Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Reflecting on a pandemic and its aftermath, in fiction and reality

By David Presti

Addendum as Prologue: 22 April 2020, Earth Day

The Great Bay Book Cover

I wrote the essay that follows a decade ago, in 2010, the year the novel The Great Bay by Dale Pendell (1947-2018) was published. I also nominated the book for a Pulitzer Prize in Fiction. It didn’t win one, nor has it yet received the kind of attention and accolade I believe it warrants. The Great Bay opens with humanity on the threshold of collapse of the planetary anthropogenic infrastructure based on technology and fossil fuel. A global pandemic driven by a microbe with very high contagion and very high mortality has dramatically reduced the world’s population. The pandemic is over after the first few pages and the remainder of the book explores the aftermath – and what an extraordinary exploration it is. What is quickly clear is that global human civilization had taken an arrow to the heart.

Currently we are in the midst of our own very real pandemic provoked by a very real microbe having perhaps moderate contagion and relatively low mortality. (That said, much remains unknown at this point, with new information on transmission, infection, morbidity, and mortality revealed almost daily.) The anthropogenic machine has paused, but it will not collapse; it will recover. In real life, humanity has taken a blow, although not at all close to a lethal one. But even this grazing wound and associated pause are unexpectedly profound. There is a great deal of suffering: sickness, death, unemployment, income loss, resource depletion, isolation. In the United States the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted profound inadequacies in our healthcare systems and other aspects of social-safety infrastructure. We will emerge on the other side of the current crisis with increased awareness to these shortcomings. (Although many have drawn attention to these issues in an ongoing manner for years.) The obvious question: will the increased awareness – made more vividly real by COVID-19 – catalyze the kind of attention and action that can result in meaningful transformation truly serving the greater good, locally and globally? The coronavirus crisis is a wake-up call, an invitation. The next time around, we might not be so fortunate.

The next time around and the metaphysics of mind (2010)

An essay on The Great Bay by Dale Pendell (1947-2018)

(North Atlantic Books: Berkeley, CA, 2010)

“Whoever controls the definition of mind controls the definition of humankind itself, and culture, and history. There is something uniquely human in the fact that we can pose questions to ourselves about ourselves, and questions that actually matter,

that actually change reality.”

Marilynne Robinson, Absence of Mind (2010)

The future, one supposes, is uncertain. The vast complexity of life – biological and sociocultural – perhaps dictates that we live on the cusp of chaotic transformation at every moment. However, it may now be that never before in history has humanity been more vulnerable and our future more uncertain. Certainly not before relatively recently on the arc of human history have the consequences of our actions had the capacity to rapidly achieve truly global impact.

There is the potential for swift spread of infectious disease by way of prolific and rapid global travel. Really, a highly lethal pandemic could happen anytime, and some say it’s a question of when, not if. Microbes are mutating as we speak to get a better look at what we humans have to offer. And this is without considering the hanky-panky of genetic engineering, conducted for basic biological research, commercial genetically modified organisms, or the development of biological weapons.

Global networks are the basis for an ever more interconnected and interdependent infrastructure – for information, money, energy, and food. Increased interconnection and interdependence may have both stabilizing and destabilizing features. If something were to interfere, for example, with the movement of oil around the planet or with the operation of refineries or the generation of electricity, things would get really tough for a lot of people – very quickly.

And then there is the poisoning of the planet, with chemical toxins and with carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere, warming the planet and acidifying the oceans. No one can say for certain at this point what will happen as a result of all of this perturbation of the environment, but chances are it is unlikely to be good.

“We all knew, but none of us wanted to change.

So the change came to us.”

Against the backdrop of our particular era in the history of the world, author Dale Pendell in The Great Bay paints a plausible picture of a collapse of contemporary society. It begins in the summer of the year 2021 with a devastating viral pandemic – 200 million people die in the first month in the United States alone and a year later the U.S. population is down to about 15 million people. Ten years later, in 2031, the U.S. population stabilizes at circa 4 million – and the world population at around 80 million, about what it is estimated to have been 2,500 to 3,000 years ago.

The Great Bay is laid out in a sequence of big-picture overviews, called panoptics, together with stories providing an intimate glimpse of individuals and events. Stories begin with two orphaned 12-year old girls who befriend one another at the time of the Collapse and then get adopted by a motorcycle club. The girls reappear in stories decades later and their descendants appear later still. Events are described on a logarithmic time scale – years, then decades, then centuries, then millennia pass by – so we are soon too far in the future to track individual lineages.

Oil refineries are abandoned after the available petroleum is depleted, which doesn’t take very long. Refinery parts are eventually appropriated in attempts to build more immediately useful things, like steam engines. After a while, no one even thinks to try and get a refinery up and running again. Ditto with the big power plants. What would be the point? When the choice becomes trying to get an oil refinery running or planting a garden and having something to eat later in the season, the garden option wins. Under such conditions, knowledge about technology soon fades away.

Human nature being what it is, there is thievery; there is cannibalism; there are warlords with aspirations of conquering and ruling over others. Vestiges of corporate exploitation of workers and environment are maintained in pockets until finally, at some distant point, they seem to fade into insignificance. There are religious cults, some strange, some conventional and familiar by today’s standards. And a great many people choose to connect in collaborative communities and assist one another in survival. There is solar power, until all the solar cells and batteries deteriorate and can no longer be repaired. There is local agriculture, fishing (salmon runs return), hunting with bow and arrow (guns and ammunition are gone after a few centuries), and parties with acoustic music.

“Nobody wanted to be alone. There were too few people in the world to want to be alone....People knew they needed each other....Mostly people helped each other, as people have always done in hard times.”

There was some continuity of knowledge, among religious scholars and monastics, and among members of certain guilds, and headquartered in places like the Archives of the Scholar’s Guild in Berkeley, the presumed successor to the present-day University of California.

Even so, the history of the world before the Collapse becomes increasingly more clouded and obscure as time goes on. Language evolves: “before the Collapse” becomes “pre-Collapse,” becomes “pre-Col,” becomes eventually the elegant and pithy “Precle.” People even a generation or two in the future have difficulty believing stories of the corporate control and selfishness that dominates so much of today’s developed world. The behavior of corporations sounds like the kind of selfish behavior that would be disciplined by a good parent, so why would people allow society to be dominated by this kind of behavior? Good question.

“In just three or four generations they brought the earth’s savings

of three hundred million years up out of the ground

and into the air where it oxidized.”

Dale Pendell writes with a style steeped in poetic imagery, metaphor, and linguistic nuance, and he is a superb storyteller and wordsmith. And a meticulous scholar as well: his details of geography, geology, botany, linguistics, and climatology are well-researched.

The geographic feature that gives the book its title, the Great Bay, formed over several centuries of melting polar ice, rising sea levels, and heavy rain. It is what will certainly happen in central California when sea level rises even a relatively small amount – a large inland bay will form, connected to the Pacific Ocean by way of the Sacramento River, present-day San Francisco Bay, and the Golden Gate. This Great Bay forms a geographic centerpiece and anchor in the stories, most of which take place in that region, although having universal significance. Communities grow up around the Bay. Some maintain contact with others, and a loose confederation becomes established among those who wish to participate. Other communities strive to stay isolated. In all cases, news travels slowly.

With far lower population density and no sophisticated weapons technology, barbarians and groups of thieves can only create a limited amount of havoc and may often be contained. Through the many stories, Pendell portrays human complexity masterfully. He gets the power of the dark side of human nature, and also appreciates that at their core most humans are good and compassionate collaborators. All this is portrayed in The Great Bay with balance, grace, and style.

“None of the climate models for global warming had accurately predicted what occurred, but all of them were partially correct. None of them had been able to predict the feedback loops that accelerated the great melting of the western ice cap of Antarctica.”

By 2250, 230 years after the Collapse, sea level has risen by 80 feet. Earthquakes are triggered as the weight of all that water bears down on fault zones. Life is not easy. There are pronounced oscillations in weather: years of heavy rain and flooding interspersed with years of intense drought, high winds, intensely hot summers, intensely cold winters. The Collapse is a distant event, no details of which are any longer known, except that it is clear that at some point in the past something huge had happened. The world is littered with odd debris: twisted steel structures, fallen buildings (or whatever they were), rusted metal (power) towers, collapsed dams on rivers, long ribbons of broken concrete. There is much of this kind of debris along coasts, all or partially now underwater.

Tobacco, cannabis, and opium poppies were familiar garden plants from before the Collapse and thus continue to be cultivated by gardeners. Alcoholic beverages are homemade and abundant: beer, wine, distilled liquors. However, the most widely consumed psychoactive drug of today, caffeine, is far more scarce.

“Few had ever tasted coffee, but all had heard the stories.”

A tropical plant, most contemporary coffee drinkers have never had contact with its plant source, glimpsed a ruby red coffee berry, or even seen an unroasted bean. Coffee generally comes from places quite distant from the continental United States and its transport around the globe is heavily dependent on petroleum. Thus, there is no coffee in North America after the Collapse. Ditto with tea, which mostly comes to us today from Asia. But stimulants are still appreciated in post-Collapse society. A species of Ephedra , native to the western USA and known as Mormon tea, is used by some to brew a stimulating drink. And youpon ( Ilex vomitoria ), a little-known holly native to the southeastern USA and perhaps the sole caffeine-producing plant indigenous to North America, comes to be widely traded and prized.

Over the first centuries and millennia sea level slowly rises. The Great Bay forms, together with its surrounding communities. Later the global patterns of weather shift, as they always have and always will, and the climate gets generally cooler. Several thousands of years into the future, sea level falls as the polar ice caps grow again and then slowly spread into the more temperate latitudes.

“It may have been the shortest interglacial in geological history. It went off like a flashbulb, did its work, and was over. The earth was a poorer place, but it could have been worse,...much worse.”

Thousands of years in the future people still are largely spread out, living in relatively small communities, by today’s standards. Higher population densities are conducive to disease and discomfort and seem, for the most part, to be avoided. Sixteen or twenty thousand years in the future, where the present story leaves off, the Colleagues of the Thermocene Studies are among the carriers of historical knowledge. One of their philosophers, commenting on the archeological discovery of an ancient Precle cemetery, has this to say:

“They were sophisticated technologically, and clearly were familiar with the Third Circle, but they seem to have been hypnotized by the forms, and to have mistaken the Interdimensional Constants for reality.”

The Third Circle and Interdimensional Constants may be poetic constructs, but the message may be accurate. Who can argue with the technological sophistication of contemporary society? Our explanatory and predictive understanding of the material world by way of the principles of physical science is awesome and stunning. From Aristotle to Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Newton, Maxwell, Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg, and Schrödinger, physical science feels like it has a grasp on many of the deepest aspects of what we call reality. Add in Darwin, DNA, molecular biology, and neuroscience and many would say we are close to grasping the whole shebang, from the origin of the universe to the evolution and operation of the human brain and mind. Minus, of course, a few details.

While billions of people around the world are devout followers of various religious creeds, it is physical materialism – the underlying metaphysical framework within which we interpret the results of our scientific inquiry – that is the dominant mythos of our era. Physical materialism posits that everything is explicable in terms of matter and its interactions as described by the mathematical laws of physics. Mind, psyche, consciousness are removed from the equation at the outset. It is all about explaining an objective world, out there. It is this framework that has allowed us to develop awesome technological sophistication and become so skilled at exploiting the resources of the earth, for example. Even religious fundamentalists have cell phones.

However, it also may be that technology has blinded us to our own psyche. We may indeed have been hypnotized by the forms and mistaken them for reality. Reality? The physical and biological sciences have next to nothing to say about the nature of the most intimate and real thing we know, our own human mind – our mental experience of thoughts, feelings, perceptions, and conscious awareness of it all. It is simply assumed that mind is somehow a product of the physical properties of the brain and body, and nothing more, although no one has a clue as to how this might happen. It is likely that the metaphysical frame of physical materialism is preventing us from making real progress toward a deeper scientific understanding of mind.

In The Great Bay , the next time around, as human civilization reconstitutes after the Collapse, it does so without a focus on technology. Such a focus might not even be possible, given that the relatively easily accessible mineral resources we have enjoyed for centuries would have been exhausted. Thus, different aspects of the human psyche are cultivated, and what might be called spiritual or shamanic connections with reality are developed to a high level. Less technology, more shamanism, a resulting different metaphysical frame on the nature of mind, all contribute to a vastly different course for civilization, and a vastly different take on reality.

Those who have invested time and energy to deeply explore the inner realms of the human psyche do not generally return with an inclination toward violence, struggle, and greed. Rather, they return inclined toward more compassion, love, and joy. As a species, let us hope we are moving slowly but surely in that direction. And the journey may be far from linear. The Great Bay takes us along one possible trajectory – plausible, traumatic, non-dystopian, dangerous, engaging, evocative, hopeful, profound.


Dale Pendell’s books also include three volumes about the shamanic powers of psychoactive plants: Pharmako/Poeia , Pharmako/Dynamis , and Pharmako/Gnosis ; Inspired Madness , on Burning Man and the Dionysian archetype; Walking With Nobby , a series of conversations with one of his teachers, Norman O. Brown; The Language of Birds , a poetic reverie on chance and divination; several collections of poetry, including Equations of Power , containing poems about the equations of Maxwell, Einstein, and Schrödinger; and Jeremy and the Mantis , an illustrated children's book about the magical relationship of a child and a story-telling mantis. For many years, I have used the Pharmako trilogy as texts in my UC Berkeley Discovery Course on “Drugs and the Brain,” attended by hundreds of students every year.