting go. It is the spiritual path of darkness, of emptying, of nothingness. The path of emptying enables us to embrace the pain, the grief, the loss, the depths of despair, and to move through them, so we don't remain captured by addictions, idols, and false hopes. We learn flexibility, adaptability, and lose all sense of entitlement. Hopefully, most importantly, if there is a God, I hope this: we learn kindness.

We have a world to make for our descendants. Like it or not, we have a job. No other job matters. To do it we will need to be courageous, honest, and creative. We are going to need our poets. We need them to write about the remnant. We need them to write about what we are facing. It would be helpful if our politicians were honest, but that is too large a request. Perhaps if we take our poets and prophets seriously and not dismiss them as quacks and Cassandras, we may find the creativity we need to move to this next phase of human history, if not without pain, at least without the extremes of violence.

Who knows? Maybe if we talk about it and wake up we may make the turn toward justice and sustainability. Hope you can join us Saturday, the 26th.

1 comment:

  1. Snad wrote:

    "I would also recommend Vonnegut's "Timequake", with perhaps my favorite line of his: "You were sick. Now you're well again. There's work to be done.""

    Good choice! Thanks! I recommend A Man Without a Country too, even though not fiction.