“The Second Decade” from The Great Bay
Categories: Ecology & Sustainability Literature & the Arts
This except is from the second chapter of Dale Pendell’s The Great Bay. Struck by a global pandemic, loss of energy resources, and changing climate, the characters of Pendell’s novel find themselves in an entirely new world. With a particular focus on Californians, the book chronicles humanity for the next sixteen thousand years. The Great Bay won Best Science Fiction at the 2010 Green Book Festival.
The Second Decade
By 2031, ten years after the Collapse, the population of the United States had stabilized at four million. There were another million in Canada, four million in Central America, and some six million in South America. World population was about eighty million, about the same as the early Iron Age. Infant mortality was high everywhere, but people were learning how to stay alive.
There were widespread heat waves. Carbon dioxide levels approached those of the early Eocene. Industrial outputs of CO2 had stopped, but a long chain-reaction was in progress, and CO2 in the atmosphere is long-lived. Permafrost thawing was releasing large amounts of methane. The manmade aerosols and other particulate matter that had been masking the heating from greenhouse gases were gone. There were no cloudforming contrails. Skies were clearer than they had been in three hundred years and the earth cooked beneath a naked sun. In the West, summer temperatures of 110 degrees Fahrenheit were more and more common, the heat spells lasting for a month at a time. High pressure systems in the interior kept out the cooler air of the jet stream. New records would have been set everywhere, if anyone had been keeping records. It never seemed to cool off at night.
Refugees from the cities lived in the ruins of small towns. Sometimes those who were isolated in the mountains moved down to join them. Nobody wanted to be alone. There were too few people in the world to want to be alone. There was too much death. People knew they needed each other. Established rural communities pulled in closer. People would gather weekly or more often at some central location to trade news or to socialize, and all the empty houses or cabins near the meeting areas were soon occupied. Bicycles were widely used, tubes being patched and repatched.
Sometimes there were tensions between refugees and “natives,” those who were already established on the land before the Collapse, especially if the natives had distinctive persuasions. The refugees were almost always a mishmash, racially and culturally, so they settled on being Californians.
A group of farmers near Fresno were able to pool enough diesel to bulldoze gravity fed irrigation canals. People hoarded canning jars. Gold experienced a brief resurgence as a medium of exchange until nobody wanted it any more. “Gold? No thanks, already got some.” A rumor that gangsters in Tennessee had broken into Fort Knox didn’t help. Goods continued to move as barter or credit. A person’s credit was the same thing as their reputation.
Hoarding and depredations were local. There was some killing. A group of mercenaries in San Diego, led by the son of the “last elected governor of California,” claimed to be the legitimate government. They called themselves the “Black Watch.” They took over Fallbrook with armored personnel carriers and slaughtered several hundred Mexicans and Mexican-Americans who had formed a community there. A band of avenging Mexican insurgents, led by a man who called himself “Joaquin Murrieta,” blew up their fuel depot and over the next six months picked off most of the mercenaries one by one.
Mostly, though, everything was too bad, too near to starvation for anyone to be able to organize any large-scale actions. Mostly people helped each other, as people have always done in hard times.
People were full of ideas. Aging electricians and line workers were still concocting schemes to bring back power, though at a local level. Large generators would run for a while, then sputter out. In 2032, Christmas lights were on for an hour on a large redwood tree in downtown Santa Cruz, and again on New Year’s Eve.
A group in Martinez managed to fabricate a twenty-foot still, and were able to produce small amounts of fuel oil out of crude salvaged from the hold of a tanker. It was never very much, but it proved the concept. A few barrels of diesel were traded upriver to Sacramento for grain. Machinists in Sacramento were able to use generators to operate enough machinery to fabricate another still, which they floated down to Richmond. Skilled machinists were in high demand.
In East Los Angeles a group of ex-CEOs banded together to organize a large-scale food-for-work program, intending to distribute goods still stored in warehouses. It might have worked, too, had the entrepreneurs not insisted on private ownership of the company. Labor hadn’t had so much power since the fourteenth century.
In a way it was a hopeful time. There were still roads, machines, and large quantities of viable manufactured materials. The Pandemic seemed to have spent itself. Of course, it was hot.
Many believed that the current situation was temporary— that with hard work and ingenuity the world as they had known it could be rebuilt—that oil would flow—that cars and trucks would again move on the highways—that supermarkets would somehow begin receiving deliveries.
Most had a pioneer spirit, eager to apply ideas to build new water systems and new engines of power. But these were not frontier emigrants, the sons and daughters of emigrants, nor the grandchildren of wagon trains: they weren’t born to self-reliance and hard labor, and they lacked the unquestioning optimism of Manifest Destiny. Besides, it was easier to scavenge.
In 2034 there was a large earthquake in Oakland, breaking all five bridges. Most of the damage to the bridges was minor—one or two missing sections—but there was no way to repair them. Many of the skyscrapers toppled. Somehow the Pyramid Building in San Francisco survived. Scattered sections of freeways collapsed all around the Bay.
The Sacramento Valley seemed to flood every other year. Tulare Lake filled with water. Flocks of birds appeared. A trickle of water in the broad delta of the Colorado River was once again flowing into the Gulf of California. Farmers opened Haiwee Dam. After a hundred-year hiatus, the lakes in the Owens Valley filled with water.
It was getting harder and harder to find working batteries. Any solar panel that could be found was in use. Some people were using electric golf carts and recharging them from the panels. There was still a lot of legacy wine and liquor around. In fact, distillers used vodka as the starting material for making ethanolic fuel.
Corn was failing all over, threatening a new famine. Seed corn over a decade old was less and less viable, and because of the “death genes” that had been inserted into the genome by global corporations new seed produced stunted crops, or never germinated at all. People began collecting grasses, and planted barley. A Johnny Appleseed type traveled to the Hopi in Arizona to beg for viable seed. Other corn came up from Mexico. After that everyone grew “Indian Corn.” People improvised mills or ground it the old way with stones.
The use of solar electricity, storage batteries, and inverters led to a network of octogenarian amateur radio operators—an enthusiasm quickly adopted by the youth. People built windmills. Electricity was too good to lose. Radio gave the young a reason to learn the mysteries of letters and numbers—it stretched their horizons. They learned geography. Isolated communities in other parts of the country sent greetings, and tales of woe. Some groups wished to remain isolated, and their location secret, and forbade radio.
Other than those few with solar power, there was no illumination after dark. Flashlights were saved for emergencies, as were candles. Storytelling flourished. Children wanted to know why the world was the way it was, and adults tried to make it all make sense. “Pioneering” was a common theme, along with “castaways.” Those who knew it told the story of Robinson Crusoe, or Swiss Family Robinson.
Occasional vehicles puttered or whirred along the highways, which were still passable for long stretches. A small medical college in Davis was teaching basics. A biochemist and her husband, a beer maker, were trying to produce penicillin.
In the Holy Land a new prophet walked out of the desert. He preached the Word beyond the Book and called on all the monotheists to give up idolatry in all its forms, that even to refer to God by a name or phrase was blasphemous. He called on Jews, Christians, Sunnis, and Shias to end their petty bickering and unite in the compassion of the Unseen. He performed miracles and thousands joined the new creed from all three religions. Services took on a plethora of forms in mosques, temples, and churches.
In 2039 a Noah character from Africa with a coal-fired steamboat introduced antelope and other large African mammals to the steppes opening up over Northern Europe. That was good, since their savannahs in Africa were drying out. In Inner Asia horses returned to the Ferghana Valley.