A Woman, a Plan, a Canard…

December 10, 2012

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.

Sharon Astyk

Sharon Astyk is a Science Writer, Farmer, Parent of Many, writing about our weird life right now. She is the author of four books: Depletion and Abundance: Life on the New Home Front, which explores the impact that energy depletion, climate change and our financial instability are likely to have on our future, and what we can do about it. Depletion and Abundance won a Bronze Medal at the Independent Publishers Awards. A Nation of Farmers: Defeating the Food Crisis on American Soil co-authored with Aaron Newton, which considers what will be necessary for viable food system on a national and world scale in the coming decades, and argues that at its root, any such system needs a greater degree of participation from all of us; Independence Days: A Guide to Sustainable Food Preservation and Storage which makes the case for food storage and preservation as integral parts of an ethical, local, healthy food system and tells readers how to begin putting food by, and the newly published Making Home: Adapting our Homes and Our Lives to Settle in Place, which "shows readers how to turn the challenge of living with less into settling for more".

Tags: apocalypse, disaster preparedness, resilience planning