The Adventures of Mister Natural

By: Peter Goodchild

I’m going through some major changes in direction with my doom-and-gloom book. For a long time I’ve been calling it “The Coming Chaos.” That title, through several rewrites, goes back several years now. But, as someone said, we’re already at least partway into that chaos already, so the title is perhaps becoming obsolete. Then, not so long ago, I decided to do a major reshuffle, adding other material, so that it came out as “Handy Hints for the Coming Chaos.”

That seemed to work for a while. I liked it because it was “up-beat.” A book that provides no answers, on the other hand, would be (a) hard to sell and (b) (a related issue) not worth reading,  partly because death isn’t terrifying, just boring. So I put a good deal of emphasis on the idea of moving to the country, going back to nature, an agrarian revival, that sort of thing. I have a lot of background in that, both from practical experience and a good deal of reading, so fleshing that out was not so hard.

However, I recently ran into another brick wall. The more I rewrote that back-to-nature stuff, the less workable it was beginning to seem. I was already well aware of what Peter Salonius and others had been saying, that agriculture itself is not “sustainable” — if you work the soil, you ultimately make the soil impoverished. But there were bigger issues, although perhaps I should say issues in less than thousand-year units.

These bigger issues, issues of relatively shorter time-scales, begin with what I have always called the two phases of post-peak economics. The first phase occurs when money and government still exist, and the second when money and government have collapsed, as in Weimar Germany. Specifically, the catch to “moving to the country” at this stage — Phase 1 — is plagued by the problem that only 10 percent of the Earth’s surface is arable, and therefore:

Arable land is expensive.

Arable land is overcrowded.

When we get to Phase 2, since there is no more money at that stage, it obviously becomes nonsensical to say that arable land is expensive, but we can certainly say that arable land is crowded and dangerous. Anyone hoping to move onto a piece of “empty” land is going to get shot at.

So now I’m back where I started. I think it’s essential to explain that going back to the land was largely just a fantasy of a bunch of dope-smoking hippies of the 1970s, most of whom went back to the city anyway. Yes, it’s necessary, in these early years of the twenty-first century, to get out of the city as much as possible. But it will be very difficult.

The bottom line remains the same — that the future decades or centuries will eventually see a return to the Stone Age. But as Diamond, Ferguson, and Lee have explained in great detail, people were probably happier in those days anyway. Hobbes’s dictum that life in a state of nature was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” was just plain wrong, and would have better described Hobbes’ own world.

I’m still toying with the idea of turning it into a novel. But perhaps it wouldn’t be the usual “thriller” type of book, with the gun-toting survivalists doing battle against the equally well-armed bad guys. Probably more of a lyrical sort of thing, a portrait of daily life in the “failed state,” a world like that of present-day Latvia.

But even if I keep it as non-fiction, I’m still not entirely sure of which direction to take. I need an “angle.” That’s partly why I’m always looking for a good title — the title and the angle would have to suit each other. So it would probably end up as something like “The Coming Stone Age,” “The Return to the Hills,” “Saying Goodbye to Sodom and Gomorrah.” If nothing else, I’m tempted to keep the book at least story-like. What I mean is that it would consist of essay-like pieces, with plot, setting, and characters resembling those of fiction but sticking to the facts, even if slightly air-brushed at times. On the other hand, what seems to turn readers off, especially in this world of geriatric attention-deficit disorder, and seven hours a day of looking at electronic screens of one sort or another, is what Gradgrind in Dickens’ “Hard Times” refers to as “facts,” sheer data with no connection to our personal lives.

About the author: Peter Goodchild is the author of ‘Survival Skills of the North American Indians’ (Chicago Review Press). Click here to mail him.