Part 3: Riding the Wheel of Life

[authors note: this installment assumes familiarity with Parts 1 and 2]

A perch on the apex of Hubbert’s peak encourages a voice that might otherwise be dismissed as saccharine, rejected for its nostalgia or its (obviously) naïve optimism. How many times have we heard words like “yes we can,” only to find them eventually lost in the white-noise of acrimony and disappointment? And yet Hopkins, who sings in this voice with such childlike enthusiasm has a gift of suspending our disbelief.

Here is how Hopkins begins chapter 1 of the Transition Handbook:

We live in momentous times: times when change is accelerating and when the horror of what could happen if we do nothing and the brilliance of what we could achieve if we act can both, at times, be overwhelming. (17)

This sets a tone that is periodically reinforced and restated throughout The Handbook. While his opening words may suggest that the very act of acting might be enough, he later complicates this vision suggesting a slightly higher degree of difficulty:

We need to draw together a diversity of individuals and organizations that has seldom been managed in the past. We need to employ that same adaptability, creativity and ingenuity that got us up to the top of the peak in the first place to design a way down the other side.(77)

Despite the discussion of “the obstacles to this Transition” that we must “overcome,” the prospects from the Peak are, if not still entirely hopeful, loaded with lofty meaning: “we stand on the edge of the most momentous task in history” (77).

I suspect that in addition to the clean and linear storyline of our ride up and, eventually down, Hubbert’s peak, Hopkins is able to bypass the incredulity and cynicism of those of us who stand, here and now, in this late age of political metanarrative by foregrounding his story’s heroic “we.” We” are the protagonist of this interactive narrative. All are invited. It is inclusive to the point where “we” are in fact “the people we’ve been looking for.” “We” are the ones who will live the drama and who will write and someday tell and retell the narrative of our descent from The Peak.

I pause: are “we” in the age of the facebook ego-spurt simply victims of our vanity, here, or is he speaking to the necessary joys and draw of community, lost on our march up the peak. Or, as I suspect, are these instead two sides of a single troublesome coin whose trials we may have forgotten and have yet to endure amidst what I believe will not be a happy hand-holding descent down a flower meadow slope of post-peak oil bucolic fantasy oil, but a time of great horrors and chaos.

John Michael Greer would likely agree with these fears and suspicions:

. . . the fact that so many people today treat catastrophe as an inkblot onto which to project their fantasies of a better life is one of the most troubling signs of our times. To some extent, this follows from the common habit of imposing one’s daydreams onto an unknown future; it’s always part of the narrative of apocalypse that dieoff only happens to other people. (The Ecotechnic Future 82)

I don’t think that Greer is being hyperbolic just for effect when he sees this as “one of the most troubling signs of our age,” as exaggerated a claim as this may be. We shall return to this later, for such a statement is perhaps the obverse, and thus in some sense a reflection, of Hopkins post-Peak Oil glee club: both may lose some credulity as we gain critical distance.

For now, let us note that Greer creates a far different protagonist to his narrative of our culture’s immanent decline. Note in contrast to Hopkins’ boisterously hopeful role as town-crier, the sober and tentative counsel Greer provides as we are invited to look furtively into the future: “Thus it may not be out of place to imagine a list of endangered knowledge to go along with today’s list of endangered species, and to take similar steps to preserve both.” (Ecotechnic Future 238). Yes, it may not be out of place, but far be it from Greer to ask us to celebrate the epochal possibilities of such a choice.

Here, in a world liberated from white-boards, big paper, post-it notes, and sharpies, in a zone free from moments of silence or the clunky songs of those trying to reskill themselves in the arts of self-sufficient community entertainment, Greer is, as a matter of principle cautious, gently inviting us to, but not pressuring us to attend, his favored dissensus: “there are certainly other meanings, purposes and goals that can be found in, or more precisely applied to, either the inkblot patterns of history as a whole or the specific challenges we face right now, in the early stages of industrial civilization’s decline and fall (238). I cannot determine whether Greer is parodying Herman Melville here or if this compulsion to qualify is spontaneously precipitated as he peers over the edge of the industrial age’s cliff.

Nevertheless, Greer is determined to do his all to prevent any widespread hypnosis by a collective inkblot. Although he agrees with Hopkins, and all of “us” in the Peak Oil “community” on the basic facts of fossil-fuel depletion and its most general consequences, Greer will assert an entirely different theory, we might say, of history and thus of human agency. This alternative theory of history accounts for the tonal differences we have noted—but also how we should approach the future, how we should prepare for uncertain times, how we should orient ourselves and our communities at home and in the street, in the garden or the tinkerers garage.. And in contrast to Hopkins’ romance of (possible) transcendence, Greer will use modes of emplotment that lack the airy vistas of hope and possibility that characterize the Transition Movement.

The most apparent differences between the historical narratives of Hopkins and Greer is, of course, simply the time span that each covers. As in so many mythical narratives of origins, Hopkins starts with an extended period of prehistory, the long level stretch on the left of the familiar Peak Oil graph. The relevant history finds its hazy emergence in the first soot of the coal age, but achieves clarity and narrative specificity only after Mr. Drake eats of his oil-filled apple. His history of the future appears to end within the same sort of time period, with suggestions of a similar sort of post-historical stasis. The clear imagery of the future, at any rate, is that of our recent and (more) sustainable and resilient past, with our market gardens and local self-sufficiency.

Greer’s imagery is different. There is, I might hazard, less of it. But the prevailing images that I take from Greer are of a forest canopy hiding overgrown traces of an musty ecological cycle. The relevant historical time-period in Greerdom stretches as far as the first murmurings of life, as single-cells split, as wave upon wave of adaptations slowly transform and cover the earth. Greer’s history does find more specificity in the Greek and Roman worlds, the Roman empire and its decline being an especially portentous example of what is to come.

Importantly, though, the Roman Empire is just an example, as will we be, of forces far greater than any particular civilization. This, our role as a mere example, I will suggest in Part 5, provides strange and unexpected comfort. Let us note for now that Hubbert’s Peak upon which he would agree we are perched, is not a single volcanic peak rising from the plains, but is part of a vast and endless range of peaks and valleys, as humans—indeed all life—rises and falls, grows in strength and inevitably (or nearly so) declines.

In contrast to Hopkins’ linear history, Greer’s is more, though not entirely, circular. The rise and fall of everything is a repeating process as the wheel of life spins. Linear histories chart progress while in a cyclical history, as Greer notes, “civilizations rise and fall, while the wheel itself remains fixed in place” (230). A story with a single peak and climax dramatizes the possibility of both a monumental breakthrough, and some version of “happily ever after”—a post-history as amorphous and non-specific as the pre-history we see in Hopkins’ story.

There is in Greer no sense that we are a singular people standing at a singular moment where history has opened up to provide us with breath-taking possibilities: “Human societies, like fence lizards, are organic systems, and they respond to changes in their environments in much the same way” (85); “history is an ecological phenomenon, governed by the same laws as other processes in nature” (241). Thus we aren’t going to be confronted with a fork in the road, the road less travelled made famous according to the predominant misinterpretation of the Frost poem, with a moment to act or not, as the opening lines of The Handbook suggests. These ways of thinking, Greer argues, tend to foreshorten the time frame of historical change. “It becomes easy to forget that no matter how drastic a change appears on the page of history books, it is rarely sudden for those who live through it” (53). I would suggest that the format of “Energy Bulletin” or ASPO’s Peak Oil News, and the way I, as others, am drawn to it daily, looking for the changes we anticipate is a symptom of my and our desire for the sort of momentous and foreshortened suddenness that Hopkins may seem to promise.

Indeed, as the wheel of history creeks slowly through its cycle, human agency becomes painfully limited: “the human ecology that succeeds best under any set of environmental conditions depends much more on those conditions, and the way they interact with available resources and technology, than on the choices we make” (36). One of the stronger images comes near the beginning of The Ecotechnic Future compares human society to a population of field mice going through series of population overshoots and rapid die-offs, victims of forces that they cannot begin to comprehend, let alone control.

On first consideration, even second, Greer seems to be telling a story of tragic necessity. As players in this drama it would be possible to imagine that we would feel compelled to tear out our eyes of fall on our daggers. But this is not the mood of Greer’s book which, though not exactly hopeful, does not present a feeling of desperation. Why? Because, it turns out, we are not actually players in this drama. Instead, we are, for the most part, spectators sitting knowingly beyond, even, the chorus. It is here, perhaps, where Hopkins and Greer are furthest apart.