In my mind there are many doorways. Most of them are closed up tight. Behind them is a panoply of — well, who knows what, really, but most of what’s there are various collections of Bad Thoughts. In there are Worries and their big brothers, Fears, and their unruly cousins, Anxieties. I compartmentalize. I give them their rooms and trap them inside.
Lately, the locks have been breaking and the doors have been opening. (It’s like that scene in Ghostbusters, where the — ahem — villainous EPA man demands the containment unit be purged of ghosts. They give in to his demands. And it’s bad.)
Behind these doors are apocalypses big and small, and these variable armageddons play out in the frame of each doorway and so now I’m tasked with simply trying not to look. It’s as if I’m wandering through a museum inside my own head, and some displays and exhibits are simply too abhorrent to view. So I walk past, my eyes closed, mumbling something about, “Oh, what’s over here?” And I find a better, nicer thing to look at.
Obviously, as of late the doors that have been opening contain a variety of Worries, Fears and Anxieties over what’s to come under our unpresidented president. The signs are not ideal. Historians have seen a lot of this before. We don’t know if we’ll get a Berlusconi or a Hitler. We don’t know if he’s just gathering a team of kleptocrats who will (as is his way) run up a tab and stick us all with the bill. We don’t know if he’s really going to try to put up a wall, or register Muslims, or somehow try to put journalists in jail. We don’t know if the alt-right — who are actual Nazis, by the way — will continue to have a voice, or worse, actual power. We don’t know if Russia owned one election or if they own our coming president. Did they hack us just to make us doubt our own democracy? Or do they have a hand firmly up his ass, puppeting him around even still? We don’t know what will happen with climate change — will private enterprise pick up the slack and continue that way because the tide has turned, or will this administration willfully deny the tides, since denying facts and science and reality in total seems part of the official program?
Will there be figures of conscience to lead us out of this madness?
Will there be those we can trust to stand by us and do right even when it is difficult?
Will this be a four-year-blip of woeful ineptitude, or a years-long parade into war, or a new depression, or maybe worst of all, a totally functional autocratic regime where democracy is a thing we talk about in the past tense?
Will there be camps? A white nuclear flash? Boiling oceans? Zombies? Angels?
And in that gap, in that empty doorway, any fear can flourish.
Fear, of course, has its evolutionary value. It can mobilize us to protective action.
Fear, though, can also hamstring us. Especially when we’re caught without a way to mobilize.
In this way, fear paralyzes. And so does pessimism. Over time, the Bad Thoughts get out of their cages and they start to weigh us down. It’s important to deal with that. It’s important to find optimism. It’s important to have hope.
Which sounds incredibly twee, of course. Hope is so simple an idea it’s almost glib, a throwaway luxury. It’s something a politician can say to get votes, it’s something you’ll hear in Rogue One to earn an uncomplicated thrill, it’s punchy shorthand without nuance, without teeth. And yet, it’s also the thing that literally saves us time and time again.
Without hope, I don’t know who we are or what we become.
I wrote a book called Invasive*, and in that book is a protagonist, Hannah Stander. Hannah works for the FBI as a consultant, a futurist who helps them see the unexpected threats waiting down the road. She’s the daughter of doomsday preppers, and so is an anxiety-driven character uniquely poised between the Scylla and Charybdis that is crushing pessimism and sheer, bloody-minded optimism. She knows that every advance we make, every step we take, has the chance to go very very right, or very very wrong. We can split the atom to power the world, or split it in half. Even a single knife can be used to whittle a branch or cut a piece of fruit — or it can be used to gut your neighbor and steal his fruit. We are constantly making choices based on angels and devils. We are forever walking the line between evolution and ruination.
In the end, I needed Hannah to have hope.
Every time she’s beaten down, I need her to get back up again.
I needed her to have a way forward. A reason to move. A reason to survive.
One of the things I gave her — one of the tools — was the Dust Bowl.
That is to say, I gave her the Dust Bowl from the 1930s here in America. I studied the Dust Bowl effect for another novel of mine — the cornpunk YA novel, Under the Empyrean Sky — and certainly it’s something you’ll see if you poke your nose through a little Steinbeck.
If you’re not overly familiar, I’ll give the broad strokes: the Dust Bowl was the result of over-eager agricultural exploitation in the middle of our country (and Canada). Over 150,000 square miles of land were overworked with unsophisticated farming techniques. Drought struck. The dirt became dry, and stayed dry. Then it became dust. And that dust got swept up in massive “black blizzards,” some of which even reached the East Coast. The entire middle of our country effectively died. On one Sunday in 1935, over 20 of those black blizzards raged. People couldn’t see a handful of feet in front of them. The very air choked them.
You ever see pictures from the Dust Bowl?
Go ahead, Google it.
You’ll see walls of dust.
You’ll see tractors buried in it.
You’ll see filthy people with masks on.
It looks like a dead world. It looks like the goddamn Apocalypse.
And some people thought it was. It helped worsen the Great Depression. It sent actual plagues of insects and rabbits into towns looking for food. Great black dust-storms raged in the skies.
It was the fucking End Times.
Except, it wasn’t, was it?
The Dust Bowl ended — not necessarily naturally, not on its own, but with new leadership (FDR and his New Deal for America, taking us out of Hoovertown) and agencies like the FSA and the Soil Conservation Service and the Forestry Service, we were able to tackle the core of the problem. Farmers were retrained in new agricultural techniques to stop erosion. Trees were planted as windbreaks — sorry, 200 million trees, just in case you want a number in which to find some proper awe. New grasses were planted to anchor the earth. It took time. There was a bit of a bounceback in the 40s, but another drought in the 50s made some fresh hell. But by the 1970s, the area was transformed. The middle of the country was not dead. It was thriving.
And that’s what I gave to Hannah.
I gave her the Dust Bowl — not as a memory, for she was too young for that — but as a point of historical relation. Something she could look to and, strangely enough, find some optimism. That optimism is guarded and cautious and grounded with iron spikes of reality, because of course the Dust Bowl wasn’t some random event. It was us. We did it. We made it, caused it, worsened it. Just as we (and Hoover) helped worsen the Great Depression. And of course, it’s not like that time was easy for anybody. People lost their livelihoods and others lost their lives. Disasters are like that. They’re not good. Nobody wins.
But it is a sign that we can survive.
And we can learn.
The thing we think is the End of the World isn’t that, after all. It’s the end of something — or at least, a troublesome pause. But the Apocalypses we expect and predict are rarely those. They are transformative. They are terrible. But they rarely end everything. They often form new beginnings, terrible and transformative as they are. The Dust Bowl came, caused in part by us, and it took time, but with industriousness and indomitable will — and smart leadership! — we found our way out of the black blizzard. We stumbled free of the dual apocalypses of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. With FDR, we leveled up to something better, something greater.
That’s the optimism I’m clinging to. It’s not the kind of optimism that just waves it off and says enh everything will be fine, because it won’t. History is clear on that point: it’s never going to just be fine. History is full of tumble and tumult. But history is also full of our response to tumble and tumult, and the long game is one where we persevere.
One where we become better than we were before.
This, I think, is that moment for us.
Things won’t be fine.
Things might get really, really bad.
But we can survive them. And we have a chance to come out better than we were before.
That is the key.
At least, it’s the key with which I close and lock those doors once more. It’s the way I keep the Worries, the Fears, the Anxieties, at bay. The key is hope. The key is always hope.