Men come and go, but Earth Abides. That’s the premise of this entire book. It’s a hard thing to come to terms with, that people are temporary. We go through life every day with the notion in our heads that nothing can hurt us and we’re at the top of the food chain. We don’t stop to think about the bigger picture, about how our actions may eventually start something we will have no control over. Stewart opens up with that in mind. We follow Ish, who in the opening pages is bitten by a snake and goes out of his way to bring home a hammer. He is a college student who is forced to grow up alone and deal with the “new world”. There has been an apocalyptic event, and most of the human population has been wiped out by an unnamed disease. At first there seems to be an over abundance of food, and people go on stealing from liquor stores and jewelry trying to find comfort in them. He’s on his own for a while, and we see him come to terms with accepting that his family and friends are dead and he has no idea what this world will have in store for him. He eventually meets a woman and she becomes his family. They gradually add more people to their “tribe” and mark the years that pass by on a rock with the hammer. With most of mankind dead, dogs and cats that are fortunate enough to be free outside are faced with the “kill or be killed” mentality, while Ish and his “tribe” of people stay secluded and keep amongst themselves. When they are faced with new-comers they are skeptical, and when they find out he carries STD’s the choice of whether to spare him or save themselves is hardly a choice at all. They unanimously choose to get rid of the one person that threatens their entire existence.
While reading this, I empathized with the human aspect of it. It’s a good story, and I think it more or less accurately describes how someone would function had this actually happened. Even today we, like Ish, have all these ideas of how to stop mankind from destroying the earth- but that’s all they are, ideas. Ish has all these ideas on how to fix the electricity, how to bring the flowing water back, but doesn’t give his tribe the tools to do it. He starts a school for the children of his tribe but when they lose interest he lets them stop. And so they know nothing about reading or doing simple arithmetic or even what “Arizona” was. While they have no interest in school, they all are fixated on the hammer. It becomes sort of a relic to them and gives Ish something to believe in while the children know nothing else. Carson’s book heavily examines the United States obsession with chemicals in a post WWII society. We didn’t care what we were hurting as long as we were getting results. People were good at trying to put a positive face on DDT spraying but the reality is that poison is still poison. I think Earth Abides could possibly show the outcome of what goes on in Carson’s book Silent Spring. If you stay silent, and let people do whatever they want to the earth, eventually nature is going to try and rebalance itself out. The basic instinct and only way to rebuild at that point would be to completely level out what’s destroying it, and that’s us.
Reading this book today, it’s not a scary as it was when it came out. Because the technology that was around then seems like ages ago, because people now don’t know anything else. We live in world that has the universe in the palm of their hand. You don’t know how to do something? Google it. Can you even imagine living now without that? We have coffee that pours without any buttons being touched, cars that start automatically and without keys, news within seconds of stories breaking and so much more. Our world would shatter without technology. So I do commend Stewart for showing how these people only seventy years ago were able to develop a functioning system.
It’s terrifying to think that in one instant something can happen that could change our lives forever. It’s even worse to think that we are all just little pieces of this earth, pieces that can be switched out or taken away for good. In the end, all we really are going to have is ourselves, to rebuild, to move on. Some people may abandon their faith while others might cling on to seemingly insignificant objects, like the hammer. The bottom line is that anything can happen, nothing is permanent. And there’s nothing in this world that can make you feel more alone than that.