Last June, when I published my last blog post, ending the series I'd been working on at that point, I concluded with the following words:
"The other thing I have been thinking about is writing some fiction. I have not written any fiction since I was in high school (50 plus years ago), so it would be nice to give it a go again. Story telling is a big part of human communication, and might serve as a better way of getting across some of the ideas that I'd like to share."
It took a while to get started, but finally, I am now publishing the first in a series of fictional stories about adapting to collapse.
Allan Harper, July 2040—A Celebration at Porcupine
Allan Harper felt rather amazed to have made it this far through his father's eulogy. Tom's death at 85 had come as no great surprise, but still, it hit Allan harder than he had expected. So many things left unsaid, with no chance now to ever say them. He knew that his dad would have told him this was always the case, and that he had no option but to carry on. Allan could almost hear him saying, "Best get at it."
He cleared his throat and continued, "Before I finish I guess I should say a bit about Dad's role in the founding of Porcupine. He'd been blogging about collapse for years, and had always maintained that a time would come when the capitalist system could no longer supply our daily necessities and we'd have to look after ourselves. Further, he maintained that a time would come, before then, when the system had weakened enough that it would be possible to set up something like this without too much official opposition, but not so far that the resources to do so were no longer available. For many people that would have been nothing more than talk, and it would have been easy enough for Dad just to continue talking. He'd always claimed that timing wasn't his strongest suit, but in this case he kept his eyes open for an opportunity, and when one came up, he went for it.
"By the late 2020s offshore investors owned most of the land in this area. It seems that the great majority of them went bankrupt in the crash of 2028, and stopped paying taxes, or doing upkeep on their farms. Many of the local people who'd been renting the land didn't plant a crop in the spring of '29. By that time local government received essentially zero support from the province, which had downloaded the responsibility for most services onto them, leaving them desperate for income of any sort. With shelves often empty at the grocery stores due to supply chain problems, they also badly wanted the local land farmed rather than going to thorn bush, and farmed by people willing to sell locally. Dad got this first hundred acres that we are standing on today for a fraction of the taxes owing, and the rest is history."
Allan paused, noting how the audience in front of him filled all the seating they had set up in the hall. His father had had quite a network—family took up the front row of seating, and close friends a couple of rows behind that, many from Porcupine, but also from the Inverpen and Port Elgin areas, with a few from farther afield. Even some from his working days at Hydro One. And of course most of the residents of Porcupine and many from its more recently established daughter communities had come as well.
Very few people these days would attend a large indoor gathering without wearing a mask, and these folks were no exception. Still, even with their masks on, he could tell they were hanging on his every word. Out of respect for his father, he assumed, rather than anything to do with his skills as an orator. Time to wrap this up, he thought.
Taking a breath, he said, "Well, I guess that concludes the formal part of our celebration of Dad's life. Please do hang around and visit. Drinks and snacks will be served shortly on the buffet at the back, and supper's scheduled for around six."
Relieved to have that done with, Allan came down off the stage sat between his wife, Erica, and Will Harper, his uncle and Tom's younger brother.
"That really was a fine eulogy—not an easy thing when you're talking about your own father," said Will.
"Living here at Porcupine one gets a lot of practice at public speaking. If you want to have any say in how the place is run, anyway," said Allan. "I miss the old curmudgeon, though, and more than I ever imagined I would." his voice caught a little on the last few words and he wiped a handkerchief across his eyes and blew his nose. "I hear you're interested in the two-bit tour, Uncle Will?"
"Yes, I am," replied Will, and turned to his wife, "Sue, Will's going to show me around the place. I take it you want to stay here and catch up with some of the family that we haven't seen for a while?"
"I do, and we'll manage without you somehow," she answered with a wink. "You two make sure you're not late for supper."
"Little chance of that," Allan said and turned to his partner. "Erika, I am off to give Uncle Will the grand tour. Is Mom OK?"
"Yep," replied Erika, "she just went back to the kitchen to make sure they've got everything under control."
"Eighty years old and still hard at it," Allan said, shaking his head and smiling.
Will stood, and gestured to Allan, "Lead on."
Standing up, Allan looked around the room, mentally putting himself into the "how this must look to someone who doesn't live here" mode, always the prelude to giving a tour, of which he had done more than one.
They stood near the south end of a forty by one hundred foot pole barn which had started its life as winter housing for cattle. Early in the history of the place, they had cleaned it up, framed in the walls and the ceiling, insulated and put up vapour barrier and drywall, anticipating that it would be a challenge to heat in the winter with just the bare metal sheathing.
The north end of the building contained the kitchen, separated from the main room by a counter that served as a buffet. Just visible through large screen doors at the back of the kitchen, the summer kitchen bustled with the hot work that happened there at this time of year.
Both east and west walls had several doors leading outside. Between those doors stood shelves stuffed with books. On the east side people had started to file by a display of photos and memorabilia from Tom's life.
Windows near the top of the side walls let in enough light at this time of day to illuminate the place, and ventilator fans moved air through the building and out vents in the attic. They were in a lull between waves of the current pandemic, but keeping indoor spaces well ventilated had become an accepted necessity over the past twenty years.
"Where would you like to start?" asked Allan.
"Well, the beginning always seems like a good place," Will replied with a chuckle.
Allan grinned and could not resist saying, "You mean like, 'The lord said let there be light and you could see for fucking miles' kind of beginning?"
"I wasn't thinking of quite that far back. You're quoting your father there, you know, and he was quoting the guys he worked with as a first year apprentice," said Will.
"I always wondered where he got that from. So, seriously then, in one sense it started next door in the old farmhouse, where we lived during the first months while we were getting this hall cleaned up. And getting our feet under ourselves, organizationally speaking. In another sense, it started in discussions I had with Dad years before that," said Allan.
Conversation had started in the background, so he said, "It's going to get loud in here—let's go outside where it's quieter."
He led out through one of the doors in the east wall, on through an entrance lean-to and into a large yard surrounded by farm buildings—a garage, an old-style bank barn, a wind mill tower and the original field stone farm house. An unusually large number of vehicles occupied the yard between the buildings, indicative of the number of people who had travelled more than walking distance to get here. With fuel rationed when available and more often not to be had at all, it looked like people had been saving up for a while to make the trip. That would certainly have been the case for Allan's older sister Arlene and her family, who had come all the way from Ottawa.
The short school bus belonged to Porcupine and it had brought people from Inverpen, Port Elgin and points between. It had been modified to burn vegetable oil, of which Porcupine produced quite a bit for culinary uses, and occasionally diverted some for use in vehicles. There were also a few cars, mostly small 2 seat electrics, some older gasoline powered cars, and quite a few bicycles, about half of them electric. A few people had even arrived on horseback, and their animals stood in the field east of the house, in the shade of a row of maple trees along the fence line.
"Let's sit here," Allan said and indicated a bench in the shade under the eaves of the lean-to they had just exited.
They both sat down and Allan asked, "So, how'd you and Aunt Sue get here today?"
"We rode our electric trikes." Will pointed to a pair of three wheelers, with solar panels propped up next to them. "We've had them for about 10 years, along with those folding solar panels. They should be charged back up before sunset."
"Don't get me wrong, but that's pretty impressive for folks your age."
His Uncle Will was 75, ten years younger than Tom. Allan had turned 55 not long ago. Will was around the same height as him (and as his Dad had been), 5 foot 9 inches, with the same light brown/dark blond hair (now verymuch salt and pepper) and pot belly. Both sported white beards that had originally been reddish brown.
"The electric assist makes it a whole different thing. You're right—pedaling the hard way this far would probably be beyond us."
"Those hills can be a beast, for sure," said Allan. "So, this isn't your first time here, is it Uncle Will?"
"No, I've brought busloads of hungry folks out from Inverpen a few times, to the feeds you folks put on when the pandemics aren't raging. Much appreciated, too, I must say," Will answered. "But I've never really had a chance to stay and have a look around."
"We can fix that today. And since the free food here definitely doesn't come with a sermon, you may not have heard much about how this place is organized," said Allan.
"Well, Tom and I did discuss what you're doing here, on the phone and in emails," said Will. "But it's different seeing it up close and in person. And the damn pandemics have made that hard to do."
"That's for sure. Anyway, for me, I guess it all started in 2011 or so," Allan said, "I was still in Kitchener-Waterloo back then. I'd dropped out of school, and I taught violin and drove school bus for a living. I was between partners and things got lonesome in the evenings, so I'd call Dad and we'd talk."
"About politics, Peak Oil... that kind of thing?"
"Oh yeah. Dad was just then figuring out the ties between energy and the economy, so he bounced a lot of ideas off me, and it was interesting, in a dark kind of way. Then he started to write it all down and send me these long emails. And the next year, when he started his blog, for the first while most of it was straight from those emails."
"I read his blog from the start, but I didn't know you'd been involved," said Will.
"Don't get the wrong idea," said Allan, "I was NOT a 'kollapsnik' in the sense that Dad used the word. But given how things were going, even back then, I figured there was a good chance that what he expected would actually happen—or maybe worse. I sure didn't look forward to the world turning into a smoking hellscape, though, or taking up a life of manual labour on a subsistence farm. To be fair, Dad didn't really look forward to it either, but he was an avid gardener and while he claimed not to romanticize country life, he did look back with some nostalgia to his childhood on Granddad's farm. So he wasn't afraid to try for a more or less self sufficient set up like we have here."
"And like me, you were pretty sure that there'd be a technological fix before things got too much worse?" said Will.
"Well, at the time I was a typical young leftist," said Allan, "and I thought that if you were talking about carrying capacity and overpopulation, you had to be an eco-fascist. And here Dad was talking about those very things. It made for some heated discussions that had settled down into a tense truce by the early 2020s."
"And as you say, I still believed that a lot could be achieved with technology, if anybody bothered to do the work," said Allan. "The fucking crunchies recognized the problem, but feared many of the technologies that could have done some good—nuclear power and genetic engineering, for example. Those who didn't fear technology wouldn't believe what the real problems were and capitalism went right on cannibalizing the planet. Most poor or middle class people knew their own problems very well and saw that rich people didn't have those problem. So, obviously, the solution was to get rich. The majority of them had little chance of success, and even if they had succeeded, it would only have made the real problems worse. Like I said, we could have done much better. But...."
"But that's not the way it turned out, eh?" asked Will.
"Well no," Allan said, "As you know, I met Erica in the mid twenty teens and we moved to Guelph because she wanted to attend U of Moo. I found a job in a car parts factory, and then started an apprenticeship as an industrial electrician. After a couple of moves, we finally found a nice place with pretty reasonable rent, and things looked good. Especially after Erica graduated and got a job with a biotech company, and I finished my apprenticeship."
"Yeah, I remember your Dad being pretty proud of you," said Will.
"Yeah, I think he was. But then late in 2028 the economy took a definite turn for the worse, and settled in for a real long term, capital D depression," said Allan. "By the fall of '29 there was no end in sight, with things actually getting worse rather than better. I got laid off and the company that Erica was working for went tits up, so she was out of a job too. EI was far from enough to cover our expenses. In January of 2030 we missed our rent and the landlord started grumbling."
"Sounds like you were between a rock and a hard place," said Will.
"Very much so. I agonized for a while about calling Dad for help, and then one day the phone rang and it was Dad, asking how we were doing. He didn't seem surprised when I told him, and said that he could give us a month's rent, but couldn't afford to pay our rent on an ongoing basis. Then he said that he had a better plan for coping with the whole situation. He offered to pick us up and show us around. On the ride here he detailed what he hoped we could do. Much to our surprise he convinced us to give it a try, and to get some of our friends involved. There's a lot more to tell, but none of it would have happened if the economy hadn't fallen apart. Like I said inside, Dad had perfect timing on this one."
"It seems so," said Will. "Much of what he expected has come about in the last ten years, and the adaptations he recommended seem to work pretty well for you here."
"I have to admit that this life suits me better than I had imagined," said Allan, "Dad was one of the crunchiest among us, so we haven't shied back from any technology that fits in under the limitations we're working with. Technology uses energy, and only a limited amount of that is available—but enough to keep us from toiling in the fields from dawn to dusk every day."
"That's good. Maybe just for a few days during planting and harvest though, eh?"
"True, and there's quite a bit of weeding to be done in late June and early July," said Allan. "But many hands make light work."
"I would have thought that a setup like this might have some social advantages that make up for any other shortcomings," said Will.
"Yes, indeed," said Allan, "no feudal overlords or fat-cat capitalists to support and no stupid bosses to contend with either, or rent to pay. The conservative politicians are at arm's length and seem to have other things to worry about. The grub's mighty good, as is most of the company. I still wouldn't have jumped at Dad's invitation to join him here, except that by that point we were looking at sleeping under a bridge."
"And it turned out that Tom wasn't an eco-fascist after all?" said Will.
"No, I have to admit he wasn't," said Allan with a sigh, "I hadn't been reading his blog after the first year or so, or listening well to what he was saying, so I missed the part where he explained about that. He wanted to decrease the consumption of the top 30% of people in the world, and increase the standard of living of the bottom 70%. He maintained that if we did this we could reduce the burden we placed on the planet by a factor of two and largely eliminate the overshoot situation."
"And what about limits?" asked Will. "I've never been able to understand why leftists hate the idea of limits so much."
"That's easy—we think it's a lever used by capitalists put up prices, and to force austerity on poor people," said Allan. "And sometimes it is, but it turns out that there really are limits to growth, after all. It's a finite planet and we had already come a lot closer to filling it up than I realized. Anyway, I read Dad's series of blog posts about "The Limits to Growth", and then finally got around to reading the book itself and a few others. All of this with Dad standing by to respond to my questions."
"And I'll bet he had all kinds of data and examples of how overshoot is damaging the biosphere," said Will.
"Yep, and eventually he convinced me that carrying capacity is a valid concept," said Allan, "I'd always seen it represented as a constant value and I knew that was wrong. Traditionally, we have always modified our environment to increase its carrying capacity. I think that led me (and many others) to believe we'd always be able to so."
"But... limits, right?" said Will.
"Yes, limits," said Allan. "This is a finite planet and finally here in the twenty-first century we've just about reached the limit of what can be done in that direction. The Green Revolution was a step too far, leaving us dependent on dwindling non-renewable resources. Dad emphasized that the impact we have on the planet is dependent on both population and consumption. The eco-fascists don't want to change their lifestyle, and they think that getting rid of the poor brown people, or at least stopping them from breeding, would fix things. In fact it would do very little—hell, take them right out of the equation and we would still be solidly in overshoot.")
"Didn't Tom maintain that the immediate need was to reduce consumption in the developed world?" asked Will.
"Yeah, and before 2028 it looked like it would never happen. But the way the economy has ground to a halt since then has helped a lot. We're no longer spewing so much carbon into the atmosphere, or chewing through natural resources so quickly." said Allan, "and places like this set an example of how to live sustainably, and even give some back to the planet, if I do say so myself. It has been damned hard on people living in the big cities, though. To the point where they aren't so big anymore...."
"Yep, it has been a lot easier on small towns in the middle of agricultural areas. Places like Inverpen. I was in touch with your dad quite a bit when things began to go downhill," said Will, "trying to figure out what the hell had happened. It seems to me that it all started with a power outage. I can still remember the day...."
Coming soon: The Porcupine Saga, Part 2: Will Harper, July 2028: When The Lights Went Out