WASHINGTON—International meetings on the economy opened here Monday with tones of gloom and distress over higher oil prices and the threat of world depression.
H. Johannes Witteveen, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, predicted continuing recession and inflation around the world, along with unprecedented financial strains.
World Bank President Robert S. McNamara forecast mass starvation in the world’s poorest countries, containing populations totaling one billion, unless industrial and oil exporting nations alike sharply step up their aid—a move few of these countries seem likely to make.
Los Angeles Times
Tuesday, October 1, 1974
* * *
We sit on the lip of a precipice, daring the force of gravity to pull us into the pit. The bottom is unfathomable because we’ve climbed so high we’ve lost sight of it. It is nothing so trivial as a recession; even a depression similar to the one in the 1930s would pale by comparison. What we are facing as we stare down into the abyss is nothing less than the total destruction of our present civilization—and most of us, through a fear of heights, have shut our eyes….
If you climb only a little way up a hillside and slip, you probably won’t be hurt too much. Falls from greater heights can be fatal. We have climbed so high on the hillside of Progress that a fall will shatter us like a glass dropped from Mt. Everest….
* * *
The sign over the desk read “Granada Hills Security Checkpoint,” but that did not disguise the fact that this building was actually a deserted supermarket at the edge of a deserted shopping center. Aisle upon aisle of denuded shelves gave mute testimony to the bad times that had befallen the community. In fact, the empty cavern of a building seemed to Peter to symbolize the entire Collapse of civilization.
The guard behind the desk looked at him suspiciously. Peter didn’t know much about guns, but the one in the guard’s shoulder holster looked big enough to stop a herd of rampaging elephants. Peter coughed nervously and cleared his throat. “I… I’d like to join your community, if I could,” he said. “I’m thirty-two and a good worker. I can do almost anything that needs to be done.”
The guard’s scowl was skeptical. “What did you say your name was?”
“Peter Smith,” he lied. His own name, Stone, had acquired too many bad connotations in recent years, and he never gave it out any more. He had trouble enough going unrecognized without advertising himself further.
“Smith, eh? Can anyone in Granada Hills vouch for you?”
“Uh, no, I just got in. I’ve been bicycling down from San Francisco these past few months, and this looked to be a good place to settle.”
“How are things up there?”
“Bad,” Peter said. “It’s bad all along the coast. From what I’ve seen of it, your area looks about average.”
The guard grunted. “I’m afraid, Mr. Smith, that we can’t accept you here. We’ve got too many people already without adding strangers. There’s plenty of willing hands to work but limited resources to keep them fed, if you know what I mean.”
“Sure,” Peter nodded. The story was all too familiar to him. “In that case, I was wondering if I might buy some food from you. I’ve got money—”
“Granada Hills is on barter until the money situation settles down again. Unless you’ve got something to trade, you’re out of luck. Got any bullets, batteries, candles, tools or copper wire?” Peter shook his head. “What about your bike? We can always use another bike.”
“Sorry, I need it myself. Things aren’t too safe for a man on foot; the bike gives me a slim edge, at least.”
The other nodded. “Things are rough, all right. I never thought I’d see the day when this sort of thing would happen to us.”
“Look, is there any place in this area that does take cash?” The sun was sinking and Peter wanted to settle in somewhere before nightfall. He’d had too many scary experiences in the dark lately.
“You might try San Fernando; last I heard, they were still taking money. You’d better watch them, though—they’ve got a rowdy bunch over there.”
“How do I get there?”
“You take this street over here, Balboa, and go north about a mile to San Fernando Mission Boulevard, then east a couple of miles. Can’t miss it.”
“Thanks.” Peter started wheeling his bike out of the supermarket.
“Good luck,” the guard called after him. “I wouldn’t want to be a stoner now for all the gold in Fort Knox.”
Peter wondered idly as he pedaled along whether there was still any gold left in Fort Knox. There probably was, he decided; gold was not worth stealing at the moment. People had more immediate needs, like food, water, gasoline and electricity. Somewhere, he thought, the U.S. government may be trying valiantly to carry on as though nothing unusual were happening, guarding that gold and the wealth it supposedly represents like a virgin dinosaur guarding a nest of infertile eggs. And if they think about the Collapse at all, they probably blame it on me—as if I were anything but the messenger who brought the tidings of disaster.
Being a prophet of doom is not a rewarding career.
As he pedaled up Balboa Boulevard, Peter looked around him and tried to imagine how the neighborhood must have looked ten years ago, before the Collapse really got underway. On his left was another shopping center and a tall building that had once, according to a sign, been a hospital; currently it was being used as a series of apartments. On his right were more expressly designed apartments, once luxurious but now worn down and ugly. Rubbish that could not be burned had been dumped outside, lining the street and giving the air an unpleasant odor.
He passed another deserted supermarket as he crossed Chatsworth Street and continued north. There were houses on both sides of him, the ticky-tacky boxes that had been very popular in suburban communities at one time. They had little front yards that now contained gardens instead of lawns—lettuce, radishes, tomatoes and melons all seemed popular. The gardens were surrounded by fences—and some of the fencing, he noticed, had come from the center divider of a freeway. A stop sign had been stuck in one garden and dressed in tattered clothes to form a makeshift scarecrow. A couple of houses appeared to have been razed to make room for corn fields. The green stalks swayed proudly in the breeze.
Dogs roamed the streets and patrolled in front of the houses. They barked at him as he went past, but didn’t bother to chase him when they saw he was no threat to their masters’ gardens. There were several goats standing around and a large number of chickens, but Peter could see no cats running loose—they and rabbits would be penned up and used for food. Pets were no longer an affordable luxury. Birds, too, were scarce; no doubt the neighborhood children were improving their aim with slingshots.
Peter wondered what it was that made him hang around urban centers. The cities, he knew, were deathtraps, due to collapse of their own weight in the immediate future, and anyone caught in them would share in their destruction. It was the relatively small number of people living in the country who would fare the best, though they would be scarred as well. Any sensible person should see that and try to grab himself a piece of farmland before total havoc settled on the nation. But Peter was, and always had been, a city boy and was drawn to the cities even though he knew it might mean his death at any moment.
My problem, he decided, is that I give good advice but, like everyone else, I refuse to follow it.
Perhaps it had even been too late to do anything seven years earlier when his book, World Collapse, had hit the stands and fueled the controversy. Already the vast global forces he had foreseen were working to destroy civilization. Shortages of materials had become noticeable as early as the 1970s, yet the series of small crises kept escalating without any serious steps being taken to prevent them. The divisiveness of society, with group pitted against group, had shorn humanity of the cohesion it needed to deal with its problems. Inflation had crippled the economy and strikes had weakened people’s confidence in the predictable.
Many books had been written previously predicting that conditions would become critical before the end of the Twentieth Century; they had all been dismissed as doom-crying and overly pessimistic by the vast majority of people, who had retained a naive faith in the abilities of Mankind to rise, Phoenix-like, from its own excrement. Then World Collapse had come along, with the most forceful and frightening arguments to date. The then twenty-five year old Peter Stone proved beyond doubt that civilization was doomed in just a couple of years unless radical steps were taken immediately. He even outlined what those steps were: mandatory euthanasia, mandatory birth control, immediate redistribution of wealth, immediate decentralization of society, an end to single family dwellings, an end to raising non food animals as pets, forced movements of people to equalize population distribution, strict rationing of food and water, complete government takeover of industry and labor, complete government control of transportation, and a multibillion-dollar crash program for farming and colonizing the sea beds.
It was, to him, amazing that he could antagonize ninety-five percent of the country virtually overnight. While a few intellectuals hailed him as “one of the greatest minds of our time,” the nicest thing most people could find to call him was “that damned socialist.” Some were convinced he was the devil incarnate for simply stating the obvious truth. But the book sold, millions of copies. It was ironic, Peter thought, that his book would be one of the last bestsellers; shortly after the book’s twentieth printing, most of the printers’ unions had gone out on strike. For all Peter knew they were still striking.
He had amassed fame and fortune when both commodities were fast losing their rewards. He had appeared on numerous television talk shows, explaining and debating his beliefs that civilization, not just in the U.S. but around the world, was crumbling. He kept telling people that he didn’t like his solutions, either, but that something drastic would have to be done to avoid an even worse fate. Nobody listened. His enemies called him an opportunist, making money off the world’s misfortune, profiting on disaster. He was painted as a villain and branded a radical and a traitor.
In the meantime, everything he had predicted was coming true. Strikes by municipal workers brought about a breakdown of city services. The gasoline shortages he had foreseen were made even more acute by the final Israeli War, which devastated ninety-three per cent of the Arab oil fields. Overnight, the world faced its most severe energy crisis. Lacking power, radio and TV stations went off the air one by one. Lacking gasoline, truckers could no longer distribute materials, supplies and finished goods with their former efficiency. Everything was in short supply and getting shorter. Communication, transportation and distribution—the “Big Three” that Peter had listed in his book—were deteriorating with each passing day.
Peter turned right on San Fernando Mission Boulevard and continued riding. Telephone poles were spaced sporadically along the sides of the street; most had been chopped down for firewood. As he passed the houses he saw plenty of people working in their gardens. They would probably continue wrapping themselves in minutiae right up until the day the water stopped being pumped into their taps. Peter shuddered as he thought about the panic that was building under the surface, like a malevolent genie waiting for the inevitable day it would be set free.
He went under a freeway overpass, crossed a major street and finally came to an area that had once been a park. It was about three city blocks in length and one in width. An attempt had been made to grow corn here, too, but it was thwarted by the crowds that had moved in. The park was jammed with broken old cars that people had pushed there and were using as living quarters. At first, Peter wondered why they had bothered—housing was the least severe of the shortages at the moment. Then he saw what was across the street from the park.
It was the San Fernando Mission, one of the sanctuaries established in the Eighteenth Century by Father Junipero, Serra along what came to be called El Camino Real. As a Catholic church, it represented one of the few organizations still operating in the world today. The mission was acting as a food distribution point, probably feeding the indigent as part of its charitable work. The charity was what had caused the swarms of poor people to move into the park across the street.