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"The Long Descent" by John Michael Greer: Coming up short on reality?

Throughout the Peak Oil and collapse of civilization milieu, much speculation abounds regarding the speed with which collapse might occur. Some theorists insist or imply that the descent will be rapid and dramatic while others argue for a more "slow burn" scenario, less dramatic and more stair-step-like in progression. The tone of proponents of acute collapse reverberates with urgency while the tone of authors who perceive collapse as occurring in a more protracted fashion is notable for its moderation and skepticism of the rapid descent theory.

Such is the perspective of John Michael Greer in The Long Descent: A User's Guide To The End Of The Industrial Age (New Society, 2008). Greer provides an excellent read and argues astutely for his theory of catabolic collapse which he describes as "the declining arc of industrial civilization's trajectory through time. Like the vanished civilizations of the past, ours will likely face a gradual decline, punctuated by sudden crises and periods of partial recovery. The fall of a civilization is like tumbling down a slope, not like falling off a cliff." (32)

While Greer gives the intellect a robust workout, there is much in the Long Descent that must be rigorously questioned because of what is not addressed and because of the dangers I perceive are implicit in Greer's resolute, and I believe short-sighted, argument.

First, Greer devotes merely a handful of sentences to the climate change phenomenon which starkly omits a conversation about the interplay of Peak Oil and climate chaos. He does mention the climate nightmare inherent in increased coal burning globally, but absent from a defense of the long descent theory is an analysis of the interplay of the two phenomena. In an excellent 2004 article "Global Climate Change and Peak Oil," geologist and Peak Oil researcher, Dale Allen Pfeiffer explains among other things, "how will Peak Oil and the North American natural gas cliff affect global climate change."

But even without a consideration of the myriad ways in which energy depletion and climate change influence one another, how can one address the issue of collapse without an in-depth exploration of climate change? Professor James Lovelock's most recent research reveals the jaw-dropping speed with which climate change is unfolding. The Guardian reported in late 2007 that Lovelock "claims that even the most pessimistic outcomes predicted by the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) fail to recognize the speed with which global warming will progress." The most recent research indicates that "global warming is accelerating at a faster rate than climate change experts had previously predicted...."

Additionally perplexing in The Long Descent is little mention of species extinction or population overshoot. I found the scant attention paid to these issues by Greer astonishing and somewhat frightening. As is often the case in the Peak Oil research community, the energy depletion issue in The Long Descent appears to trump other collapse-exacerbating factors. Without a deeper exploration of them, one cannot feasibly argue for a strictly protracted collapse and assert unequivocally that "Nobody now alive will see the end of the process that is now underway." (34)

Clearly, Greer is put off by the apocalyptic, drive-off-the-cliff perspective that postulates a rapid descent. In fact, his revulsion pervades the book. While I share the author's frustration, it inhibits the embrace of a perspective that could be more holistic. By that I do not mean Greer's assertion that the long descent will be protracted but also punctuated by sea-change points of not return. Rather, I mean that arguing for either apocalyptic demise or long-term dissolution eliminates the possibility of holding a both/and perspective.

Why is this important? Because if one allows for the totality of consequences of Peak Oil, climate change, species extinction, and population overshoot, it is highly plausible, perhaps even likely, that a college student reading Greer's book in 2008 could witness or be a casualty of the completion of the collapse process.

Notice my use of the word could. I'm not saying will or won't but could. I believe that the only viable perspective for facing collapse is one of openness to what could or might happen. To argue for either a fast or slow collapse, in my opinion, consumes precious psychic energy that could best be utilized to prepare and to be willing to err on the side of caution. The fact of the matter is that we are currently in the throes of collapse, and many of us have gardens to plant, food to store, skills to learn, and necessary items to make or buy. Horrific aspects of collapse may erupt in the next three years or the next thirty. My work, I believe, is to hold in my mind and body the eventualities of both, not only for intensely practical reasons, but as a mental and spiritual exercise which may well nurture incalculable resilience in the face of adversity.

Moreover, if one considers the impact of the above three factors in addition to the consequences of Peak Oil, it becomes highly debatable that "If we accept that the Long Descent is inevitable and try to make it in a controlled manner...the way is open not only for bare survival, but for surviving in a humane and creative fashion while preserving as much of value as possible for the future." (131) This statement appears after Greer's consideration of three different ways of responding to collapse: political action, survivalism, or building lifeboat communities. The fundamental reason that political action untenable has to do with the central role of cheap and abundant energy in all modern political systems. Survivalism, says Greer, is not a viable option because one's prognosis for surviving alone in the woods is uncertain at best. On the other hand, he argues, building lifeboat communities may be risky in that they are likely to resemble, in his opinion, communes of the sixties and seventies comprised of spoiled young whites who had no concept of the physical rigor such endeavors would require. Therefore, Greer devotes a sizeable section to "Coping With Catabolic Collapse".

In order to understand his guidelines for coping, it is first necessary to define catabolic collapse. According to Greer, "In a growing or stable society, the resource base is abundant enough that production can stay ahead of the maintenance costs of society's capital, that is, the physical structures, trained people, information, and organizational systems that constitute the society. Capital used up in production or turned into waste can easily be replaced." (79)

Conversely, in a society in catabolic collapse, "resources have become so depleted that not enough is available for production to meet the maintenance costs of capital. As production falters, more and more of society's capital becomes waste, or is turned into raw material for production via salvage....if resource depletion continues, the catabolic process continues until all capital becomes waste." (79)

Among the many suggestions Greer offers for navigating the descent are: drastic reduction of energy, choosing a viable profession, learning skills that will be in demand in a post-industrial age, and taking charge of one's own health. I believe that these are vital steps to take whether one adheres to a fast collapse, a protracted collapse, or what I have continually promoted, the holding of both opposites in one's consciousness without adherence to one scenario or the other.

What I most appreciate from Greer's work is the distinction he makes between "problems" and "predicaments". A problem, he says, calls for a solution which once employed eliminates the problem. A predicament, however, has no solution. Faced with predicaments, people come up with responses which may fail, succeed, or fall in between, but none of them eliminates the predicament. The industrial era (or empire) has reframed many predicaments as problems that can be solved. For example, this culture's mythology of progress assumes that the goal of civilization is to eliminate poverty, illness, death, and other aspects of the human condition, which it believes can be eliminated with technology. On this Greer notes that:

The difficulty with all this is that predicaments don't stop being predicaments just because we decide to treat them as problems. There are still plenty of challenges we can't solve and be done with; we have to respond to them and live with them. (23)

As Greer states, civilization has repeatedly tried to turn all predicaments into problems to be solved. Three decades ago, energy, climate, population, and species extinctions were problems or potential problems that were ignored and eventually became predicaments.

Greer's distinction of the two underscores the absurdity of questions like "How do we solve Peak Oil?" or "What can we do about climate change?" While there are absolutely no "solutions" to these predicaments, there are clearly responses that humans can make which is why for years I have been talking about "options" rather than "solutions."

What is not only unsettling but downright disturbing about The Long Descent is the response to it that I have heard recently from folks who have read it. Comments such as "Well it sounds like collapse is going to take longer than we thought, so I'm feeling more relaxed about it and don't have a sense of urgency like I did before." I find this conclusion, strongly suggested by the books thesis, unequivocally frightening. Given the other key factors rapidly accelerating collapse that were not given sufficient attention in The Long Descent, this is an untenable response to the demise of civilization and demonstrates how seductively the book's fundamental premise can assuage humanity's intricately constructed denial system.

I find this particularly disturbing at this juncture of the unraveling as the United States and other nations revel in the giddy inebriation of the messiah archetype which has captured collective consciousness with the election of Barack Obama. Surely now, everything will be different; our savior will deliver us. We can relax about collapse-in fact, we can go back to sleep.

The Long Descent is very worth reading, but if you come away from it with some sense that a weight has been lifted, you have overlooked its rather startling omissions and would benefit from simply savoring its splendid literary qualities and then allowing it to find its rightful place among an assortment of outstanding works on collapse.

My endorsement of The Long Descent is included among other endorsements in the book's first two pages, and I stand by it. At the same time, having given it another read and now hearing collective sighs of "relief" regarding the speed of collapse, I feel compelled to contribute this caveat.

I invite you to read it carefully and critically yet not miss the brilliance of John Michael Greer and his research.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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