I’m re-reading Edward Abbey’s novel Good News. Like its famous predecessor, The Monkey Wrench Gang, it’s best seen as satire. Good News gives us a dystopian future in which the techno-industrial system has failed and the rugged individualists of the American West have emerged to “take back the land.” Naturally the last vestiges of the old order cling to power and attempt to rebuild what has been lost. The conflict in the story is between a despotic army commander and his soldiers and the rag-tag band of real Americans who stand up to his tyranny. I like this book and his earlier novel, Fire on the Mountain, much better than The Monkey Wrench Gang, which I found tiresome. It’s a romp, and fun for a while, but too long. And the eco-warriors are a bit too cute. Good News is only about 200 pages and there’s less time to spend on Abbey’s rants as the plot demands require his attention. It has the brisk feel of an action novel. Fire on the Mountain, similarly, sticks mostly to the story-telling business and lets the tragedy speak for itself.
Fire on the Mountain, if we have to classify it, is a Western. Good News is science fiction. Although both are fine novels neither match the power and beauty of his best work, the non-fiction collection Desert Solitaire. Abbey was a passionate advocate of wild places and he was particularly devoted to the Southwest deserts. He has few peers in conveying the unique appeal of those landscapes. He makes a convincing case for the need to conserve and respect untrammeled Nature and argues that America’s insatiable thirst for “development” is ultimately toxic to society.
John Wesley Powell thought that the West could not support a large population. He cautioned against expanding out past the 100th meridian. That line runs from North Dakota to Texas. It’s mostly arid country and there’s not enough rain or snow to support agriculture. He did not foresee, however, the spectacular engineering we take for granted here in California that waters the state and makes life possible. Aqueducts, canals, dams, reservoirs, pipelines, and pumping stations corral the high mountain water and deliver it to farms, ranches, towns, suburbs, and cities. Our rivers are siphoned and re-apportioned to feed our growing desert oases. This, of course, comes at a great cost to our wild places and the creatures that inhabit them. And, as we have seen, there is never enough to go around, which was Powell’s basic argument.
We live in this constant dynamic, insisting on economic growth and opportunity but also demanding preservation of natural places. Mostly we try political solutions which seem to work best when everyone (the “stakeholders”) are equally pissed off. Abbey had no use for politics, he thought the only hope came from individual moral courage. He was a romantic, really, and the inexorable march of capitalism and technology fired his outrage. Good News is loaded with fury and anger at the despoiling of the wilderness. Abbey saw the loss of individuality and the decline of personal autonomy as natural consequences of both population growth and industrialization. He mocks our consumer society throughout the book mostly by describing empty storefronts and now-meaningless signs and billboards.
It seems we Americans love The Apocalypse. Whether we are evangelical Christians praying for the Last Judgement or “preppers” stocking up on food and ammo in case of social chaos, we see our world teetering on the brink. Environmentalists rail about the loss of this, that, and the other, and warn us about our impending doom. Economists terrify us with scenarios about the collapse of the banks and stock exchanges. Our favorite show is The Walking Dead in which we get to live out our fantasies of survival and get to blow away, with no compunction, the threats to our existence. Seemingly rational people are convinced that if a particular person is elected President life will be so bad they will have to move to another country. We like to believe the shit will hit the fan at any moment and we like to point our fingers at those we believe are responsible.
I find this to be a hard way to live. Seeing problems is one thing. After all you can’t find solutions if you can’t define the problem. But this constant state of terror we are all supposed to be in just creates more and more resentment and anger. Since most of us in the States have food, water, shelter, and relative peace and safety, these emotions don’t bring us together. They just divide us into hostile camps. Disaster has a way of forcing people to put aside their differences and work together for the common good. But since we are merely on the brink of disaster, that is we can still plug in our iPhones and drive our automobiles, we have no need to link arms and co-operate.
I think if we don’t practice that we won’t know how to do it when we need to. All the people preaching The Imminent Collapse Of The World As We Know It are right. There are many, many threats to our way of life. Civilization is like a candle flame, it can be snuffed out much easier than it can be re-lit. I think it’s time for all of us to remember that we are in this together. That the things that bring us together are greater than the things that separate us. If we spent more time on what we have in common, and less time on what divides us, we might extend and enrich our civilization.
Good News isn’t exactly a happy book, despite the title. Abbey seems to be saying that the breakdown of the Old Order would be “good news” for those interested in building a New World. Maybe that’s true. I’d like to think that we can get there without all the bloodshed (that’s implied in the book, it takes place after the collapse).
What do you think?