The Druid's Garden

Spiritual Journeys in Tending the Land, Permaculture, Wildcrafting, and Regenerative Living

Book review and Personal Response to John Michael Greer’s “Not the Future We Ordered: Peak Oil, Psychology, and the Myth of Progress” May 4, 2013

In today’s blog post, I’m going to review John Michael Greer’s newest book, Not the Future We Ordered: Peak Oil, Psychology, and the Myth of Progress. To review this book, I am going to start with an extended personal example from my own family, through demonstrating this example, I can describe how meaningfully accurate Greer’s insights are, and how much they already apply to those living in the USA Rust Belt areas (and by extension, eventually to the rest of industrial society).

 

The city of Johnstown, PA, a rust belt city that has been in decline for decades.

I grew up in a rural area south western Pennsylvania, in a region littered by coal mining towns with names like “Mine 42” that long ago stopped mining coal. The nearest city, Johnstown, was a steel mill town that lost the last of its mill jobs in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. Both of my grandfathers worked in the mine and mill industries, but by my parents’ generation, those “good mill jobs” were gone. The skeletal remains of these mine and mill operations litter the countryside, abandoned and rusting away, and give the “rust belt” its characteristic name.

 

My parents decided to take a different route (mostly by necessity) and pursued degrees in graphic design and visual communications from a technical college in Pittsburgh. They eventually left promising careers in the big city to come back to Johnstown and start a family. They started their own business and for a number of years, experienced success, eventually building a home with dedicated office space when I was seven. Their clients mainly consisted of small and large businesses in the area, such as the regional electric company and regional dairy, that needed graphic design services but were not large enough for in-house designers.

 

Throughout the course of my life, however, I watched my parents struggle more and more as time went on, as the late 1980’s moved into the 90’s and then into the new millennium. They did not struggle because they were lazy—they are the hardest workers that I know—but because of larger factors beyond their control. We were living in an area that was experiencing significant economic contraction.  As I grew up, I watched my parents comment on how each and every one of their larger clients either closed up shop or were bought out and relocated to a different part of the country or even overseas. My mother describes this as a “downward spiral” that they tried everything to continue their business, to bring in new clients, but no matter what they did and how hard they worked, the spiral continued. In the late 1990’s, business had gotten so bad that my father had to look for other work to make ends meet. Work was incredibly hard to find anywhere in the region, and even when my father found it, sometimes in his field and sometimes out of it, layoffs were common.

 

I think about conversations with my parents, and how they often wondered what was going on, what they had done wrong, and I watched them internalize those failures and, at points, slip into despair and depression. They would then redouble their efforts and work even harder to make ends meet, only to continue to struggle. They recognized the decline in the economy, but even now, when I speak to them about their businesses and lives, I sense that they feel the fault lies somehow with them. The cultural narrative, of course, would suggest that their struggles were completely due to their own personal shortcomings or inability to work hard (and this continues to be a dominant narrative of our time for any people who struggle and/or are of the lowest socioeconomic classes).

 

But this is very much not the case, as John Michael Greer’s newest title, Not the Future We Ordered, describes. Greer begins his book by describing historical examples where public challenges or ethical issues (such as slaves’ repeated attempts at escaping to freedom) become reframed as individual psychological problems, thereby mitigating any collective responsibility or call to action (p. 1-3).  So while my parents and those around them, who also struggled financially, would blame themselves, the truth is that we were living in an age of industrial and economic decline in the rust belt that started in the 1970’s and continued to this day. These struggles on their part are a microcosm for the larger macrocosm of industrial decline. What Greer’s book has done for me, then, is to help me understand my own family’s challenges in helpful and psychologically understandable terms.

Not the Future We Ordered Book

 

Greer’s The Long Descent provides an overview of industrial decline in the age of peak oil (an outline of his arguments and a video to his talk in Detroit was in my blog post earlier this week); he provides a brief version of this in Not the Future We Ordered in the 1st chapter. The focus of this book, however, is not on demonstrating the efficacy of the concept of Peak Oil but rather examining the psychology behind reactions to industrial decline and how those in the helping professions (and other interested parties) might begin to personally and culturally deal with such challenges.

 

Greer opens the book with a discussion of “drapetomania” and the “50’s housewife syndrome,” wherein cultural problems, like slavery, were shifted by medical practitioners to individual pathology.  In the case of slaves who attempted to escape to freedom to avoid their horrible life circumstances, doctors of the age invented “drapetomania,” a psychological disease that compelled a slave to attempt to escape.  This effectively shifted the issue of escaping slaves onto the individual slave, and provided a convenient way for society to ignore the causes behind attempted and successful escapes.  Greer argues that this is very much what we have today–the collective pathology of the progress narrative, our inability to rationally discuss and enact change concerning peak oil, etc, is framed as individual sickness (oh, she’s just weird because she believes that stuff).  I saw this manifested so clearly in my parents’ coping with the failure of their business growing up.  Everyone looked at them and thought they must be doing something wrong, they must be incompetent, their problems were attributed solely to their individual abilities.  But the truth of the matter was that the area was in substantial and measurable decline, but we didn’t talk about the decline, we only talked about individual challenges.  It was like the elephant in the room–nobody really wanted to address what was all around us.

 

Greer spends quite a bit of time explaining and examining the “myth of progress” of our modern industrial era, which he describes as follows, “the belief that all human history is a linear trajectory that has risen up from squalor and misery of the prehistoric past through ever-ascending stages of increased knowledge, prosperity, enlightenment, and technological sophistication, and will inevitability do so into a limitless future” (p. 30).  He argues that the myth of progress has become a cultural religion and the most important driving myth in industrialized nations.  This cultural religion, along with underlying psychological factors such as the psychology of previous investment (p. 55), is what has caused America and other industrialized nations to continue to plow on while ignoring mounting evidence of decline and natural limits.  The bulk of his book is devoted to understanding why this process is occurring. I think about my own parents’ struggles, and how they were forever living in a state of cognitive dissonance where the progress myth was perpetuating in our larger culture, but where it was very much not visible in our daily lives.

 

In the last two chapters, having set the stage for the psychological challenges we face, he sets up the concept of the five stages of peak oil, which require letting go of said religion requires one to pass through a process akin to the stages of grief (p. 101).  Although he admittedly uses no empirical data on how the stages of grief might be applied to the broader concept of industrial decline (as at the time of the writing no such data exists), the concepts are drawn upon his own experience in the Peak Oil community for over a decade (p. 110).  Although this section is less well-researched than the rest of his text due to limitations in the data itself, I see it as performing a critical function in the Peak Oil discussion—that is, opening the door for discussing—and researching—how we might better understand this process.  Greer’s final chapter concludes with a call to action—for those in the helping professions to understand and overcome their own grief, and for the rest of us to embrace the idea of hope (not unfounded optimism, but realistic hope) (p. 135).   I wonder if some of Greer’s suggestions might also be found in any literature on the decline of the rust belt and the psychology experienced there.

 

One of the things Greer does really well, in this book and in his other peak oil titles, is to blend historical facts and evidence of similar problems and apply them to today’s challenges.  For example, in describing the “psychology of previous investment” which is one reason that we continue to hold onto the myth of progress despite growing evidence, he uses the aftermath of the failed prophecy of Dorothy Martin, a housewife who, in the 1950’s convinced a group of followers that extraterrestrials were going to destroy the world.  Despite Martin’s failures, her followers continued to believe her for quite some time; this same kind of thing is happening with the so-called economic recovery, which hasn’t actually happened from the bulk of the American people.  This kind of approach is used throughout his book (and many of his other works), and this expert blending of historical facts, logical connections and examples to present times, and psychological concepts makes for a engaging read.

 

Although I have read his other works on Peak Oil, I found his newest title a bit more deeply personal because it gave me the tools not only to understand what was happening, but to investigate my own relationship to industrial decline and peak oil in a meaningful way.  When I finished the Long Descent, I felt ready to go out and continue to pursue a lot of what I talk about on this blog (rocket stoves, organic gardening, etc.) but I was (and still am) very much coping with my own understanding of industrial decline. It also, very unexpectedly, allowed me to investigate my own family’s personal history as it related to decline.  So really, what this book did was give me some of the tools to psychologically adapt to what is occurring, and just as importantly, allowed me to understand that my concerns, nor the struggles of my family, are not merely part of a personal psychosis but as a broader cultural phenomena.  In other words, this book is empowering and is, in itself, a glimmer of hope and a light on a path into an unknown, and in Greer’s terms, unwelcome future. I’m planning on buying copies of this book for a number of friends and family, and recommend it without hesitation to my blog readers. If any of you have had the opportunity to read Not the Future We Ordered or have comments, I would love to hear from you!

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Review, Video, and Discussion of John Michael Greer’s Detroit Community Lecture, “Not the Future We Ordered” May 2, 2013

Recently, our druid grove brought John Michael Greer to Michigan, where he did a book signing and gave a talk on the fall of industrial civilization.  If you are interested in either druidry or sustainability, John Michael’s works (on druidry, esoteri wisdom, and peak oil) are some of the very best you can read (and I’ve recommended some of them before on this blog). I should also add that beyond his books on peak oil, you can read his blog, the Archdruid Report.

 

I wanted to spend a little bit of time today outlining some of his major arguments on Peak Oil/Industrial Decline, posting the video from his community lecture he gave in Detroit, and providing a personal response.  While the arguments and information that John Michael presents  are not easy messages for anyone in the industrialized world to hear, they are necessary discussions that need to take place.

 

Video of John Michael Greer’s Community Lecture in Detroit: “Not the Future We Ordered.” 

This is about the first hour and 15 minutes of his talk, which includes a few Q&A questions (but the discussion continued long after my memory card ran out of space!)

 

Overview of JMG’s Talk – Peak Oil and Industrial Decline.  In a nutshell, John Michael presents evidence and research through his books, blog, and talk that indicates that the world is running out of fossil fuels (our cheapest and most abundant energy supply in human history) and that this will invariably put our modern industrial society into decline. This decline will not be quick, but rather will likely take the path of most societies in the past—what Greer calls a “long descent” over a period of centuries, with smaller crises and upswings, but a general downward pattern.

 

As Greer demonstrates, back in the 1950’s, Hubbert (a geologist who worked for Shell Oil) demonstrated that oil production in an individual field works a lot like a statistical bell curve due to geology—the oil, which can only be pumped out of the ground so quickly—comes out more and more quickly until it reaches its peak, then it slowly declines in production until there is no oil left. Hubbert’s argument (which was proven right in the 1970’s) suggested that just like an individual oil field, the US oil production would reach a peak and then decline. And that’s exactly what happened in the 1970’s. In the 1970’s, Hubbert’s data also indicated that there would be a global peak in oil production (as we do live on a planet with finite resources, a fact that much of industrial society seems to have forgotten). Most researchers who are studying peak oil agree that we’ve already reached our peak of production (somewhere around 2005).

 

Industrial society, built upon cheap oil, cannot be sustained at its current rate of consumption nor standard of living without the influx of said cheap oil.  Since the world has reached its peak already in 2005, we will continue to see oil prices skyrocket.  We’ll also continue to see our government’s ability to provide for its citizens, and people, over time, will be forced to provide for more of their own needs, grow their own food, and learn to live and make do with less. We also see, as John Michael argues in his new book Not the Future We Ordered, industrial society sticking its head in the sand and working hard to ignore the problem, because the idea that progress will happen no matter what (the “myth of progress” as JMG calls it) is our “civic religion.” This means that people believe in progress so strongly, they hold onto this like a kind of religious belief, and no amount of evidence to the contrary will dissuade them.

 

One more important thing—civilizations don’t rise or fall within a day.  Charting human history, John Michael suggests in the Long Descent that this fall of industrial civilization will take time, likely several centuries. We are seeing the start of it now—walk around New Orleans or Detroit and you’ll see the crumbling buildings, the areas that have already been abandoned. In Detroit, however, you’ll also see a thriving Eastern Market where people are shifting to local eating, using pedal power to deliver vegetables, putting up hoop houses, and converting abandoned lots into vegetable gardens. The future, JMG argues, is here in the rust belt.

 

Where do druids fit in all of this? From my perspective, if we accept these arguments as valid (and by all means, watch his talk and read his books yourself to make up your own mind), and we want to do something about it, we have a long, hard road before us. Most individuals living in industrial society haven’t yet even considered this as a problem (and you may recall my earlier post on Stasis Theory and before policies can be enacted to facilitate change, we first must agree that there is a problem and that it is serious). I try not to think about the larger forces that are continuing to drive us on as though our limits to growth aren’t quickly approaching, because that mindset depresses and overwhelms me, especially insofar as it demonstrates my own powerlessness on that national/international level. Rather, I think about what I can do, individually and in my local community, that will make a difference.  And most importantly–I move from thought to action, to doing things rather than just talking, and its in the act of doing things that I feel empowered.

 

JMG suggests, and I fully agree, that if we want to enact such change, Druids can have a special place in this transition. As the potential holders of “oak knowledge,” (to reach back to the ancient etymology of the word “druid”), we can think about what the knowledge of the oaks is all about. The ancient druids held oak knowledge, in the sense that the oak tree was rooted in their survival. We can think about what modern “oak” knowledge means–literally, things like how we might use all those lovely acorns that drop each year to the ground to being resources for others who need help. While we still have access to cheap, abundant oil, we can work to reskill, to learn things that will be helpful in the future, and to preserve basic technologies for future generations (like JMG’s suggestions in his talk for HAM radio, wind turbines, basic printing press technology, etc). We can work to make sure that when things really begin to shift, we are mentally, physically, and spiritually prepared to that we can help others (which is the subject of his new book, which I’ll discuss further in an upcoming blog).

 

And I think that JMG’s arguments and talk further demonstrate why things like reskilling, organic gardening, permaculture, and so forth are so important—its not just about sustainability but about survival in a post-peak oil world.