Earth Abides: One Mans Journey towards The Path of Least Resistance

Ish is one of the few survivors of a world ending plague. He awakes in the hospital to a world where civilization has died out and left only scattered pockets of humanity. He must develop and adapt in order to become a leader and establish a new world for humanity. The land must be tamed the communities must be rebuilt and the wilderness that was once only a matter of curiosity must now be battled and tamed. It is one of the most common templates for an epic tale. Ordinary man meets extraordinary circumstance and becomes a hero because he must to survive. Eventually, said hero finds the love of his life in some odd place and they complement each other and allow the slight faults that each shows to be overcome and bring out the best in one and other allowing them both to survive and become better human beings whilst creating a better society.

Well, the thing about Earth Abides is that Ish isn’t necessarily the most heroically minded individual. When Ish meets his moments for extraordinary deeds he just treats them like he’s getting milk from the store. He’s apathetic to a near sociopathic level, treating everything as a thought experiment instead of a reality. He even says that he is an academic and spends most of his time exploring and observing with no real urgency.

Rebuilding Civilization Step 1 ROAD TRIP!!!
Rebuilding Civilization Step 1 ROAD TRIP!!!

Eventually, Ish stumbles into a new civilization and decided that it’s probably a good idea to do some sort of rebuilding/survival related activities. He also gets a wife in that he doesn’t like all that much, debates about whether he should reboot slavery, practices a little bit of eugenics and lets the power, water and pretty much every other useful tool left behind decay and break with the exception of his trusty hammer.

He could use his ecological knowledge to develop a superior society in a world devoid of scarcity that is a blank slate ready to be molded into an environmentally symbiotic wonderland where people and nature are one. He could use his limitless time and resources to read the thousands of books that explain how to maintain and utilize the tools that the world has left behind. He could read books on philosophy and create a society that is fair and devoid of the evils of man.

However, Ish just keeps stumbling along as if he’s working a 9-5 job doing the least amount of work possible.

"I swear if Paul from Accounting sends me one more picture of his dog I'm going to cut his water rations in half."
“I swear if Paul from Accounting sends me one more picture of his dog I’m going to cut his water rations in half.”

Enough to keep everyone alive but nothing more. He attempts to teach the new generation literacy and other academic minded practices but ends up writing off the process and just teaches the one kid that he sort of relates to.


Eventually, we come to the end of some trials passed with a solid C- average and Ish hopes that the new civilization will be better than the one left behind. This is the same civilization that Ish could have shaped, taught, and guided. But, he doesn’t concern himself with these things just hopes that things will be better and moves on.

Ish is no hero but he is the perfect protagonist if your goal as a writer is to represent the nature and concerns of humanity during the time period. He relies on what he has and reacts when he must growing accustomed to whatever is left. He hopes things will change as an ideal but doesn’t fight to achieve any of the aspects of the ideal world he sort of imagines. He allows the forces that can take control to do so and basically just lives within those constraints.

The Television Adaptation of Earth Abides
The Television Adaptation of Earth Abides

While the story itself may be dry and boring, the realism of a culture that floats along the surface of a world that seems too powerful to control or affect in any substantial way is a true and unique in the world of fiction. While science fiction writers are known for their social and political satire, they tend to imagine the worst cast scenarios and their books serve as warnings against the evils of mankind and the doom that it heralds. Earth Abides is more scientific realism than fiction and while the action may not be particularly dramatic it’s incites are incredibly interesting.

George Stewart’s Biographer Praises Reviews of Earth Abides

Yesterday Donald Scott mentioned our class and this blog in a lovely post on his own blog dedicated to George R. Stewart. He’s been reading your reviews of Earth Abides, and — you should be proud to know — he’s found your perspectives to be original and exciting:

I’ve begun reading the student essays.  It’s very satisfying to see young people rediscovering GRS and his work, especially Earth Abides.  The authors have given me some new perspectives on the book, from the experience of the inhabitants of the early third millennium.

Earth Abides site

Just yesterday I found this terrific website dedicated to George R. Stewart and Earth Abides. It’s maintained by Donald Scott, who wrote a biography of Stewart that was published two years ago. A specific post many of you will be interested in is EARTH ABIDES: the influence of a work, which details the book’s legacy and lasting influence:

ishs-hammer1Stewart’s novel is a work of true speculative science fiction. It is not in any way the type of space opera popular in those days, but a work of fiction based on solid science and informed speculation. Yet the book has always been considered “science fiction” and is usually shelved in the science fiction sections of bookstores. That may seem to demean the high literary quality of Earth Abides, but it is one reason the book has never been out of print. Science fiction readers are, in the literal sense, “fans” – that is “fanatics” – for their type of literature. They deserve great credit for not only buying and reading the book, but for recommending it to others.

The painting of Ish’s hammer is by the painter Steve Williams (link to his website).

Rebuilding Humanity As Earth Abides

After finishing George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides I felt a strong sense of relief. I was so very happy that the book was finally over. I felt that the book could have gotten the point across in a lot less pages. The book felt extremely repetitive and is pretty much a summary of what happened to the main character. While the book makes interesting points, I found it a very boring read.


The book follows Ish as he makes his way in a post-apocalyptic world. Ish’s journey starts just as everything is settling down and only the survivors of the disaster remain. First of all, I thought Stewart’s representation of how humans would handle an apocalypse was unrealistic. The world would be thrown into chaos. The book mentions that when Ish visited the larger towns there were more examples of looting and such, but he says that for the most part humans seemed to deal with it calmly. I feel like it would be the exact opposite and humans would not know how to handle the situation. I do however, like the fact that the apocalypse was caused by a virus and feel like this is a very likely cause. I believe that a biological attack to the human race would be the one thing to take us out.


One of the things that I found quite interesting was the moral debate that plagued Ish throughout the book. Ish constantly worries about the future and the things he knows will come, but does nothing about them to make a difference. As he gets older and resources begin to run out, he becomes frustrated by his lack of action and worried about the future. This really made me think about the differences of the creation of society versus the rebuilding of one. As we built our world the technology and knowledge of the world grew with us. In the case of Ish, he has the knowledge of how the world works and the technology that makes day to day living easy, but the knowledge is useless and only haunts him as he tries to rebuild the world. I can understand his frustration as the world takes a different shape from the future he wants to see. Knowing that there are safer and easier ways of living, but no ability to change things would only make me angrier.

Overall I think that this book has interesting ideas, but it was a little too boring for my taste.

Tough Questions for the Modern Reader & A Demand for a Greener Machine

In his 1949 novel Earth Abides, George R. Stewart presents a deep and well developed speculation about what would happen to humanity if ever a worldwide catastrophe were to cancel civilization. The tale follows Isherwood Williams, Ish, a scholarly, liminal character who, when he finds himself apparently alone on Earth, counts “Always was solitary” as one of his assets in this new world (Stewart, 38). If he sounds to you like an unlikely protagonist, think again. It is only through a person like him—an observer, a person of big ideas, but not of big action or influence—that a story of so vast a scale can be told. The question, “How might humanity adapt?” is not asking, “How would Ish, the individual, adapt?” and Stewart answers the question to the point. This book is about humanity. More precisely, it is about the human tendency to grow comfortable with habits and routine, and to take too much for granted.

Necessarily, since the story spans fifty or eighty years, the actual storytelling is often quick and impressionistic. Character-building dialogue is mostly forgone in favor of frank, succinct assessment of the characters and their thoughts as perceived by Ish. The expositional narrator (third person limited to Ish) is overwhelmingly present. The chapters are noticeably episodic, especially in the first half of the book. Part One reads, at worst, as if Stewart wrote it from a formula: man encounters an unsuitable companion, man encounters a human threat, man begins solitary journey, man gets dog, man gets wife, man gets friend, et cetera. At best, it reads like Stewart is a master of concision, wielding a series of simple anecdotes to accomplish two things at once: make the post-apocalyptic world palpable to his reader, and ease his reader into empathy with Ish.

Stewart is surely successful in crafting a story that is not only understandable to his reader, but also readily experienced. Particularly in the closing chapters, when Ish grows very old and recedes into his mind, to return to awareness of the world again only rarely and haphazardly, the writing style is wonderfully performative. The identities of Ish and the reader become merged. Although at times the drama does seem forced or overblown (like when Ish and Em first make love) or simply too huge to handle (everyone is dead!), in the final reckoning, overall, the writing is effective and the drama of the story is convincing.

Also, all throughout the book, Stewart includes italicized asides in which the voice and point of view switches to that of an omniscient documentarian for a few paragraphs at a time. This is a risky choice, stylistically speaking, but it pays off. Not only does this heavy rhetoric lend an extra credibility to the story, but in addition, these passages contain many of Stewart’s most striking, unexpected insights, and they maintain the scope of the story as something bigger (much bigger) than Ish and his commune. Stewart is projecting the gradual disintegration of American material culture. Ish is only a witness to this grand process.

In the context of a college course on cli-fi, this novel seems out of place at first judgment because it has nothing to do with climate explicitly. The “Great Disaster” that begins the book is not environmental, but viral or bacteriologic in nature. Climate change was hardly known in 1949 when the book was first published. In fact, Stewart lets his characters thoughtlessly pollute. “The half-empty cans they merely left lying. There was so much litter in the street already that something more did not matter” (Stewart 200). Yet little instances like this are relevant. They show that environmental responsibility was not really on anyone’s mind in 1949. (If anyone would have thought of it, it would have been someone like Ish or like Stewart: a big thinker.) So, we are reminded of how far we’ve come.

Scientific progression! How much ignorance we have dispelled! We rule, you might even say. However, our claim to the title of stewards of the Earth is still tenuous at best. We could be called a pest of this planet just as rightly instead. In the sixty-six years that have passed since the debut of Earth Abides, we’ve taken the blame for much of the destabilization of the global ecosystem—it is known—but if we don’t take action to ameliorate this disaster, too, then what’s the use of knowing? History will judge us as pillagers and savages if we do not at least sincerely try to solve to this climate change problem that we’ve caused.

Ish, in the book, struggles with a similar dilemma. His tribe is in the same position in regards to literacy and agriculture as we are now regarding climate change. They are complacent, they are happy-go-lucky consumers, not producers, and they don’t pursue education like Ish had used to do before the Great Disaster. They couldn’t care less about learning how to read or farm. Of course they must realize that the leftover food in supermarkets, restaurants, and homes will eventually spoil or run out, and that then they’ll have to learn to farm without the help of any farmers to teach them. Presumably, in theory, they understand that. Even so, they take no action to insure themselves against this deadly inevitability. The urgency just does not seem immediate enough for them to care. For Ish, there is nothing in life more frightening than their apathy. He tries to warn them, to teach them, and even to preserve the university library like it’s some kind of temple—information is salvation—but they dismiss him as an eccentric. Within four generations, his tribe regresses thousands of years, back to the Dark Ages.

There is a lesson here. Please notice that, for all his talk about literacy, Ish does not think of literacy as his ultimate goal. Rather, his ultimate goal is for his descendants to know what to do with knowledge.

What should we do with all that we know?

First, what do we know? We know that the greenhouse effect is accelerating the onset of the next mass extinction, the likes of which have not been seen in sixty-six million years (Baronsky). This is bad. We know that mankind’s out-of-control emissions of greenhouse gasses is making the greenhouse effect worse by the minute. We know where these bad emissions come from: in 2012, only 10% was from commercial or residential sources, 10% from agriculture, 20% from industry, and the remaining 60% was from transportation or making electricity; tallying up to a total of 6,526 million metric tons of CO2 equivalents unleashed into the atmosphere by Americans (EPA). We know that there are some personal choices we can make to reduce our own emissions, like using public transit or buying CFL light bulbs; but we also know that the effect of each of these little green choices is negligible in comparison to thousands-of-millions-of-metric-tons total of humanity’s harmful emissions. We know, for instance, that even trains and busses emit CO2 and the production, sale, and use of even CFL bulbs puts greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, too. It’s discouraging. Most of all, it seems, we know that it is hard to reverse the damage we’re doing to the ecosystem. Why? Why should it be so hard?

Much of the difficulty and discouragement stems from the fact that environmental irresponsibility is somehow built into so many of the institutions of our society. Consider a modest, unassuming jar of mayonnaise, like the one in your refrigerator at this moment. How did it get there? After producing the feed for the chickens that provided the egg yolks, after producing the vinegar (however that is done), after transporting these, combining and processing them, packaging them, shipping them, distributing them, and after calculating the carbon emissions of each of these steps (including the making of the glass jar, metal lid, and colored label, with glue); and after adding on your car’s CO2 output to and from the grocery store… what is the carbon footprint of this mayonnaise by the time you smear it on your sandwich? The correct answer is: “Way too big!” (Squarzoni 210-212, 317, 363-378)

The good news is that a long supply chain means many opportunities to minimize waste and reduce carbon emissions. The bad news is, well, how can we go about tampering with a super-system of interdependent industries that run together like a perpetually mutually motivated Machine, restructuring all their operations to conform to greener guidelines, across the boards, across the globe?  Is it easy? No. Who is actually empowered to do that? Who can institute sustainability on a wholesale scale? Only very rich, very powerful entities can: the leaders of our big business institutions, the money-hungry “one percent.”

So, who can hold them accountable? Since the late 1960s, the go-to answer has been “the consumer,” but now it is apparent that merely shopping green, boycotting the worst environmental offenders, and picketing evil Wall Street is not enough.

“The balance of power to really influence sustainability rests with institutional investors, the large investors, like pension funds, foundations, and endowments,” says Chris McKnett, leader of the Global Advisors’ Environmental, Social, and Governance Investing team at State Street. Institutional investors include the whole global stock market and the whole global bond market. In 2013, the total value of these markets was one hundred thirty-three trillion dollars—eight and a half times the gross domestic product of the United States—a very persuasive amount (McKnett).

Let us return to the great big question inspired by Earth Abides: “What should we do with all that we know?” In regards to our current predicament, to whom is this question really directed? I contend that it is not you or me, but the whole damned Machine. (It is damned. At this rate, selling all the Earth’s resources faster than Nature can replenish them, the greedy economic Machine damns itself. It damns all of us.) You and I can hardly make any more significant an impact than we already have made when we switched to CFL bulbs. Real remediation of the climate change problem can only be achieved by an inter-industry, worldwide dawn of corporate social responsibility, soon!

Maybe for some, it seems far-fetched to hope. Ish, at the end of his life, seems to reevaluate the worth of all his desperate efforts, and he seems to arrive at a neutral estimation. However, Chris McKnett of State Street insists that, thanks to the general rise in awareness about climate change, most CEOs today have “started to see sustainability not just as important but crucial to business success.” In other words, “cha-ching!” (That’s the language CEOs speak.) Perhaps it has been too hard for corporations to go as green as possible, when the only reason to do so was improving life on Earth for our descendants. Now, for money, they say they’re ready to try.

So we can hope. Maybe we can rebuild the Machine—this time, better, greener.


Baronsky, Anthony D. “Preventing the Sixth Mass Extinction Requires Dealing With Climate Change.” Huffington Post. Huffington Post, 18 Nov. 2014. Web. 10 Feb. 2015. Retrieved from .


EPA. “National Greenhouse Gas Emissions Data.” United States Environmental Protection Agency, April 2014. Web. 9 Feb. 2015. Retrieved from .


McKnett, Chris. “Chris McKnett: The investment logic for sustainability.” Technology Education and Design, 2013 Nov. Web. 8 Feb. 2015. Retrieved from .


Squarzoni, Philippe. Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science. Trans. Ivanka Hahnenberger. New York: Abrams, 2014. Print.


Stewart, George R. Earth Abides. 1949. New York: Del Rey, 2006. Print.T

The Realism of Earth Abides.

When reading Earth Abides by George R. Stewart I would much more consider this a book a “soft apocalypse” novel than a book on climate change. Even Stewart writes, “the almost complete removal of man…had not in the slightest affected the earth’s relation to the sun….or any other factor influencing the weather.” (98) What we did affect though, was everything else. Some of the most interesting parts of the book were in the italics, when it would describe the world outside of what Ish knew, and how it broke down because of humans, or instead because humans weren’t there to keep it working properly. This goes for both animals (such as the sheep) “thousands of years ago they accepted the protection of the Shepard and lost their agility and sense of independence.” (55), as well as, mechanical failures like power. Stewart says that no one bothered to make the governors which controlled the generators automatic. He goes on to say “these could survive and function only because men were constantly at hand to repair..” (95). Racheal Carson sums it up nicely by quoting Albert Schweitzer in her article Silent Spring, “Man can hardly even recognize the devils of its own creation.”

In Earth Abides, it wasn’t clear what virus started the “Great Disaster.” It could very well be one of the “500 new chemicals to which the bodies of men and animals are required somehow to adapt each year,” Carson refers to. In her article she states “Everywhere was a shadow of death.” This could also very well describe Earth Abides. Not only people, but animals, rodents, insects and crops. As quick as they arrive, they disappear through lack of food, survival of the fittest, or otherwise. It was especially important to rid their environment in Earth Abides, of all of these that could be carrying disease (even people), as Carson points out “especially under conditions where sanitation is poor, as in time of natural disaster or war or in situations of extreme poverty and deprivation.”

In our present day, a lot of companies are trying to rid crops and other produce of disease carrying insects. One such corporation is Monsanto, which has come under fire lately for its “herbicide, Roundup, could be linked to a range of health problems and diseases, including Parkinson’s, infertility and cancers.. ” a Reuters article suggests. It also says, “Environmentalists, consumer groups and plant scientists from several countries have warned that heavy use of glyphosate is causing problems for plants, people and animals.” This strikes me as very familiar to these chemicals that Carson describes that “combine into new forms that kill vegetation, sicken cattle, and work unknown hard on those who drink from once pure wells.”

In Earth Abides, a few children die from a sort of poison that went uncovered. Stewart writes, “Even when dead, civilization seemed to lay traps.” (140). The question begs to be asked, is everything that Monsanto doing now laying the trap for the generations to come. Forbes Magazine reports, “In 2011 Monsanto has been fined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for contaminating water supplies near one of its rural U.S. facilities…” Soon, the contamination by these companies will force people to migrate and desert the land they once inhabited. This is also what Ish found throughout his book, and similar to the story A Fable For Tomorrow. The story says the “people had done it to themselves.”

The most haunting aspect of Earth Abides was the realism behind it, how it wouldn’t take much to slip into a primeval state of society. The human condition, and how it relates to this new world, that is essentially healing itself is front and center. It is a delicate balance, and early in the book Ish was looking for “small things that showed how the wilderness was moving in to take charge.” (78). Earth Abides paints a very pragmatic view of what could happen in this scenario, how be adapt and carry on with our lives. Ish tries to bring the “American” way of life to the children and new tribes, but eventually they will discover their own traditions and beliefs. Even the hammer that is seen as the power symbol, which never left Ish’s side. Who would have thought something so simple would be the one thing that could carry on through generations. Simplicity can also relate to climate change, and how we can start making our current world better on step at a time.

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I Would Kill Charlie Too

George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides provides a frightening argument for the fallacy of civilized ideals and the prevalence of Darwinism that is inherit to human existence once civilization has fallen. Earth Abides chronicles the post-apocalyptic devolution of humanity through the eyes of Isherwood Williams, or simply Ish, a former university student and self-proclaimed observer of the world. Ish’s personality shifts polarity between cold and sympathetic, as his desire to preserve everything humanity has lost is admirable, but his elitism and relentless pragmatism are at times alienating. For these reasons he offers an intelligent and flawed, but ultimately rational window through which to observe the events of the novel.

Earth Abides revels in the moral conundrums of the post-apocalyptic world, as Stewart masterfully lures the reader into understanding Ish’s logic. In one moral dilemma, Ish’s colder thoughts regarding the villager Evie, a woman with intellectual disabilities, are disturbingly eugenicist: “Should they have even kept Evie all these years? There had been a word – euthanasia, wasn’t it?” (Stewart 163). Her strain on the village, or at least what he perceives to be a strain, causes him to see her more like an object or pet, than a human being. Yet, while his dehumanization of Evie is appalling, he makes a significant, if not troubling, point when he confronts the mysterious Charlie about making sexual advances towards her “We don’t want a lot of little half-wit brats running in on us, the sort of children that Evie would have.” (Stewart 255). Between the lack care for Evie’s inability to consent and his use of “half-wit”, Ish’s remarks are woefully problematic, but there is still something painfully convincing about his reasoning. Likewise, when the Ish votes with the rest of his village to murder Charlie, it is hard not agree with them given how Ish’s perceptions of Charlie dominate the reader’s perspective. Ish tells himself that if Charlie poses even a potential threat to the fragile, little village, it is enough to justify a preemptive strike on Charlie’s life. Given how Ish is perhaps more aware than others of the village’s perpetual fragility, it is hard not to agree with him.

Indeed, Charlie’s death is perhaps the pivotal moment where Ish realizes that all the pillars of civilization, (truth, morality, etc.), simply do not apply anymore. Ish goes as far as to reason that “rationalism – like so much else – had only been one of the luxuries which men could afford under civilization.” (Stewart 284). He sounds absurd out of context, but the reality he experiences is one where quick witted, in the moment decision making is consistently more effective than careful consideration. Ish learns that with swift and certain danger lurking around every corner, whatever will most directly insure the immediate survival of the village is always the best decision. Morality means nothing if everybody dies.

With that in mind, Earth Abides is effective in arguing that civilization is nothing more than a delicate series of social constructions. While civilization is strong as long as there are people to uphold it, it is still a collective fabrication, and in times of great crisis, those same people who uphold it will scramble around worrying about their own survival before they will consider anything else. There is a dangerous universality to this assertion, but Earth Abides makes a compelling case to support it.

The Insignificance of Mankind

In George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides, civilization is destroyed as disease caused by our dying planet wipes out most of humanity. The world and its inhabitants adapt to the changing situation, returning to a more primitive way of living. As the world rebuilds itself, the only thing for certain is that it cares nothing for the humans that live there. Humankind, particularly civilization, means nothing in the course of our planet’s history. It will continue on without us.

The novel follows Isherwood Williams, called Ish, as he tries to survive in a post-apocalyptic America. As he discovers his friends and family are dead, he struggles to adapt to his new situation. He adopts a dog, Princess, and eventually marries a woman named Em. He and Em have many children together, including Joey, an intelligent boy who Ish believes to be the best hope for the future. As Ish imagines rebuilding civilization with Joey at his side, his children and the other children in his “Tribe” move on, learning to deal with new circumstances. When Joey is killed by another wave of disease, Ish loses hope, and his brand of intelligence is all but wiped out. Humanity reverts to a primitive state, and Ish becomes, “The Last American.”

The novel deals with the main theme of our insignificance as human beings. Even when we destroy the planet, it fights back against us and carries on. The idea of being punished for our wrongs against the Earth is not only touched upon with the overarching theme of the diseases that systematically wipe out humans, but specifically with the death of Charlie. Charlie admits when drunk that he has several STDs, so the Tribe kills him. Soon after, a disease kills five of their children, including Joey, Ish’s favorite. The Earth “punishes” those that poison it, and in the long run, they revert to their original state. Earth Abides is a gripping, gritty novel that imagines a future that is much like our past. I highly recommend it to all sci-fi fans, particularly those interested in climate change’s effects on our world.