Post Apocalyptic Book Club: Book 1: The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress

Sharon July 7th, 2008

When Lil’s husband got demobbed, I said–
140 I didn’t mince my words, I said to her myself,
Now Albert’s coming back, make yourself a bit smart.
He’ll want to know what you done with that money he gave you
To get yourself some teeth. He did, I was there.
You have them all out, Lil, and get a nice set,
He said, I swear, I can’t bear to look at you.
And no more can’t I, I said, and think of poor Albert.
He’s been in the army four years, he wants a good time.
And if you don’t give it him, there’s others will, I said.
150 Oh is there, she said. Something o’ that, I said.
Then I’ll know who to thank, she said, and give me a straight look.
If you don’t like it you can get on with it, I said.
Others can pick and choose if you can’t.
But if Albert makes off, it won’t be for lack of telling.
You ought to be ashamed, I said, to look so antique.
(And her only thirty-one.)
I can’t help it, she said, pulling a long face,
It’s them pills I took, to bring it off, she said.
(She’s had five already, and nearly died of young George.)
161 The chemist said it would be all right, but I’ve never been the same.
You are a proper fool, I said.
Well, if Albert won’t leave you alone, there it is, I said.
What you get married for if you don’t want children?
Well, that Sunday Albert was home, they had a hot gammon,
And they asked me in to dinner, to get the beauty of it hot–
Goonight Bill. Goonight Lou. Goonight May. Goonight.
171 Ta ta. Goonight. Goonight.
Good night, ladies, good night, sweet ladies, good night, good night.

(TS Eliot “The Wasteland” From “A Game of Chess”)

I’ve been mulling over how to approach this book club discussion, since I’ve never done this particular kind of post before, and I thought I’d jump in with the reason I wanted to include it.  To me,  the real virtue of this book is that it is a depletion novel – and a novel about a powerful response to depletion.  That is, the crisis that the Loonies face in the book is pretty much precisely the one we face ourselves.  Consider this quote (pg 74 in my Ace edition), in which Prof, Wyoh, Mannie and Mike the conscious supercomputer are discussing whether Luna must revolt, to keep from depleting its water source.

“Okay, Mike – no cheap shipping, no transmutation: How long till trouble?”

“Seven years.”

“‘Seven years!’” Wyoh jumped up, stared at phone. “Mike, honey! You don’t mean that?”

“Wyoh,” he said plaintively, “I did my best.  The problem has an indeterminately large number of variables.  I ran several thousand solutions using many assumptions.  The happiest answer came from assuming no increase in tonnage, no increase in Lunar population – restriction of births strongly enforced – and a greatly enhanced search for ice in order to maintain the water supply.  That gave an answer of slightly over twenty years.  All other answers were worse.”

Wyoh, much sobered, said, “What happens in seven years?”

“The answer of seven years from now I reached by assuming the present situation, no change in Authority policy, and all major variables extrapolated from the empiricals implicit in their past behavior – a conservative answer of highest probability from the available data.  Twenty-eighty-two is the year I expect food riots.  Cannibalism should not occur for at least two years thereafter.”

“Cannibalism’!” She turned and buried head against Prof’s chest.

He patted her, said gently “I’m sorry Wyoh.  People do not realize how precarious our ecology is.  Even so, it shocks me.  I know water runs down hill…but didn’t dream how terribly soon it will reach bottom.”

I wanted to talk about this book because it it takes as a given that depletion of resources can lead to a vast crisis, and that we can not realize just how close we are until the very last moment.  Manuel, for example, is engaged for that reason, and that alone – he is not innately a revolutionary.  I think this is an interesting book, precisely because even though the literal situation is implausible (Hubby the Astrophysicist observes that there’s no water at all on the moon, nor any carbon in the rock, so not a chance we could farm it – but Heinlein couldn’t have known that), it is a really fascinating meditation on a situation not too far off of our present one.

So I thought an interesting place to start might be with this question of the value of the book as metaphor for our present circumstances is.  There are a lot of things not to like about Heinlein and this book, but I also think that there are a lot of things that are utterly fascinating in analogy.  What do you think?

The next question that occurs, then, if we’re to see this book in relation to our present circumstances is this – what about the response?  In the case of the Loonies, there doesn’t seem to be much choice.  But the book is a remarkably detailed handbook to revolution – and to the moral compromises that come with revolution.  That is, the revolutionaries aren’t able to remain purists.  They do a whole lot of things that are troubling, from the manipulation of the populace to actually inciting attack on their own population.  When the moral issue arises, Prof answers Mannie that necessity doesn’t justify his actions, it just makes them necessary. Mannie asks (pg 243):

“Still doesn’t say how to pay for what we are doing now.”

“‘How,’ Manuel?  You know how we are doing it.  We’re stealing it.  I’m neither proud of it nor ashamed; it’s the means we have.  If they ever catch on, they may eliminate us – and that I am prepared to face.  At least, in stealing, we have no created the villainous precedent of taxation.”

“Prof, I hate to say this -”

“Then why say it?”

“Because, damn it, I’m in it as deeply as you are…and want to see that money paid back!  Hate to say it but what you just said sounds like hypocrisy.”

He chuckled, “Dear Manuel! Has it taken you all these years to decide that I am a hypocrite?”

“Then you admit it?”

“No.  but if it makes you feel bettter to think that I am one, you are welcome to use me as your scapegoat.  But I am not a hypocrite to myself because I was aware the day we declared the Revolution that we would need much money and would have to steal it.  It did not trouble me because I considered it better than food riots six years hence, cannibalism in eight.  I made my choice and have no regrets.”

The novel is unabashed in its assumption that Prof and Co. choose rightly – that it is worth paying that moral price when the price on the other side is so high.  But it is also very difficult for Wyoh and Mannie to accept that they must do personally unacceptable things in order to achieve larger ends. 

Is this a realistic handbook for radical change?  The book takes as a given (and of course, creates the given) that Revolution is a possible answer.  Is it in other circumstances, or just this one? 

Moving on to another subject, I’m not sure we really need to talk about Heinlein’s women – or do we?  I once read an essay somewhere (maybe Harpers?) about Heinlein that essentially said that his books were good until he discovered female nudity ;-) .  And I actually think that may be true – his juvenalia are pretty good, and the young women in them are often less stupid than the grown women later on (if he can keep off his fascination with spanking and discolored behinds ;-P), but ultimately, in the case of this book, I think the book itself is good enough to make it worth ignoring the deep horribleness of Heinlein’s women (something you cannot say about any other Heinlein novel I can think of ;-) ).  More interesting to me is the family structures.

And again, I think there’s an interesting metaphor here – we don’t have the “shortage” of women depicted in the book, but what we do face is a rapidly changing society, and probably a great deal of cultural and economic pressure to smaller family sizes.  Whether or not there are formal limitations on reproduction, post-peak economics are likely to make people reconsider childbearing in societies like ours, where children are a “cost.”  And that means an awful lot of older adults being supported potentially by a much smaller younger cohort, and many adults with only one or no children to support multiple extended families.  I’m wondering what you thought of the various family structures imagined by Heinlein in the book (we’ll pass rapidly over the idea that 13 year old girls should marry into line marriages with old dudes, I’m more interested in the larger question of the way family structures might be adapted to deal with changing circumstances)?

Finally, I start off our discussion of “The Wasteland” which I’m going to integrate with the other books, and tie towards them, with the end of the “A Game of Chess” section (a reader pointed out that the poem is available online here: if you want to follow along), with the Pub scene.  In it, a gossiping woman is talking about ordinary things, and an ordinary, if deeply tragic, family situation – a woman ravaged by childbearing and an abortion, trying to hang on to her husband while preventing further pregnancies – and over her discussion of dinner and dentistry and abortion comes the words  “HURRY UP PLEASE IT’S TIME.”  These are, of course, on one level, the words of the pub owner, closing up.  But earlier in this section of the poem, we have seen a chess game with Death, and it is Death who is equally insistent, who also says, whether you are done or not with your tale, when it is time, it is time. 

When I spoke at the Community Solutions Conference last year, I quoted these lines from Eliot several times, speaking of the rising sense of urgency I was feeling.  And I was reminded that the first year I spoke, I had mentioned that there were more people present in the room at the conference than plotted to create the American Revolution.  A lot of people told me how inspiring that reference was, but if any major plots were born that day, I haven’t been told of them (maybe I’m just not trustworthy ;-) ).

So I guess the last question I have is this - for all the weaknesses of the book, and they are many and varied, Heinlein’s heroes, reluctant as they are, when confronted with the reality of HURRY UP PLEASE IT’S TIME have the nerve to pay the price, to raise the stakes and to seek the redress they require.  We can argue that their moral compromises would be unacceptable in reality.  We can argue that their circumstances are not ours, but what I would ask is this – what is it time for in our present situation, and why is it so unthinkable to most of us (Derrick Jensen perhaps excepted) that we might respond so strongly, that we might change so radically.  I’m not suggesting any particular response, but I am asking why it is that our response, not just as a people, but as aware individuals  to depletion is so comparativel tepid (me too), so focused on soft responses, why we feel so powerless in relationship to our collapse?  Is that even a question worth asking? 

I’ll be fascinated to hear your answers – and there will probably be one more post on this subject later today.  If you have other questions for discussion, post them in comments and we’ll talk about them,


41 Responses to “Post Apocalyptic Book Club: Book 1: The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress”

  1. Greenpa says:

    Hiya- incidentally, your block quote thingy up there isn’t working for me; it’s all crammed over to the right, and half of it is invisible-

    I’ll just tackle a couple points -

    Is it germane? Yes it is; good discussions about “limits”; and the fact that they will require difficult and extraordinary answers.

    “Is this a realistic handbook for radical change? ” No, alas. The scenarios here depend on 3 impossible assumptions; a) the rebels have a powerful and unanswerable weapon; b) the rebels have a semi-omniscient intelligence, Mycroft, telling them what to do; and c) they actually listen to that deus in machina; and do as he says.

    None of those aspects have parallels here on Earth. In fact; their resolution of their problem is easy, compared to our real situation.

    Still – lots of really good “wake up!” stuff in there.

  2. Ani says:

    I got the library to get the book(Heinlen’s) for me- inter-library loan- but alas- I just cannot get into it- just not my style I guess- I Iike sci-fi in general, but not Heinlen I guess- for the most part- but will hopefully join the discussion in other months-

  3. Sharon says:

    Greenpa, I should have said “relatively realistic” of course, sure, the magic super-genius computer is nice to have. But revolutions have been successfully planned by the falliable but reasonably precognizant – so no, I don’t think that undermines the larger question of whether it might be a handbook for revolution. Yes, we’d have to do without Mike’s magic odds calculating, but the characters themselves base themselves on a revolution (the American) conducted without any such thing.


  4. Sharon says:

    Sorry about the block quotes – I think I fixed it. Does it work better now?


  5. MEA says:

    I’ve always thought the line marriages weren’t that far off from what used to happen in Europe as widower married younger women who, once widowed, married men their own age, who out lived their wife, only to marry and younger woman….and so one and so one. It wasn’t the only pattern, of course, and the chain was often broken, but it wasn’t uncommon.

    I agree with the HURRY UP — it’s the refrain of life right now. We are going along with the day to day stuff, and at the same time we feel that these are the last few minutes we have to do something. It contracts with the thrush in 4Q — who says quick, quick, though in that case its a false urgency — if we go quick, quick into the garden, we lose a chance of redemption. I think for too long all we (society) listened to was the quick, quick, as we tried to snatch at happiness, rather than culvating qualities that would give us the capicity to be happy within our selves. I think if we are going to have any sort of lives worth living, society had better get that back but quick.

  6. Rosa says:

    Thanks for the explanation. I did wonder why you choose Moon is a Harsh Mistress, since it’s pre-apocalyptic. I had forgotten about the reason Manny got pulled into the conspiracy.

    I don’t think it quite works, though. The Loonies have naturally closed borders, and their systems (aside from limited imports/exports) are completely separate from Earth’s, and they really don’t care if anything bigger than their little colony makes any changes. Oh, and the government they are rebelling against is a colonial prison government, not a homegrown elite.

    We aren’t in a situation where a vanguard can make that kind of change. We’re not looking at moving the guns from one set of hands to another, or disrupting just one relationship. We’re trying to change everything all at once – the way we get and spend energy, food, water, the way we think of ownership and responsibility for waste, the way we honor our ancestors and provide for our descendants. That’s a cultural shift, which has to be evolutionary, not revolutionary – but we have to do it in a revolutionary time scale.

    Just like all the animals and plants are going to either change their ranges and habitats incredibly quickly, evolve incredibly quickly, or die out.

    The thing about MiaHM is that it’s a fantasy of clear choices. He ties it in to the American revolution several times – but the American revolution wasn’t that drastic. For instance, the courts all still used English Common Law, and trade was expected to go on as normal (except with lower taxes). There wasn’t a clear demarcation between old world and new for most people.

    In a real-world situation, you have all these chunks of the old society that are either building blocks or road blocks for the new one. So you’re not choosing bad means to achieve a pure end in the real world, you’re choosing bad means to achieve a slight change or a boomerang of drastic change and then counter-revolution. It’s a different kind of equation.


  7. Susan in NJ says:

    Just before I started Moon, I finished Collapse, a fortuitous pairing because otherwise I probably would have just stopped reading Heinlein’s book because it is just not that enthralling. The only character I find myself interested in is Mike. I read the last 10 pages of my library’s edition early on, so now 2/3′s of the way through the book, I’ll read the rest to see how we get to that end.

    As I read it, I wonder if I would have found it more interesting when I was younger and actively studying revolutions. Instead, I find myself picking out which bits come from which revolutionaries. Is there a model here as to how to get to radical change (kill all the pigs on the island even though they’re high status a la Collapse)? I don’t see it clearly. It seems that the imminent collapse of the moon’s ecology is not disclosed to the masses or even discussed beyond the top conspirators until Prof and Manny go to Earth. Very top down manipulation with a handy answer book (Mike). I agree with Greenpa there. The politics are colonial v. imperial, enslaved v. “owner,” and while there are closed system considerations, in the end you have technological miracles and the asteroid belt to look forward too, not to mention living another century or perhaps forever given that it’s Heinlein. I don’t feel the deep moral crisis in the human characters, but that’s the writing, I think.

    I do find myself thinking about what are the equivalents to Norse sheep and cows on Greenland or pigs on the Pacific island. The hurry up, it’s time.

    The family structures are interesting, when you discount the Heinlein woman as Mum or slotmachine stuff. His structures in Moon though are geared to fewer women and no concerns about child creation. It seems to me, line marriages are about preserving and growing wealth — the founding parents don’t split the family farm among their children because the parents perpetuate themselves. But it could be a vehicle for preserving the ecology of a particular property (if there is property after the revolution :-) since the corpus stays intact across generations.

    Enough rambling for now.

  8. Susan in NJ says:

    Rosa, you posted while I was writing and said some of what I meant to say much more eloquently.

  9. Rebecca says:

    You wrote “but I am asking why it is that our response, not just as a people, but as aware individuals to depletion is so comparativel tepid (me too), so focused on soft responses, why we feel so powerless in relationship to our collapse? Is that even a question worth asking?”
    It is definitely a question worth asking. I think it is partly that depletion and collapse is such a big thing that we feel overwhelmed. I think also that part of it is that our culture *trains* us to feel powerless in relation to things like this. We are supposed to leave such problems to be solved by some mysterious “them”, some expert “they” and not to tackle them ourselves.

    I also think Heinlein’s women were better in his juvenile books. I loved Hazel Stone in The Rolling Stones for instance, but when she reappeared in an adult book later she was pretty much a brainless nymph.

    Oh, and it may not have taken that many people to start the American Revolution but they had the popular support of the colonists behind them, which is why they succeeded. I hate to say it, but the only times I can think of in all of history when such a radical change as we have been discussing here has occured has been when the motivating force is some form of religion.

  10. Sharon says:

    Susan, I agree it is all top down – I wonder what people think of Heinlein’s basic assumption that it would have to be – that is, that any revolutionary cabal is essentially damned to manipulate the populace and drizzle out relevant information a bit at a time. When we read _The Gate to Women’s Country_ next month, we’ll run into precisely that same assumption – that ultimately, revolution depends on at least a temporary and, we hope benevolent, cabal of conspirators. There’s some real evidence for that historically – at least for its success. But, of course, also for its excess, for the fact that “benevolent” conspiracies turn less than benevolent quite quickly.

    Rosa, the thing is, I actually think the parallels may be closer than we think, if we actually had the nerve to see them. That is, much of the outer structure of America, for example (since I’m writing from here) could be left intact, or adapted for lower energy, lower growth life. But that, I think is for another, much longer post.


  11. Rosa says:

    Thanks, Susan, that’s very kind. It sounds like we have the same type of background in studying revolution.

    Sharon, I agree with you about the built environment to a certain extent (though I worry that, like other colonial states, the US is saddled with a development pattern heavy on the coasts because it was designed to facilitate resource export) but I think the cultural patterns are a much bigger hurdle. It’s pretty easy to trick people into a spasm of heroic action (look at our surge of military enlistments after 9/11/01) but much, much harder to get people to commit to a long term change in the way they live their lives.

    I do think the vanguard/cabal model is a dead end. Look at the French Revolution – they won, but they had to keep restaging the fight for republicanism, and in the end was it the right fight at all? They have ended up in almost exactly the same place as the rest of Western Europe – did they lead the way or just have a more-violent form of the same evolution all the other rich, industrializing, empires did?

    One of the interesting tricks in MiaHM is that the environment is portrayed as a kind of swift hand of justice – there isn’t much in the way of historical power structures, people are cut off from their families of origin, and there are harsh and impartial consequences for violating safety rules or social norms. That replaces the kind of engineered social change that a cabal would have to create in the here and now.

  12. dewey says:

    I reread the book Saturday for the first time in many years (since developing any environmental awareness, really) and was struck by Heinlein’s recognition of the unsustainability of a non-circular nutrient flow. I do not recall him ever addressing this theme in a book set on Earth or another planet – in those books, we are generally given the message that all we need is a free market and everyone will be prosperous and happy and live to be 150. Why did he not seem to realize that systematically dumping soil fertility into the ocean would be as disastrous, for land-based Earthlings, as sending it to another world? Would that have been too direct a challenge to real-world capitalism?

    On another topic, Gee Dubyah and his handlers have been enthused in the last few years about returning to the moon. I have always been certain that the main purpose would be to put mass drivers up there so that the entire world could be terrorized into submission if need be, with no pesky radiation produced to inconvenience US. In this novel, the unbeatable weapon is in the hands of the good guys, but that’s not generally how it works out in real life, is it?

  13. Sarah says:

    On urgency — I think there are some key differences between our situation and tMiaHM. Compared to Earth, or even the US (especially in terms of cultural unity), Luna is tiny. America as a whole has gotten that sense of urgency, but usually only in response to a clear, black-and-white seeming threat from an actual enemy. We don’t have that kind of threat here, and the situation is complex enough that it’s hard to find a simple hard-hitting rallying cry that’s actually a good idea. There are certainly some sweeping changes that are obvious, and right now we’re way too far on the “cautious and apathetic” side, but in terms of specific policy there’s a high risk of barelling too far down the wrong path in a sweep of patriotism. The fact that we do have examples of times when that kind of revolution works may be in some ways working against us. There are few cases where that little cabal of powerful revolutionaries doesn’t end up corrupt in the end, so plenty of intelligent people either don’t want to risk electing a tyrant, or don’t want to risk becoming one.

    Family structure — this is one of the few books where I’ve found Heinlein’s family structure at least theoretically noncreepy (the intergenerational problems aren’t necessary to the structure). A variation on a system like line marriages could be a very effective way to deal with simultaneously having fewer children yet stronger and more widespread family ties. For people not of a polygamous/polyamorous bent, it could even just be, say, three couples moving in together and establishing a family unit where they help raise all the kids as “aunts” and “uncles”.

  14. I think the metaphor of Heinlen’s moon colony is appropriate for Earth in both the model of limited resources/inevitable crash and the problem that most people cannot preceive of a collapse ahead of time or how fast it is approaching. People like to be happy simple and not consider anything bad.

    It does seem a little OFF how fast the characters blindly accept and internalize the doomsday scenerios the computer generates. While some of them did notice the trend of depletion there is no way people accept such news so willingly. Just look at the global warming deniers, people who still don’t believe cigarettes are bad, the entire staff the CNBC and FOX business who repeat the mantra every day ” We’ve seen the bottom now”. People are not rational and expect for gloomy groups like us ;) don’t want to hear the truth orwon’t accept it until it hits them over the head.

    I do think the question of ethics is an important one and despite all our good intentions if we really think we can save both the planet and it’s people we are being delusional. If we could have an environmental revolution today how long do you think it would be before we would before the protection of a river or habitat would come into conclict with the movement of a migration human population, or the desire to build a mine for rare earths so we could have many more solar panels? 5, maybe 6 minutes!!!

    There is no perfect solution to such complex problems and there will always be some ethical collateral damage it you try to make drastic changes on a purist agenda.

    I don’t think the line marriages or group marriages is either workable or useful in our situation. The the story rationalizes it as the solution for a women shortage but this is simply an example of Heinlen’s pro libertarian ideals coming through. Like most Libertarians he believes people are much better and rational than they really are and that they will some how come to the best workable solutions just because.

    While I can respect the libertarian ideal, just as I can respect the communist ideal people are not that rational or nice to make it happen. IN reality the vast majority of men would fight it out or do without before entering into these family systems. The wild west was short of women, resulting in mail order wives and lots of hookers. With little chance of women volunteering to go the moon, the enslavement of women into Joy Divisions is far more likely in my opinion.

    Of course if Earth really wanted higher birth rates on the moon to supply a work force they would bias the courts to make sure the number of women exiled increased, like the navy press gans or the prostitute sweeps of Paris they would find the needed bodies.

    Would these family systems work for us? I don’t thinks so

    First there is no reason to, no shortage of mates. Let’s see if the Chinese pick up this model due to their warped birth ratios.

    Second I see a much darker future for the elderly rather than some new family model that will be built to support them. As we begin our societal fall retirement will vanish, everyone will work until they are worn out(no ware housing of the old),
    intense medical intervention will decline and workplace accidents will increase with the loss of mechanization, this all leads to a lower number of elderly and a much shorter average life span.

    It might take several decades for the corrections to take place and this will not be a good time to be elderly as abuse, “accidents”, suicides will result from as the ratio of old to young creates great burdens on a failing society.

  15. Susan in NJ says:

    Gus Speth, a stalwart of mainstream environmentalism, in his most recent book, Bridge at the Edge of the World (2008), discusses the top down problems of the environmental movement which has worked primarily to make change within the system. He argues, as I recall, that the environmental movement needs to become bottom up, or rather local grassroots/neighborhood organizations that work together towards sustainability. And he advocates for revolutionary changes in how the legal fiction of corporations as a person, for instance revoking corporate charters — that would really shake things up but would require a political movement on par with revolutionary to institute, the equivalent of beheading the royalty.
    In Moon, you have the Lunar trading co. (or whatever it is called) as the only major corporate player, in real life, there is tremendous inertia built into the many large and global corporations.

  16. Rosa says:

    The funny thing is that those line marriages most resemble two different things; a corporation or LLC, where young people are brought in, given a stake so they will support the aims of the group as a whole, and then gradually work their way up the seniority ladder, and a traditional multi-generational family where young spouses (or adopted children or apprentices) are brought in to continue the line but must be subordinate to their elders for most of their lives.

    Neither one of those structures is very demogratic, and neither is good for quick change or revolutionary action. Manny instigates a minor palace coup inside his own family at the same time as the bigger coup outside – so he’s undermining the norms of Loonie society, such as they are, in order to save it.

  17. Student says:

    There is another sci-fi novel about a (one-man) revolution that’s quite interesting. It’s The Wasp by Eric Frank Russell; read reviews at Amazon. This is low-tech – no self aware computer to plan the revolution. The analogy is of a wasp buzzing around a driver’s head in a vehicle, and how the outcome (crash) can be much greater than the stimulus.

    As far as TMiaHM and its moral compromises, the fact that it uses false-flag attacks on its populace reminds us of Pearl Harbor and the Gulf of Tonkin. Deliberately ignoring intelligence on the first got us into WWII – and the second into Vietnam. (Granted, still debate about both.) Morally and ethically, two different wars, but a similar strategy. Many believe the same of 9/11.

    Our revolution isn’t to justify war, however – it’s to stop it, along with the rape and pillage of Mother Earth. But if anyone thinks our goal will be any less divisive and fierce, they have only to look at what the elites will have to relinquish to bring about peace, the repair of the environment and the sharing of resources with the poor of the earth.

    At what point do we draw the line? Is violence ever justified? – When do the ends justify the means? Timeless questions…hard questions. I fear we’ll not get out of our current predicament without violence, hardship, and many deaths. Bring on the wasps…

  18. Rosa says:

    Student, before you can say if any action is justifiable, you have to have some idea of whether or not it will *work*.

    Will violence stop climate change? If so, violence *by* whom, against whom? Can violence keep shared subsistence resources out of the hands of global capitalism? Maybe, in some situations – not for FARC, apparently, but probably for the Zapatistas. Can violence from within dismantle the global system that endangers our shared subsistence? No, probably not – the system we have seems to thrive on internal violence, which takes a huge toll on small communities and enriches oligarchs.

    tMiaHM is a kind of thought-experiment where members of mainstream society get sent away from it, so they can turn around and act from outside of it. We don’t have that luxury – AND we don’t have any outside to banish dissenters to. We are all in the same lifeboat.

  19. Hummingbird says:

    I hadn’t read the Heinlein in 40 years :) , But looking at this “revolution” in light of today’s situation, I see that it wasn’t a revolution at all. A couple of guys and a smart computer planned and executed the whole thing–maybe like 9/11 or the Iraq war. I just don’t see where the masses rushing out with clubs and knives to meet the invaders comes from.

    Making any such drastic change in the mass mindset(s) today seems impossible. The combination of Gov’t/corp control of the media (American Idol/ Shop til you drop)and the result of a clever campaign to divide and set many segments of society against each other (eg. Clinton/Obama) makes any coming together to make meaningful change nearly impossible. Not to mention that women are still reduced to sex objects and helpmeets a la Heinlein. (Witness yesterday’s TOD discussion of “what women want” –tall, handsome, rich men who will take care of them…etc. etc.)

  20. Student says:

    Rosa, I’m not proposing that we use violence to force change on the world – although when violence is used in self defense, it can be justifiable. It opens another can of worms, though, because self defense is usually defined as defense against an imminent threat. That’s the issue, isn’t it? How imminent is climate change, Peak Oil, etc? A small percentage of us know it is here now, but it’s like the story of simmering frogs vs dropping them in the boiling pot…

    I come from a law enforcement background, and I can tell you the police are not prepared for or even capable of handing the civil unrest that will come when people can’t feed their children. People will justify their actions based on necessity and fear – not results. As will the police.

  21. Rosa says:

    But that begs the question – if people resort to violence to feed their children, will it help? Will it keep the children fed? It’s not like there are big secret stores of grain the Pharoah is only using for his own household, or vast tracts of forest that only the King can hunt in.

    I think that is the question that gets overlooked when we talk abstractly about violence, or even specifically in the “I have a shotgun to protect my root cellar” kind of discussions that seem to come up in peak oil discussions. If it doesn’t accomplish your ends, then there’s no chance it’s justifiable.

  22. Sharon says:

    Rosa’s right, that is the question – but I’m not sure that we can ever know the answer. Violence is a nasty tool, but it is a tool – you make the best choices you can, and, I hope use violence as sparingly as possible. But while the question remains, ultimately, justification doesn’t rest, IMHO, in the final result, if the choice was made as wisely as possible in a contingent situation. That is, we never know whether our choices are going to be born out, violent or non-violent. We are stuck with human contingency and human limits to our knowledge. Instead, all we can know is that we did the very best we can (and that is no easy thing either) and judged as wisely as we were able to.

    I’m no pacifist – I think sometimes violence does fix things that can’t be fixed any other way – and sometimes you find yourself in a situation that requites it, by the point you get to have an impact. For example, I think that by the time we hit the 1850s, there was simply no way that slavery could have been ended, except a horrifying and bloody war. It is possible that we could have had a less bloody one, or a shorter one, but the war was unavoidable, and, IMHO, the resolution was worth the price paid on both sides, to get us out of a situation that was by then insoluble. It would have been much better had the problem been resolved earlier, when it was still soluble in other ways, say back when the country was being founded. But I’m not sure that was ever really possible either, if the US was to be a single country – the latter, I think is debatable.

    Now let me be utterly clear here – I am not advocating violent revolution. But I also don’t think a revolution, violent or non-violent is impossible, or that it might not accomplish many (certainly not all) of the things that we need. I am not saying that it would succeed, either. But I think it is fascinating that most of us don’t even seriously consider it, even though, for us Americans, it is written into our founding documents that we are to at least seriously consider taking arms against our government when it becomes tyrannical. I keep wondering how much more tyrannical it might be before someone at least mentions it ;-) .


  23. Greenpa says:

    We may want to rephrase “the question” – from “is violence ever justified” to “is violence ever avoidable?”

    Now that’s a lot to swallow. But I want you to think about it; very hard. What is being done to the poor of the world right now definitely qualifies as violence in my book; starvation via price hikes, right along with outright rape and genocide- in the name of controlling oil fields.

    I think the case can definitely be made that violence will always play a strong role in change and the question is not if, or is it justified- but do the good guys have the stomach to proceed with it?

    This is one of the places where Heinlein has something unusual to say here- I’m currently very fond of his rule where obnoxious harmful people are just put out the airlock. Society cannot afford the danger. I know several folks I’d put right out the airlock.

    The problem is; the bad guys will always resort to violence first- often dealing a crippling blow. Should the good guys be forever forbidden to strike first, and save lives?

    Believe me- I know that’s not an easy one; in fact it’s a question we rarely, or never, bring up. But on the Moon- the urgencies are so immediate- the argument can be made, and sticks. Is our situation less urgent?

  24. Rosa says:

    Sharon, you’re right about the Civil War, and Greenpa’s right about starvation being a form of violence (much more violent, I might add, than the property destruction that gets pointed to as “violence” when this discussion usually comes up.)

    But violence on the colony end, where people are trying to cut the supply lines that are draining away their labor and water and land, is a lot different than violence in the center of the empire, where if we cut the supply lines they…what, drain oil out onto the shoreline, heap rotting tomatos along the side of the road? Let barges full of grain fall from the sky but refuse to eat the grain?

    I’ve been accused of American Exceptionalism for this, but I really do think that for first-world people, there is no winning (where winning means making a safer, more egalitarian world) through violence. Our violence is one of the pillars of the system.

  25. Texicali says:

    While we tend to believe in the wide availability of food, in the future perhaps there will be King’s Forests and such. At such time the use of violence to feed ones children will be guided by the odds, not the certainty of food, just as Manny joined the revolution because he had better than 10 to 1 odds. When one is priced out of the market is that any different than being locked out? I doubt many people will see their hunger as a just action that exemplifies the creative destruction of the free market. On the other hand, at tough points in history some people have been resigned to starvation because the odds are so bad. Look at the countries where people starve while the elites feast. What they lack is organization and weapons; and the better odds that come with them.

    Greenpa points out that the nature of conflict resolution was vastly different on the moon. I believe that the nature of punishment will also change here. There will be no money for locking up petty thieves for the rest of their lives (See Cali’s ridiculous three strikes law), nor tolerance for violence. As a result you will have a much more primitive, or enlightened, justice system. The offender will be reconciled to the community, banished, or killed. The quality of the system will depend on the quality of those who enforce it. Which historically can be quite dismal, particularly during times of upheaval.

    I don’t believe that there will be a revolution, or that launching one is feasible. This is particularly true in America. One launches a revolution against oppression, or to makes ones life better in a tangible way. While I am inclined to believe that it is true, I don’t think I could convince a large number of people that growing your own food and living on 10 percent of your current energy usage is worth fighting for (fighting in a guns and knives sort of way). No, such change will come when all other options are exhausted, or nearly so. I believe that what we are doing now is developing useful skills which will become assets as they will provide sustenance for ourselves and our families, and provide a recognizable skill in a future economy. Lucifer’s Hammer touches much more strongly on the need to have a useful occupation.

    I believe the fate of the elders will vary widely based on the family that surrounds them. I know some folks in their seventies that would be much more useful to a community than some 20 year olds. Shoot, some of the seventy year olds even have stronger backs. General life expectancy will decline if medication becomes less available. There are just too many infectious and chronic diseases for it to be any other way. On the other hand the last several years of my grandmother’s life looked to be pretty miserable, so I don’t know that simply pushing up the life expectancy is the goal it is made out to be.

  26. It all comes down to a thin line that once crossed cannot be restored. If we say that some form of violence is ok to forward a green revolution then we can quickly move to Derrick Jensen’s rational that in order to save a greater long term carrying capacity of our planet, and more species, we must tip the balance and hurry societies collapse along.

    While not quite at Jensens mind set I do find it naive that most of the green movement dismisses violence out of hand when it has proven to be one of the best tools of the world destroyers. The Green Party professes Pacifism and yet anything worth saving is worth fighting for in my mind.

    If I ever won one of those 100 million dollar Lotto prices I’d be very tempted to approach the goverments involved and if allowed hire a private army to protect the Gorillas as an example. Sometimes I wonder how can we defend our possition not to not use violence to protect the defenceless.

    Some day instead of seeing Sea Shepard harrass Japanese whalers we might just see ELF attack them. Would you really feel that bad about it?

    I do not think a revolution as portrayed will happen for us, we will be oppressed until the system breaks, we’d probably suffer an extended period of chaos and then something new would arise. Over throwing our current system without totaly destroying it will would defeat the purpose and things would quickly correct to the mean. A few new leaders and a few new rules is no longer enough, the system itself is poison.

  27. Brad K. says:

    Sharon, I like the computer interaction, the anomalous ascent into cognizance of the computer, and the sacrifice of self. Whether this is a symbol of the fragility of the impulse to revolution, or the fleeting nature of following dreams, I am not sure. Maybe both, maybe more. We do know that Manuel finds solace in his work, discovers his world crashing, and is drawn into taking responsibility for himself and his community. And it costs him that special delight that he used to find in his work.

    I think one of the biggest moral challenges for most people will be facing security issues. Since we agree that locally scarce resources will trigger the collapse, then it follows that the best chances for local survival will be to protect local assets of food, energy, social structure, and people with craft and engineering skills. Facing the issue of protecting assets with deadly force will be a serious issue. Today the assumption is that ‘things’ are not worth a human life. But that presumes that loss of the asset doesn’t directly translate to loss of human lives. Theft or destruction of barely adequate shelter or food would fit that category. Similar issues in the old West lead to hanging sentences for cattle rustling and horse thieving. We also assume today that courts, peace officers, and lawyers will settle criminal and tort issues. What happens when we can no longer count on equal protection, or adequate protection?

    And I suspect your pressure for family size will be just the opposite. It appears that increased standards of living – showier housing, modern medicine, modern diets, modern standards of exercise at work – reduce birth rates and family size. As the survivors return to more labor-intensive efforts, and lose some of the advantages of modern medicine, families will surely tend to more children. There will be more time for children as the parents spend more time working near the home, and as more work comes available for any hands. Raise a couple more sons, and in 12 years you can start clearing that back 10 acres..

    And, like Heinlein’s story, there will be more pressure to marry at an age closer to puberty. The coming culture will have little use to allow teenagers to frolic away their growing years, and little patience for experimentation with sex and hormones and casual partners. After all, if you marry the first person you sleep with, the incidence of venereal disease and unwed mothers drop dramatically. Assuming everyone stays true to their partner.

    Heinlein’s ‘line marriage’ seems weird. But I imagine a return to extended families sharing a work enterprise and home will re-emerge. It just makes sense to pool adult skills for raising kids, for communal workings, and for transmitting knowledge from one generation to the next.

    I don’t know about the specific chronology, but I liked what Heinlein wrote up until Stranger in a Strange Land. That was too strange for me, and I haven’t been interested in anything he wrote since then.

  28. Hummingbird says:

    Yes, when people’s children are hungry, they will be desperate. However without a charismatic leader arising to channel their desperation, (Sharon?) I am afraid they will turn against one another since we have been divided into factions (Democrat/Republican, black/white/hispanic, city/rural, religious/non-religious.)

    A successful revolution would require seizing control of the media from those who use it to divide, misinform and distract us.
    I believe this is the reason Americans are so apathetic in the face of creeping impoverishment, disempowerment and fascism.

    Heinlein’s revolution succeeded BECAUSE he controlled, in Mike, the flow of information.

    And still, in the end, while it succeeded in its immediate goals, the hopes and ideals were lost along the way. Power seems to inevitably corrupt, doesn’t it?

    I don’t have any answers. People seem to have been willingly distracted until it is too late to avert the crisis. I hope as they awaken in the near future, somehow their will can be channeled toward actual solutions and not a scapegoating, survival of the fittest orgy.

    Americns gave been convinced of their exceptionalism since school days, so a reading of Howard Zinns “People’s History of the US” would cure that if they believed it.

  29. Sharon says:

    GAH!!! Hummingbird, did you have a question for me – because if that (Sharon?) had anything to do with whether I’m a charismatic leader – HELL NO!!!!

    Seriously, I’m still looking for a charismatic leader for me to write speaches for ;-) .


  30. Rebecca says:

    Rosa wrote “But that begs the question – if people resort to violence to feed their children, will it help? Will it keep the children fed?”
    I don’t think it really matters, Rosa. When people get hungry they will make the only choice they can. That’s what happened in Haiti a few months ago -there almost certainly wasn’t enough food on the island for the government to give them even if it had wanted to, but they still rioted. They faced the police, the guns, and stormed the Presidential palace. And they DID succeed in bringing down the prime minister.

    Greenpa and Sharon, I agree. Unlike most of my friends I’m no pacifist. But then, I grew up hard and fast on the wrong side of the tracks -so I learned early on that there is a place for violence.

    The problem with most revolutions is that they just replace one set of rulers with another. Very seldom does the underlying system change. That’s what we need to change here -the system itself as well as who rules it. The system is poisonous as well as nonsustainabe. I sometimes think that the only way to change it is to help bring it down and be ready to replace it when the collapse finally does come.

  31. Hummingbird says:


    I have never heard you speak, so I don’t know if you’re a charismatic leader or not. I picked you as an example because you focus on practical positive responses to crisis, are unafraid to tackle anything, and seem able to inspire people to follow your lead on positive, seemingly difficult challenges (eg: the riot for austerity, weekly list of preparations, food storage classes.)

    I am afraid Derek Jensen would scare people, tho times may yet make him seem reasonable.

    So, all I am suggesting is that you look around for a charismatic leader you can write speeches for, and in the meantime continue to be the charismatic leader you are while calling it something else.

  32. Student says:

    Hummingbird is right – a successful revolution would require seizing control of the media – (such as in V for Vendetta when “V” appeared on national television). That probably can’t happen in real life, so it becomes obvious that the internet is the only medium that can be utilized in any effective way.

    The charismatic leader will hopefully arise, but discernment here is essential. Power and charisma are unattached to good or evil; they serve both. We need someone like Sharon – someone who doesn’t want the power…

  33. Texicali says:

    Depending on the extent of the crisis we are describing here the leader (or leaders) will be of a local variety. World leadership from someone like the head of the UN is very unlikely, as national politics and self-interest will quickly overrule any direction such a person would provide. National leadership from the president could potentially happen. I am a big fan of Obama, so I have to at least pretend in my mind that it will make a difference. However, there is an institutional bias against the bearer of bad news. Such a person is considered to be a crank, loony, Malthusian (who happened to have the right idea, just did not forsee all of the ways that humans could escape their limits for a period of time), etc. This is where the flow of information is important. Free speech is generally a good thing, but in marshaling action by the majority of the populace it is lousy.

    Take global warming. The majority believe that it is happening, but unless something like peak oil takes down the system nothing will happen to really address it. Yes, there will be pledges of 10 percent by 2010, and 20 by 2020. But Hansen is talking about huge cuts needing to happen in the next couple of years. A controlled media could contribute to such an action, but an uncontrolled media trots out the various characters that represent astro-turf groups funded by industries or the technological optimists; both of which focus on the single message “you don’t need to change, we will solve it for you.” Which is a lie, even if they believe it. As a result the vast majority of people will be so slow in reacting that a real crisis will be at hand before they are in any sense prepared. In a perfect world/situation a leader/machine would control the flow of information to provide truth (or at least the information that results in positive action). However, I can’t think of an example of such a situation turning out well in the long run. So, long live free speech! We will continue to foment the revolution of the individual mind.

  34. Rosa says:

    Rebecca, that’s my point exactly – you can make small political changes with violence, but you can’t change the underlying system. Even Haiti’s original revolution didn’t change the plantation system, or the underlying system of exploitive trade that the plantations serviced. It just put different people in charge of it.

    We need a whole new system. Some people think you can do that by destroying the existing system and starting from the ground up, but even if that’s true, is there time?

  35. Rosa says:

    p.s. this discussion really makes me think that we should discuss Antarctica – it’s plot is like the Pilgrim’s Progress of green activist theory.

  36. Jennie says:

    I think the leaders will definitely have to be of the local variety. We are not going to solve this problem with a large and in charge leader of a national persuasion. There are too many variables and too many distractions at that level. Local solutions work better, local leaders will too. Just as the solutions for Luna won’t work for us on Earth, the solutions for Colorado won’t work for New York.
    Local leaders, and local solutions to the problem I think will result in less violence. A series of local community gardens implemented in the next couple of years will do more to change this country than the entire Congress can in the same amount of time.

    The question Sharon put forward, “Why are we so blase about this?” is one I have asked myself numerous times over the past couple of years. Mannie’s perspective of odds helped me see it a little better though. I think most people run the odds in their heads and figure it isn’t even worth fighting. I think the problems are just so entrenched and so huge that people don’t know where to start, so most of them just don’t. We aren’t under military threat by a recognizable entity. If anything, we are the ones threatening others with military force. “If you don’t take our money and give us oil in exchange we’re going to bomb you.” :-D We paid good money to get in this situation.

    We can’t revolt against the oil rich nations, they are halfway across the world. We can’t revolt against ourselves for buying into the suburbia myth.

    So, while the limitations described in tMiaHM and the consequences thereof are relevant, the methods used are not so. I think we’ll get more results, faster, if we work on local levels to find and enact sustainable solutions.

  37. greentangle says:

    I didn’t get into the book, but I’m loving this great conversation about revolution, modern day apathy, religious/spiritual motivation, Jensen (who I’m pretty much in complete agreement with), etc. It was interesting that you brought up slavery, Sharon, and now the subject of the charismatic leader has come up. A few years ago I wrote a column after reading a book about John Brown and I touched on some of these issues of apathy and violence. I plugged the column in as my website link if anyone’s interested in reading it. Very glad you started this.

  38. Rosa says:

    Greentangle, that’s a good post, and I liked that the FBI came up in the comments – we talk a lot about apathy, and the media, and all that stuff…I was questioned by a homicide detective for marching in a protest (well, theoretically for scaring a police horse, but still – homicide?).

    I have known several people who had FBI knocking on their doors, skulking around asking about them.

    We’ve all heard the stories about people mysteriously turning up on TSA lists and anyone can find information about the way police & FBI infiltrate groups (here, by arresting random punk kids and stealing their clothes for undercover officers to wear, among other tactics).

    It has a definite chilling effect on doing anything at all – if I’m going to have an FBI file for peaceful protest, if they send people to prison for trespassing at the School of the Americas, and if you know there’s a large chance that anyone you talk to at an activist event is an undercover officer, and a larger chance that the whole thing is being filmed and audiotaped — that is definitely a brake on anything you might try to do that’s larger or more political than planting a garden.

  39. In the short term maybe it’s a brake… but long term I think that the FBI cracking down on the populace is what will help incite people to action.
    Right now there is very little action in the populace because we have bread and circuses (okay, maybe it’s McDonalds and reality TV… same idea) but as things get worse, people are more willing to take risks. Eventually, if you get in trouble for reasonable action it makes you more willing to undertake unreasonable action.

  40. Nice article, are you seling links from your website? I’m interested…

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