Friday, February 5, 2010

Doomer Book Reviews: Wolf and Iron and Catastrophe

Doomers, especially those of the survivalist, zombie-fearing variety, are sometimes accused of being adolescent gun nuts who have read too many post-apocalyptic science fiction novels and watched too many "Mad Max" movies. All I can say to these accusations is: guilty as charged. For me, such "doomer porn" is one of the few redeeming aspects of our otherwise disposable popular culture. This genre gives us a variety of entertaining and informative previews of what life might be like in the post-progressive world that is bearing down upon us now like a bat out of hell. In an effort to explore some of these possible futures, and as a service to my fellow doomers, I'm going to start reviewing books that I find particularly insightful or prophetic.

Wolf and Iron, by Gordon R. Dickson

Wolf and Iron, written in 1990 by Gordon R. Dickson, tells the story of "Jeebee" Walther, a social scientist who foresees an impending global financial collapse that will lead to a new Dark Age. Walther is a kind of proto-peak oiler — a math nerd turned survivalist who embodies most of the better traits of your high quality, modern doomer. Applying the new science of "Quantitative Sociodymamics", or QSD (reminiscent of Asimov’s "Psychohistory"), Walther and a handful of other scientists see the signs of the coming Dark Age in their data and take steps to preserve themselves and their knowledge for future generations. For thinking man's survivalists like myself, this premise is pure intellectual candy.

Dickson’s description of the financial crisis that leads to the cascading collapse of civilization sounds eerily like what is happening right now:

The world’s currencies had been interlocked, interdependent. This much had been widely understood by those in the money markets since the nineteen-fifties. Also, therefore were the economies of the world’s nations.

It required only one domino to fall under the right conditions, to set a whole ranked row behind it tumbling. It fell with the collapse of a single obscure bank. The run on this by mobs of people for money it did not have, drew in its creditors. Other banks began to tumble. The panic spread and governments intervened with funds to shore them up—only to find even their funds inadequate for this, as defaults became universal. The world economic web drew the collapse from nation to nation. Central governments fell: and the process of the world splitting into smaller and smaller self-sufficient pieces began.

The next stage in Dickson’s collapse scenario sounds very much like the drop down the Olduvai Cliff predicted by Richard Duncan:

Phone systems were the first to die. Then electric services. Then transportation, with furnaces grown cold and refrigerators, like air conditioners, stilled for lack of fuel. Food ceased to reach the cities from outside. Supplies from anywhere else had become nonexistent; and people had begun to fight for what the stores still held; or to take what they had not and needed. It was the nineteenth century again.

What follows is a Hobbesian struggle of all against all, reminiscent of the "Die Off" scenarios envisioned by Hansonian uber-doomers:

So cities became battlefields and stood now as silent, ravaged testaments to the dead left by riot and revolution. Isolated communities developed into small, primitive self-fortified territories. And the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse were abroad once more—heraldic symbols of the new order.

So it had become a time of bloodletting, of a paring down and reshaping of the population—the pattern that QSD predicted would optimize the restoration of social order in those with the QSD patterns for survival under fang-and-claw conditions. A new medievalism was upon the globe. The iron years had come again; and those who were best fitted to the immediate task of survival were those to whom ethics, conscience, and anything else beyond the pure pragmatism of physical power, were excess baggage.

So there you have it: the doomer version of the near future in a few paragraphs. Taking this as its backdrop, Wolf and Iron tells the story of Walther’s journey across a Dark Age America with a wolf he develops a telepathic connection to. The story drags on and loses my interest in places, but I found the overall picture painted by Dickson fairly believable. As someone who is part mathematical systems theorist, part survivalist and part animal empath, I found the main character almost spookily familiar. All in all, if the post-Collapse world turns out to resemble Wolf and Iron more than Catastrophe (see below), then I say "bring it on".

Catastrophe: An Investigation into the Origins of Modern Civilization, by David Keys

As an avid student of doomerology and collapsitarian studies (good luck finding those on the curriculum of your local university!), I have been reading voraciously about past periods of apocalyptic change in search of historical precedents for our own time. My latest read along these lines is a very interesting one: Catastrophe: An Investigation into the Origins of Modern Civilization, by David Keys.

For pure doomer porn, it doesn’t get much better than these accounts of life in the Mad Max world of 6th and 7th century Europe following the collapse of the Roman Empire. This period truly had it all: barbarian invasions, migrating hordes, civil wars, revolutions, anarchy, bubonic plague, famine, drought, devastating natural disasters and a violent new religion exploding out of the Arabian peninsula. Life in this Hobbesian milieu may have been nasty, brutish and short, but it certainly wasn't boring!

What makes these accounts so fascinating is how easily they could become previews of our future as we begin the slide toward what looks to be the next great Dark Age. Events that we associate today only with the darkest corners of the Third World once ravaged the heart of Europe, and may once again plague the Western world if our civilization cannot somehow reinvent itself. As a cautionary tale it is quite sobering, and something every armchair doomer should read. After reading these horrific accounts, perhaps those of you who welcome the collapse of our civilization as the beginning of some great adventure will be a bit more circumspect. The eyewitness accounts of priests who saw cities burned to the ground, countryside consumed by banditry and bodies piled high from plague and barbarian atrocities, remind us that there is very little about a civilization’s collapse that is pleasant for even the most adventurous among us.

One of the more disturbing aspects of the book for me was the account of the fatalism that began to grip the Romans as their Empire crumbled around them. Here is how Keys describes the destruction of Jerusalem by the Persians in 614, as witnessed by the Roman cleric Antiochus Strategus:
What was happening to the empire was beginning to be seen as God’s will. Describing the scene as the Persian army moved in for the kill, Antiochus revealed the depths of Roman fatalism, which had by now reached almost apocalyptic levels.

"And as we knew not God nor observed His commandments, God delivered us into the hands of our enemies. The Lord has given over this Holy City to the enemy," he wrote. “The Persians perceived that God had forsaken the Christians and that they had no helper,” so with “increased wrath” they began to build in a circuit around the city great wooden towers on which they placed catapults.

“The struggle lasted 20 days, shooting their catapults with such force that on the 21st day they broke down the city wall. At this, the evil enemy entered the city in great fury, like angry wild beasts and enraged serpents. The men defending the walls fled to hid in caverns, conduits and cisterns to save themselves; and the people fled in crowds to the churches and their altars there they were slaughtered.

For the enemy entered in great wrath, gnashing their teeth in violent fury; like evil beasts they roared, like lions they bellowed, like ferocious serpents they hissed, and slew all they found. Like mad dogs they tore with their teeth the flesh of the faithful, respecting no one, neither man nor woman, neither young nor old, neither child nor baby, neither priest nor monk, neither virgin nor widow. They destroyed persons of every age, slaughtering them like animals, cut them to pieces, mowed many down like cabbages, so that every individual had to drain the full cup of bitterness.”

Would the capital suffer the same fate as Jerusalem? Again the Romans saw what they believed to be their impending doom as the will of God — a punishment from on high for the conduct of their empire... A group of Roman magnates sent a letter across the Bosphorus to the Persian king in which they virtually trembled with guilt and fear.

"Attacked by you as a reward for our sins, the affairs of the Romans have reached this sorry state of weakness," they wrote. They abjectly begged that "your most great majesty, your most peace-loving majesty" — referred to by the Romans in less awkward times as "the Hated of God" — might make peace "by the Grace of God" as soon as possible. "We also beseech your gentleness that you hold our most pious Emperor Heraclius as a true son of yours, for he is ready in all things to concede to Your Serenity due reverence and duty."

This, then, was the spirit at the end of the last great Western empire. And I see this attitude of surrender beginning to set in today, as educated Westerners call for the rolling back of the Empire, abandon dreams of manned space flight and give up on the possibility of saving civilization from impending climate catastrophe. Perhaps the widespread adoption of this mindset, even more than the crushing defeats which will accompany it, will mark the true beginning of the next Dark Age.

Keys’ rather speculative thesis is that the global upheavals of the 6th and 7th centuries were catalyzed by a huge volcanic eruption in 535 which blotted out the sun for a period of eighteen months. This cataclysmic event, which Keys theorizes occurred on the island of Java, led to a period of climate chaos, famine, migration and war on every continent which lasted for a century and marked the beginning of the Dark Ages.

As a student of doomerology, I find Keys’ thesis fascinating and disturbing. For if it is correct, then the collapse of civilizations on a global scale is not without historical precedent. A single catastrophic event may have tipped the world into chaos 1500 years ago, at a time when human societies were far less interconnected than they are today. This would be an ominous lesson for our time, as we enter an era of climate chaos potentially much more devastating than the one Keys describes. As Joseph Tainter observed in his celebrated book The Collapse of Complex Societies, our current civilization, with its peer polities of financial dependency, globalized production and international aid, is so interconnected that it will collapse not as individual empires, but globally as one entity. If this is true, and if the global Collapse goes down anything like it did in the 6th century, then all I can say to my Archdruid friend John Michael Greer is this: Long Descent my ass!

Even if you reject Keys’ larger thesis, Catastrophe is fascinating reading as an account of what civilizational collapses actually look like, and as a glimpse into an apocalyptic period of history that is largely ignored by our modern education. It’s as if the Western mind has a giant blind spot, an unwillingness to look back into its own dark past and confront the reality of its descent into barbarism. When I was in school, we learned about the classical Greek and Roman civilizations, then we all but skipped a thousand years of history and went straight to the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. Yet it is the Dark Age between these periods that I find more interesting, since it speaks to aspects of human nature that we are so intent upon denying today that it makes us mentally ill. Studying this period will give you some perspective on current events, as news of Taliban terrorism in Afghanistan, ethnic cleansing in the Sudan and gang violence the world over echoes the tribal barbarity of that era. By ignoring this part of our heritage for so long — imagining ourselves to live at the perpetually progressing "end of history" — we moderns have psychologically disarmed ourselves and become dangerously vulnerable to the darker forces of human nature that are re-emerging all around us. If you would like to re-arm yourself, read Catastrophe, and steel yourself for the post-progressive world that may be just around the corner.


  1. This treatise is a tour de force. I don't know who you are, but in my humble opinion, you are one of the best - if not the best - writers on the topic of doom I have every read. Your writing is cohesive, entertaining, and profound. I am so lucky to have found your blog.

    Have you seen The Book of Eli? Much of it is silly, but the scenery is, well, talk about doomer porn...

  2. Excellent stuff. If I may present another perspective on those Dark Ages... those were also the times when the world formerly known as Rome & neighbors, heaved a huge sigh of relief... these folks probably did not leave any writings behind, but must have welcome the toppling of the top-heavy, predatory empire. Apparently, everybody was so sick of the damn thing, even some outlying legions began to fight on the side of the barbarians....

    As for the dark side... that comes with civ in a heavy dose. When Jerusalem fell to the crusaders, blood ran in the streets ankle high. And when it fell to the Moslems later, it was a nasty business too. Same old same old...

    I sure hope you will keep up with the Doomer Report; wonderful vivid well-composed writing. Thank you.

  3. Thanks Gail! I put a lot of effort into these little essays for no apparent reason -- I'm glad someone appreciates them. No I haven't seen that movie, maybe I'll check it out.

    That's an interesting idea Vera, that the so-called "Dark Ages" really weren't so dark, just a time when people were living normal lives out from under the boot of an empire. I was raised to be a soldier in this empire, so I guess I still have a hard time thinking outside my "Imperial conditioning". :)

  4. We all do, Sean! Comes a day though... and suddenly, something else peeks through the empire-brain fog. :-)

    The person who turned me onto this kinda thinking was Fredy Perlman (Against Leviathan).

  5. This is good stuff. I like your analisys. The scenario of Wolf and Iron does resemble the Book of Eli. You may want to take a look at James Rawles novels as well. Keep it up!

  6. Brilliantly written! It was fascinating, entertaining, and enjoyable.

  7. Maybe we NEED another dark age.