Over the last few months a number of people have asked me what books I think they ought to read to help them prepare for the slow unraveling of industrial civilization now getting started around us. This is frankly the kind of question I try my best to dodge. Premature consensus is arguably one of the most severe risks we face just now, and any image of the future – very much including the one I’ve sketched out here – is at best a scattershot sampling of the divergent possibilities facing us as the industrial age comes to its end.
Thus anything that tends to encourage people in the peak oil movement, or the wider society around it, to think about the future in any stereotyped way is potentially fatal. Still, several readers have noted that the ideas in The Long Descent and these essays presuppose a worldview and a cultural and intellectual inheritance that aren’t exactly widespread in popular culture these days. They’ve asked, if I may paraphrase a bit, what they should read to make better sense of my ravings. Put that way, it’s not an unreasonable request, and since the view of history that shapes those ravings flies in the face of most of the common assumptions of the modern world, a little background may not hurt.
I’ve thus sketched out a reading list of sorts for those interested in exploring in more detail the viewpoint I’ve presented here. It contains nearly as many broad categories as specific book recommendations; I have my preferences, and will suggest them, but here again diversity of opinion and information are essential. If everybody in your neighborhood reads and uses the techniques in a different gardening book, the resulting knowledge base will be much larger and more useful than if everybody relies on a single text, with its inevitable omissions and errors.
For similar reasons, most of the books mentioned below are relatively old, and some of them are out of print. There are excellent new books on most of these subjects, and I certainly encourage you to read as many of those as appeal to you, but books written during any historical period mirror that period’s presuppositions and habits of thought to a much greater extent than anybody notices at the time. One advantage of older books is precisely that their unthinking assumptions are easier to catch, and this in turn helps foster the awkward but essential realization that thirty years from now, the unquestioned truths and apparently reasonable assumptions of the present will look as outlandishly dated as bell bottom pants and disco music.
Very few of the books I’ve suggested here are practical, in any ordinary sense of the word, and those that have that distinction are meant to be read and interpreted in rather impractical ways. The sheer diversity of potentials and needs that will likely open up in a deindustrializing future makes any sort of practical booklist an exercise in overgeneralization; the entire thrust of the deindustrial age heads from standardized approaches toward the diversity that comes from a renewed engagement with the local realities of one’s own place, time, and community. A reader whose future career involves raising draft horses in rural Iowa has completely different practical needs from a reader who, ten years from now, will be salvaging and repairing appliances in a small West Coast city; what they need in common is a framework of ideas that will help them make sense of the wider picture, and the ideas I am trying to explore here provide one of these.
Finally, I’ve made some suggestions about how to approach the books mentioned below. At the risk of sounding like a 19th-century schoolmaster, I probably need to point out that you won’t get much out of any book if you approach it passively, and let the words dribble through your mind and out your ears like so many sitcom plots. The books I’ve suggested are not there so that you can agree with them unthinkingly; they are meant to get you to look under the hood of the ideas I’ve offered and see how the machinery works.
With those caveats, here goes. The following books should be read, if you can manage that, in the order I’ve listed them.
1. A basic textbook of ecology. It really doesn’t matter which one; the two on my bookshelves are Richard Brewer’s Principles of Ecology and Eugene P. Odum’s Fundamentals of Ecology, but that’s simply because these were the college textbooks I studied back in the day. What’s essential is that the book you read should be a general textbook of scientific ecology, not a popularization or a polemic. A great many people have embraced ecology as an ideology or a sentimental pose without ever getting around to learning how living things and their environments interact. In the future, I’m convinced, a clear and unsentimental understanding of the way ecology works will be the most essential branch of human knowledge, and could spare individuals and communities some bitter lessons in the years to come. A basic grasp of ecology is also essential for making sense of the next three books.
2. The Limits to Growth by Donella Meadows, David Meadows, Jorgen Randers, and William W. Behrens III. Get the original 1972 edition rather than either of the two updates, in which the original message has been partly overlaid with political polemic. The most insightful and thus inevitably the most vilified of the 1970s collapse literature, The Limits to Growth was the first book I know of to point out the central paradox of a perpetual growth economy: if economic growth is pursued far enough, the costs of further growth begin to rise faster than its benefits, and eventually force the growth economy to its knees. Joseph Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies explored the same territory later on from another angle, and my essay on catabolic collapse did the same thing from a different angle again; still, the original presentation remains the most useful. Note whether The Limits to Growth makes more or less sense in the light of the basic ecological principles you read in the first book.
3. Overshoot by William R. Catton Jr. Still far and away the best book on the twilight of the age of cheap energy, Overshoot is also one of the very few explorations of that troubling territory that is fully grounded in a clear grasp of ecological realities. A good half of the ideas explored in The Archdruid Report can trace their origins to one page or another of Catton’s book. It is challenging reading and, in many places, depressing as well; Catton resolutely refuses to offer easy answers for the predicament into which industrial society has backed itself. Of all the currently out-of-print books on this list, though, this is the one I would most like to see reissued by some small publisher. Once again, assess Catton’s claims in the light of the basic ecological principles you’ve learned.
4. A practical introduction to intensive organic gardening. John Jeavons’ How To Grow More Vegetables and John Seymour’s The Self-Sufficient Gardener are among the examples on my shelves (along with a number of more recent books, of course). It’s best to choose one you haven’t read before. The goal here is not to learn how to grow food using intensive organic methods – though that’s very likely a good idea – but rather to think through the practical implications of the ecological ideas you’ve just studied. Ask yourself where the system of gardening presented by the book you’re reading works with ecological cycles, and where it conflicts with them; imagine ways in which the logic governing organic gardening could be applied to other aspects of society and economy, and try to get a sense of the costs and benefits of making a transition from current practices to the ones you’ve imagined.
5 and 6. The Decline of the West by Oswald Spengler and A Study of History by Arnold Toynbee. Get the abridged edition of each; the complete two-volume Spengler is hard to get, and only obsessive history fans like me work their way through all twelve volumes of Toynbee, but the one-volume Spengler abridgment and either the two-volume or the later one-volume versions of Toynbee are cheap, readily available, and no great challenge to read. These are the two great modern presentations of the case for cyclic history; they cover much the same territory, but each one does it from a unique perspective. Read them close together, and notice the places where Toynbee is arguing with Spengler’s theories and conclusions; the Great Conversation is rarely quite so audible as here. While you read both books, notice whether the ecological perspectives you’ve absorbed from the first three books cast any additional light on the cycles outlined by these two authors.
7. The history of a dead civilization. It doesn’t matter which one, and you have plenty of options to choose from. The only requirements are that the civilization should be as extinct as a dodo; the book you choose should focus on history rather than culture – that is, it should talk about what events happened in what order, rather than simply wallowing in the cultural high points and quietly neglecting how things fell to bits thereafter; and it should cover the whole history of the civilization from its origin to its collapse. As you trace the rise and fall of the civilization you’ve chosen, bring the lessons of the first six books to bear on it. What role did ecological factors in general, and the specific problems traced by Meadows et al. and Catton, play in your civilization’s rise and fall? How well do Spengler’s and Toynbee’s accounts of historical change fit the facts in this specific case?
8. Muddling Toward Frugality by Warren Johnson. This one may be a challenge to find; it appeared right at the end of the 1970s, had a brief flurry of popularity, and then vanished without a trace in the wave of reaction that swept Ronald Reagan into the White House and the lessons of the previous decade into oblivion. Regardless, it’s one of the most thoughtful works to come out of the last energy crisis, an argument for unplanned, undramatic, and thoroughly non-ideological change as the best option at the end of the Age of Abundance. Johnson’s analysis is much subtler than it looks; this is another book that needs to get back in print sooner rather than later. While reading it, bring your previous reading to bear on it; in particular, ask yourself how useful its proposals would have been if implemented at various points in the decline and fall of the civilization you studied.
9. Where The Wasteland Ends by Theodore Roszak. A brilliant, engaging, frustrating work, this is Roszak’s exploration of the narratives and assumptions about reality that undergird modern industrial civilization. Some of my readers will find its argument appealing, while others will find it intolerable; both groups stand to learn a great deal from this book if they set aside these emotional reactions and pay attention to the way that Roszak crafts his case, to his choice of examples and evidence, and also to the things he doesn’t address. As you read it, put it in its historical context: if it had been written in a dead civilization just before decline set in, what would Spengler and Toynbee have said about it? Then take it out of its historical context: what does its argument have to offer us now?
10. A book predicting a dramatic social transformation that didn’t happen. Choose one that you would have rooted for at the time. If you believe that civilization is the root of all evils, pick up the sturdy Victorian radical Edward Carpenter’s Civilization: Its Cause and Cure; if you believe that we are on the verge of breakthrough into a new kind of consciousness, try Charles Reich’s The Greening of America; if you’re secretly hoping for social collapse and mass dieoff, read one of the hundreds of books that have been predicting exactly that for the last dozen centuries, and so on. Try to put yourself into the mindset of the readers who believed it when it first saw print; see why it seemed to make sense at the time – and then step back and explore the reasons why nothing of the sort actually happened. Bring everything you’ve learned from the previous nine books to bear on this one.
There you have it. It would probably be possible to draw up a list of books in print that would cast the same light on the ideas I’m trying to explore here. It would also be possible to draw up a list drawn entirely from Greek and Roman classical authors – though this would take a tolerance for the sort of thinking modern people mislabel “mysticism” well beyond what most readers have nowadays. Still, this is my list, and I’m stickin’ with it; those who tackle it, on the off chance that anybody does, will end up with a much clearer idea of what I’m trying to say in these essays, and with any luck, will be able to go further with these curious notions than I have.