A Woman, a Plan, a Canard...

I usually allow my honorary older brother, John Michael Greer to debunk the idea of the apocalypse, Mayan and otherwise.  He's even written a (very funny and, as usual, brilliant) book about it, and he's the master of historical examples in which everyone was pretty sure the world was going to end and it didn't.  While I tend to think that we are closer to a collapse (a word I use in its technical sense, meaning big step down in complexity and function) than most people admit, I am very far from thinking that this will be the end of the world, a term that I think is largely meaningless unless we are talking large-scale asteroid strike.

My own favorite cautionary example of end-of-the-world thinking is the conjunction of the story of Noah in the Torah (Hebrew Bible), immediately followed by the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and the story of Lot's daughters.  If the former can be read as a narrative in which we are asked to view the idea that the world (or at least the piece accessible to the vision of a  a small group of people) can end and preparedness provide a measure of protection for many species and for the future, the next stories provide a useful reminder and corrective.

The two stories are linked both by the way they appear in text and also by their themes - Lot's name is first mentioned at  the very end of Noah's story, and it is hard to miss the connection, when Lot's daughters say "And the firstborn said unto the younger, Our father is old, and there is not a man in the earth to come in unto us after the manner of all the earth:  Come, let us make our father drink wine, and we will lie with him, that we may preserve seed of our father."  The two women have just witnessed the destruction of their home city, and they believe from what they have seen that the same destruction that occurred in Noah's generation has happened - they believe that in the cave to which they have escaped, they alone and their father survive, and commit incest in order to preserve the human race.  It is a scenario out of any post-apocalyptic novel - indeed, one that one can easily envision being written by Robert Heinlein.)

If the story of Noah reminds us of the fragility of humanity and its environment, at its most literal level, the story of Lot's daughters seems meant to remind us not to jump to the conclusion that the apocalypse is here.  Wait a few days, it suggests, before seducing dear old Dad.  Perhaps you'd want to check out the larger neighborhood and make ABSOLUTELY SURE that you are the only human beings left in the world, rather like one would prefer to wait a little longer than this before resorting to cannibalism:

Eventually, we were able to knock Jerry out. And, as for what we did next, I'm sure you've read about it in the papers. Maybe it was savage. Maybe it was an animal act. But human teeth are pointed and sharp in front for a reason. Besides, we had no way of knowing that, at that very moment, an Otis Elevator repairman was working to free us. We only knew that we were between floors, and that it had been more than five hours since we'd had lunch.

At the same time, this Biblical juxtaposition is surprisingly sympathetic to Lot's daughters.  One is depicted as the ancestor of Ruth, from whose line come's David.  Rabbinical commentary observes that technically they should have been put to death for seducing their father, but that because they meant to preserve humanity, they were not punished.  Moreover, the question of where they got all the wine they used to get Lot drunk (three people escaping burning cities probably carry other stuff besides wine) gets some midrashic treatment, and it is claimed that G-d provided it, enabling their act.  All in all, the reading of this act seems to be "Ok, they over-reacted, but they did it from the right intentions."  Lot's daughters are not set up as role models, but the Bible is gently sympathetic to the impulse to read apocalypse into a more limited disaster.  Still, it reminds us, let's not jump the gun THAT far.

All of which is a long way of saying that while it is perfectly natural that a lot of people are often worried about any given disaster that will remake the world, most of the time, those disasters don't happen.  Instead, what feels like the end of the world ends up being only (and I use that only advisedly here, since it does not represent a trivial amount of suffering) the end of a way of life, a radical, destructive and traumatizing change that may affect a few or many.  This kind of the end of the world happens, and it happens to a lot of people over the course of a lifetime or a century.  It is worth noting that the Bible documents only one "destruction of the world" but a whole lot of "end of our world" events including the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the famine that drove Jacob's family into Egypt in which "there was no food in all the land," war and the destruction of peoples, etc... While it is hardly a historical primary document, you can come away from the Torah pretty much the way you come away from a long view of human history - it is fairly normal for things to go all apocalyptic on your (personal) behind.  It is not so common for actual apocalypses to happen to everyone.

Those kinds of ends of the world happen all the time.  So while I don't advise anyone to get ready for an end of the world, I do think you'll want to get right on the ball prepping for the end of YOUR world - the one that had enough fossil fuels to generate endless economic growth.  For that, you are gonna want a plan, both for the kinds of short term emergencies that happen in everyone's life, and the kind of destructive "feels like the end of the world" that happen fairly often over the course of a lifetime.  Consider the last century - someone born in 1900 in much of Europe or Japan, a Jew, a Gypsy, a Cambodian Intellectual, a dissenter under Stalin, a bystander to any of a few dozen wars, would have seen disaster that looked and felt precisely like the end of everything, enduring horrors unimaginable to those of us lucky enough to live in peace.  We have the bad happen of assuming that if things go well for a short historical period, fifty or a hundred years, that means we will never again be the victim of an end-of-our-world.  I have no doubt that the English people, coming upon a century  of  comparative stability,  peace, prosperity and moderate climate, felt in the spring of 1066 as though nothing really awful could ever happen to them again, much as many Americans do.

So what does it mean to be prepared to give up a way of life and move on to another?  The first step is to insulate yourself as much as possible from having to take radical steps down that are simply too painful to endure - have food on hand so that a shortage doesn't push you into hunger immediately, have an evacuation plan and emergency bags so that you can leave if your home is no longer safe, have a way to keep warm or cool, to cook food, to take care of hygiene and toileting issues, to bathe and wash clothes to prevent the spread of disease.  First, there's triage for the short term crisis to keep you able to move on to the longer term of your new reality.

Then start thinking about a way of life that can work for you in that stepped down situation in the long term.  Where will the money come from?  What about the food?  Water?  Medical care?  It may never happen - you may live and die in the blessed century of your particular region, untouched by disaster, but the odds are you won't be.  The reality is that most human beings lived and died without many conveniences, and managed to extract a good bit of happiness and contentment from their lives, so look to them for the ways to start again.

Will it protect you from everything, from the world collapsing around you?  Absolutely not.  Some people always are hurt most and most lastingly, some people die in every disaster - it could be you.  All you can do is up the odds of survival and a better future - but then again, this is different from your life day to day...how?  The reality is that it ALWAYS can all fall apart.  And yet we go on, keeping it mostly together as best we can, and being ready for the day when the new world bursts upon us.








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Thank you Sharon. I really had never thought of those stories in this context. Thanks for making me think. Recent weather happenings, plus the arctic ice accelerated melting have certainly made things feel a lot scarier to me. This really does help put things in perspective.

By Sue in Maine (not verified) on 07 Dec 2012 #permalink

Thanks for this post. One thing that really bothers me about many peak oil and climate change writers is that they don't understand the emotional consequences of what they write for many readers. Many people end up totally debilitated and depressed from reading this "disaster porn". The result isn't a commitment to action, but rather resignation and depression----in some cases I suspect actual, clinical, medical illness. Both you and Greer deserve great praise for refusing to fall prey to this bad rhetorical habit.

By Cloudwalking Owl (not verified) on 08 Dec 2012 #permalink

"and managed to extract a good bit of happiness and contentment from their lives"

I am increasingly of the opinion that "happiness and contentment" are purely genetic; and unrelated to wealth, health, or other worldly circumstances.

The papers recently were full of all the stories of people who literally won The Lottery; became millionaires; were miserable constantly; lost everything, and were once again poor- and discontented. Folk wisdom ranges across the spectrum; of miserable kings and happy peasants- and having watched folk for 5 decades now, my own observations run the same way - happy people will find a way to be happy; the miserables will find a way to be miserable, regardless of how lucky/wealthy/fat they become.

From personal experience, I can assure you that happiness does not stem from owning a refrigerator; or having running water. Though they make great foci for the genetically discontented. : - )

I take it he, like you, is entirely supportive of the eco-Nazi Armageddon cult of catastrophic warming. or of the previouis "environmentalist" doomsdays of global cooling, oil running out semi-annually since the 1960s, everbyody dying of cancer caused pollution at 42 a couple of decades ago, species extinctionm, acid rain, ozone, nuclear china syndromes or any other tof the inmnumerable Armadgeddon terrors that have proven so much more lucrative to the eco-Nazis.than the openly religiouis ones were?

By Neil Craig (not verified) on 10 Dec 2012 #permalink

About age 11, I received a Children's Bible and began to read the Old Testament. After reading of Lot's daughters, I decided I wasn't old enough for the material and stopped reading the Old Testament.

Now at 66, recognizing the allegorical nature of such stories, it strikes me as a narrative devise to maintain continuity of the blood line story. The writers painted themselves into a corner. The parental God they used to make us behave was always threatening to take away the car - end the world. Even the New Testament God of love had to include, for the purposes of control, an end of world judgment day.

Given the scope of the manifest universe that Hubble images have given us, it is time for a new heaven and new earth where the Creator isn' a micro manager, but one who gives guidance through spiritual inspiration of humanity as we use our intelligence to survive and evolve in an evolving environment. Very simply, life is risky due to the environment. Survival and perpetuation depends upon communities of peers to solve the current problem.

So, as you note, one should be "prepping for the end of YOUR world." Having been a regional planner, at some point in the 1980's I concluded that "all life is risk management." Our own lives can end any moment. A meteor could be flying through space with our name on it. It may simply be a matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The challenge is to live for the long term and yet be ready for unexpected crises. Scouts learn it as "be preparded." Looking around the corner, over the horizon, imagining scenarios or using the ones the arts provide, can temper us. The perpetual growth paradigm is looking more and more hollow, even though challenged decades ago.

If we look around the world and back in time, the worst loss is that of civil order. Our societies are entirely dependent upon civil obedience in the majority of the population for the wealth we have today. This is our primary security, the true purpose of what I posit as "community motive," the means by which all life solves problems. The lesser "profit motive" can only appear when there is a community stable enough to have some surplus and therefore discretion about what investments are made.

In the sacred stories, calamity is brought about when the people are not prudent, but profligate - not caring for the morrow. For the purposes of good story telling, the nuclear option is used to get attention. Do we need these stories? Sure, so some maintain and/or develop the capacity to respond.

Resilince to my mind, is the ability to take a hit and keep going. In retrospect, those who can keep going were prepared, and benefitted from the mechanisms society had in place to mitigate risk and the impact of accidents and other random events. The most basic of these are the public water supplies and waste treatment facilities that save and extend lives daily. Such infrastructure is not built over months and years, but decades. The biologic and chemical threats to these systems have grown and in most cases we've been able to respond. Still, risks exist and can come into being through natural or human-induced events.

Can every risk be anticipated or, if envisioned and brought to the attention of management, dealt with? No, that's not the human way of learning. Threats can be ignored, minimized or denied.

It is prudent to be alert in the world and be prepared beyond what our community protection governments provide. We the people are the reserves, the resilience. Our individual world can end any day in an auto accident, weather event or attack, heart, human or other, but the greater world does not end. There are billions of survivors every day.

The forensic report, if made, read and understood, may indicate emergent risks that require community action. That report might be just a song http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rD78i6eoGkM

The seers report, though they may not understand the piece of the future that they see. Resiliance for all of life is maintained, though elements that can't adapt may go extinct.

This we want to avoid. To do so, we'll have to avoid the "failure of intelligence," the expectation that technologies can mitigate all risk and solve all resource problems. These systemic vulnerabilites are difficult to see. "Voluntary Simplicity" was published by Duane Elgin in 1981.

We expect growth and change, but not decline. Joy, not disappointment. The end must be entertaining; be a good story.

Many worlds could end due to dead batteries. Be prepared as individuals and communities. Doing the math is important; the greatest error to date was to enable creditors to build so much fragility in to our systems with predatory and unpayable debt.

Only community will save us. An age of human unity and cooperation is required. How will we get there, unless such a thought is the vision for survival?

By Tom Christoffel (not verified) on 10 Dec 2012 #permalink

If Long Count calendars are so harmless, what became of the the giant stone head industry ?

Gratified to see another regional planner taking Sharon's thoughts to heart!