Visions of My Evitable Demise – If Peak Oil Were An Action Movie (Which It Isn’t)

June 30, 2008

I have a tendency to freak out about peak oil’s worst-case scenarios. It doesn’t happen all the time, but some days catch you on the wrong side of the sun, and my thoughts wander into gloomy territory. As I’ve written before, I nurse an unhealthy, unproductive fear that I will likely die at the makeshift-knife point of a hungry, panicked former Nexium sales rep as we struggle over scraps of food at a monthly rail depot riot. He could be sitting next to me right now at the café, this soon-to-be-once-proud man, harboring his own delusions about the housing market and the back pages of his Five Year-Planner. I can see our ultimate contest now.

It’s a gray, fell day. Smoke and low-hanging clouds obscure the jagged ruins of what used to be the HSBC Tower. Crowds of moaning Gen X-ers in tattered chinos and St. Lawrence University sweatshirts huddle around the platform at Buffalo’s Exchange Street station awaiting the 9:40 Acela from Chicago. The crowd spills out into the street, milling around, trading the rumors: there is relief on this train. Syringes and tourniquets, insulin, fabric, paper for kindling, bread, potatoes, and – some whisper – iPod batteries, all scrounged from the skeleton of the Sears Tower. Some are here for the goods, others for escape; this will be the last train to the coast for another month.

I have come to gather food and trade for warm clothes for the youngest of the twenty-five concubines I acquired on my first, last, and only successful book tour in 2010, the year the shadows began to grow. She is a former publishing intern from Charlotte and the mother of my first and twelfth sons. As the size and scope of my co-op farm-fortress on the city’s west side grew, I increasingly delegated resource gathering duties to my serfs and progeny, but today there are skirmishes on my northern bounds with roving bands of caffeine-starved “Volvo and Latte junkies,” the plague the post-carbon Northeast never saw coming. The V & L’s probe my defenses for weaknesses, looking to pillage the dwindling underground stores in my northern quarters for pre-ground espresso and back issues of Atlantic Monthly. Every able-bodied, combat-aged male is on alert. Luckily, the former qualification excludes me from duty, so I stand at the platform at Exchange Street, ears pricked for the sound of distant whistles.

No whistle comes. We know the train’s arrival by rumbles in the gravel. The crowd presses forward cautiously; we still have sense and hope enough to avoid a stampede. We stare down the tracks anxiously and see the train round the curve…at full speed. There will be no stops after Erie, PA; this train runs express to Boston’s South Station. Gather your belongings and keep away from the windows.

Things begin moving quickly. As reality ripples through the crowd, several desperate souls appeal to the conductor; they stand on the tracks, arms aloft, to force a stop. At first I marvel that the sharpshooters waste precious ammunition on such a helpless blockade, but I soon remember there is humanity aboard, mercy and pragmatism in tandem. After all, death by rifle shot is a sweeter sleep than an engine’s blow or the wheels of steel. Three fall; the rest relinquish the tracks to the Acela.

As the unfortunate trio are tossed aside by the lead cars, we notice several open doors down the train. Men stand in the luggage cars with canvas sacks, like the mail cars of the early twentieth century. Our relief! They cannot afford to stop for passengers, but Chicago has not forgotten its little brother to the East. The crowds part like biblical seas as sack after sack bowl off the speeding train. Headstrong newcomers among us take the packages dead in their chest, mistakenly believing that first touch will lead to last reward. Savvier veterans of the spectacle wait for the catchers to be knocked flat by the impact and pounce on the goods like wild dogs in winter.

Within seconds, the railyard is in chaos. The train is forgotten; passengers in the final cars stare passively out towards what their world has become. I notice one of the sacks that was discharged further up the track, away from the crowd. Only a handful saw it fall: easier pickings than the feeding frenzies near the platform. I double around the station to hide my intentions and arrive at the pack just as two other men are hauling it out of a drainage ditch.

“Leave it there,” I say. “Stay low. I’ll keep watch and we’ll divide it three ways.” Teamwork wins the day, though they could easily overpower me. Few of this town’s fighters survived the Great Michelob Ultra Riots of ’14.

The goods are split; the three of us shake hands and begin to steal down the ditch with our belongings, hidden from the hungry crowds. Suddenly, there is a faint rumble from the desiccated hulk of what used to be the arterial highway. Looking over our shoulders, we see the foragers at the station have heard it, too. Panic disperses the crowd. Families struggle to stay together, grabbing what they can carry lightly and discarding the rest. My fellow travelers and I – with our oversized loads – try to remain hidden in the underbrush, though we know it is already too late: suburban homeowners are finally coming downtown, and it isn’t for the “Wicked” matinèe.

As the first of the pirate vehicles come into view, we understand our danger is worse than we’d imagined. Golden, war-beaten minivans, emblazoned with the initials and war-woodchuck emblem of the Amherst Mobile Cavalry stream down Exchange Street in attack formation, anti-personnel guns popping like champagne corks. They’ve hoarded gasoline in the gated communities surrounding the former state campus-turned-labor camp for years, periodically sweeping through the remnants of our city to search for antiques and copper lawn sprinklers.

For a time, my companions and I nurse hope: much of the station crowd has traveled further than we’d expected, slowing the search-and-destroy efforts of the raiders. We soon lose our illusions: a black Hemi-powered pickup has found the ditch and is creeping our way in low gear. We watch, frozen. Every detail stings our eyes with the realization that they will likely be our last sights on Earth: the bullet holes in the rear window, the fading fake-bullet-hole stickers on the passenger door, the woodchuck, and the vehicle’s regimental symbol: Calvin pissing on himself. The pickup regiment is rumored to be the most brutal of suburban paramilitary groups. Stories swirl in the alleys of our city of human hunts, psychological torture, and further, unnamed horrors. The only man to escape their camps alive fell into incurable catatonic shock upon his rescue, his lips murmuring the bridge to “Amarillo By Morning” for the remainder of his short life.

The truck’s spotlight swerves toward us, and we meet the death of hope. My compatriots panic, grabbing what little they can of their supplies and fleeing towards the water. The fastest of us is gunned down within a few paces. A mortar blast knocks me down and I find myself face to face with the last of the men from my ditch. He is young, but older than I. Grease and blood streak his face and body, but I make out words on his torn sweatshirt: “Staff Development Retreat – Miami Beach ’04 – Get into it!” The truck unit ignores us for the moment, busy with the task of loading and distributing our goods.

A lone loaf of bread rests between us.

I struggle, but it is pointless: years of smoking and congenital aversion to physical betterment have left me a fragile shell of the fragile shell I once was. My adversary slips a rusty spike of shrapnel through the flesh above my clavicle and I collapse.

With my last strength, I slip a hidden iPod battery out of my breast pocket, set the device to “shuffle,” and contemplate eternity. There will be no headstone, no record of my demise. My songs – all 8 gigs, including a sweet video of Jurassic Five at the last Bonnaroo ever – will be my memorial to my city, the stars, and anyone who passes by, until the last battery I will ever own joins me in the abyss of the American Century’s discarded flotsam.

9 Responses to “Visions of My Evitable Demise – If Peak Oil Were An Action Movie (Which It Isn’t)”

  1. tgetman Says:

    I feel guilty enjoying a well written piece about a very real apocalypse.

  2. jd1220 Says:

    Ted, I was having fun. In reality, peak oil and its accompanying possibilities are avoidable on both a large and small scale. I wouldn’t call my demise here “evitable” if I believed any different.

    The end of oil isn’t the end of the world, by any means. In some of the worst geopolitical situations I’ve imagined, it certainly could be, and there are no shortage of world-ending threats (see the recent NY Times article on the lawsuit to stop the super collider), but post-carbon America – and post-carbon Buffalo especially – doesn’t have to look this way. That is, in no way, a call to inaction. The crisis we face is urgent in the extreme, but there’s the crowbar separation: urgent, not apocalyptic.

    Let’s say, for the sake of this thread, that we’re past the point of no return with oil and natural gas. Let’s say that no amount of mitigation will stop an economic collapse and widespread disorder. Even if that were the case, there always a tomorrow. You still have to get up and see and interact with the same people, and – hopefully – act to ensure that you all survive peacefully through what’s coming. While there probably will be panics, if humanity is worth preserving, it will still have to exist on a local scale, and apocalyptic thinking and panic can only worsen the chances of that happening.

    The whole mess of global peak oil, climate change, mass blackouts, food shortages, and everything else associated with our current dilemma are issues related to a societal mode of thinking that tells us there is no tomorrow. Drive wherever you want, spend whatever you want, do whatever you want – everything’s fucked anyways, so why bother trying to stop it? It’s a cynicism deeper and more destructive than the one we pretend to subscribe to at the bar or amongst friends. It’s a silly, happy-go-lucky sort of cynicism that has placed us where we’re at right now. It was foolish, and to mitigate its effects we need a change in culture. Others have said a “culture of hope,” but what we really need is a culture of reality, a culture that believes, knows that there will be a tomorrow, a day just as long as today, and many after that, all worth devoting our time and effort to.

    As cynical or apocalyptic as this post may have seemed, I’m more hopeful than most. Not because of a lack of reality, but because of an abundance of it. Being hopeful is pragmatic in an age of scarce inspiration. The less hopeful we are, the more prone we are to panics and panic-responses and the kind of gloomy, bloody, dungeon culture the most pessimistic of peak oil commentators believe we’re headed towards. Hopeful people make smart decisions for their futures, through the simple fact of the knowledge that they will have one.

    Hope isn’t stupid and doesn’t have to be. Even Hunter Thompson had hope, dashed though it might have been. We shouldn’t hope unrealistically for a silver bullet to keep things running as they have been in this country, but that keg was kicked before we even got to this point. Let’s hope for something real, something tangible, and above all, something we can pass on to the future generations of bar-bathroom mistakes we create before things get really shitty.

  3. Jason T. Says:

    I love how even in a kind of post-apcalyptic Buffalo you are still a successful writer!

  4. jd1220 Says:

    I know! So, logically, if I become successful in a burned-out, worst-case post-oil world, all I have to do to prevent that kind of catastrophe is to remain an UN-successful writer.

    Well, you’re welcome, industrialized society.

    Send food.

  5. Denizen Says:

    A quite entertaining read. I’m currently working on my own tale of happenings in post-peak Buffalo.

  6. Charles Wiff Says:

    Fantastic post. I’m glad you’re still finding some time for creative writing, because stuff like this really pops off the page.
    Additional kudos for amassing so much poignant information on an issue that is slowly and painfully clawing its way onto the front page…further congratulations for it putting on the cover of a little student publication almost three years ago, when few had the foresight to recognize the danger lurking in the months and years ahead (the gas prices on the cover photo that seemed so ludicrous when that issue rolled in don’t seem so otherworldly now).
    Good point when it comes to HST, who had so much recognizable contempt for the follies of the human race yet still kept a light in the window for it. If only we could all be so realistic.
    After all, “when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.”

  7. Matt Says:

    Sweet Christ on a cracker…I admire your mention of the super collider as a possible end to the world, but honestly, if it creates a black hole, we’re not even going to know it and that would be a preferable way to go than mass anarchy in a Mad Max situation. I do need to ask though, wouldn’t the bums, errr…society’s less fortunate, in the end be the winners as they have needed to forage for food when times were tough much longer than the “V & L’s?”

    On a more honest note, I have a fear that your future is in some ways very possible. Without oil we are reduced to the same societies that we would consider savage now. We talk about being in a civilized society, but can you completely nix the idea of a breakdown occuring?

  8. jd1220 Says:

    I don’t know what it will be like for the homeless. In one respect, yes, it will be much less of a shock for them as they’ve already dealt with enough tough times. However, many homeless people rely on a working, affluent society to support them through social outreach organizations, shelters, and personal charity. When things get tough for the middle class, many people will be less likely to donate because they won’t have surplus food or money. We’re already seeing this now with the increase in food prices; I recently saw a woman on a local Buffalo station who works at a food pantry in the city saying they’d received less than half of the donations they’d gotten at this time last year. Also, when things get rough in America, they have a tendency to be rough on the poor first, last, and worst.

    I disagree with the idea that we are reduced to “savage” conditions without oil. This country existed for many years without it; we just need to re-learn how it was done. You can’t completely nix a breakdown of society, but you also can’t completely nix a smooth, peaceful transition to a post-fossil fuel economy. My guess is it will be somewhere in between. There may be pockets of chaos, but it doesn’t have to happen everywhere, which is why we need to work to rebuild our communities to prevent that from happening in our own backyards.

    I think our most desperate challenge will be the same as it was during the Great Depression: “The only thing we need to fear is fear itself.” Panic and hoarding will ruin this country if we let it. We need to work to make everyone realize that it is in their best interest – on both a societal and an individual level – to work together and develop interdependent, sustainable communities. You are more likely to suffer greatly in a chaotic society, and a chaotic society is more likely to occur if you act purely in your own self-interest.

    That’s the thing that the last ten or twenty or even forty years of American societal progress has virtually erased from our lives: we need to remember that these individualized, atomized, personalized lives we’ve developed for ourselves with the help of the Internet and Tivo and iPods and Pizza Hut delivery have weight in the larger world. We are worth something, and our actions have repercussions that affect our own well-being and that of our neighbors.

    I know this is starting to sound a little like New Age therapy or something, but I truly believe we’ve lost something that can explain many of the noxious issues of our time: voter apathy, media cynicism, moral decline, erosion of the family, etc. We’ve come to view ourselves as worthless — while simultaneously seeing our selves and our immediate self-satisfaction as the only occupations worth our time. We need to come back to a place where we see ourselves as adding worth and value to our communities. I don’t know how that would work for each specific person, but I think the real revolution we’ll need (and see) will be a shift in personal mindset.

  9. Denizen Says:

    ^ So true on the last paragraph especially. The loss of real community and family can explain the proliferation of anti-depressants and other bandaid approaches to a insidious problem that infects out contemporary society.

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