In his 1949 novel Earth Abides, George R. Stewart presents a deep and well developed speculation about what would happen to humanity if ever a worldwide catastrophe were to cancel civilization. The tale follows Isherwood Williams, Ish, a scholarly, liminal character who, when he finds himself apparently alone on Earth, counts “Always was solitary” as one of his assets in this new world (Stewart, 38). If he sounds to you like an unlikely protagonist, think again. It is only through a person like him—an observer, a person of big ideas, but not of big action or influence—that a story of so vast a scale can be told. The question, “How might humanity adapt?” is not asking, “How would Ish, the individual, adapt?” and Stewart answers the question to the point. This book is about humanity. More precisely, it is about the human tendency to grow comfortable with habits and routine, and to take too much for granted.
Necessarily, since the story spans fifty or eighty years, the actual storytelling is often quick and impressionistic. Character-building dialogue is mostly forgone in favor of frank, succinct assessment of the characters and their thoughts as perceived by Ish. The expositional narrator (third person limited to Ish) is overwhelmingly present. The chapters are noticeably episodic, especially in the first half of the book. Part One reads, at worst, as if Stewart wrote it from a formula: man encounters an unsuitable companion, man encounters a human threat, man begins solitary journey, man gets dog, man gets wife, man gets friend, et cetera. At best, it reads like Stewart is a master of concision, wielding a series of simple anecdotes to accomplish two things at once: make the post-apocalyptic world palpable to his reader, and ease his reader into empathy with Ish.
Stewart is surely successful in crafting a story that is not only understandable to his reader, but also readily experienced. Particularly in the closing chapters, when Ish grows very old and recedes into his mind, to return to awareness of the world again only rarely and haphazardly, the writing style is wonderfully performative. The identities of Ish and the reader become merged. Although at times the drama does seem forced or overblown (like when Ish and Em first make love) or simply too huge to handle (everyone is dead!), in the final reckoning, overall, the writing is effective and the drama of the story is convincing.
Also, all throughout the book, Stewart includes italicized asides in which the voice and point of view switches to that of an omniscient documentarian for a few paragraphs at a time. This is a risky choice, stylistically speaking, but it pays off. Not only does this heavy rhetoric lend an extra credibility to the story, but in addition, these passages contain many of Stewart’s most striking, unexpected insights, and they maintain the scope of the story as something bigger (much bigger) than Ish and his commune. Stewart is projecting the gradual disintegration of American material culture. Ish is only a witness to this grand process.
In the context of a college course on cli-fi, this novel seems out of place at first judgment because it has nothing to do with climate explicitly. The “Great Disaster” that begins the book is not environmental, but viral or bacteriologic in nature. Climate change was hardly known in 1949 when the book was first published. In fact, Stewart lets his characters thoughtlessly pollute. “The half-empty cans they merely left lying. There was so much litter in the street already that something more did not matter” (Stewart 200). Yet little instances like this are relevant. They show that environmental responsibility was not really on anyone’s mind in 1949. (If anyone would have thought of it, it would have been someone like Ish or like Stewart: a big thinker.) So, we are reminded of how far we’ve come.
Scientific progression! How much ignorance we have dispelled! We rule, you might even say. However, our claim to the title of stewards of the Earth is still tenuous at best. We could be called a pest of this planet just as rightly instead. In the sixty-six years that have passed since the debut of Earth Abides, we’ve taken the blame for much of the destabilization of the global ecosystem—it is known—but if we don’t take action to ameliorate this disaster, too, then what’s the use of knowing? History will judge us as pillagers and savages if we do not at least sincerely try to solve to this climate change problem that we’ve caused.
Ish, in the book, struggles with a similar dilemma. His tribe is in the same position in regards to literacy and agriculture as we are now regarding climate change. They are complacent, they are happy-go-lucky consumers, not producers, and they don’t pursue education like Ish had used to do before the Great Disaster. They couldn’t care less about learning how to read or farm. Of course they must realize that the leftover food in supermarkets, restaurants, and homes will eventually spoil or run out, and that then they’ll have to learn to farm without the help of any farmers to teach them. Presumably, in theory, they understand that. Even so, they take no action to insure themselves against this deadly inevitability. The urgency just does not seem immediate enough for them to care. For Ish, there is nothing in life more frightening than their apathy. He tries to warn them, to teach them, and even to preserve the university library like it’s some kind of temple—information is salvation—but they dismiss him as an eccentric. Within four generations, his tribe regresses thousands of years, back to the Dark Ages.
There is a lesson here. Please notice that, for all his talk about literacy, Ish does not think of literacy as his ultimate goal. Rather, his ultimate goal is for his descendants to know what to do with knowledge.
What should we do with all that we know?
First, what do we know? We know that the greenhouse effect is accelerating the onset of the next mass extinction, the likes of which have not been seen in sixty-six million years (Baronsky). This is bad. We know that mankind’s out-of-control emissions of greenhouse gasses is making the greenhouse effect worse by the minute. We know where these bad emissions come from: in 2012, only 10% was from commercial or residential sources, 10% from agriculture, 20% from industry, and the remaining 60% was from transportation or making electricity; tallying up to a total of 6,526 million metric tons of CO2 equivalents unleashed into the atmosphere by Americans (EPA). We know that there are some personal choices we can make to reduce our own emissions, like using public transit or buying CFL light bulbs; but we also know that the effect of each of these little green choices is negligible in comparison to thousands-of-millions-of-metric-tons total of humanity’s harmful emissions. We know, for instance, that even trains and busses emit CO2 and the production, sale, and use of even CFL bulbs puts greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, too. It’s discouraging. Most of all, it seems, we know that it is hard to reverse the damage we’re doing to the ecosystem. Why? Why should it be so hard?
Much of the difficulty and discouragement stems from the fact that environmental irresponsibility is somehow built into so many of the institutions of our society. Consider a modest, unassuming jar of mayonnaise, like the one in your refrigerator at this moment. How did it get there? After producing the feed for the chickens that provided the egg yolks, after producing the vinegar (however that is done), after transporting these, combining and processing them, packaging them, shipping them, distributing them, and after calculating the carbon emissions of each of these steps (including the making of the glass jar, metal lid, and colored label, with glue); and after adding on your car’s CO2 output to and from the grocery store… what is the carbon footprint of this mayonnaise by the time you smear it on your sandwich? The correct answer is: “Way too big!” (Squarzoni 210-212, 317, 363-378)
The good news is that a long supply chain means many opportunities to minimize waste and reduce carbon emissions. The bad news is, well, how can we go about tampering with a super-system of interdependent industries that run together like a perpetually mutually motivated Machine, restructuring all their operations to conform to greener guidelines, across the boards, across the globe? Is it easy? No. Who is actually empowered to do that? Who can institute sustainability on a wholesale scale? Only very rich, very powerful entities can: the leaders of our big business institutions, the money-hungry “one percent.”
So, who can hold them accountable? Since the late 1960s, the go-to answer has been “the consumer,” but now it is apparent that merely shopping green, boycotting the worst environmental offenders, and picketing evil Wall Street is not enough.
“The balance of power to really influence sustainability rests with institutional investors, the large investors, like pension funds, foundations, and endowments,” says Chris McKnett, leader of the Global Advisors’ Environmental, Social, and Governance Investing team at State Street. Institutional investors include the whole global stock market and the whole global bond market. In 2013, the total value of these markets was one hundred thirty-three trillion dollars—eight and a half times the gross domestic product of the United States—a very persuasive amount (McKnett).
Let us return to the great big question inspired by Earth Abides: “What should we do with all that we know?” In regards to our current predicament, to whom is this question really directed? I contend that it is not you or me, but the whole damned Machine. (It is damned. At this rate, selling all the Earth’s resources faster than Nature can replenish them, the greedy economic Machine damns itself. It damns all of us.) You and I can hardly make any more significant an impact than we already have made when we switched to CFL bulbs. Real remediation of the climate change problem can only be achieved by an inter-industry, worldwide dawn of corporate social responsibility, soon!
Maybe for some, it seems far-fetched to hope. Ish, at the end of his life, seems to reevaluate the worth of all his desperate efforts, and he seems to arrive at a neutral estimation. However, Chris McKnett of State Street insists that, thanks to the general rise in awareness about climate change, most CEOs today have “started to see sustainability not just as important but crucial to business success.” In other words, “cha-ching!” (That’s the language CEOs speak.) Perhaps it has been too hard for corporations to go as green as possible, when the only reason to do so was improving life on Earth for our descendants. Now, for money, they say they’re ready to try.
So we can hope. Maybe we can rebuild the Machine—this time, better, greener.
Baronsky, Anthony D. “Preventing the Sixth Mass Extinction Requires Dealing With Climate Change.” Huffington Post. Huffington Post, 18 Nov. 2014. Web. 10 Feb. 2015. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/anthony-d-barnosky/preventing-the-sixth-mass_b_6161284.html .
EPA. “National Greenhouse Gas Emissions Data.” EPA.gov. United States Environmental Protection Agency, April 2014. Web. 9 Feb. 2015. Retrieved from http://www.epa.gov/climatechange/ghgemissions/usinventoryreport.html .
McKnett, Chris. “Chris McKnett: The investment logic for sustainability.” TED.com. Technology Education and Design, 2013 Nov. Web. 8 Feb. 2015. Retrieved from http://www.ted.com/talks/chris_mcknett_the_investment_logic_for_sustainability?language=en .
Squarzoni, Philippe. Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science. Trans. Ivanka Hahnenberger. New York: Abrams, 2014. Print.
Stewart, George R. Earth Abides. 1949. New York: Del Rey, 2006. Print.T