Death of Grass

What if society collapsed tomorrow?

Photo by Michelle McCarron

In John Christopher's apocalyptic novel The Death of Grass, an agricultural virus wipes out the world's grain. The loss of wheat, rice and barley sets off a chain reaction. Livestock die, mass starvation ensues and civilization collapses. Like most novels in the dystopian genre, Christopher's story follows a tribe of humans as they struggle to survive.

The central conceit of the novel is that the protagonist's brother owns a farm in an easily defensible valley. The farm is a metaphor for eden: an ecological utopia with a surplus of fertile land and a bumper crop of potatoes ready for harvest. Unfortunately, civilization collapses more swiftly than anyone expects and the protagonist and his family must fight their way several hundred miles to get back to the farm. Along the way, others join their party including a gunsmith whose sniper rifle becomes the tribe's main tool of survival.

As the novel progresses, the murderous acts they commit steadily increase. They kill for food, for revenge and, finally, for control of the farm. And in the end, an explicitly patriarchal despotism develops. Tyranny conquers utopia.

The reason to read The Death of Grass today is that invites us to ponder what would happen if society collapsed tomorrow. The answer Christopher offers is that we would fall back upon the same individualist, survival mentality that ushered in collapse. He argues that we would repeat the mistakes of the past, brutally installing a dictatorship and ruthlessly killing others to save ourselves. Christopher does not pretend that goodwill and solidarity will exist the day after catastrophe unless they existed the day before.

The moral of The Death of Grass is that tyranny is the necessary result of ecological catastrophe if collapse comes before a spiritual and moral revolution. This is a message that we ought to take to heart because, like in the novel, the warning signs of environmental collapse haunt us. Although we try to repress our awareness of the looming zero point, the death rattle of nature is growing louder.

In light of the death of nature, I believe that we have only three options.

The first option is to do nothing: ignore the warning signs and continue on the path of reckless consumerism. Under this model, we simply keep living our lives, building our careers and believing that everything will be fine. We place our faith in the corporations and the American way of life.

The second option is largely the same as the first but it appeals to liberal-minded environmentalists. This is the so-called "green capitalism" option whereby we keep consuming but we make ourselves feel better by purchasing "green" products. Ultimately, this path only appeals to the very rich who can afford to shop organic, buy hybrids, use bamboo flooring and follow the latest corporate endorsed trends.

In the end, these two options are basically the same. They refuse to accept the need for a dramatic reduction in First World standards of living. As such, they are not options at all because they merely ensure the extinction of nature. These two options guarantee that when the collapse happens it will bring an ecological dictatorship. Both "green capitalism" and consumerism, in their refusal to endorse a spiritual turn-around, lay the foundations for eco-tyranny.

The third option is to immediately take the threat of ecological collapse seriously and to re-organize society around confronting that threat. This requires a fundamental change in the goals of society: an end to economic development, to the acquisition of things, to the desecration of the earth. And it requires an essential shift in the nature of humanity: a moral and spiritual uprising against the soul poisoning of advertising. This option is the only viable alternative to eco-tyranny. It asks the most of us, but it is also the only way to prevent an authoritarian post-apocalyptic society.

Some believe that averting ecological catastrophe may no longer be possible. Regardless of whether this is true–after all, how could we know?–the best strategy may be to assume that the tipping point has already occurred and that preventative measures are no longer sufficient.

Instead, what is needed now is a frank discussion about what will happen the day after. If all we can imagine is that it will be a terrible dictatorship of violence, then we must immediately begin the process of initiating a spiritual revolution, an inner-insurrection that lays the foundation for an egalitarian post-consumerist society.

Micah White is a contributing editor at Adbusters and an independent activist. He lives in Berkeley and is writing a book about the future of activism. or micah (at)