on 22 December 2012
As a recovering cornucopian, I consider "The Long Descent" to be one of the best books I've ever read. The author, John Michael Greer, is quite a character and has also penned books on ritual magic, UFOs and monsters. He is currently heading a Neo-Druid group and apparently lives in the Appalachians.
"The Long Descent" is a book about our present ecological crisis. It's one of those rare books that really speak for themselves. It includes chapters on our present predicament, the future decline and fall of modern civilization, what we can do to adapt, and various philosophical issues.
Greer says surprisingly little about climate change, perhaps because he believes that our situation is dire enough even if we assume that climate change is less dramatic than most scientists predict. The main problem is that modern civilization is unsustainable, being almost entirely dependent on cheap oil, gas, coal and uranium. These non-renewable resources are running out, oil in particular. Greer believes that "peak oil" was reached already around 2005.
During the 1970's, Western civilization did take important steps towards sustainability. These gains were eradicated almost overnight when new oil fields were discovered in Alaska and the North Sea around 1980. By deliberately flooding the markets with new oil, British and American interests made the oil prices crash, effectively forcing all "Green" initiatives into bankruptcy (ironically, nuclear energy was also badly hit by the oil bonanza). After 30 lost years of uncontrolled oil-dependency, peak oil has finally arrived, finding our society more or less unprepared for the consequences.
Greer doesn't believe that oil can be replaced. Coal, gas and uranium are being exploited at a breakneck speed. Renewable energy sources can't make up for the future losses of energy when oil becomes scarcer. Indeed, many renewables are dependent on the oil economy: crops destined to become biofuel need pesticides made of oil, solar cells are manufactured in industrial plants out of material transported from mines - all of which takes oil to function, and so on. (Of course, nuclear power plants are also dependent on oil, since they can't be built outside an oil-powered economy. Same thing with geo-engineering, for those who believe that can save us from climate change.) Greer's point is that once oil is gone, a large part of the energy propping up our way of life will be gone, too - forever. The idea that we can save our high standard of living by some alternative energy is a mirage.
[GRADUAL DECLINE, PROGRESS OR APOCALYPSE]
Despite the above, Greer doesn't believe in a grand, apocalyptic collapse of Civilization. Rather, his perspective is one of "catabolic collapse", a gradual decline that may take several centuries. The decline will be chaotic, violent and tragic, but it will not be "the end of the world" in any doomsday sense. Indeed, the long descent might even be interspersed with periods of relative stability (although at a lower level than before the crisis). Ironically, the prices of the remaining oil will fluctuate as before, with oil sometimes becoming *cheaper* due to the inability of customers to pay higher prices. The periods of relatively cheap oil will be misinterpreted by many people that the crisis is over, but the descent is impossible to stop. Greer predicts that our civilization will be gone by 2200.
Of course, "descent" is a relative terms, and so is "collapse". Greer uses post-Communist Russia as an example of what could happen in the rest of the world. Most people, certainly most Russians, would see the sad spectacle under Yeltsin as a major collapse! Greer's point, however, is that Russia as a nation-state survived the collapse and later managed to stabilize itself under Putin. However, the long term trend is still negative, such as the country's declining population.
Greer wages a kind of two-front war in his book, against both the typical Western idea of unlimited, eternal Progress and the myth of apocalypse. He points out that both these notions are deeply rooted in the Western psyche. The myth of apocalypse comes from Christianity, more specifically premillennialist Christianity. In the modern world, it's often secularized. The myth of progress arguably also comes from Christianity, perhaps via postmillennialism, and has also been secularized by the moderns. The two myths can even be combined, as they have been in Marxism, where a progressive evolution of society culminates in a violent, revolutionary "apocalypse" and ends with a communist "millennium". (The similarities between Communism and religion are striking, and often border on parody - I mean, Lenin's mausoleum?)
To Greer, there is no "progress" in human history before the discovery that oil can be used to power machines. Only fossil fuel energy made it possible to construct the industrial world, not "progress" or "ingenuity" per se. The steam engine and other machines were invented already during antiquity. Humans have always been inquisitive, ingenuous creatures but on a planet with no oil, we wouldn't get pass an 18th century situation. Some limits really are absolute. However, the believers in a swift apocalypse are also in for a good whipping. So far, all apocalyptic prophecies have been proven wrong. World history has its ups and downs, obviously, but nothing similar to an "apocalypse". This is a criticism of both traditional Christianity and of various secular or New Age-related doomsday scenarios: survivalism, Y2K and (I suppose) 2012. Since Greer lives in the mountains and believes our civilization will inevitably end, it's quite interesting that he so sharply criticize survivalism, lifeboat communities, and similar notions. (I admit that my doomer side thinks he may be too optimistic!)
Greer's attack on conspiracy theory is also worth a few comments. He regards conspiracy thinking as another way of remaining in denial concerning our present predicament. In a paradoxical way, conspiracy theories are both arguments for utter passivity, and at the same time arguments for potential unlimited power. Since the conspirators (Illuminati, alien lizards or whatever) are so strong, there is nothing I can do, I don't have to change, and the most important thing is simply to expose the conspiracy (perhaps on the web). On the other hand, since the conspirators are all-powerful, that means the world can be controlled - if we get rid of them, *we* can be in complete control. Greer mentions that David Icke's followers regard the material world with all its annoying limits as an illusion created by the conspirators. An even better example would be Steven Greer (no relation to the author), who claims that benign aliens will soon land and give us all the free energy we need, if we can only bypass the conspirators... In this form, conspiracy theory is a warped form of cornucopianism.
[RESILIENT COMMUNITIES, REALPOLITIK AND RELIGION]
What are John Michael Greer's solutions to our present predicament? On one level, he doesn't offer any - a predicament, by his definition, *can't* be solved. It can only be endured. On another level, I suppose Greer's proposals could be seen as "solutions". It all depends on what you expect from a solution! Greer's bottom line is to build resilient, local, decentralized communities with their own businesses, employment opportunities, perhaps even money. Centralized insurance agencies will be replaced by something similar to old-time Freemasons or Odd Fellows, whose members took care of each other in times of need. Says the author: "A community needs local organization. A community needs a core of people who know how to do without fossil fuel inputs. A community needs to be able to meet basic human requirements". The ideal size of such a community seems to be a medium-sized town surrounded by farmland. Large cities will gradually become unsustainable in the post-peak future, while small survivalist enclaves are too tempting targets for roaming bandits. While this sounds like a livable "utopia", Greer is coldly realistic on many other points: poverty, blackouts, epidemics and social instability will increase. In the countryside, so will brigandage. Many of the present nation-states will eventually disappear. While the author prefers U.S.-style democracy (the kind in the constitution), he believes that authoritarian regimes will become more common in the future, since no wing of the establishment will be able to provide "pork" for the electorate. (Greer regards liberal democracy as a compromise between different special interest groups, a compromise made possible only by abundant resources.)
Since the author is a Neo-Druid, he devotes an entire chapter of "The Long Descent" to spirituality. Greer suspects that both wings of Protestantism will disappear during the crises ahead, since both liberals and conservatives/fundamentalists have tied themselves too hard to "the world of history and political affairs" (i.e. the present state of affairs). Catholicism will also be in for a rough ride, since its superstructure needs abundant resources to thrive. However, a more frugal and monastic form of Catholicism might even become the dominant religion of the future. Buddhism is worth watching as well, and there might also be some wild cards. Humbly, the author doesn't believe that his own Neo-Druid tradition will become a major player in the future!
I can't say I *liked* what I read in "The Long Descent". I feel quite comfortable wrapped inside the Swedish welfare state, thank you. At the same time, it's difficult to argue against its conclusions (I tried for a couple of years, believe me). If anything, JMG might be a bit too optimistic. In his scenario, there might still be a fortified, communitarian town with an enlightened Buddhist leadership and functioning sewage system somewhere where we could take shelter from the Huns. In Maryland, perhaps? But what would *really* happen if the Western world (and the Chinese middle classes) would suddenly fall down to 1991 Russian levels, with the rest of the world becoming something akin to Dante's Inferno?
Still, "The Long Descent" deserves all its five stars. And yes, in a sense, this book really did save my mind from catabolic collapse. But that, dear friends, is another story entirely... ;-)