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Surviving S-Town

April 7, 2017


Spoiler alert: If you haven’t yet listened to S-Town podcast you might want to do so before reading the following essay, which discusses key facts revealed during the course of the story.

I admit, it was strange to hear my name mentioned in John B. McLemore’s suicide note. John, the central character in what is currently the most popular podcast on iTunes (S-Town, narrated by This American Life producer Brian Reed and produced by the creative team behind Serial) was—as you already know if you’ve listened—a polymath antiquarian horologist, horticulturist, and full-time worry-wart, who lived in a tiny Alabama town he came to call Shit-Town. His story is riveting, complex, and touching. Some commenters, while admiring the podcast, believe it’s too revealing of the intimate life of a person who is deceased and therefore incapable of giving or withholding permission. But it makes for compelling listening in any case.

My own conflicted thoughts about John McLemore’s story center on his obsession with global issues—climate change, resource depletion, debt, and the end of cheap energy. After a quick search, I learned he was an occasional commenter on Post Carbon Institute websites. Also, in Chapter 4 of the podcast, he references a short video about the history of fossil fuels that is almost certainly our 2010 video, 300 Years of Fossil Fuels in 300 Seconds.

John was, to put a name to it, a doomer.

I was not his sole or even primary source of news about the planet’s perilous prognosis; John also named authors James Howard Kunstler and Guy McPherson in his final manifesto. Further, John’s suicide probably followed not just (or even mostly) from his immersion in dismal information, but also from long-term, self-inflicted mercury poisoning and decades of lonely sexual repression in a tiny, homophobic Southern town.

Still, as I’ve written on several occasions, the facts and analysis I’ve been dishing for the past couple of decades make for dreary reading. I sometimes call it toxic knowledge: once you know about overpopulation, overshoot, depletion, climate change, and the dynamics of societal collapse, you can’t unknow it, and your every subsequent thought is tinted. There’s only one justification for inoculating my readers with this awful news: the hope that it will act as a mental vaccine leading to behavioral change that both reduces the severity of the coming global crises and increases survival chances for the knowledge recipient. Denying the information—or never having been exposed to it in the first place—offers no solace: the crises will come anyway.

In John’s case, hopes for enhanced survival prospects failed to bear fruit, though his story may perhaps inspire some podcast listeners to explore his sources of information and respond in a more pro-social fashion. I can’t help but feel some of John’s sadness, anger, pain, and frustration. It surely resonates with my own. However, I have never for a moment wished I didn’t know what I know, and I don’t think John would have preferred “blissful” ignorance either.

If I have a regret, it is that John failed to find a community in which knowledge could lead to collective action. There was no Transition Shit-Town. That was no doubt partly due to the oppressiveness of the local rural Alabama culture, but John bore some responsibility too—he could have moved somewhere more friendly and supportive. As it was, he was left to stew alone in the most depressing of infusions: Guy McPherson’s “we’re-all-going-to-die-in-20-years” extremist interpretation of climate data.

Informed collective action is healing. That’s why my organization calls its most public website Resilience.org and not We’reScrewed.net.

I’m sorry for your pain, John. I hope at least a few listeners to S-Town learn something valuable from it.

13 Comments, RSS

  • wendybandurskimiller

    I am appalled you would write ***As it was, he was left to stew alone in the most depressing of infusions: Guy McPherson’s “we’re-all-going-to-die-in-20-years” extremist interpretation of climate data.*** as if it was a causative reason. You cannot know that was the exclusive reason. It is also completely illogical to use blame against the living. Not only that but highly unprofessional.

    Suicide is a fact of life in the industrial world.But in Alabama – it is an extreme statistic of the culture and reality of living there. Evidence.


    Disappointing you would play a finger pointing game when clearly the truth can never be solidly confirmed. Ethically you should remove that sentence and issue a public apology.

  • Richard — My respect for you as well as Guy McPherson makes it difficult to read your conjecture that he “was left to stew alone in the most depressing of infusions: Guy McPherson’s “we’re-all-going-to-die-in-20-years” extremist interpretation of climate data.” Dr. McPherson does hold a more extreme view than most climate researchers and writers, but that does not equate to causation. The simple truth is that we’ve done enormous harm to our planet, and the consequences are going to be really ugly. We may all be dead in 20 years, or perhaps 100, but the outcome is not likely to be different. Responding to this reality with depression and despair is a natural response, and tragic if one can’t find support and/or balance. I don’t see what’s to gain here from one important messenger pointing the finger of blame at another. I’d like to see an edit and apology to set the record straight.

  • I am sorry for your loss, and the loss of so many others who appreciated John.

    I have a request regarding one line in your blog about the context of John’s awareness. That of the “extremism” of Guy McPherson’s predictions. Please point us to a compelling analysis that demonstrates that Guy McPherson’s interpretation of climate and ecosystem data is “extremist.”

    This is a serious request. While I doubt the mainstream analysis of Guy’s predictions; I would listen seriously to an analysis (or references to such) from others, such as you, who do grasp “the coming global crisis.” I’m curious to learn both your thinking and your sense of how many years, if not 20, we’re looking at.

  • Richard did not claim causation, he was referring specifically to the isolation he believes John felt in his community, in terms of being able to speak with his friends/family/neighbors about climate change, peak oil, and other sustainability crises. In fact, Richard wrote, earlier in his post:

    “John’s suicide probably followed not just (or even mostly) from his immersion in dismal information, but also from long-term, self-inflicted mercury poisoning and decades of lonely sexual repression in a tiny, homophobic Southern town.”

    So I don’t think it’s fair to say that Richard was blaming McPherson.

  • Bit of a low blow to blame Professor McPherson for someone exercising their human right to decide life or death.
    Didn’t expect that from you!

  • Dorothy Roberts Arvizu

    Along with others, I have read and appreciated your work for several years but this is more than off-putting. It’s unprofessional.

    First: McLemore was NOT ‘left to stew alone’ – he chose to stay. He was somebody’s kin. JBM may have hated S-Town, but he was as inherently woven into it as a vein in a particular leaf. That is history, and generations, and place. It almost sounds like he was bi-polar, &/or Aspie, &/or ADD – not that it matters, but he didn’t ‘fit’ and yes, that is painful. However – there’s a tradition down there that ‘we don’t hide our crazies in the attic, we put ’em in a rocking chair on the front porch and hand ’em a julep’, His choice and he made it.

    To your final point: Trying to lay “blame” on McPherson or his work as a ’cause’, as opposed to blaming yourself or your work is a cop-out – and feels more like you are trying to absolve yourself to yourself by impugning someone else for your ‘part’ in JBM’s ‘doomer’ perspective. We all come to ‘doomer’ by the same means – evidence. Our conclusions are our own. To suggest otherwise is to diminish the genius McLemore was.

    You owe McPherson an apology. You can disagree with his conclusions all you want, but stop the ‘blame game’. McLemore’s final manifesto sounded less like McPherson (scientitst) and more like Greer, or Orlov, or Orwell, or Golding, or Kunstler (writers/journalists). McPherson is no more to ‘blame’ than you are.

  • wendybandurskimiller

    So why single Guy by name in public as a contributing factor when it is clear that it does a terrible disservice and drops my estimation of your understanding of basic human choices?

    I disagree most vehemently that it “So i don’t think it’s fair to say that Richard was blaming Mc Pherson.

    I for one DID take it that way. It seems from the comments I was not the only one. Isolation and an individual choice is a complex issue and so is end of life decisions. I can only say this sort of conjecture is hurtful to others and the height of armchair moralizing and I truthfully expected better.

  • Just up the road from where I live there is a location, it is around 20 acres and it was gifted to a group of people to create a Permaculture learning centre for children. Sometime late last year the operation faltered because of a serious altercation between two of the “custodians” who run it; I use parentheses; for custodians they were definitely not.

    My main point here is that diverting us from the things we need to do among those fully knowledgeable in what we are facing, is a waste of time and effort and plays into the hands of those who would wish to subvert us. Both Richard Heinberg and Dr Guy McPherson have brought so much good information to us all. No-one knows what the real effects of Climate Change will deliver or how long the human race and many other life-forms will survive. Both are worthy of support in their ongoing efforts; in my opinion.

  • William D. Fleming

    Woodstock is hardly a poor rural place. It’s just thirty miles from Birmingham, and Twenty from Tuscaloosa, right on an interstate highway. Vance is only 2-1/2 miles away. That’s where the Mercedes plant has been for twenty years. Mercedes employes 4000 people. So Woodstock is not poor, and not very rural. There are numerous economic and social opportunities in the area, and there is every personality type under the sun, every political opinion, every level of education and financial attainment.


    “The town, formerly a mining and farming hub, is now starting to transform into a bedroom community of workers who commute to Birmingham or Tuscaloosa. Last year,MollerTech, a German autosupplier, announced a $46.3 million plant to be built in the nearby Scott G. Davis Industrial Park.”


  • where is the original suicide note?

  • Very well put…while reading Guy’s work fulminated a simmering existential crisis for me, it was like finally knowing the diagnosis of a terminal disease…you can then act. After a lot of soul searching, we decided not to give up the fight, because I am an educator who speaks publicly. We have downsized in substantial ways, and have a long way to go, but it is hard to do without seeming sanctimonious to others. I saw this coming at 15 and had no kids, but am offset by my cousins. Given that I am giving as much voice and personal effort as I can, my next act is to do the things I care about doing. I try to be a squirrel, or any other animal, and just “be.” The idea of “getting out of the way,” is a natural part of the conversation, and I will do that if I can as an alternative to 20 years in a nursing home. What is interesting, is my new outlook has me trying to be Will Smith in independence day, since I know my delusions have me living my own movie narrative. The problem is, that I need more than the last few minutes of the film to save the day. Is a voluntary suicide better than a war? There seem to be very deliberate intentions to cull the species. The people with the money are not stupid, or they would not have all the money. This is not to say I am dumb if I don’t have money, but they know the same things we do. Believe me, having been raised as a disabled person (not worth investing in) in a wealthy family, they discuss it over lamb and cocktails ad nauseum.

  • The Moody Blues in the 80s said “we are living in a world of make-believe and trying not to let it show.” The human animal has a trait that will/has doomed it…self-delusion. We lie to ourselves from the minute we wake up in the morning in order to dodge the huge responsibilities we have brought down upon ourselves. Guy McPhereson is one of the most courageous people I know for calling out what so many people like me know/feel inside. I know a LOT of scientists, and find science to be far more able to discover truth than religion or blind faith. It is not perfect, but a better flashlight in the dark. It is too bad they have been so focused on staying alive longer than normal, LOL…soooo not the answer.

    Anyway, a scientist is a very careful creature who does not make predictions lightly. Dr. McPhereson’s sincerity, and ability to “walk the talk” in the face of virtually everyone who needs to protect themselves emotionally is beyond impeccable. My only concern is the certainty he has with the time-frame, because most scientists would never commit themselves to that degree, but I won’t string him up if he is wrong…I will celebrate his efforts to get us all off our butts. I don’t find the people trying to discredit his ideas any more or less credible, since I do not have the advanced understanding of the subject needed, but the bottom line in his message is the time is now, and it may be overdue, so it is time to fire up that ol’ “can-do” human spirit. Because believe me, I would rather go extinct than face the anger of the young people we have raised in this largely artificial construct.

  • Quick, run over there and kill all the invasive plants they probably planted! Seriously.