Last light?

May 30, 2008 at 11:18 am 2 comments

Well, I read Last Light, all 483 pages of it, in about 24 hours. That’s how lightweight it is. Seriously, top marks to Mr Scarrow for such a fab idea, but I wasn’t entirely convinced by it. No, in fact parts of it frustrated me so much I ranted to Scientist Boyfriend for so long last night he asked, ‘So why are you still reading it?’

I’m now going to pick it to shreds and give lots of spoilers so if you want to read it (I have a copy I’m happy to swap for something useful) stop now!

Basically, if you want a good boys’ adventure novel then this is an excellent romp, lots of raping and pillaging set against a backdrop of deserted motorways and supermarkets with all their windows smashed in. If you happen to believe the human race is too stupid and selfish to co-operate and grow a potato or something then this will have you nodding in agreement.

However, the general format consisted of 480 pages of cold baked beans and police officers shooting people followed by 3 pages of chickens. I’ll come onto the troubling presentation of gender roles in a moment, but what frustrated me most about the general ‘we’re all dooooooomed’ focus of the novel was that the huge advantage peak oil has over climate change (if that’s not a weird way of putting it) is that you can inspire people to do something about it by enthusing them about the good food, the community, the actual positive things you can do and have rather than just painting an apocalyptic vision of the future and banging on about the stuff we can’t do and can’t have and how we have to cut back and deny ourselves things.

The novel centres around a family and the dad has been aware of how dependent society is on oil and how scary things could get if there was a sudden disruption in supply for years, and all he wants his family to do in that situation is bunker down and eat canned pilchards and cold baked beans. Personally speaking, that kind of survivalist vision makes me want to be among the first to be speared by the baying mob – what’s the point in surviving just to sit on top of your store cupboard picking off your neighbours with a sniper rifle? Now, I know it’s a novel, a large part of the dramatic tension of which centred around the fact that his family hadn’t listened to him (there was lots of, ‘If only she’d listened to her husband instead of watching Big Brother‘ and suchlike and Scarrow did explain why they were still in an affluent suburb of London rather than in rural Wales), but in the supermarket they didn’t think to buy any vegetables because, ‘How are we going to cook them when the power goes off?’ Nope, it was all cans of baked beans. The dad hadn’t thought to suggest buying a few camping gas rings that could be used indoors or on a patio (the thought of the apocalypse without tea is obviously a less frightening prospect for him than for me) and the fact that carrots and apples, to name just two fresh products, can be eaten raw and store well crossed nobody’s mind at all. He’d never thought to get the family a dog that could act as a guard dog, there was no mention of a vegetable garden or allotment and nobody actually seemed to have any useful skills that might help them in a post-oil world. Even the most peak-aware character had only prepared for the short-term raping-and-pillaging scenario and totally ignored the long-term adjustments necessary to sustain life after the relatively brief disaster period.

And as for the social and gender stereotyping… Oof, where do I start?! Well, this is a book where lots of people die. The men generally die brawling in the rather boring back-story set in Iraq; the women generally are picked off by the shady, predatory hitman, aside from the strongest, most interesting female character who is savaged by a baying, thirsty mob of chavs in tracksuits after saving her friend. The teenage daughter (who spends most of the book looking after her younger brother, her mother having selfishly exercised her independence as a human being to go off to a job interview in Manchester rather than staying in London to look after her children and doing what her husband says) is pursued by a gang of teenage boys and there are a few almost-rape scenes there, and the mother, too, is almost raped by someone who until then has been very helpful to her in a weakly motivated scene set in a Travelodge with a minibar.

During the pointless Iraq back-story, there is a brief moment of character development and social commentary, in which the Texan is lambasting the Iraqi translator because, in his mind, all Muslims are savages, and the main character (the dad) thinks to himself (in his capacity as smug, Western, liberal atheist) that if it wasn’t for its reliance on God and its rather screwed-up attitude towards women, shariah law might not be so bad. This character is clearly the voice of ‘reason’ throughout the novel, but the (at best dubious) logic of this statement is totally undermined by the fact that the rest of the novel seems to be telling us that Peak Oil (always referred to in capitals) is this strange, mystical, powerful force that is a) punishing the non-believers who didn’t heed the warnings of the prophets and chose instead to walk in a vain shadow, disquiet themselves in vain, heap up riches and never know who shall gather them, and b) forcing a violent, dramatic return to traditional gender roles (during the Iraq back-story, the dad has praise heaped upon him for being all alpha-male instead of just a geeky geologist, and he can’t wait till his wife can hear about that and praise him herself for having been right all along). I got the feeling that the author was somehow getting off on this.

I haven’t yet decided if this is a superb, ironic flash of brilliance in an otherwise intellectually undemanding book or just another example of the fact that the author hasn’t thought through any of the less blood-and-guts-y ramifications of peak oil, like, how the Industrial Revolution and the hydrocarbon age have impacted on how we view religion and gender roles (he recommends in the postscript that we read Matt Savinar instead of Sharon Astyk, though – we’re doomed people 😉 ). I’m going to invoke my Oxford degree in literature and deduce from the unimaginative prose and the author’s irritating habit of inserting chapter breaks solely for suspense rather than for any genuine narrative reason that it’s the latter. But I could be being unfair here.

I am being a bit unfair. I am, despite all I’ve just said, absolutely thrilled that there is a fiction book about peak oil, and I recognise that it was meant to be an artificial situation, manufactured to be the worst case scenario and it doesn’t necessarily mean Scarrow really thinks it’s going to unfold like that in real life.

But what I would really have liked was more chickens. 480 pages of chickens, tomatoes that taste really good, and healthy, svelte people thriving in the outdoors and having far more fun than they ever did when they commuted to work and bought food in T*sco. 480 pages of people learning to knit and work the land and realising they didn’t have to be specialists, but they could be physically fit, artistically creative and intellectually satisfied (you have far more time to think in the garden or when knitting than when you’re working at a computer or watching telly), and the agonising decisions could not be, ‘Do I buy baked beans or canned pilchards?’ (doesn’t really matter unless you also buy a book on gardening and preserving) or, ‘Do I shoot my neighbour or let him shoot me?’ (no-brainer), but instead we could angst about the main character’s brother who lives in Australia and how they won’t be able to see each other as easily in a post-oil world, or about how to reconcile the need to do things like baking and mending clothes with the fact that society has finally acknowledged women are people (something that conveniently only happened after the invention of the washing machine). We could wonder how people were going to care for the elderly and disabled: who would do it, whose responsibility would it be? We could have comedy scenes involving raising chickens in a suburban back garden, or people overcoming their reluctance to use Mooncups. And yes, we could then maybe have 3 pages of the shooting (and miraculously not running out of ammunition) and the raping and the pillaging and the dying and the horro, because these things are important to consider, but really, in the context of the whole of humanity and the whole of our post-peak existence as a species, the total, sudden collapse is a) only one of the ways in which the future might unfold, and b) only a very short period of this possible future anyway, and after a few days we’ll have run out of ammunition and people will be too hungry to riot. Sure, store food, but you can’t store enough to feed you and your family forever, so instead of focussing on that focus on growing things and keeping chickens. Sure, things might get nasty and we might have to shoot our neighbours and in a me-and-mine-or-them scenario only the most selfless of us wouldn’t ‘pull the trigger’, but we don’t need to have endless debates about whether we’d pull the trigger, cos no-one wants to talk about that, and sooner or later we’re going to have to talk to our neighbours, or someone else at any rate.

In case you can’t tell, it really annoys me that such a vocal contingent of the ‘peak-aware’ think the best/only outcome is total, sudden social collapse and the best/only response is the ‘I’m all right, Jack’ scenario; because if the people who know and are prepared bunker themselves away with their canned beans and their stash of bullets, then of course we will have people trying to get in and steal it and of course they’ll shoot at the baying mob. Duh! So, look out for yourself, look out for your family and then can we please try and harness some of this energy and knowledge and do things like plant community gardens and stuff? Please?

I know what happens when I say this: I get called an ‘idealist’ (like it’s a bad thing!) by people who think the opposite of optimism is realism (it’s not, people, that would be pessimism, thank you), but hear me out. I have a cupboard full of rice and beans, I have a contingency plan (to try and get to my parents’ house in Northumberland, where people have vegetable gardens and talk to their neighbours) and if anyone tried to have their wicked way with me I would damn well expect Scientist Boyfriend to step in and do something nasty to them, but I refuse to let that be the extent of my preparation. It’s really a very small part, and I’m not saying it’s not vital or worthwhile – it is; but the other stuff, the talking to my neighbours even though we have nothing in common, the joining FOE even though I don’t agree with everything they stand for, the swapping plants and seeds on Freecycle (in short, the boring, mundane, un-glamorous stuff that’s more like hard work), is not just some silly, girly, ‘I refuse to deal with reality’ way of looking at the future. Because if we all assume it’s going to be raping and pillaging, it will be. At least if we try and do something positive we stand a teeny, weeny chance of avoiding killing each other over the last can of pilchards in T*sco.

Because there are some things that are worth dying for. And canned pilchards aren’t on my list.

Entry filed under: books, peak oil. Tags: , .

Independence days update and a book! Independence Days Update

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. nommo  |  June 3, 2008 at 9:05 pm

    Hi – I really enjoyed reading that… I haven’t read the book, and probably won’t now 😉 but I share your reasoning on the survivalist approach to post peak change management… I love watching Ray Mears and all that – but I draw the line at hoarding bullets.

    Despite being generally greedy, lazy and selfish as a species – we are quite innovative and adaptable. We haven’t had to do it for anything other than profit recently, but I think the more real it becomes (recent food and house prices, credit crunch, high fuel costs are just the start of the system breakdown) – the more likely it is that a critical mass of change-ready innovators will be able to architect their way out of extinction… that’s my optimistic, ‘glass half full’ alternative view that I try to keep in mind instead of the bleak ‘survivalist’ vision that springs to mind every time I see or hear a NIMBY or Fat Cat or Survivalist or Petrol Chav.

    It’s already started thankfully, there are plenty of people now realising that the hippy’s were not just stoned freaks, but were actually early adopters with a smidgen of foresight for the fate of humanity – and we are talking about the future of the human race here – Gaia will be just fine for a few hundred million years without us!. I just hope that Lovelock’s recent prediction of us being too late doesn’t play out like his others…

    I think blogs and social networking will play a big part in engineering the future – connecting people, enabling coalitions of interest, skills and knowledge sharing and most importantly the power of persuasion – winning hearts and minds. So well done for starting something with your blog – large things grow from small things…

  • 2. Mara  |  June 10, 2008 at 11:53 am

    Great post and loved your last paragraph. Me and A were talking this morning and have come to the conclusion that, yes, we need to be prepared and have a plan, but as long as we are aware and can move into a less easy way of life then we’ll be okay. The UK has vast resources of its own. Okay it may be goodbye bananas (which seems like it will be anyway) but if we pull together like we did 60 years ago then things will be hard but fine. After all, look at Cuba – they had things far, far worse I think, for a start they had no preparation, it was sudden, but look at them now. Life isn’t all Ikea and Tesco for them, but they are not all brandishing guns and eating cold baked beans are they?

    Although, let’s be honest, if we had guns, wouldn’t it be rather tempting to hunt down the staff of the Daily Mail…? 😀


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Most recent ramblings

May 2008
The Heritage Crafts Network

Rob Hopkins, Transition Handbook

“Environmentalists have often been guilty of presenting people with a mental image of the world’s least desirable holiday destination – some seedy bed and breakfast near Torquay, with nylon sheets, cold tea and soggy toast – and expecting them to get excited about the prospect of NOT going there. The logic and the psychology are all wrong.”

Barbara Kingsolver, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

"Food is that rare moral arena in which the ethical choice is generally the one more likely to make you groan with pleasure."

Carlo Petrini

"A gastronome who is not also an environmentalist is an idiot. An environmentalist who is not also a gastronome is, well, sad."

Sharon Astyk

"I am, of course, firmly opposed to consumerism and corporatism in all its forms, and I believe that we are deeply confused about material needs and wants. Now let me explain how books and yarn are totally different than the material things that other people want ;-)…."

Raj Patel, at Slow Food Nation

"Biofuels, which is the preposterous policy that we should grow food not to eat it but to set it on fire."

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