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The Long and the Short of It: Existential Comfort in the Age of Hopkins and Greer, Part IV

Editor's note: Please see Parts Parts 1, 2 and 3

Part 4. The View from History’s Amphitheater (Or, What Does John Michael Greer Want?)

Let us begin by taking seriously a few lines of Greer cited in Part 3:

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. (Ecotechnic Future 82)

To put this in its context I should note that Greer is here discussing widespread utopian fantasies within the “peak oil community” generated in response to fears about an uncertain future; Greer is wary of the way “so many popular books today” make claims about a quick and “imminent evolutionary transformation” (192).

That this is “one of the most troubling signs of our times” is a matter of reasoned (or not) opinion and is not subject to easy verification or refutation. However, more accessible to refutation are his claims that “so many people” are engaged in this troubling practice and that it can be found in “so many popular books.” Since becoming a Peak Oil activist my overwhelming perception is how few people question whether the future will be a seamless and progressive extension of the present, and how little discussion of Peak Oil there is in any popular media. Peak Oil, in my experience, is a concept alien to most academics, journalists, and politicians. The fact that there is a scarcity of citations or direct references amongst these sections of his book is probably symptomatic of a belief and desire on the part of Greer that is far stronger than reason or evidence. I should note that all of us, by virtue of our membership in this glorious species, are victims of the same sort of aporia. This is not unique.

But let us nevertheless take Greer’s statement about all these people with all their popular books treating today’s imminent catastrophe as an inkblot for utopian fantasies seriously, and examine the way it drives his narrative and thus his conclusions.

(As another note, it is mainly irrelevant to this line of investigation whether Greer has since revised these thoughts or taken his work in a different direction, which is not to say that it is irrelevant in all ways. But I am treating his text as an entity unto itself. While I am positive that a mind like Greer’s should be followed where ever it goes, I am ultimately more interested in the structure of his story, the way it works, how it holds together and where it might begin to unravel, how, in short, it does what it does. Why? Because a narrative structure may, in the end, be far more significant than the ebb and flow of its author’s thought. A narrative structure is far more iterable and subject to repeated dissemination; it provides patterns for the way a culture describes itself and thus makes decisions about its future in a way that a single author’s voice does not. I take the ways and means of narrative seriously.)

I may have left the impression in Part 3 that because Greer’s narrative is broader than Hopkins’, because it encompasses it, redescribes it, puts it into a wider context, because it doesn’t follow a simple and linear structure or have even a hint of a fairy-tale air about it—that because of all this it is superior or more realistic. To suggest this would be similar to positing that a complex and highly networked society is more real or truer to human nature or potential, or whatever, than a simple society. I say this not to inhibit analysis. Each can equally be examined to see how it works and, perhaps, under what conditions it comes apart.

Like Hopkins’ Greer has great narrative talent. But where Hopkins’ talent lies in a seemingly contradictory (though not necessarily so, we shall eventually see) ability to on one hand display a utilitarian attitude towards stories (their value is more a matter of what they can do than whether they are, strictly speaking the most “accurate ones” possible) and on the other hand to draw his reader into a rather simple one, Greer’s talent is closer to that of a literary critic. Instead of making his narrative appear invisible to a reader who, in The Transition Handbook, is exhilarated by the invitation to join the most momentous people at the most momentous point in history, Greer engages in the far cooler act of comparative narratology. In some senses he writes a metanarrative—a narrative about narratives. If narrative were not one of his preoccupations, it would be unlikely that Greer would--in the face of Peak Oil, run-away climate change, an exploding population, crashing ecosystems, and the possible collapse of the global economy--deem something as seemingly innocuous as a wrong-headed story that “so many [imagined] people” tell themselves about the future to be “one of the most troubling signs of our times.” Greer takes narrative far more seriously even than I!

In fact he takes it so seriously that the protagonist of The Ecotechnic Future is an orientation, an attitude, a dispensation that “sets fantasies aside” and that is determined most of all to avoid succumbing to utopian visions, facile options, or grand plans that become attractive when we ignore “the limits imposed by ecological realities.” Telling the right sort of story is, Greer implies, a most pressing concern. To be fair, the narrative fabric of Greer’s work is complex enough that there are several interwoven stories, and thus more than one protagonist. But no one individual plays an important role, nor does any collective “we.” Humans, in their more corporeal form, appear relatively absent from the book. Consciousness is far more present—and it is the triumph of a properly oriented consciousness that Greer’s narrative pursues.

The long view of history, where specific cultures (and thus of course specific members of any culture) play the role of historical examples who reveal the repetition of far deeper and insuperable patterns, explains the absence of flesh and blood, joy and sorrow, grist.

But there is a specific narrative structure to all of this, namely Tragedy. While the true opposite of Romance (and thus for our purpose, Hopkins) is reserved for Satire, Tragedy lacks the transcendence and reconciliations characteristic of Romance. In Tragedy, as is suggested by one of its Father-figures, Oedipus, the protagonist is blind to the intractable forces which govern his reality and his fate. But from this blindness, insight is gained—but only for the spectator. As Hayden White puts it, “there has been a gain in consciousness for the spectators of the contest. And this gain is thought to consist in the epiphany of the law governing human existence which the protagonist’s exertions against the world have brought to pass” (Metahistory 9).

To put it into a far less poetic contemporary lingo, Tragedy is not a solutions oriented approach to our challenges. Rather its goal is higher awareness and consciousness. From an ideological standpoint a tragic historical narrative is often criticized for subduing our radical and hopeful impulses and aspirations: “the reconciliations that occur at the end of Tragedy are much more somber; they are more of the nature of resignations of men to the conditions under which they must labor in the world” (Metahistory 9). Or as Greer puts it, “thus humanity is no more exempt from ecological processes that it is from the law of gravity” (20).

While Tragedy is far more oriented towards a heightened and appropriately oriented consciousness than the earthbound triumphs of Romance, there is of course a practical aspect to Greer’s work. This is especially apparent in the Green Wizard project, which though largely different in tone from Greer’s narratives about the sweep of history, will not be permitted to be entirely at odds with it. There are, however, many pragmatic moments, even sections, in The Ecotechnic Future, in which specific practices are recommended. In order that these may be woven into his larger textual fabric, Greer must contend with the Tragic impulses of his ecological understanding of human behavior and civilizations, impulses which appear to have the strongest draw upon his narratival dispensations, but with which, for whatever reason, he is not entirely or ultimately satisfied. He also wants to tell people what to do. To answer the question with which I began, Greer’s fear of an improper utopian dispensation drives his narrative towards the immobile grandeur of tragic awareness. But after that it knows not where to go.

Thus Greer takes on Tragedy directly, as if, perhaps, he has written himself into a corner and determines his best course is to start discussing corners: at any rate, Tragedy, Greer explains, where “great heroes risk everything for an ideal,” “makes great literature and drama, of course.” But since the tragic hero generally dies, “they may not be the best model for constructive change!” (93). As an antidote to this, Greer appeals to the Comic Hero: “Comic heroes are usually muddlers, stumbling cluelessly through situations with no grander agenda than coming out the other side with a whole skin” (93). Or as White explains, “In comedy, hope is held out for the temporary triumph of man over his world by the prospect of occasional reconciliations of the forces at play in the social and natural worlds” (Metahistory 9).

It is at precisely this moment that Greer makes an abrupt and disjointed switch in tone and direction, which I would add, can also be identified in the contrasting focus, in his other work, between the long view of history and tomorrow’s gardening chore. For me, the most notable feature of Greer’s discussion of the inadequacies of Tragedy is his use of the exclamation point in the sentence cited in my previous paragraph. While I cannot assert with complete confidence that this is the only exclamation point in The Ecotechnic Future, it appears with rarity and thus reveals itself as a rhetorical “tell.” Greer has too much facility with language and with descriptive and illuminating narratives to rely on the exclamation point. But more broadly, the long-view of history, the ebb and flows of ecology, the perpetual spinning of the wheel of life, the accidental break-throughs of evolutionary change—this consciousness which has little need or little room for exclamations in general. Exclamations are something one would make from the top of Hubbert’s Peak, not from the amphitheater of history’s great sweep.

But here he appears torn between two competing forces and the magnitude of the forces can be identified by the strains in Greer’s writing and in the unlikely and wholly unsatisfactory choice of a Comic Hero who “stumbles cluelessly through situations” as a possible protagonist. Who, after all, is a more unlikely figure for Greer, who so values consciousness, to identify with than a muddler, someone who is clueless!? Greer’s difficulty, then, is to reconcile his desire for a fit dispensation (or perhaps a curmudgeonly bias against that enthusiastic rabble of Transition innocents) with his competing need for “constructive change.”

All drama, I noted in a previous section, is driven by a protagonists who wants something, and then in some sense, wins, loses, or draws. We can shed light on all these questions, and indeed on some strange textual moments, by asking what the Greerian consciousness wants and how the narrative is, in the end, arranged so that a path for its possible fulfillment can be found in the rubble left by “history’s steamroller.” What the Greerian consciouness is questing for, after all, determines the council he provides, whether it be to those of us who will meet a tragic fate or who will cluelessly muddle through as we stumble through the gauntlet of adaptation and evolution.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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