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"The Long Descent" by John Michael Greer (review)

Another present from the Energy Bulletin for pre-publication review. I've been reading John Michael Greer's Archdruid Report for a few months now and I thought his book would be pretty esoteric, but it's actually brilliant in its simplicity and a much-needed wise and reasonable voice for the peak oil community.

He covers all the usual information about what peak oil is and how it will impact society and create a descent into a pre-industrial state of affairs, but here he departs from the brethren to discuss why the peak oil community is failing to lead society towards helpful approaches to dealing with this predicament (emphasis on predicament as opposed to problem to be solved implying with technology.)

This collective failure of the imagination he attributes to Western society having provided only two stories — The Myth of Progress and The Myth of the Apocalypse. And these stories run deep. The Myth of Progress came out of the Enlightenment and sold everyone on the idea that if we simply acted rationally in our own interest the world would progress linearly to a golden age of everything. The other is the Myth of the Apocalypse, which says that we did live a golden age of harmony with each other and the planet, but we took a wrong turn and it's been one blind alley of misguided depravity after another. Classic Greek tragedy vs. comedy looks like.

The brilliance of Greer is that he takes the trouble to explain these social mindsets from the beginning so by the end of it you are like "yeah how obvious". What actually made the myth of progress work was abundant cheap energy making possible all these fabulous visions of opulence for all and now that it's not going to continue we are all like doomsday is coming, we bad. This was popular thinking in the '70s too, but then we cut back on oil consumption by 15% and the world did not end giving us a new opportunity to continue our myth of progress. Here he explains how short term political policies of the Reagan years and the manipulation of oil prices brought us to where we are now, when we could have done something about it when Carter was telling us to cut back.

He describes various coping strategies these dual myths have prompted, in response to peak oil, including the lone cabin in the woods survival-ism to the creation of lifeboat communities or earnestly campaigning for a political leader who will install policies that will save us, (but no one in their right mind would vote for because it interferes with our myth of progress).

He then proceeds to describe very basic skills that we would do well to cultivate having to do with growing food, making things for ourselves, low energy transportation and reviving community governance and self reliance. He points out that it doesn't have to be all back to pioneer living and using hand tools, we can use advanced technology too if we set it up beforehand to cover basic tasks and not attempt to float this bloated high energy lifestyle that we think of as normal, because we just aren't going to have time or enough fuel to do that. That normal was an aberration of having stumbled on the energy dense, dead dinosaur deposits of oil. We had that opportunity to transit more slowly, but just because we missed it doesn't mean instant catastrophe. Due to adjustment factors he describes as part of his catabolic collapse theory, this deindustrialization will take several generations.

So don't sweat it just get your mind around it and proceed in an orderly fashion to the nearest practical skill building class. Quite affirming, I would say, for all us appropriate technology flickerati. I sure hope this book becomes the peak oil spiritual bible, because if Kunstler continues to hold sway it's just going to make it more difficult.

Editorial Notes: The book has been released by New Society Publishers: website for The Long Descent. Amanda promises that a longer review is on the way. I promise to post excerpts from the book in a day or two, and to write another review within two weeks. John Michael Greer posts regularly at The Archdruid Report and at Energy Bulletin (list of articles). UPDATE (Aug 21). Reader BB objects to the abrupt criticism of James Kunstler in the last sentence, "against a great contributor to the cultural discussion of peak oil, who hasn't taken any direct issue with JMG, as far as I know, and vice versa." To put this in context, the comment is a reference to the depiction of women and minorities in Kunstler's recent novel "World Made By Hand." The subject was hotly debated a few months ago. Among the critical articles: Review of Kunstler's post-peak novel by a woman who has lived the life Why Are the Mean Girls Picking on _World Made By Hand?_ (Sharon Astyk) Review by Amanda Kovattana James Kunstler responded at The Oil Drum and also in another post which I can't find at the moment. Fortunately, Kunstler is a tough guy and can take the criticism. It also probably helps his morale that the novel received quite a few glowing reviews, many of which we posted or linked to at Energy Bulletin. -BA

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