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Peak Moment 138: The Twilight of an Age (transcript added)



In his book, The Long Descent, John Michael Greer observes that our culture has two primary stories: “Infinite Progress” or “Catastrophe”. On the contrary, he sees history as cyclic: civilizations rise and fall. Like others, ours is exhausting its resource base. Cheap energy is over. Decline is here, but the descent will be a long one. It’s too late to maintain the status quo by swapping energy sources. How to deal with this predicament? He lays out practical ideas, possibilities, and potentials, including reconnecting with natural and human capacities pushed aside by industrial life. (www.thearchdruidreport.blogspot.com). Produced December 12, 2008. Episode 138.

Janaia Donaldson (JD): Hi welcome to Peak Moment. I’m Janaia Donaldson. I’m in Sacramento at a conference of the Association for the study of Peak Oil, and I’m real lucky because I got to touch in with John Michael Greer, the author of a new book called ‘The Long Descent’. Thanks for joining me.

John Michael Greer (JMG): I’m glad to be here.

(JD): Well I want to know what you mean by ‘The Long Descent’.

(JMG): Well basically there’s a presupposition in our culture that progress is the basic law of existence, and that progress basically continues indefinitely unless some kind of catastrophe overwhelms it. All of our views of the future are based on this idea that either we go, we continue on this imaginary path we’ve traced from the caves to the stars, or we crash and burn.

(JD): Uh huh, Uh huh.

(JMG): What I’m arguing, instead, is that history has a much more cyclical flow to it. Civilizations rise and fall, and it’s not a fast process.

(JD): But wait a minute. Aren’t we in circumstances, now let’s back up…what led you to create the book at all, actually?

(JMG): Well, I’ve been interested in energy issues, actually, since my teen years. My eighth grade social studies teacher had a copy of an Isaac Asimov essay titled ‘The Nightmare World Without Oil’, in the mid 70’s.

(JD): Oh my goodness…oh wow!

(JMG): I read that and went…whoa, I’m going to be alive when this happens.

(JD): Okay.

(JMG): And being the bookworm that I was in those days, I went down to the public library, got a copy of ‘The Limits to Growth’, proceeded to read a lot of that literature.

(JD): Okay, in the 1970’s. You were right on it, right at the time it came out.

(JMG): In the 1970’s. Unlike many people, I kept studying it during the 1980’s when that became very unpopular, you know, ‘Morning in America’, we can now ignore ecological reality and keep on with what Jim Kunstler calls the paradise of happy motoring.

(JD): That’s right, that’s right…Yes, ha ha…

(JMG): And so gradually, I realized when the Peak Oil movement really got started again in the late 1990’s, and I was in one of the earliest Peak Oil e-mail groups ‘Running on Empty’ at that time, and I realized very quickly that all of that discussion focused around these two notions of the future…either, complete overnight collapse, or ‘we’ll get past this, they’ll come up with something and we’ll go zooming off toward a Star Trek future.

(JD): And I want to address that, because when I first got aware of the Peak Oil movement, much later than you did. It was ’05. And I went on line…those were exactly the stories. It was like - either immediate die-off, crash and burn, we’re not going to survive this, you know, good lord…or some version of the silver bullet. They will figure a way…

(JMG): Here’s a techno fix and we’ll get back on track.

(JD): Either ethanol or biogas or you know, whatever it is…

(JMG): Uh huh

(JD): And I thought, well…I’d like to believe that…The other was so horrible and onerous, and…I don’t want to pay attention to that. But you’re giving us the notion that that’s just following some standard myths in our culture.

(JMG): Well basically one of the standard myths in our culture is that we don’t have any myths. You know, myths are what primitive people believe…

(JD): OK

(JMG): Um, of course we have myths. Human beings think with narrative. We think with stories as inevitably as we talk with mouths or walk with feet, OK?

(JD): OK

(JMG): Stories are among the most basic of human tools, they are the tools we use to understand the world. The problem we face nowadays is that we tend to mistake our stories for reality. And the stories that we have are usually old religious myths with the serial numbers filed off and dressed up in some kind of secular drag.

(JD): Like…give me an example.

(JMG): Here’s an example – the crash and burn story. The crash and burn story normally amounts to the claim that the world is in this horribly evil state, and very soon it will be completely destroyed, and everything that whoever is telling the story hates about the world will be wiped off the face of the earth, and then a small remnant of people, including almost always the person who is talking will be among the virtuous survivors who go ahead and establish the society that they want.

(JD): In a sense the kingdom of paradise…here

(JMG): Exactly, exactly, we have the tribulation, we have the second coming, we have the millennium of the elect…it’s all out of the book of revelations. Now, the myth of progress is also extracted out of the book of revelations, the idea there is that the second coming already happened with Galileo and Isaac Newton playing the role of Jesus. And so the tribulation was all those centuries before we had science, when everything was so terribly horribly grim, and now we are in the millennial kingdom and it just going to get better and better forever, until we’re raptured up into space.

(JD): Well I would say we’ve really lived out, or tried to live that out that myth, at least since the 50’s.

(JMG): We have, absolutely.

(JD): Material progress, and higher standards of living, and all kinds of things…

(JMG): And the tragedy is that we have been supporting that on non-renewable, irreplaceable resources which are now coming into short supply.

(JD): So that’s…what that says is, so long as you’ve got cheap energy, you can dream that with a few improvements to the system here and there we can come to paradise.

(JMG): Exactly.

(JD): But when you run out of cheap energy, which we’re staring in the face…

(JMG): Bingo, bingo

(JD): What happens then?

(JMG): The end of the age of cheap energy is the end of progress. We think that progress is because we’re just so smart. Progress is because we’ve had a fantastic amount of cheap abundant energy that we have burned through with fantastic extravagance. This is the photosynthesis of 500 million years stored inside the earth, and we’ve gone through it in what? Less than 300 years. We’ve wasted most of it.

(JD): Yeah, we’ve burned most of it, instead of turning it into magical wonderful things.

(JMG): Exactly, we’ve burned it, and so what I am suggesting is that while this is different in scale and different in detail from what has happened to previous civilizations, other civilizations have also exhausted their resource base. People are desperately trying to pretend that having won the lottery once, OK, the appropriate thing to do is take the last of our money and buy more lottery tickets so we can win the lottery again and have even more money to throw around.

(JD): So we’ve had this cheap oil lottery bonanza.

(JMG): We’ve had the ultimate lottery bonanza, we had the ultimate lottery win, and we have squandered it, OK? Trying to…I mean…yes…biofuels, there’s a lot of potential there. Renewable energy – a lot of potential there. It only adds up to a small fraction of the energy we get from fossil fuels. Petroleum in particular is the most concentrated, the most convenient, the most flexible, the most abundant energy resource in the solar system. There’s nothing else like it, as far as we know, anywhere - because it requires a living biosphere to concentrate that type of energy.

(JD): You don’t find one of those on every planet.

(JMG): As far as we know, I mean Jupiter may be crawling with things, but their not talking with us – I think they watched ‘My Mother the Car’ reruns at some point and said ‘Red line that planet, boys’.

(JD): So we have a predicament.

(JMG): We have a predicament.

(JD): Then what do we do?

(JMG): We deal with it.

(JD): Alright, like, how?

(JMG): Our problem could be compared to finding out that tomorrow morning, at some point, we will be taken up 10000 feet in an airplane and pushed out the door. Now, stated that way, that sounds pretty awful. There are preparations that could be made to simplify that process and make it a lot easier to undergo. The problem with being pushed out of an airplane door at 10000 feet is not that you fall, it’s that you fall too fast and land hard.

(JD): OK, alright.

(JMG): And if the only solution you’re willing to accept is finding some way to stay at 10000 feet, you will not think of the obvious solution, which is a parachute. We need parachutes. Industrial society is going to give way to the deindustrial way of the future. We can’t change that now. What we can change, and what we can affect at this point, is how we make that decline.

(JD): OK, OK

(JMG): Our best opportunities are in the past, we could have, if we followed through the extraordinary gains of the 1970s, we’d be fine now.

(JD): When we all reduced our energy, if we stayed on Carter’s plan and so on…

(JMG): Yeah, yeah, if we’d gone in and really made a push for renewables, and for efficiency, for recycling, we’d be well on our way to long term sustainability and we’d be basically fine. We didn’t. We flushed that chance. At this point, there’s going to be crisis, there are gonna be troubles. We say turmoil in the economy isn’t directly caused by energy, but there may be some linkages there. Certainly the buildup of preposterous amounts of debt was in some ways a way to pay an energy bill that America had no other way to pay.

(JD): Well, I also see that we wanted to believe, in the 80s, when Reagan took the solar panels off the White House, we wanted to believe we could keep ignoring those messages. And so we have tried to keep that same standard of living, but without the base for it. Because energy is more expensive and so we’ve used debt…

(JMG): We’ve used debt and now that particular house of cards is coming apart, in a very big way.

(JD): Yes, yes.

(JMG): Will they be able to patch things together? I’m sure they will. Um, you know money is a game – it’s not actually goods and services, much less energy. But, there’s going to be some serious costs.

(JD): So I want to turn to, because I think most of our viewers are going to be concerned about – OK, if we buy…you know, go along with your prep… what kinds of things are we going to see happening, and how can I prepare, and what do we do in this predicament? I love the notion, I just want to add, that if all you are used to are the kinds of approaches that say ‘How do I keep at 10000 feet?’, which means ‘Put more fuel in that airplane, etc.’…the blinders are on that you may not think about…well wait a minute – we have a different objective here, a different goal.

(JMG): Yeah, yeah, the situation is insoluble if put in terms of ‘How do we find something else to pour into our gas tanks?’. What we all need to do, especially in the United States, and in the handful of countries that waste energy at the same rate, is drastically curtail our energy use. I’m not talking about driving a little less or turning down the thermometer a few degrees. It is worth remembering that the average European uses 1/3 the energy per year as the average American.

(JD): For about the same lifestyle.

(JMG): Actually, rather a better one.

(JD): They have communities. They talk to each other. They walk.

(JMG): They also have much better healthcare systems, and a range of other benefits that we don’t get in this country. That shows the sheer scale of waste inherent in the American economy. The best thing that we could do, if people actually wanted to drop the price of energy, the most effective way is to use much less, and we can do that if we’re willing to make the necessary lifestyle choices. Those will be perceived as sacrifices. It involves fewer opportunities, less waste, waste is fun, we all like to burn up the gas, burn up the miles…

(JD): Sure, sure, get impulsive, go drive, yes, I understand…

(JMG): Take a walk instead…There are problems we face because our entire infrastructure is built around automobiles. Most people, I mean, you have suburbs…we have a ghettoizing process where we’ve got our suburbs many miles from our workplaces, many miles from where we shop, and it’s designed around the convenience of cars rather than people. That will change.

(JD): But can we really afford to go re… you know, tear all those buildings down and put them back together again. I can’t imagine that.

(JMG): It won’t be done by tearing buildings down. It’ll be done by jerry-rigging. And by…one thing that people can do is push their local zoning boards to allow businesses in residential neighborhoods. Small businesses especially – that’s where most jobs come from anyway. So, generally there’s going to be a lot of relocalization, it’s sort of a common term in our community…it’s very important. We will no longer…I mean already with the price of fuel soaring it’s becoming economically very challenging to have all our manufacturing done in third world countries at sweatshop prices and shipped halfway across the world here. That’s gotta go away. That means a lot of people are going to have the potential for jobs in actually productive industries and careers, rather than pushing paper around or even the kind of administrative tasks that…

(JD): We’re going to be doing more physical world things…

(JMG): Honestly, if I were a young man, if I were a teenager, I’d be looking for a position in agriculture or in one of the crafts, one of the skilled trades.

(JD): My hope is that young people start to think about that soon, because the wisdom of the folks that still have those crafts and knowledge, some of which has been just barely kept alive, is going to need to be carried on.

(JMG): Absolutely, exactly, it’s gotta be carried on. Fortunately we’ve got the development of organic agriculture, at this point, is a major positive thing. Right now the organic agriculture being practiced in…all over the world increasingly at this point is a quantum leap beyond most agricultural systems. It’s drawn on the best of some of the sort of the very sustainable Asian traditions and the best of western science and a range of other factors. It’s a brilliant creation, and it has…I think it may actually go down in history as the 20th century’s greatest contribution to human history.

(JD): Wow!

(JMG): We actually have a system of agriculture that improves soil fertility over time rather than decreasing it and that is so revolutionary compared to what’s going on in most American farms today.

(JD): Oh sure, industrial farms that are depleting the soil, using fertilizers, etc. It’s crazy…

(JMG): Oh yeah, and it’s a short term thing. In the area where I live in Southern Oregon, a lot of commercial farms are changing over to organic because it is that much cheaper. Petrochemicals cost…you know when oil is, what is it today – 106 bucks a barrel? That works out into increasing costs of fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides, you name it.

(JD): Yes, there’s water pumping costs…

(JMG): Exactly. As you go toward a labor intensive, less energy intensive organic agriculture, first of all you employ more people but you also sharply decrease your energy costs, and so on a business level it’s actually more effective. Many of the things that we will see happening will not be because there’s some kind of ideological (unclear), but because actually they are more economical. Insulating your house, storm windows…you know, these things save a lot of money. We forgot that during the quarter century from 1980 til 2005 when energy was literally cheaper than it has ever been in human history. You know, we thought of that as normal - at the time it seemed so ordinary. But it wasn’t. It was a bizarre, almost a hallucinatory time, and now it’s over.

(JD): And I think people are starting to get an inkling of that.

(JMG): It’s seeping out there. It’s seeping. It takes a while for the collective imagination to absorb something, especially when it’s something so opposed to the narratives, to the stories that we like to hear.

(JD): And so, is there another, or is it too soon to find out, is there another story, another myth that may be more in line with where we’re headed? We may only have pieces of it…

(JMG): I think, I think…well one will come together. There are various stories (unclear). Cultural narratives are always negotiated among competing pressures, they come into being slowly. We are to some extent in a time where our old stories don’t work and we don’t really have new ones yet.

(JD): Yes, yes.

(JMG): And that’s a challenging time but it can also be a very valuable time, because in the gap between stories it’s possible to look at, it’s easier I should say to look at our own powers of storymaking and say, OK, instead of allowing one story to dominate how I look at the world, what if we step back a little bit, look at how we make stories and how we construct the world in our minds.

(JD): I feel, I feel like folks that are aware of Peak Oil are talking among themselves, trying to…groping, we are groping to find what are the stories that can help inform us about how do move forward, how do we help our communities, that’s one of them. One of the new pieces of the myth is definitely gonna have to be, well, we can’t live in our isolated little separate box. So there’s some togetherness that happens with this story. I find myself remembering this story from the Old Testament of Joseph in Egypt with the dreams that the Pharaoh had that said ‘We’re gonna have seven years of plenty and then we’re gonna have seven years of famine. Be prepared.

(JMG): Be prepared.

(JD): And I find myself pulling that story out to say, OK, it’s time to do the ‘Be prepared’ time, you know, before the energy runs out…

(JMG): Very much so, yeah, one of the stories, one of the metaphors that I find very useful in this is to speak of the cycle of the seasons. We have acted as though we would go from summer to harvest to a kind of uber-harvest to an uber-uber harvest with ever more food just pouring in in fantastic plenty. We have forgotten that after autumn comes winter, and it’s a really good idea to store some of that food for the winter because there won’t be much.

(JD): I think there are a lot of people in the eastern United States and elsewhere in the world who are putting in their wood, knowing that that’s true.

(JMG): They’re starting to look at winter once again with, you know, it’s no longer a minor inconvenience. I was talking to one of the other people here at the conference who is from New England, and they were saying ‘You have to understand, in New England in the winter heat is not a function of being comfortable, it’s not a matter of putting on another sweater, it’s a matter of – do you freeze to death, you know? And that’s something that has to be relearned, because during the years when you could just throw cheap energy at it, it was just an inconvenience. That’s not true anymore. The southwest is in the same boat with heat, and with water.

(JD): Right, right and with water, yeah, yeah, yeah. So, John Michael, in our last 5 minutes, what precious gems haven’t we covered that’s close to your heart.

(JMG): One of the things about the age of cheap energy is that it’s made us think that, it’s made us ignore our own capacities, our own potentials as human beings, and encouraged us to focus instead on what we can make machines do. And on the one hand that leads to ignoring a lot of our potential as human beings, but it also leads to a very specific kind of thinking in terms of power relationships. You don’t have a conversation with your car or with your alarm clock…you tell it what to do. And what it doesn’t do exactly what you do you get grumpy, and you take it to the repairman or you throw it out and buy a new one. You don’t converse with it, you don’t live with it you don’t…

(JD): You don’t work things out…

(JMG): There’s no negotiation, there’s no sharing, there’s no community…

(JD): Right, that’s true.

(JMG): And so it’s encouraged a very mechanistic attitude that we apply to ourselves, we apply to each other, we apply to the living earth that supports all of our lives. And it’s not been…I mean it’s had some very negative consequences. One of the things that we need to reacquaint ourselves with is the fact that our own capacity…I mean human beings have enormous capacities that we’ve left unused for 300 years. And we need to reacquaint ourselves with our own capacities, with our own innate human abilities to do a whole range of things. We are actually, you know, we are a very successful life form. We’ve got a lot of capacities that we’ve evolved down through millions of years and we need to put those to work rather than just running to a machine. And, on the one hand that’s all we’ve got left now, is ourselves. On the other hand, I’m not sure we actually need that much more than ourselves and each other, and of course the natural world that supports our lives.

(JD): Which we will want to take care of to be a part of that family that we…

(JMG): People think of nature as an amenity, as something cute in a pot. Um, next time you take a breath, thank the tree that produced that oxygen. Our lives are totally dependent on nature and the delusion that we can be separate from nature is I think one of the great blind spots of the modern world.

(JD): And I think that’s going to be one of those turning myths, it’s that is going to be – it’s like of course we’re all woven into this web together.

(JMG): Of course we’re part of web of nature, yeah, well I hope so…

(JD): And (unclear) we can be in conversation. When you talk about our human capacities I think about things like intuition, like our ability to feel, which is not given much support in this culture, in a mechanized culture particularly, um, whether it’s empathy or sensitivities that we just shut down…

(JMG): Uh huh, yes.

(JD): …and that ability to care that I think will go a long ways towards our survival for this time…

(JMG): All of this is important.

(JD): What gives you hope?

(JMG): Um…we’ve been here before. Civilizations rise and fall all the time. The fact that civilizations fall is one of the most certain things about them. Ours has had a wild ride, OK? It is nearing the downward cycle of its lifespan and that’s OK. All of us die too…that doesn’t make life worthless. Our civilization has accomplished some wonderful things as well as some awful things.

(JD): That’s certainly true…

(JMG): And so, what gives me hope is the fact that we’ve been here before. It’s not a new experience. It has some new features but it always does. Every life is different. And so, the way down, the long descent might be a rough road for many people. It will inevitably be a rough road for many people, but, you know, it’ll bottom out, and new civilizations will arise.

(JD): I love your notion, I love your notion that it isn’t just about this individual life. Life will go on.

(JMG): Life will go on.

(JD): Human life will go on.

(JMG): Exactly.

(JD): It will have different flavor…our followers will look at it and say “My God, they wasted a hell of a lot, they did a lot of amazing things”.

(JMG): Yeah.

(JD): They’ll have stories to tell.

(JMG): Yeah, they’ll be telling stories about us for thousands of years…you know, the time that people flew to the moon…OK, there’s a lot of material for myth there. But, I hope they also learn from our mistakes.

(JD): Yes, yes…

(JMG): Because we’ve made some howlers, and you know…but that happens…

(JD): This has been a wonderful conversation.

(JMG): Well thank you.

(JD): I really thank you for this, and I hope that the long descent is as interesting as you describe in your book.

(JMG): Well thank you…I did my best!

(JD): Thank you.

(JMG): Thank you.
Editorial Notes: Thanks so much to Carl Jacobs for the transcription on this one. -KS

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