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Book Review: "The Long Descent"

The Long Descent- A Users Guide to the End of the Industrial Age
John Michael Greer
New Society Publishers 2008

John Michael Greer has written a fascinating and engaging, but also contradictory and perplexing account of how he sees the industrial age ending.

His primary thesis is that collapse will not come as a sudden, abrupt End Of Days or Die Off scenario- one minute thriving bustling affluent society with the universe at its feet, the next a crumbling pile of rubble with nothing but wisps of smoke to hint of its former glory- but will follow a “catabolic” process of progressive disintegration, over possibly a couple of centuries. In Greer’s scenario, short periods of abrupt and sharp downturns- the beginning of which we are experiencing now- punctuate longer periods of relative stability. Like an organism that begins feeding on itself, society will collapse in a series of stepped-down stages as it becomes progressively unable to meet maintenance charges with income.

One of the most interesting parts of the book is the chapter “Tools for the Transition” Greer has a most interesting discussion of the merits of the slide-rule over the pocket calculator, and explains why it is infinitely more suitable to a low-energy world:it is durable- a solid aluminum slde-rule could last nearly geological time-scales-, independent, dependable and perhaps most significant of all its use of transparent- a future archeologist would be able to work out exactly how to use it. I have never actually used a slide-rule, but this discussion has inspired me to get one, and even teach its use on permaculture courses as an example of durable technologies. There are many other insightful observations Greer makes in this chapter, including comments on salvage and organic agriculture, and what will endure into the post-collapse world.

What sets Greer’s book apart and make it really interesting is his focus on “The Stories we tell Ourselves”. He weaves his discussion of the Long descent around what he sees as two modern myths- the myth of unending progress and technological supremacy on the one hand, and imminent catastrophe and collapse on the other. Both are myths or stories that fail to see the much more likely outcome of catabolic collapse.

His analysis of Peak Oil and other resource depletion are astute and draw on earlier writers such as Catton:

More than 20 years ago, William Catton pointed out in his seminal classic Overshoot that the downslope of industrial society would force human beings to compete against their own machines for dwindling resource stocks. His prediction has become today’s reality.

Falling broadly into the category of ecological writers who see human society as essentially subject to the same natural limits as other animals, our prosthetic habits of tools and technology merely giving us temporary escape, Greer covers a lot of ground you will find elsewhere, and this is the first contradiction, because his stance throughout the book is that he is presenting a radically differnt vision to the one presented by many peak oil writers: but who exactly is he referring to?

Yes, there is Jay Hanson’s Die-off.org; there is Matt Savinar and his bulletins on special offers on survival food; and no doubt in America, Greer will come across far more of the hard-core survivalist types than we might in Europe; but in general, I would place him very much in the tradition of the main Peak Oil writers- Heinberg, Kunstler, Simmonds and co.. These are the voices who have shaped the Peak oil movement in the past few years with their reasoned and measured descriptions of the current evidence and what they see as the likely impacts over the next years and decades. By no means do they paint a rosy picture, but nor do they predict an immediate once-and-for-all end of everything. Indeed, the title Greer uses seems to be even a reference to Kunstler’s main work on the topic- The Long Emergency- as well as Holmgren’s well-known Energy descent scenarios.

So I found it a bit confusing to read on the one hand that “the fallacy that bedeviled the Y2K survivalists was the belief that government, business, and citizens, faced with an imminent threat and presented with a clear, constructive response to it, would sit on their hands and do nothing until collapse overwhelemd them.”(p91)

and then that “Statistics from Russia, where a similar scenario played out in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse, suggest that population levels could be halved within this century”

and “One dimension of that context is likely to become the preeminent political fact of the age of peak oil: the impending decline- and, at least potentially, the catastrophic collapse- of America’s world empire.” (P100-101)

I mean, how catastrophic is “catastrophic” exactly? Is there like, the Y2K fallacy-type catastrophic, which is what most people think about peak oil but is wrong, and then the “Long Descent” John Michael Greer-type catastrophic which is really quite different and which only Greer has been perceptive enough to see?!

And it gets worse. Greer points out that one of the more fragile aspects of industrial life is the health system and councils that “It is probably best to assume that by the time the next wave of crisis arrives, your only health care will be what you can provide for yourself” and goes onto say “You probably wont live as long as you expect, and if you need high-tech medical help to stay alive, you’ll have to accept that it may stop being available without warning.”

Well that’s reassuring Michael, I mean for a minute there I thought you might be just another one of those survivalist doomers.

Don’t get me wrong. I happen to agree with this analysis and I also share and welcome Greer’s prescient wise words about acceptance of death and how this is one of the things we need to adress if we are to face the future- any future- with fortitude, but it all seems strangely at odds with his repeated admonitions of whoever he sees as the bulk of Peak Oil commentariat for painting too stark a picture of the impending collapse.

In addition, there are many compelling reasons to feel that our situation at all-time Peak Energy is fundamentally different from past collapses. the higher they climb the harder they fall, as they say, and our dependency on fossil energy and on a functioning economy from day to day is so complete, and our culture so lacking in resilience, and our traditional skills deficit so absolutely vast, that our society seems peculiarly vulnerable.

And then there is climate change, which again will effect people very personally and is already doing so. Overpopulation, species extinction general environmental degradation means that unlike the first character in an earlier collapse, our contemporary urban refugee may have nowhere to go.

Greer is right to emphasize the lessons of past collapses and how they may unfold over lengthy periods of time, and I love his vivid story of two hypothetical characters who live through very different times but who experience collapse in a similar way: the only difference is, in the contemporary scenario, there may be nowhere left for the environmental refugee to flee to.

In this we are given a fresh perspective, but as Orlov has made so vividly clear, collapse will be an essentially personal affair- for many in the developing world, it happened last week with the loss of their job and repossession of their home, and for many more it will happen next week. For some, collapse surely will be indeed a rather abrupt affair, as they suddenly find themselves out on the street unsure of their next meal, their previous life of luxury bought on futures’ markets just a distant dream. For many in this situation- as well as those who suddenly find their life-support systems switched off, or who go hungry because they were unprepared for the supermarket supply-chain disruption, the historical fate of society as a whole will be largely irrelevant.

Greer continues his exploration of stories and myths with a look at New Age beliefs, and he has some interesting observations about for example the origin of the “create your own reality” myth:

Of course each of us does play a part in creating the reality we experience; subtle factors such as expectations and assumptions have a much more powerful role in the way our lives turn out than most people realise… As the New Age movement gained members and lost focus, though, gimmicks of this sort became the basis for a philosophy of cosmic consumerism that claims the universe is supposedly set up to give people whatever they happen to want, so long as they ask for it in the right way.”

He even gives an analysis of David Icke’s Lizard theory which he sees as a kind of projection of “the shadow” - a way of overcoming the reality of limits: if you cant get everything you want, if the universe isn’t exactly what you want, it must be the fault of those evil shape-shifting lizards.

It seems rather paradoxical though, that while for the most part he takes a “meta-theoretical” perspective on different world views and how they emerge, some of his thinking itself appears to be rather New Age: his recommendations for health care in the future seem rather ill-informed and naive:

…While there is some quackery in the alternative field, there’s also much of value, and the denunciations of alternative health care that come from the medical establishment are mostly just attempts to protect market share.

This itself is surely one of the most pervasive of New Age myths: conventional medicine is mainly just out to make money from your illness and is more likely to make you sick then anything else; “alternative” medicine is more “holistic” and treats the whole person in a “natural” way. In reality, “alternative” medicine is simply treatments that have not been proved; once a treatment has been demonstrated to be effective through double-blind clinical trials, it becomes simply “medicine”. (see for example John Diamond, Snake Oil 2001). His specific recommendation of acupuncture betrays a sloppiness not apparent elsewhere in the book:

Many of the most effective alternative systems- herbalism and acupuncture come to mind- evolved long before the industrial system came into being and use very modest amounts of sustainable resources to treat illnesses.

As a number of recent publications have shown, there is little evidence that acupuncture works, and what evidence there is, is weak: it could scarcely be confidently considered as an effective remedy, and the suggestion that having been created in pre-industrial times is something in its favour is again a classic New Age absurdity. Systems of health care like acupuncture didnt have the benefit of modern medical science and don’t even recognise the existence of the cardio-vascular system, simply because this had not been discovered at the time. When you read about acupuncture’s recent history- how Mao encouraged it in revolutionary China because there wasn’t the resources to provide modern medicine for the peasants, even though he didn’t believe in it himself, for example, and how “sham” acupuncture- using retractable needles as a placebo achieves just as good results as the traditional methods, it is clear Greer has simply failed to do his homework on this one.

More than that, the multi-million dollar alternative medicine industry is really just an alternative marketing wing of the mainstream drug companies, making good use of the contemporary fashion for anything “natural” and “alternative” to sell its wares to the gullible. (See for example Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science.)

To say “there is some quackery…” is a mind-bogglingly large understatement: the whole alternative healthcare field is rife with the most unbelievable level of manipulation, fraud and deceit. The ignorance and gullibility of large sections of the pblic, and the complicit role the media plays in simply misleading people happens in this area just as much as in the areas of perpetuating the myth of progress. That doesnt mean that science is immune from such aberrations- but it does at least have an internal system of verification quite absent in alternative therapies, and it does actually make real progree using the clinical trial.

By the same token, while Greer’s discussion of the role and future of science in society is valuable and interesting, he makes some big mistakes: his dismissal of Dawkin’s atheism as anthropolatry (the worship of humans) is simply wrong: Dawkins, like most atheists, believes humans are just a clever kind of tool using ape. It is religious and superstitious views- placing humans at the centre of a supposed Creation- that idolise the human.

The reasons for Greer’s blindspots on these matters are obvious: he is himslef a Druid- an Arch Druid in fact- but in this book tells us little about it, leaving us guessing what he feels makes that spiritual tradition more valid than others, or more valid than the other myths he discusses.

So one gets the impression that he may have wanted his last chapter, “The Spiritual Dimension”, to have been more central to the main thesis than it actually is, and while it raises important points about what the role of religions might be post-collapse, and which ones may come to the fore, it is when he mentions “magic” that he loses me completely.

“There is a rich irony” says Greer “in the common dismissal of the lessons of spirituality as ‘magical thinking’ because magical thinking is exactly the form of human thought that deals with the realm of motivations, values, and goals that technical and scientific thinking handle so poorly.”

Is it? I though “magic” was simply what people tend to ascribe to phenomena they dont have an explanation for. This definition would come as a surprise also, I think, to most of the people I know who profess to believe in “magic” which they would probably see more as a way of manipulating the material world through communing with nature spirits and the like.

Greer seems to me to get very muddled here, claiming that Carl Sagan was a “theologian” with his image of “we are stardust” while “magic” is apparently something which has “theoreticians” suggesting it can in fact be studied rationally. This is upside down thinking: science is essentially a method of inquiry which rejects faith-based beliefs; it is not theology when Sagan says we are star dust- Greer misses the point completely- it is fact based on verifiable evidence -which is exactly what sets science apart from myth.

Equally, there is no reason why science cannot handle the realm of “motivations, values and goals” with the same method, and of course there is a large body of scientific literaturee which attempts to do just that. I would refer Mr. Greer to Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell as a good exploration of the issues here.

Greer misses an opportunity to explore the real legacy of scientific thinking, and the likelihood and consequences of a return to pre-rational belief systems in the future.

For all that, The Long Descent is a stimulating and valuable contribution to the Peak Oil literature. I obviously don’t agree with a lot of it, and I find his stance as somehow being more profound than other writers unconvincing, yet he writes well and to some extent does explore the lesser known paths.

Editorial Notes: Greer is one of the most thought-provoking of peak oil writers. Reviewer Graham Strouts is piqued enough to experiment with slide rules. I find myself searching for more information on Schopenhauer and ibn Khaldun, the early historian. Agree with him or not, Greer keeps the "little grey cells" working. -BA

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