Review: The Long Descent by John Michael Greer
The Long Descent: A User’s Guide to the End of the Industrial Age
By John Michael Greer
259 pp. New Society Publishers – Sept. 2008. $18.95.
The Internet writings of John Michael Greer—beyond any doubt the greatest peak oil historian in the English language—have finally made their way into print. Greer’s searingly perceptive blog entries on peak oil, which for the past several years have enjoyed a robust online following, have now been incorporated into a single bound volume from New Society Publishers titled The Long Descent.
Greer fans will recognize many of the book’s passages from previous essays, but will be delighted to see them fleshed out here with additional examples and analysis. Casual bookstore browsers with no prior knowledge of Greer’s work, for their part, will happily find themselves in possession of as fine a treatise on peak oil, or introduction to Greer’s ideas, as one could possibly desire.
If you’ve been following the peak oil debate, you’re well aware of Greer’s mantra. In discussions about the future of industrial society, Greer has long complained, too many people remain fixated on only two possible outcomes: business as usual and imminent apocalypse. People cling to these two polar opposites because of how well they jibe with existing cultural narratives—namely the myth of progress and the myth of apocalypse—that exert tremendous emotional power over us. But there are a vast number of middle-ground scenarios in between these two extremes, and these latter possibilities represent the most likely future course of our civilization.
The middle ground that Greer foresees is a period of glacial deterioration that he calls The Long Descent, driven by a process that he refers to as catabolic collapse.
The Long Descent is Greer’s attempt to help the average reader make sense of this coming age of decline. He begins the book with a bit of background on peak oil, the Club of Rome’s The Limits to Growth study, some lessons from past societal collapses and the difference between problems (which are solvable) and predicaments (which aren’t). He makes a strong case for peak oil being a predicament rather than a problem.
Having laid down this background material, Greer then explores the habits of mind that blind us to our predicament. He explains why the myth of progress and that of apocalypse truly are myths (they’re literally no different from those once circulated among ancient cultures), and warns of the dangers inherent in continuing to force the proverbial round pegs of reality into the square holes of our myths of choice.
Drawing on the theory of catabolic collapse touched on earlier, Greer next outlines in detail how our predicament is likely to play out during the decades and centuries ahead. Greer’s theory of catabolic collapse—well-known within peak oil circles—shows how civilizations headed for collapse tend to decline in a gradual, downward stairstep of repeated crises and recoveries. They don’t undergo the sudden, catastrophic free fall envisioned by diehard peak oil doomers. This theory makes for truly fascinating reading, and is included in its entirety as an appendix.
How will our own society’s catabolic collapse proceed? Greer sees us on the verge of a couple of decades of economic contraction, chronic energy shortages, declining public health, political turmoil and vanishing knowledge and cultural heritage. This crisis period, he predicts, will be followed by a respite of perhaps 25 years or so, during which industrial civilization’s newfound relief from the lavish energy demands of universal motoring and electrification, climate-controlled buildings, modern medicine and other present-day amenities will buy it a little breathing room. But this respite will, in turn, be followed by another round of crises that will rid our civilization of further layers of social complexity, and so on.
Eventually, the developed world will assume an agrarian lifestyle built around local communities and sustainable resources. But this change will happen so slowly that no one alive today will be around to witness the end result. Thus, Greer maintains, our energies should be focused not on surviving the end of industrial civilization, but on making it through the imminent crisis period that will be but one brief interval within that larger context.
To this end, Greer lays out some strategies and technologies for weathering the coming decades of crisis. The appropriate response to the challenges we face, Greer believes, is not to set up survivalist enclaves or lifeboat communities, but to reshape our existing cities, towns and rural neighborhoods in order to better meet those challenges. Greer sees renewed participation in fraternal orders like the Freemasons and Odd Fellows as a vital part of restoring the former institutions of civil society that so successfully weathered past periods of dramatic social change.
On an individual level, everyone needs to sharply curtail energy usage and find low-tech ways of doing things, in order to prepare for the inevitable shortages. We also need to position ourselves into occupational niches that meet actual human needs, since these are the jobs that are likely to stay in demand. In the face of declining public health, each person should learn to take charge of his or her own health. Lastly, we must help foster local community networking, which will be essential in preserving basic services like public safety and sanitation when the federal government proves ineffectual.
Greer discusses at length the tools and technologies needed in order to bring about these changes. Many of these tools, he points out, could easily be salvaged from present-day technologies that are bound to fall into disuse as profligate energy use becomes prohibitively expensive. For example, alternators from automobile engines could be used to build waterwheel-based micro-hydro plants.
We could also profit greatly from revitalizing antique tools, such as wooden ships and fireless cookers, that are better suited to energy conservation, and less reliant on electronic gadgetry, than their modern-day counterparts are. Two other technologies that could serve us well in the deindustrial future are organic intensive farming and the farmers market movement (the latter being an example of a “social technology”).
The final part of the book examines the spiritual dimension of the changes ahead. At the heart of our coming spiritual transformation, Greer believes, is a shift away from the “prosthetic society” in which machines perform an ever-increasing number of tasks that were once done by humans. As human labor once again becomes cheaper than machine labor, people will relearn a host of now-forgotten skills, and will abandon consumerism in favor of more spiritually fulfilling pursuits.
More fundamentally, people will lose faith in the religion of progress—and it is a religion, Greer convincingly argues—as it proves less and less capable of delivering on its promises. Greer makes a few educated guesses as to which religious faiths might prosper in its wake.
The Long Descent is one of the most highly anticipated peak oil books of the year, and it lives up to every ounce of hype. Greer is a captivating, brilliantly inventive writer with a deep knowledge of history, an impressive amount of mechanical savvy, a flair for storytelling and a gift for drawing apt analogies. He is perhaps the most spiritual out of all the current thinkers on peak oil, as well as one of the most eclectic and wryly humorous. No other peak oil writer possesses his same blend of aptitudes, and only a few approach his cunning.
His new book presents an astonishing view of our society’s past, present and future trajectory—one that is unmatched in its breadth and depth.
Frank Kaminski is an ardent peak oiler who participates regularly in Seattle Peak Oil Awareness (SPOA). He can be reached at frank.kaminski AT gmail.com.