Abstract: Hey humans – we’re screwin’ up! As the beasts of resource depletion and climate change slouch ever-closer towards our happy homes, maybe it’s time to re-think things a bit. In this epic story, the Doomer Ghost of Christmas Future gives us a grim tour of one of our possible futures, shows us “The Last Book Ever Written,” and gives us an inspirational kick in the pants. It’s a chilling, brutally-honest, and inspiring tale for those brave enough to face the truth, and strong enough to do something about it.
A note from the author:
First off, I’m not really a “doomer” – i.e. someone who foresees “doom” as our only future. It’s just a catchy title, and relevant to the story that follows.
I’d call myself a hopeful (but realistic) “declinist.” In other words, I think there’s still some probability we pull off a livable energy descent – and I try to work towards that goal every single day. I wear many hats in my own personal efforts: father, high-school teacher, home gardener, orchardist, end-of-the-driveway organic-farm-stand proprietor, back-yard shepherd & chicken keeper, community-garden organizer. And despite the daily torrent of bad news, I try to maintain some faith in the intelligence and resolve of my species.
But even though I’m not a “doomer” per se, any non-comatose, reasonably-intelligent person not in the thrall of Industrial Civilization’s propaganda machine has to consider some scary “doomish” future as having a distinctly non-zero probability at this point. The human species, despite its many positive attributes, is just too darn numerous, consumptive, stubborn, and violent for “doom” to be ruled out. We’ve destroyed too much and overshot too far at this point.
There are, of course, different levels of “doom”, but lately, the most extreme version has been increasingly bantered around by “non-fringe” thinkers: the idea that the human species may drive itself (and much of the biosphere) extinct within the not-too-distant future. Physicist and widely-respected agricultural activist Dr. Vandana Shiva recently told an audience that unless the human species cease their destructive activities, we may very well be extinct within 100 years. The driver of our extinction, of course, would be a classic one-two punch: the staggering blow of resource-depletion-induced civilization collapse, followed by the knockout -- climate-change-induced collapse of the biosphere. i.e. the Earth hitting the reset button.
So that brings us to this story.
Despite its doomish title & contents, the “moral” of my story is not -- repeat, not -- that the nightmarish scenario I paint is inevitable; i.e. that humans will surely go extinct in the near future, and that we should just give up and go do whatever hopeless people do when they give up.
I like to think it’s a story of hope (as is Dicken’s original). It’s saying this: Look, we’ve screwed up big-time as both a civilization and as a species. Trouble is surely headed our way in many forms – but there’s still maybe a lot we can do to help us through the tough times ahead; to lessen the pain. It’s time to start these preparations in earnest at the individual and community levels -- full steam ahead. We have much work to do and little time to do it. So come together, stay strong and keep up the good fight!
So here’s the story…
A Doomer’s Christmas Carol
by Dan Allen
A Visit from a Statue
It was a blustery late-December evening, the Friday before Christmas in fact, when I settled into my easy-chair to continue another read-through of Catton’s Overshoot. The chilled wind outside, which had increased steadily all afternoon, was now buffeting the darkened windows of my living room. My dog lay asleep at my feet.
Despite the grimness of Catton’s message – that humans are deep into ecological overshoot at this point and will likely experience a severe population correction in the not-too-distant future; I felt perversely comforted by the logic and honesty of the book.
Truth, even a grim truth, rests comfortably on a mind weary of battling a relentless barrage of lies.
…Suddenly, a harsh scraping noise at the far end of the house disturbed my thoughts. The sound approached rapidly through the halls, and then burst violently through the door with a harsh, ear-splitting screech.
And then all was still.
Standing before me – towering over me actually, was a huge, gray, ghostly specter bearing an uncanny resemblance to those big Easter Island statues. It trailed in a strong smell of brimstone and decaying flesh which caused me immediately to retch.
In a hushed, yet somehow booming voice it said, “I am the Doomer Ghost of Christmas Future. Come with me.”
Despite my protests that I was at a particularly interesting part of the book where several of Catton’s insightful points were being woven together to make a stunningly strong case for overshoot, and that I really wished to stay and continue reading, the specter brusquely grabbed hold of my wrist and off we flew, out the window and up into the night sky.
A Strange Journey
Upon exiting the window, a startling scene unfolded. An eerily quiet, post-apocalyptic world utterly devoid of humans passed beneath us as we swept eastward towards the New Jersey coast: streets and highways bristling with partially-flattened phragmites grass and broken ailanthus trees; mawing cellar holes strewn with debris; large swaths of bare soil scarred by deep gullies; and broken towers teetering at odd angles. Eroded craters of various sizes pock-marked the brown landscape.
Small whirlwinds of dust and bits of plastic played about in the thick, warm air.
Several twisters were visible in the far distance against an oddly purplish sky. And not a single bird anywhere. Aside from the crackling of some dried vegetation in the intermittent breezes, no sounds disturbed the deep silence of the ravaged landscape.
After quickly crossing the North Atlantic Ocean – an oddly-tropical translucent blue now, and passing over a similarly desolate and de-peopled European landscape, we crossed the Middle East – now a monochromatic sea of white dunes stretching from the Black Sea to the Bay of Bengal.
As we glided effortlessly up to the snow-less, rocky summit of Mount Everest under an eerily orange mid-day sky, my head was reeling and I felt as if someone had just punched me in the stomach.
We stood silently for a long time on the rocky summit, as I regained my bearings -- the air thin and cool, smelling faintly of sulfur. The specter then pointed to a shiny golden box wedged between two angular slabs, and wordlessly ordered me to fetch it.
Opening the box, I found a thin, ornate book – a weird combination of a slick computer software manual and one of those old illuminated manuscripts. It smelled both musty and plasticy – a cross between a mushroom and a new children’s toy. The cover, decorated brightly with elaborate, skillfully-drawn illustrations of flowers, cars, animals, and guns, read in ornate script, “Homo sapiens were…”
The specter wordlessly bade me to open it and read aloud. The inside of the book was striking: even more ornately-illustrated than the cover, with an odd combination of beautiful and nightmarish drawings intertwined against a brilliantly-colored background. The text was carefully hand-written in expert calligraphy.
A shiver raced down my arms, and I felt the coolness of evaporation on my forehead. My head spun. I teetered slightly but quickly regained my balance, as a jagged rock clacked down the steep cliff.
I took a deep breath and began to read…
Homo sapiens were…
Greetings intelligent being.
Behold the story of our species, now gone from this Earth. We did not expect these words to ever be read, and it pleases our spirits greatly to share our sad tale with you.
It is a tale of a clever ape who met an untimely end – the tragic rise and fall of a species and the destruction of a biosphere.
Read it and learn from it.
It did not need to happen this way.
Chapter One: So New to This Earth
All began fourteen billion years before our end in a brilliant expansion of form and substance. Atoms congealed from the miasma, and gathered together as dust and gas, from which all else was fashioned.
Clouds of dust and gas collapsed upon themselves and ignited as stars. Stars burned, then burned out, exploded to dust, and then collapsed again – on and on as the elements of Life were created.
Four and a half billion years before our end, the Sun was born and the Earth condensed from a metallic cloud of dust. But the young Earth was molten-hot and so cooled for one billion years -- all the while, patiently gathering the molecules it would need to give birth to Life.
It is not known precisely how, but the Earth did give birth to Life – a magically-improbable, counter-entropic dance of matter and energy; ruggedly persistent yet fragile; strong yet vulnerable.
For three and a half billion years, as plates of rock danced over the surface and oceans were opened and closed, Life did what Life does – it persisted and took what it could. Species came and went, and changed, and changed again.
Then 0.0002 billion years before our end, we were born – an ape with a skill for adaptation.
We were so new to this ancient Universe, so new to this Earth.
Chapter Two: A Very Clever Ape
Perhaps it was language that brought forth thought, or perhaps the reverse (or perhaps both) – but our species rose above the beasts not with brawn, but with brain. We were the adapters, the tool-makers, the Earth-changers -- the clever ape.
We fashioned tools as extensions of our flesh -- ever more complex tools for ever more uses as our species matured. And with these tools, we rose above our bodily limits to become, in some ways, far greater than we were. And with these tools, we multiplied into every physical environment on the planet. Our initially-limited homelands thus became the entire Earth.
As we gained more tool-making skill and grew in numbers, we began to become more than just a species among species – we became a massive force of Earthly change. To that which we could not or did not want to adapt, we changed.
And oh, how we changed the Earth!
We burnt, drained, plowed, built-up, tore-down, and dug into the Earth. We cut down, killed, trapped, and poisoned the Earth. We scraped, exploded, cooled down, heated up, and rearranged the Earth. We even tried, but ultimately failed, to leave the Earth.
We learned to plunder vast hidden treasures of ancient sunlight to power our ever greater tools – tools that came to define us, to belong to us, almost more than our own flesh; tools that would corrupt and ultimately destroy our flesh.
We were so clever – so wonderfully, horribly, heart-breakingly clever.
Chapter Three: A Tragic Lack of Intelligence
But there is a profound and tragic difference between cleverness and intelligence.
Cleverness is the ability to solve problems. This we could do.
The history of our species is a litany of clever problem solving. We constructed ever-more elaborate shelters, procured food with increasing efficiency, eliminated ever more competitors, moderated extremes of temperature, found and extracted vast fossil energy resources, greatly increased the efficiency and speed of our machines over time, etc. Our brains were seemingly wired for this sort of problem-solving. We thrived on its challenges.
Intelligence, however, is another matter entirely.
Intelligence is seeing the big picture and responding appropriately; it is admitting that perhaps a clever solution to one problem has caused more problems than before, and learning from the mistake; it is admitting that we are sometimes faced with an unsolvable predicament, rather than a solvable problem, and responding humbly and appropriately; it is skillfully foreseeing possible and upcoming predicaments, and changing course accordingly.
But crucially, intelligence is identifying and embracing our limits – our unavoidable ignorance in this world. It is proceeding with caution and a constant honest evaluation of our past actions. It is being careful.
And all this we did not do – seemingly could not do.
Our tragic arrogance -- our cursed hubris -- stunted the beginnings of the humbled intelligence that was required of us. And lacking this intelligence – this broadness of mind so very crucial in a species with our Earth-changing powers, we destroyed the biosphere and ourselves.
We recklessly flooded our Earth with vast quantities of toxins in the name of growing our civilization, despite their well-known corruptions to both our species and other species we relied upon. We built a massive, crowded, global civilization based entirely on the exponentially-increasing extraction of non-renewable resources, despite the clearly-flawed logic of such a program’s long-term prospects on a finite planet. We systematically and knowingly destroyed the structures and functions of our very biosphere and the stability of our climate system, despite the obvious threats such destruction meant to our very survival as a species.
All the predicaments that destroyed us were foreseen well in advance; all were initially avoidable; but all were tragically allowed to proceed to their grim fruition.
Perhaps we were too young as a species – perhaps we would have grown wiser with age and developed this intelligence; perhaps not. But it will never be known.
All has now been done.
Chapter Four: Our Final Act
It would be mollifying to our departed souls to say that our species went out with dignity; with a repentant acceptance of our limitations, our flaws, and our sins against the Earth and each other.
But we did not.
In the end, we raged at our self-sealed fate.
We bemoaned our lost dignity after systematically stripping ourselves of it.
We cursed the barrenness of the Earth after destroying everything it offered.
We railed against the violence of our brothers and sisters after waging violence upon them.
We chastised our children for their poverty after robbing them of their future.
We rebuked our gods after placing ourselves above them.
We did not go quietly or with grace.
We just went.
A Return to the Easy Chair
I closed the terrible book, tears coursing down my cheeks.
My head reeled.
I felt myself swaying, then falling -- and then flying.
The sky darkened quickly on the trip home, as a fierce storm arose and seemed to envelop the entire Earth. The profound silence of our initial journey was now matched by the ear-splitting cacophony of the roiling atmosphere. The storm raged around us with a deafening roar -- the Earth seeming to scream in pain and anguish; in anger too, I imagined. Lightning and thunder cleaved the sky, but no rain fell. I closed my eyes tight; repelled and frightened by the violence. I felt myself losing consciousness.
I was startled awake by a frightened yelp from my dog. I slammed opened my eyes to find myself alone in my living room, in the same easy chair I had been forcibly removed from earlier. My cheeks were wet. My heart was racing. The Catton book lay on the floor at my feet. My dog stared up at me intently.
What was the meaning of all that?
Despite my confusion as to what had just transpired, I felt oddly rested and quite comfortable in my chair. My dog still eyed me curiously, sensing my heightened emotional state. The house was warm despite the still-strong winds, and a heavy rain now washed over the dark windows. In spite of my residual horror at what must have been simply a bad dream, I felt a serene contentment begin to fall over me.
I got up and checked on my family. Despite the storm, they lay soundly asleep in their beds, breathing deeply inside dreams less harrowing than mine, I hoped. I returned to my chair. My dog resumed her usual place on top of my feet.
I picked up Catton’s book again and began to read: “…It was thus becoming apparent that nature must, in the not far distant future, institute bankruptcy proceedings against industrial civilization, and perhaps against the standing crop of human flesh, just as nature had done many times to…”
But I stopped reading abruptly, as a sick feeling rose in my stomach. The faint smell of sulfur from my dream had returned. I felt almost a panic that I was supposed to be somewhere else at that moment – doing something else.
I quickly rose to my feet.
“…Wait! I know all this! I know the oil’s gonna crash! I know our civilization is collapsing! I know we’re in overshoot! I know we’re killing ourselves; killing the biosphere! I’ve seen all the graphs and charts and numbers and photographs! I’ve read the articles and books! I know what’s coming if we stay on our current course – heck, even probably if we try to change course at this point! Why am I sitting here reading this?! Why aren’t I…doing something about it?!”
Tears again welled up in my eyes. “But what can I do?” I asked weakly in the direction of my confused dog. I stood, anguished and motionless, my head in my hands. The dog watched me with a tense interest.
After several long minutes of anxious stillness, the tension suddenly broke like a taut string. I took a deep breath. The dog took this as a cue to lay her head back down and resume her nap.
“The basics,” I whispered to myself. “Take care of the basics first.”
A Time for Action
I walked over to my bookshelf and methodically scanned the shelves, pulling down eight or nine books and laying them out on the table.
These were books I had eagerly purchased, leafed-through, read passages from over the years, but never read in their entirety, and never pursued fully: Logsdon’s Small-Scale Grain Raising, Coleman’s Winter Harvest Manual, Jenkin’s The Humanure Handbook, Bubel’s Root Cellaring, Katz’s Wild Fermentation, Ashworth & Whealy’s Seed to Seed, Deppe’s Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties, Toogood’s Plant Propagation, Lancaster’s Rainwater Harvesting, etc.
I had purchased them out of sincere interest, but also out of fear – fear that the coming industrial collapse would happen too fast and would be too disorderly for our large-scale institutions to adjust; that we would be left to fend largely for ourselves in terms of the basics: food, water, and shelter. “Self-defense books,” I called them.
There were of course, many interesting and necessary books I didn’t have: those on natural building methods, metalworking, woodworking, etc. Lacking the both funds to purchase these and the time to pursue them, I hoped someone in my town knew these things. I didn’t like to think about it too much -- too depressing. So much we’ve lost.
But now what would I do with all these “self-defense” books? Construct an alternate, largely-self-sufficient life parallel to my “normal” still-largely-industrial life that was already going on – a life my wife and kids had no intention of abandoning until necessary? Wasn’t this going to be expensive? And where is all this extra time going to come from? I barely have time to do all the stuff I was doing already!
The panicked feeling returned to my stomach as my mind raced to reconcile all the seemingly-impossible tasks I was suddenly assigning myself. I tapped nervously on the table with my fingers and mumbled to myself. My dog got up, walked over to me, and nuzzled my leg for a pet. I obliged.
Again an epiphany: “One at a time!” I exclaimed at the startled dog. “I’ll do them one at a time. I’ll take care of one in a passable way, and then move on until I’ve done each one. Then I’ll go back and improve my initial efforts.”
“…But what about time? Where will I get the time?” Slightly alarmed at my anxious tone, the dog whined again for a pet and nosed my knee. “I’ll have to cut out something -- but what?” I frowned at the floor. “…The computer! How much time do I spend at that damn computer? Too damn much! And books! As much as I love them, it’s crunch time, and I already know most of the s#@% I’m reading about now, anyway. I’ll cut back on books…for now.”
“…And what about the community? Isn’t my family still essentially helpless if my community collapses around me?” I massaged my dog’s ears, deep in thought.
Another epiphany: “OK…I know some people who won’t think I’m crazy about this stuff. I’ll call them and ask if they want to do some projects together. I’ll do these things with them, as much as possible. I’ll do them over at the Community Garden. We can start a ‘Rainwater Collection Club’; a ‘Solar Oven Club’; a ‘Root Cellaring Club’; a ‘Woodworking Club’…I’ll publicize my projects in the local paper…at the high school…I’ll contact Transition US…”
“…OK, wait. Slow down,” I mumbled to myself. “You’re getting ahead of yourself again. Start small…but start! Work up to that other stuff. We still have some time…maybe…I hope.”
I put all the “self-defense” books back on the shelf – but all together now, in a special place. I held Bubel’s Root Cellaring book in my hands. I would read it tonight, straight through.
A fierce pride rose in my heart – an intense feeling of hope that startled me. Tears again welled up in my eyes – but different tears this time. I could palpably feel the gnawing despair and hopelessness of our predicament slip off my shoulders like a heavy blanket – a constant undercurrent to my thoughts that I had struggled with for years now. The dog nuzzled my hand.
The next morning, the Saturday before Christmas, I would start my root cellaring experiments.