[Spoiler alert: If you haven’t yet listened to S-Town podcast you might want to do so before reading the following essay, which discusses key facts revealed during the course of the story.]
I admit, it was strange to hear my name mentioned in John B. McLemore’s suicide note. John, the central character in what is currently the most popular podcast on iTunes (S-Town, narrated by This American Life producer Brian Reed and produced by the creative team behind Serial) was—as you already know if you’ve listened—a polymath antiquarian horologist, horticulturist, and full-time worry-wart, who lived in a tiny Alabama town he came to call Shit-Town. His story is riveting, complex, and touching. Some commenters, while admiring the podcast, believe it’s too revealing of the intimate life of a person who is deceased and therefore incapable of giving or withholding permission. But it makes for compelling listening in any case.
My own conflicted thoughts about John McLemore’s story center on his obsession with global issues—climate change, resource depletion, debt, and the end of cheap energy. After a quick search, I learned he was an occasional commenter on Post Carbon Institute websites. Also, in Chapter 4 of the podcast, he references a short video about the history of fossil fuels that is almost certainly our 2010 video, 300 Years of Fossil Fuels in 300 Seconds.
John was, to put a name to it, a doomer.
I was not his sole or even primary source of news about the planet’s perilous prognosis; John also named authors James Howard Kunstler and Guy McPherson in his final manifesto. Further, John’s suicide probably followed not just (or even mostly) from his immersion in dismal information, but also from long-term, self-inflicted mercury poisoning and decades of lonely sexual repression in a tiny, homophobic Southern town.
Still, as I’ve written on several occasions, the facts and analysis I’ve been dishing for the past couple of decades make for dreary reading. I sometimes call it toxic knowledge: once you know about overpopulation, overshoot, depletion, climate change, and the dynamics of societal collapse, you can’t unknow it, and your every subsequent thought is tinted. There’s only one justification for inoculating my readers with this awful news: the hope that it will act as a mental vaccine leading to behavioral change that both reduces the severity of the coming global crises and increases survival chances for the knowledge recipient. Denying the information—or never having been exposed to it in the first place—offers no solace: the crises will come anyway.
In John’s case, hopes for enhanced survival prospects failed to bear fruit, though his story may perhaps inspire some podcast listeners to explore his sources of information and respond in a more pro-social fashion. I can’t help but feel some of John’s sadness, anger, pain, and frustration. It surely resonates with my own. However, I have never for a moment wished I didn’t know what I know, and I don’t think John would have preferred “blissful” ignorance either.
If I have a regret, it is that John failed to find a community in which knowledge could lead to collective action. There was no Transition Shit-Town. That was no doubt partly due to the oppressiveness of the local rural Alabama culture, but John bore some responsibility too—he could have moved somewhere more friendly and supportive. As it was, he was left to stew alone in the most depressing of infusions: Guy McPherson’s “we’re-all-going-to-die-in-20-years” extremist interpretation of climate data.
Informed collective action is healing. That’s why my organization calls its most public website Resilience.org and not We’reScrewed.net.
I’m sorry for your pain, John. I hope at least a few listeners to S-Town learn something valuable from it.