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Wednesday, December 29, 2010

A few notes about the Apocalypse

So, as I've mentioned before, I'm currently working on a piece of apocalyptic fiction involving angels and demons and the mortal peeps caught in the crossfire of heaven and hell*. And since I've been spending a lot of time thinking (obsessing?) about the end of the world, which happens with me a lot around the ending/beginning of the year, my eye has been drawn to all of the apocalyptic talk about the economy and the social order here in the ole' US. It seems I'm not the only one thinking about the end times** so I figured I would let loose with a bunch of apocalyptic linky-dinks. Think of this as a potpourri for Armageddon, if you will.

1.) I'll start by with the Grand Marshall of the Long Emergency himself, Mr. Jim Kunstler of Geography of Nowhere*** fame. Kunstler has been ranting about the impending oil/structural crisis for over a decade, but only recently has his shouting started to become less hysterical and more prescient. To sum up his theory, the US economy is entirely based on cheap oil (for food production, manufacturing, importation of cheap goods from China, the economy of scale logistics that allow Walmart/Target/et al to bring these cheap goods to market, gasoline for the cars that allow most Americans to get to their jobs 30+ miles away from their houses, which are themselves miles away from commerce/industry/etc.), and when oil is no longer cheap (for a variety of reasons: peak oil, wars or embargoes that force the chief oil manufacturing countries to choke off oil supply, the Chinese and Indian middle classes start to drive cars as much as Americans do) the upside-down triangle of an economy the US has built over the last half century or so will come crashing down on itself in spectacularly horrible fashion. He dubs this the Long Emergency, by which he means the US economy will slowly and painfully contract, with all the attending social and cultural strife you would a imagine such a drastic economic change would bring. He believes that it is possible to reverse this trend by curbing suburban sprawl, building walkable cities, and reviving the decrepit rail system in order to decrease and/or end America's dependence on fossil fuels. Not only would this avoid the catastrophe that awaits us, but it would also create jobs, spur the economy, and as an after-effect make for a less hostile and more beautiful America.

Every Monday Kunstler posts on his blog Clusterf**k Nation and tells the world what he's thinking about our status as a people, country, and economy. This week he's in Paris and his post struck me as being especially interesting. You can read it here.

He also has a monthly feature of his website called Eyesore of the Month where he highlights some of the architectural abominations this country and Europe have inflicted on the world. If you're like me and view the prevailing attitudes about architecture to be almost panic-inducing this feature is hilarious.

2.) Next we have a duo of Bob Dylan lyrics from his first couple of albums. Dylan's wit, especially predominant on his acoustic albums, was always acerbic and bitter, but never more so than on his "Talkin'" series of blues ditties in which he uses essentially the same chord progression in order to "talk" about some subject or another. There's not much melody to speak of, just a guitar and a dude rapping about how he sees the world.

The first lyric I'd like to highlight is from his first, self-titled record. The song is called "Talkin' New York," in which he tells the story of his coming to the City from "out west" and getting a job. It's mostly humorous given what history shows became of him once he came to NYC, but toward the end there is a line that is so razor sharp, and not only has insight into his own generation but ours as well, that it literally made my jaw drop when I heard it this morning.

Talkin' New York
Lyrics and music by Bob Dylan

Ramblin’ outa the wild West
Leavin’ the towns I love the best
Thought I’d seen some ups and downs’
Til I come into New York town

People goin’ down to the ground
Buildings goin’ up to the sky
Wintertime in New York town
The wind blowin’ snow around
Walk around with nowhere to go
Somebody could freeze right to the bone
I froze right to the bone
New York Times said it was the coldest winter in seventeen years
I didn’t feel so cold then

I swung onto my old guitar
Grabbed hold of a subway car
And after a rocking, reeling, rolling ride
I landed up on the downtown side
Greenwich Village
I walked down there and ended up
In one of them coffee-houses on the block
Got on the stage to sing and play
Man there said, “Come back some other day
You sound like a hillbilly
We want folk singers here”

Well, I got a harmonica job, begun to play
Blowin’ my lungs out for a dollar a day
I blowed inside out and upside down
The man there said he loved m’ sound
He was ravin’ about how he loved m’ sound
Dollar a day’s worth

And after weeks and weeks of hangin’ around
I finally got a job in New York town
In a bigger place, bigger money too
Even joined the union and paid m’ dues

Now, a very great man once said
That some people rob you with a fountain pen
It didn’t take too long to find out
Just what he was talkin’ about
A lot of people don’t have much food on their table
But they got a lot of forks ’n’ knives
And they gotta cut somethin’

So one mornin’ when the sun was warm
I rambled out of New York town
Pulled my cap down over my eyes
And headed out for the western skies
So long, New York
Howdy, East Orange

The next lyric that struck me as relevant to the modern climate, was a number from his second album, the oft-covered Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, titled "Talkin' World War Three Blues". While much of the song trades in the paranoia and imagery prevalent in the sixties about nuclear war, Dylan himself is far more concerned with the sights and sounds of a post-modernity world and the found-hilarity in the abrupt obsolescence of an entire way of life. While it starts as a humorous jaunt through the post-nuclear world, it ends as a sharp dissection of exactly what Dylan thinks ails the US, an entire generation that believe they are beautiful little snowflakes.

Talkin' World War III Blues
Words and Music by Bob Dylan

Some time ago a crazy dream came to me
I dreamt I was walkin’ into World War Three
I went to the doctor the very next day
To see what kinda words he could say
He said it was a bad dream
I wouldn’t worry ’bout it none, though
They were my own dreams and they’re only in my head

I said, “Hold it, Doc, a World War passed through my brain”
He said, “Nurse, get your pad, this boy’s insane”
He grabbed my arm, I said, “Ouch!”
As I landed on the psychiatric couch
He said, “Tell me about it”
Well, the whole thing started at 3 o’clock fast
It was all over by quarter past
I was down in the sewer with some little lover
When I peeked out from a manhole cover
Wondering who turned the lights on
Well, I got up and walked around
And up and down the lonesome town
I stood a-wondering which way to go
I lit a cigarette on a parking meter and walked on down the road
It was a normal day

Well, I rung the fallout shelter bell
And I leaned my head and I gave a yell
“Give me a string bean, I’m a hungry man”
A shotgun fired and away I ran
I don’t blame them too much though, I know I look funny

Down at the corner by a hot-dog stand
I seen a man I said, “Howdy friend, I guess there’s just us two”
He screamed a bit and away he flew
Thought I was a Communist

Well, I spied a girl and before she could leave
“Let’s go and play Adam and Eve”
I took her by the hand and my heart it was thumpin’
When she said, “Hey man, you crazy or sumpin’
You see what happened last time they started”

Well, I seen a Cadillac window uptown
And there was nobody aroun’
I got into the driver’s seat
And I drove down 42nd Street
In my Cadillac.
Good car to drive after a war

Well, I remember seein’ some ad
So I turned on my Conelrad
But I didn’t pay my Con Ed bill
So the radio didn’t work so well
Turned on my record player—
It was Rock-a-day Johnny singin’,
“Tell Your Ma, Tell Your Pa
Our Love’s A-gonna Grow Ooh-wah, Ooh-wah”

I was feelin’ kinda lonesome and blue
I needed somebody to talk to
So I called up the operator of time
Just to hear a voice of some kind
“When you hear the beep it will be three o’clock”
She said that for over an hour
And I hung up

Well, the doctor interrupted me just about then
Sayin’, “Hey I’ve been havin’ the same old dreams
But mine was a little different you see
I dreamt that the only person left after the war was me
I didn’t see you around”

Well, now time passed and now it seems
Everybody’s having them dreams
Everybody sees themselves
Walkin’ around with no one else
Half of the people can be part right all of the time
Some of the people can be all right part of the time
But all of the people can’t be all right all of the time
I think Abraham Lincoln said that
“I’ll let you be in my dreams if I can be in yours”
I said that

3.) Even the New York Times is getting in the act, with a recent cavalcade of Op/Ed pieces that are very much concerned with the inability of the US Congress to act in the face of overwhelming concerns about climate change, globalism, infrastructure reform, and the growing corporatocracy.

Here Paul Krugman yacks about the end of everything.

Thomas Friedman has some good ideas about cutting in some places and investing in others here. It even comes with a cameo from Atlanta's own Kasim Reed.

Frank Rich worries that the American Dream is dead because we have nothing to believe in. Seems a little simplistic, but plausible as a partial cause.

4.) The latest paranoia: Forget about Peak Oil, people, let's start thinking about Peak Everything.

5.) Then, of course, there's this looming for the first half of 2011.

6.) My good buddy, Mister Booze, has a funny little prediction about the next big arts movement of 2011.

6.) And lastly, if for no other reason than to raise your general feeling of uneasiness about the modern world, I bring you Atlas Obscura, a compendium of the world's most bizarre places. I could spend hours on this site.

So, there you have it, folks, five reasons to enter 2011 with a heavy heart. But, the good news is, there are about 900 novel ideas folded between the lines of all these reports and paranoias. If the world is coming to an end then surely there is a lot to talk about, right? So get cracking on your stories, everyone. I imagine we'll need some entertainment before the year's through****.

*Which, despite the YouTube link, is not actually funny at all. I'm taking this thing dead serious. As of now I've written about 76K words and am about one third of the way done. One of the main characters is a drunk who chose alcohol over his family and now must quite cold turkey (because the angel Gabriel patted his back) just as the apocalypse is starting. Another is an obsessive hermit who writes letters to people bemoaning the current world order. By the end of the book he'll be sending mail bombs instead of letters. Fun stuff, I tell you.
**And I don't even mean this as a religious thing, either. It's quite possible that the "world" could end as far as the US is concerned, and yet the actual world continue turning. This is, of course, a philosophical question: if the US goes into third-world type decline in our lifetimes, isn't that basically the same thing as the world ending? To us Americans, at least? This seems to be the real question everyone's asking. Is the US about to the go the way of Rome and England and Greece, and if so what will that look like?
***One of the most interesting books I've ever read. Still one of the most influential on creating my current world view, for what it's worth.
****Stay tuned for more light-hearted fare starting next week.


Jason Jordan said...

Sounds like a cool project you're working on Tres. I'm a big fan of apocalyptic fiction. Nice assortment of links, too.

Tres Crow said...

Thanks, Jason. Indeed it is an interesting project. To me, at least. With this novel, as with so many apocalyptic pieces, the cataclysm itself is really just a conceit in order to tell the tale of these characters without all the clutter of the modern world.

It's possible that The Road would have been just as powerful if it hadn't taken place after the world had ended, but by reducing the world to only this one relationship, McCarthy was able to tell the tale of the most elemental relationship in most men's lives, the relationship with their father, or conversely, with their son. Apocalypse allows authors to talk about relationships in more fundamental ways than other subgenres of fiction. Kind of the way Sci-Fi and Fantasy are almost perfectly fitted for discussing ethical and/or socio-political issues. Apocalypse is for families.

Ben U. said...

I just read the Kunstler piece. I'm pretty sure I remember reading him in Lassiter's "American Suburbia" class too -- name sounds familiar. I'm not sure I share his extremist viewpoint that the world is about to go down the shitter and we're at a tipping point (hasn't pretty much everyone in the history of ever said the same?) but I'm very much in tune with what he's saying in general, especially when he says that pretty much the only solution is for America (and the world) to become less affluent, one way or another. We're too rich, too big, too over-extended.

Interestingly, I was in Paris at the same time as Kunstler. Made for a unique perspective on his piece.

Tres Crow said...

You did read his book Geography of Nowhere in Lassiter's class, Ben, and if I recall you dug it. Or at least I remember us chatting about it once or twice.

I'm not entirely convinced he is extremist. Instead I think his time line is just sped up, which makes him look extreme. I'm not so sure that this stuff is going to take place in the next year or two like him, or even that it has to take place. There're plenty of ways we could avoid the icebergs headed our way.

Certainly every generation has thought they were living in the end times, but prior to the Boomers every generation had to rely on something magical to end the world (God, asteroid, comet, etc.), but nowadays there are actually plenty of fairly-well understood processes in place that, while they won't wipe out humanity, will certainly make life as we understand it considerably different. Climate change is the obvious one, but peak oil and peak other things (copper is one that is seriously in danger of becoming extinct), overpopulation, scarcity of water, food, etc. These are all things that will not kill off humanity, or even civilization, but they will make living the way we are living increasingly difficult, and the longer we wait to make the necessary changes the harder the fall will be. It is hard for we Americans to understand that the standard of living we enjoy is a relatively new phenomenon in the history of the world. We are literally living in the type of material comfort only about 1% of humans have ever enjoyed. Why are we assured of the continuation of something that on the whole looks like an aberration, not the rule?

Kunstler is shrill, for sure, and he is absolutely certain the sky is falling, like, tomorrow, but I think that if we do not implement the changes he suggests, the sky will fall, it'll just be decades, or tens of decades, from now.

I read a great quote a few months back that said one of the great questions of our time is "Why, after millenia of remaining relatively stable, has humanity's population levels suddenly taken on the characteristics of a viral infection in the last century?" In the last 100 years the world population has grown exponentially. Just look at the chart in this link ( Who's going to feed all these people? Where will we get the water?

If history has taught us anything it's that large groups of starving people is never a good thing for civilization.

But, you're point that it is not necessary to believe in Kunstler's dour outlook to believe the changes necessary is well taken. I completely agree with you. You don't have to stand on the corner with a sign proclaiming the end is near in order to believe in an efficient rail system, and walkable cities. Those should be goals we can all agree on whether it's for over-all health, or climate change, or whatever. That would be a pretty cool America to live in, me thinks.