John Michael Greer: If the Four Horsemen arrive, offer beer
Chris Martenson: Welcome to this Peak Prosperity podcast. I am your host, Chris Martenson. Today I am very happy to welcome John Michael Greer to the program.
John is the proprietor of the website, The Archdruid Report, in which – if you haven’t read it, you really should check it out – he writes about environmental depletion of social descent from a very nontraditional but noteworthy perspective. He’s also a man of varied and complex interests. From Wikipedia, I read that John is an American author, of course; independent scholar, historian of ideas, cultural critic, neo-Druid leader, hermeticist, environmentalist/conservationist, blogger/novelist, and occultist/esotericist who currently resides in Cumberland, Maryland after living in Ashland, Oregon for a number of years.
Now, I’ve invited John on to discuss the belief systems that are likely going to lead us to empire failure such as widespread and blind faith in technology that will just swoop in and solve our growing energy and environmental imbalances. Maybe it will; maybe it won’t. So here to discuss that – John, you and I have met a couple of times, and it’s great to have you on the show. Thank you for joining us.
John Michael Greer: Well, thank you. It’s a pleasure to be on the show.
Chris Martenson: Well, let’s start with you and your website. You are an actual Archdruid.
John Michael Greer: That's correct.
Chris Martenson: Your title is?
John Michael Greer: My official formal title is Grand Archdruid of the Grand Grove of the Ancient Order of Druids in America. That and $3.50 will get you a cup of coffee, mind you, but it’s a nice grand old title.
Chris Martenson: That’s a fantastic title. So explain to us, then, how the country’s leading Archdruid became a popular web blogger opining on economic issues and social dissent.
John Michael Greer: I’m still trying to figure out quite how that happened. Back in 2006, I launched a blog called The Archdruid Report because I wanted to talk within the Druid community about issues of Peak Oil, the future of industrial society, all these things that we’re all going to have to deal with within the Druid community, as in the wider world. And I figured, okay, this is going to get like fifteen readers ever, but I felt it was worth doing. So I started posting things and starting having – you know, back in the day, it was one or two comments.
And then something happened, and I’m not really quite sure what happened, how it worked, because people outside the Druid community started joining in the conversation, and then more of them and then more of them. And at this point, it’s become a minor Internet phenomenon. And I wish I could explain how that happened and tell all my fellow Druids how to go out there and become major voices in the Peak Oil scene or what have you, but I’m still rather baffled by the whole thing.
Chris Martenson: Well, interesting. So you have lots of readers and people are clearly resonating with something. And it must be – you’re a very clear writer – it must be that you’re talking about things that are actually relevant to people.
John Michael Greer: One would hope so. I think part of it is that I’ve consistently refused to fall into a couple of very simple narratives – narratives that are wildly popular, that are very repetitious, and that people are beginning to realize don’t actually offer any answers.
Chris Martenson: Fantastic. Now we’re right in the breadbasket of where I’m interested.
John Michael Greer: I’m tossing you the seed line here.
Chris Martenson: So let’s talk about these narratives. Because in my world, I think that if you have the wrong narrative, everything goes wrong even if you’re applying your best efforts. And with the right narrative, of course, life is easier and simpler. What are these wrong narratives that we’re running right now?
John Michael Greer: Okay. The two narratives that I watch constantly going back and forth, I think of them as “Tweedle-dee and Tweedle-doom” of our vision of the future. It’s either the narrative of progress or the narrative of apocalypse; one or the other. Nothing in between need apply. The narrative of progress says that all human history is this vast onward and upward journey from the caves to the stars, and that if we just keep on doing the things we’re doing, everything will work out. Marvelous new technological inventions will pop up out of nowhere to bail us out from the consequences of our own stupidity. And you know, we can’t go back; we can’t decline. None of that’s possible because progress is the law of the universe, okay? That’s one narrative.
Chris Martenson: Mm hmm.
John Michael Greer: It doesn’t work.
The other narrative is the narrative of apocalypse. We are the worst generation. Our society is the greatest evil that’s ever been, and eventually, some power – whether it’s God or nature or just blind chance – is going to a stump the living crap out of us, leaving a handful of plucky survivors who knew the truth all along, to rebuild a perfect world in the rubble.
Chris Martenson: Hmm. Any middle ground in those narratives?
John Michael Greer: You’ve heard both of these 1.2 gazillion times.
Chris Martenson: Yes.
John Michael Greer: And whether it’s Peak Oil, whether it’s – choose a crisis. People will come at it from one of those two things – either not a problem; we’ll get through it or we’re all going to die.
Chris Martenson: Well, like all good narratives, these are based on beliefs, beliefs that people hold.
John Michael Greer: Exactly.
Chris Martenson: And one great thing about beliefs is that they’re very good at accumulating supporting data and somehow overlooking, ignoring, denying, or rejecting data that doesn’t quite fit the belief structure as well. So let’s talk about the progress narrative for a second.
John Michael Greer: Talk about the narrative of progress, the established religion of American society. Forget about Christianity. Most people who call themselves Christians actually believe that progress is going to save us.
Chris Martenson: Hmm, okay.
John Michael Greer: You get some people in the evangelical [Christian] movement who have actually grasped the fact that they’re mostly going to the apocalyptic side of things – you know, the Rapture and all this business. But an amazing number of people who think they believe in something else, their real faith is in progress. Progress is their god. Oh, well.
Chris Martenson: Well, progress and is technology the handmaiden of this story? Or is this a different belief structure?
John Michael Greer: Well, it depends on who you talk to. One of the things about the narrative of progress is that the identities of the main actors can change. It’s like a soap opera where you swap out one actor for another. So the hero of the story, the progress that’s going to save us, can be technological progress. That’s where you get the Ray Kurzweils of the world, for example.
Sometimes it’s social change. We’re becoming wiser and smarter and more compassionate, so of course we don’t have to deal with consequences of our past. We’re going to build a marvelous Utopian society at some point. I mean, there are all kinds of things that could be said into the narrative of progress. These days, it’s usually technology.
Chris Martenson: So this is interesting because I just had occasion to sit down with a very famous archaeologist, this gentleman, John Hale out of Louisville, and he’s very steeped in Roman culture and that’s one of his specialties; also Incan. And so when I posed this very question to him, I said talk to me about how progress is inevitable. He just burst out laughing, because, of course, he’s studied many cultures where great fabulous technologies were born and then lost, completely lost. Like it’s still a mystery – how did they fit those twelve-sided boulders into those multi-ton pocketed creations? What was going on there, right? And so we’ve had – Romans had steam heat running under the floor. It was a technology that was lost for almost a millennium before we figured out that one.
John Michael Greer: They had very complex gear train systems of a level of complexity that wasn’t rediscovered until the eighteenth century.
Chris Martenson: It’s phenomenal. So we had all that progress, and what happened to that progress?
John Michael Greer: Well, what happens – this is the thing. Progress is not a cause; progress is an effect. Try saying this to people, especially those who believe in the religion of progress, and they will wet themselves arguing with you. But in fact, progress is an effect. In the modern world, it’s mostly an effect of burning lots of fossil fuels. In the Roman world, it was the effect of expansion of Roman society, meaning more money, more slaves, more wealth of various kinds coming under the control of Rome. So you could afford to set aside specialized craftsman to devise really complicated gear trains, to develop all kinds of technologies with mile meters on them – I’ll try that again – taxis, horse-drawn taxi with mile meters on them, they had those. Flush toilets, all this kind of stuff.
Because you have the surplus wealth, which was being produced by basically pillaging the rest of the Mediterranean world. And the problem is that sooner or later, you run out of stuff to pillage, whether it’s spare countries that have plenty of wealth where the revolutionaries can march into it and take over, or whether it’s petroleum deposits that are easy to pump out. You run out of that surplus wealth, your ability to maintain the complex technology begins to decline, people start fighting over who gets what, and that worsens the situation. And eventually, you have a downward spiral, which ends in a dark age, when that kind of technology is something that nobody can afford to preserve.
Chris Martenson: Well, this is very interesting. So where are we in our current narrative, then? So one of the narratives I hear out there is – and it might just be marketing and it might actually be propaganda, I’m not clear yet – but it goes like this: America’s about to become energy independent. We’ve just been very clever and we’ve drilled in places where we just unlocked all this incredible energy bonanza. And you know, I go over and talk to people who are actual oil engineers and they say no, no, no, no, Chris. When unlocked, the Bakken Play was the price. See, we’ve known how to horizontal drill for decades and we’ve known how to frack for decades.
John Michael Greer: Exactly.
Chris Martenson: What we didn’t have was $80/barrel oil to support these very expensive practices.
John Michael Greer: Mm-hmm, and all this was predicted. All this had been predicted in detail. As the price of oil ratchets up, various higher-priced things will flow in and provide a temporary cushion. I stress the word temporary. One of the things nobody likes to talk about in how America will be energy independent is just how fast these plays in the Bakken Shale and so on, how fast their decline rate is per well.
Chris Martenson: Yeah, it’s astonishing, really.
John Michael Greer: It drops like a rock, which is the reason it wasn’t developed back in the day, because with $80/barrel oil, $90, $100/barrel oil, you can afford to put in all the money drilling when you know you’re only going to get a couple of years of oil out of it.
Now the rest of it, the rhetoric, I’m sure you remember and I’m sure listeners remember all of the hand waving and rhetoric and vocal noise that came out in the latter days of the housing bubble when everybody was going oh, no, housing prices are going to continue rising indefinitely. And the closer we got to a thorough housing crash, the louder those claims become. That’s exactly where we are now with shale. People are talking about this revolution that’s going to transform America and give us energy independence because the shale bubble is beginning to deflate. Chesapeake, the big shale developer, they’ve had just one financial crisis after another. They’ll probably go pop. They may turn out to be the Countrywide of the shale bubble.
Chris Martenson: I love Chesapeake because what they’ve proven is this: There are four ways to make money in the shale gas place but one of them isn’t producing the shale gas and selling it at a profit. There’s a lot of financial chicanery going on there. And it’s like all good bubbles, you have complete belief structures, you have supporting marketing materials, collaterals delivered to journalists to run as fresh opinion pieces. And I’m watching this whole machine operate and I feel like I’m watching Lucy with a football and Charlie Brown’s taking one more good run at it. Maybe this time, Charlie.
John Michael Greer: Yeah, it’s one of those things. One book that I highly recommend – that I’d like to recommend everybody run out and find a copy and read it – is John Kenneth Galbraith’s book, The Great Crash of 1929. Now, the 1929 crash was a long time ago, and it’s part of the value of this. He anatomizes the bubble process – how it builds, how it feeds on itself, how it peaks, how it crashes. And once he really paid close attention to that, the sense of déjà vu when the next bubble comes out will knock you over – the same rhetoric, the same claims, the same words get trotted out again and again and again. And it’s a very good way to keep from losing your shirt in the next bubble. There will be a next bubble.
Chris Martenson: Interesting. All right, so let imagine for a moment that one thing hopefully everybody can agree on, no matter how enamored they are with the shale place, is that cheap oil is in the rearview mirror. We know that the twenty or thirty dollar a barrel oil is over – unless, you know, the economy crashes and takes oil prices down. But if it does, we’re not going to get any of this new miraculous supply out because it won’t be economic.
John Michael Greer: Exactly, then we’ll have twenty or thirty dollar a barrel oil that nobody can afford to buy.
Chris Martenson: So let’s continue this metaphor then. So Roman legionnaires went out and scoured further and further exurbs of the nation, as it were, to get out there and bring back the resources that were required to provide the surplus so that they could do all the beautiful, wonderful, clever, complex, rich, culturally distinct things that they did. And then, they ran out of that surplus, and the complexity couldn’t be sustained.
John Michael Greer: The complexity couldn’t be sustained. And so Rome toppled into what I called “catabolic collapse,” which is the process whereby a society trying to maintain itself feeds on its own infrastructure. I mean, in complex ways, in simple ways. Simplest is, you tear down something to get the raw materials – I think it’s still going on now – but what has been going on where some of these subdivisions that went up during the housing bubble are being stripped of their copper, their aluminum, anything else that’s worth money. That’s catabolic collapse. This stuff is being catabolized. It’s being stripped down and recycled.
Now, it’s one thing when that’s being done with useful subdivisions that no one will ever live in. It’s quite another thing when it’s being done with actual pieces of working infrastructure and is increasingly happening.
Chris Martenson: Well, certainly, we’ve seen working transformers and substations stripped of their grounding wires, things like that.
John Michael Greer: Mm-hmm.
Chris Martenson: Right?
John Michael Greer: Yeah, things like that, yeah. And so you have this process that built because as you strip your infrastructure, your capacity to produce wealth to sustain what you have ratchets down further. So it came be this sort of self-feeding catabolic process that ends up with sheep grazing in the [Roman] forum.
Chris Martenson: Well, here in the modern world, we started out with these super-giant, very easy, delicious, tasty fields like the Ghawar Field in Saudi Arabia – 180 miles long, 50 miles wide, on land, only down 1100 feet – tasty.
John Michael Greer: Or Spindletop in Texas, you know. There’s this immense quantity of light, sweet crude. Practically poke a stick in the sand and you can get at it.
Chris Martenson: Yeah, it’s just there. So this was like raiding the next country over, right? And it was just that these were all wheat farmers.
John Michael Greer: Yeah.
Chris Martenson: And now we’re in the Bakken Play, and this has to be a little bit like trucking over the Pyrenees, over the next mountain range, into the Urals to get at some subsistence farmers out there at the edge.
John Michael Greer: Yeah, basically. And the problem the Romans ran into ultimately was that there was this band of very rich, very civilized, very settled societies that amassed a lot of wealth around the Mediterranean basin. And once you got past that, well, to the south, you had Sahara Desert, you know, nomadic desert tribes – not much wealth. To the north, you had the German Barbarians – barbarians; not much wealth. To the east, you had the Parthians, who actually had quite a bit of wealth, but they worked out a military technology of horse archers that the Romans couldn’t beat. So basically what happened was that they’d reached Peak Empire. And so they kept on trying to expand and make the same thing work.
But you conquer a chunk of Southern Germany – okay, big deal. You get a little bit of wheat. You don’t get the gold; you don’t get all the wealth that they were used to pillaging from Spain and from Greece and from Egypt and from all these settled places, which had amassed wealth over thousands of years.
And so in the same way, we started with places like the Ghawar and now we’re ratcheting down to smaller and smaller, and more and more difficult, more and more costly resources. And all the resources needed to get those resources have to come out of a common pool. So you have a sort of society-wide energy crisis where how much of your total society’s resources – forget about money, money is a set of abstract counters – how much labor, how much energy, how much raw materials, how much information, how much of this can you afford to divert for all other uses to the process of just getting the oil out of the ground? At a certain point, you start running into real problems.
Chris Martenson: Yes, you do start running into real problems. And I notice that at your website found at TheArchdruidReport.blogspot.com, you have a five-part series – or a multipart series; is it five? – on the dissolution of the American empire and how that could happen. It’s a narrative. It’s a future tale. What prompted you to write that story using that format?
John Michael Greer: Well, since about the first of the year, I’ve been discussing the ongoing and imminent collapse of the United States empire, the global empire. Of course, we don’t have an empire, we’re the defenders of Democracy. The fact that we have troops in – what is it, a hundred and fifteen countries scattered around the world?
Chris Martenson: Mm hmm.
John Michael Greer: And somehow, Americans, the 5% of us who live in the United States, use 25% of the world’s energy resources, 33% of its raw materials, and 33% of its industrial product. Not because other people don’t want these things, please note, okay? These can’t have anything to do with one another. No, no, we defend democracy. Well, you know, every empire has its shtick, and that’s ours.
But like empire – you know, empire’s an expensive business, and as the Romans found, the profits go down while the expenses go up. We’re long past that point, and we’re bankrupting ourselves trying to maintain an empire that no one paid its way.
So the same process that brought the British Empire to an end, that brought the Spanish Empire to an end – we can go back as far in history as you want to – is hard at work in our own life right now. And it’s shaping not the broad picture of Peak Oil and the collision of our civilization with environmental limits, but the specific, more focused here’s what’s going on right here right now and needs to be factored into any kind of coherent sense of what’s going to happen in the near future. It’s the end of American Empire.
So I basically spent much of a year discussing how empires work, what they are, how America got into the empire business, how that’s worked out for us, what are the various patterns. But there’s something in that narrative. If you can tell a coherent story, it’s much easier for people to understand. So I spent the five posts in the month of October outlining one scenario whereby America’s global empire could come apart fairly quickly.
Of course, there are many other scenarios that could be written along the same lines, but this is one way of talking about how empires end, how our empire might end, and what kinds of things we need to think about as that process gets underway.
Chris Martenson: Well, as you contrast past empires and their unravelings, I’m sure there are some historical volumes in there and some common features in all of that. As you map that and you look at where America is in this story, where would you place us on that arc?
John Michael Greer: We are almost precisely a hundred years after the British. In 1912, the British Empire was still the global hyper power. It had this vast Navy full of up-to-date battleships that were effectively obsolete but nobody had actually put that to the test yet. And everybody thought the British Empire will last a thousand years. Well, of course, it didn’t. It was on the brink of collapse. There was a major rising power that was still Germany in those days – China today – that was increasingly pushing at the boundaries. And eventually things blew up.
Now at that time, it blew up into two of history’s largest wars, and Germany didn’t end up becoming Britain’s successor state. That ended up being the [United] States for complex reasons. It’s less likely that the rising power of China and the declining power of the U.S. are going to end in a major war, if only because everybody has nukes and there are some very sharp limits that that draws. But the same process of empyreal decline can unfold in other ways by way of economic crises, by way of proxy wars, by way of insurgencies, all the means short of the U.S. military and the People’s Revolutionary Army actually crashing into each other on the planes and wherever. So that kind of hang space, when an empire is effectively no longer functional but nobody’s yet put enough pressure on it to actually make it crash, that’s where we are now.
Chris Martenson: I saw a small metaphor for this, I think, when I was out in Iowa recently and flew into Cedar Rapids and was driven two and a half hours to an engagement. Got to see a lot of the landscape. Guess what? It’s a lot of farms. But also, there were a town and a city that we had to drive past that had experienced last year a 500-year flood; this year a punishing drought. But as we were driving through, my host was sort of apologetically saying oh yeah, that’s the still ruined downtown area. They haven’t quite got it all fixed up yet but you know, they plan to and there are all these plans. And it came to me that once you’ve tipped over the ascendancy, you’re on the downside of the arc, that you always kind of plan you’re going to rebuild, but in a world without abundant surplus, it just somehow never really quite happens.
John Michael Greer: Exactly.
Chris Martenson: And I wonder if this time – you know, we had World War I and a lot of people died, it was very traumatic, and there was all this great rebuilding that happened. But we were awash with energy at that point. World War II, same story. The mistake would be to think oh, we could do that again and we’ll just rebuild and it’ll actually be stimulative, potentially. And the idea here would be no, not if you don’t have the energy and the resources to do it. It could be that these next wars simply destroy things that never get rebuilt, if they happen.
John Michael Greer: Exactly, exactly. And so we can hope that it doesn’t come to major wars and that kind of massive destruction. The downhill slope is going to be a lot faster than it otherwise would be. But as it is, I’m willing to bet that there are going to be a lot of towns in New Jersey that are never going to be rebuilt to the same standards they had before the storm Sandy came through.
Chris Martenson: You mean, like the lower ninth ward still sort of sitting there, largely…
John Michael Greer: Exactly. Yeah, exactly.
Chris Martenson: …in the same condition?
John Michael Greer: And beyond that, out from New Orleans in the lowlands around the coast of Louisiana and Mississippi, there are all kinds of towns that were never rebuilt. You don’t hear much about them, but they were flattened to the ground. All that FEMA did was give them some trailers that leaked a lot of formaldehyde; that’s it. There was never any serious rebuilding. And this is the kind of thing – there are sections of the Texas coast that got hit – was it Rita, as I recall?
Chris Martenson: Right.
John Michael Greer: One of the big hurricanes that same year. There were areas there that got hit in the same way. Bit by bit, town by town, region by region, we’re having these ratcheting downward events. That’s actually the way that a civilization goes down. It’s not some kind of kaboom – you know, nice Hollywood catastrophe, plucky band of survivors that describe the sort of apocalypse thing. It’s everything just keeps on winding down and things get broken and they don’t get fixed.
Chris Martenson: Well, I’m strictly nonpartisan; however, here I’m looking at my calendar and it’s November 7, which means that yesterday was the presidential election.
John Michael Greer: Yesterday was the presidential election.
Chris Martenson: I believe it was. And somebody won; I believe his name was Obama.
John Michael Greer: Mittrak Obamney got into office, okay.
Chris Martenson: Well, you’re hinting at my critique of this, even though I’m very nonpartisan and almost exclusively nonpolitical, as well. But with this, I didn’t engage so much around what they were talking about and saying these are the issues we want to frame and talk about. I ended up focusing more on what they weren’t saying. Because in the context of this story you’re telling, there’s a narrative. There’s a story we tell ourselves. The Grand Empire has a vision of itself.
And I heard both candidates basically articulating the same version of how they were going to be better at preserving and extending the status quo, when much of that status quo – as we’re mentioning here in the stories around maybe the post-Rita damage or the post-Sandy damage – that the status quo is seriously in jeopardy at this point for a lot of very concrete, fairly easy to understand, numerically quantitative sort of descriptive things that we can get our arms around. We can see the difficulty, and I know lots of people see it, as well. There’s this vast anxiety brewing in the general populace. It’s like I hear what they’re saying, but I’m seeing this, and there’s a gap, and that gap’s widening and widening.
John Michael Greer: There is, there is. But the thing is, to one extent, it was guaranteed that these successful politicians of our day were basically going to be singing lullabies, were going to be saying oh, it’s okay, I’ll take care of it. Because some of these people, they are anxious. They know in their guts that things are going down. They know in their guts that this is not just a normal economic fluctuation, that there’s major trouble brewing. And it’s so much easier not to deal with that and turn to some smiley face who’s going to tell you no, no, I can fix it.
And so we had two essentially mutually interchangeable candidates desperately trying to insist that they were different from each other. And you know, whichever one got into office, we were going to get the same policies anyway. Barack Obama got into office four years ago talking about hope and change, and then a minute after he was elected, dropped that and proceed to give us a brilliant imitation of the third term of George W. Bush. All of the same policies remained in place.
If Romney had won last night by whatever means, we would’ve gotten Barack Obama’s second term anyway. Because the thing you have to remember is that the American political system at this point is so fragmented between various power groups and various constituencies that all have to be paid off. There’s no flexibility left in the system. To get any change, you have to amass such a coalition, and everybody’s pushing for some fragment if not of the status quo, at least of whatever they’re getting out of the status quo. And so actually having a policy, actually doing something different has become effectively impossible in America today under the present political system. So we’re going to see these same kind of zombie policies stalking forward into the future until finally somebody shows up with the proverbial chainsaw.
Chris Martenson: And who would that be? The bond market?
John Michael Greer: [Laugh] Come on, at this point, the United States government is buying all of its own bonds anyway, or most of them.
Chris Martenson: I know, I know. So let’s imagine…
John Michael Greer: We just spin the presses, hey.
Chris Martenson: You know, I spent a lot of time in business, and I’m a business person myself, but I do this with my own life. And I’ve learned all these fancy-schmancy strategy methodologies. And basically, it all boiled down to one very simple thing, which is, a strategy consists of knowing where you’re going to go and how you’re going to get there, right?
John Michael Greer: Uh-huh.
Chris Martenson: It’s like I’m going to go to the store, and I’m going to use my car, and I have enough gas to get there. I mean, that’s a strategy, right?
John Michael Greer: Mm-hmm, yeah.
Chris Martenson: And so ultimately, it’s articulation of the vision and the resources you have to get there. I look at our hundred years of natural gas, I discount that by some whole number – maybe two or three, I’m dividing into some number – but we might have a couple of decades of fairly useful fuel there. But we get to burn it once.
And my concern is that neither candidate articulated where we want to be in twenty years and how we want to use what we have to get there. And in the absence of that, I find communities going I’m not waiting around to see if these guys can figure it out. I’m going to start, I don’t know what. I’m going to grow food, I’m going to insulate my house, I’m going to live near people I care about. I don’t know what, but I’m seeing more and more reaction to this. But do you have any sense, like do we have a national vision? Am I missing it?
John Michael Greer: No. I think one of the major problems here is that we don’t have a national vision anymore. We have regional visions, and we have visions within specific communities and subcultures, and many of these are diametrically opposed to one another. As we saw in last night’s election, in quite a few of the red states, Obama got stomped. You know, he got 35% of the vote. In quite a few of the blue states, Romney got stomped. And it wasn’t over their vision or lack of same, it was simply that there were specific issues, specific polarizing issues where there is no national consensus at all. And we’re moving away from any such national consensus.
That’s one of the reasons why one of the things that turned out in the scenario that I was building on my blog was a dissolution of the United States and its reformation into about a dozen smaller regional nations drawn up largely along the lines of the cultural wars. I’m not saying it’s a good thing; I’m not saying that it’s even a certain thing. But it’s certainly a way of talking about the way that this country’s vision of itself is splintering in our time. And nobody’s offering a coherent vision that seems to appeal to everybody, or even to a majority.
Chris Martenson: Even to a majority. I do note that it’s interesting to watch. They say oh, well, what percent this candidate got and what percent this candidate got. And of course, the winning candidate out of all this might be the one nobody voted for at all because a lot of people still don’t vote, and for complex sets of reasons, perhaps. But I think part of it has to be a lack of engagement with what’s being offered. It just doesn’t really match anything that will compel me to go and vote is what some people seem to be thinking.
All right, let’s talk about the stories maybe that we need to start telling ourselves here. If we were going to somehow grant you a magic wand and you could wave it and start to shift the narrative, what would that start to look like? What are the elements?
John Michael Greer: Well, the first thing that I would do would be the most unpopular of all, and let’s talk about limits. We have a national mythology that limits are always bad – to be limited, to be limiting. This from people who depend every moment on the floor limiting their capacity to fall into the basement. In fact, we have a national phobia of limits, and we need to get past that. We need to deal with the facts that limitations are real, that limits are actually good for us. You know, Mom’s hands holding us up when we were trying to take our first step, those were very powerful limits. They kept us from bruising our nose on the floor. And many limits function the same way.
We need to come to terms with the fact that we don’t have limitless energy, we don’t have limitless resources, we don’t have limitless time. All of these things are specific. They function within a finite world. And engaging in hand waving about well, human ingenuity is limitless. No, it isn’t. Okay, it may be immense, but it’s not limitless.
And so getting past that fetish of limitlessness strikes me as the most important thing. All of us are going to die – each individual person listening to this show and everybody else as well, even if they plug their ears and shut their eyes and go la la la, I can’t hear you. We are all going to die. That’s a limit we can’t get past. And you’ll notice that people who actually face that limit and say okay, I get this, I have a finite amount of years on this earth and them I’m going to die. What am I going to do with the time that I have? Those are the people that we call mature. Those are the people we call wise. Those are the people who go out and have a life instead of just frittering their time away.
I think we need to do that as a society. We need to say nobody guaranteed America its particular place in the sun. Nobody guaranteed that it would continue to hang together, or that this Constitution – which I think is a very smart document – will continue to function when it’s being ignored by almost everybody. We need to accept that the world’s not functioning in our favor, that we have to function within realistic sets of limitations within which everything should operate. And then we might actually be able to get off our duff and do something creative with the time we have on this earth.
I could take that any number of other directions, but that’s the core of it. Dealing with the fact that we’re not adolescents anymore – well, except for, of course, those of us who are. We have a society that’s acting like – if you’ve ever seen a fifty-year-old man trying to pretend that he’s seventeen, it’s embarrassing. It’s embarrassing to everybody and it rarely ends well. That’s what America is right now. It’s two hundred something years old. It’s not an adolescent anymore. It needs to ditch the bright red car, stop trying to pick up teenage chicks, stop the binge drinking, and actually deal with the fact that there’s only so many years left. You need to do something useful with that time and not go around with everybody else – you know, China and Europe just rolling their eyes and trying to pretend that they don’t notice how we’ve combed our hair forward over our bald spot.
Chris Martenson: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm. So we have so much energy – that’s our time – and we can either squander it or we could use it wisely.
John Michael Greer: We can squander it or we can use it wisely.
Chris Martenson: Yeah, and if we use it wisely, what would we be doing with it?
John Michael Greer: What we’d be doing, to start with, it’s recognizing that probably two-thirds of the energy we use in this country is wasted. Those of our listeners who have been over to Europe know that they don’t live in caves over there, okay? They get by very comfortably on a third of the energy use per person than we use over here. We could easily, easily decrease our energy use over a ten to twenty year period to European levels. And once we did so, we’d find that a lot of our international problems would go away in a hurry.
Okay, so the first thing, as we used to say back in the day, back in the 1970s and early 1980s when the whole appropriate tech movement was a growing concern, weatherize before you solarize. You first of all conserve what you have, then you can look at converting to renewables to do things with it.
What would we do that would be sensible? Get out of the empire business. If you do it voluntarily, as Britain demonstrated, you can maintain a lot. If it’s dragged from your cold dead hands, that’s not particularly helpful to you. We would be looking at rebuilding what – we used to have the best rail system in the world. At this point, it would be a disgrace to a collapsing Banana Republic. We could fix that relatively easily. We’d provide inexpensive, safe, comfortable, easy rail travel all over the country at a tiny fraction of the energy we now waste on superhighways and air travel. I could go on for a week talking about things that we could do if we were actually going to be reasonable about making the best possible use of the energy we have left.
Chris Martenson: I had a recent experience where I had to get into Boston for a flight, which took me there during rush hour. And it’s been a long time, and you know, they conveniently put Logan Airport on the far side of Boston next to the water, so you have to drive through Boston to get to it. It was an awesome choice, particularly at rush hour. And it’d been a long time since I’d really been stuck in that kind of traffic. And the misery of it, just the soul-destroying misery of those poor people who have to do that five days a week. And many of them are forced to because their alternative public transit situation, circumstance, is actually not really possible there. Whereas in Europe, public transit is awesome; it’s very good.
John Michael Greer: Exactly.
Chris Martenson: And the quality of life that comes from that is great. I wonder if we should ever just sort of step back and say if we were going to start from scratch and we were going to build this and we wanted to create a very livable high quality of life society, what would we do? I really doubt we’d create the car culture that exists that I just experienced…
John Michael Greer: Well, no.
Chris Martenson: …fighting my way into Boston.
John Michael Greer: The car culture was largely a function of the Cold War and the unstated drive behind it. This is coming from historical research. The unstated drive behind it was the desire to decentralize industry and population from the core cities so if we got into nuclear war, fewer people would be killed immediately. This was literally a Defense Department – they stopped calling it the War Department at that point – the Defense Department directive that went out that helped shape American suburbia. The Cold War is over, and now we’re dealing with the cost of what was a short-term military strategy that ended up shaping our long-term environment – not for the better.
Chris Martenson: All right. At the macro level, understanding what the limits are, becoming careful stewards of what remains, really thinking through our priorities, investing wisely – these are all narratives that I truly support. Because it means we’d have a sense of where we’re going and how we’re going to get there. I love it.
John Michael Greer: Exactly.
Chris Martenson: I love that.
John Michael Greer: We’d actually have a goal instead of just you know, desperately trying to cling to what we have, which seems to be pretty much the only goal anyone’s willing to address these days.
Chris Martenson: Yeah, more of the same, please. Just more of it.
John Michael Greer: More of the same. Yeah, more of the same, please, just more of it, and don’t let anyone take it from me.
Chris Martenson: Yeah, yeah. Well, as that narrative unravels, I think at the macro level, it’s clear that it’ll take a real miracle in order for the macro story to change in time, I think. So at Peak Prosperity, we spent a lot of thought and effort trying to encourage and enable individuals and communities to develop personal and community resiliency so that they’re better prepared for whatever the future might bring. We also advise folks to become engaged, that’s really lean into the coming change and live with it. Live with purpose, live with passion, this is your life regardless of the fact that these are potentially disruptive circumstances coming. Might as well, once you mature up, say yeah, what am I going to do with my time? Let’s do something great. So – resilience, engagement. What do you advise people to do?
John Michael Greer: Well, to start with, I would point out that one of the ways we can look at this is what an exciting time this is to be alive.
Chris Martenson: Uh-huh, I agree.
John Michael Greer: What an astonishing opportunity we have to create – with our own lives, with our own choices – to literally shape the future ahead of us. What I’d say to advice is biased very powerfully by my own experience. Back in the very late 1970s and the early 1980s, I was very much into the kind of appropriate tech/organic gardening/sort of post-hippie scene. I spent a while living on a commune and I earned the beard and the ponytail. But there were a lot of skills developed at that time. There were a huge number of skills, technology, technique, and tools that were worked out at that time for precisely the situation that we’re moving into because nobody thought we would squander our last resources on a thirty-year blowout, which is, in fact, what we did.
And so people are saying okay, the age of scarcity is breathing down our necks. We need to develop these with home-scale ways of producing enough energy to be able to do useful things with it, producing at least some of our own food to give us resilience in dealing with increasingly unstable supply chains, ways of taking back control of our own lives from these vast mega systems on which so many people are lethally dependent. All of it boiling down to what you do in your own life. You must change your life. That’s the beginning.
And in fact, one of the reasons why the whole social protest thing has been such a complete failure since the beginning of the Reagan era is that that got ditched at the same time. No, no, no, we can’t possibly conserve energy in our own lives. No, we’re going to protest it and insist that the government get out there and conserve energy instead. We can’t stop driving SUVs. We need to fight climate change in some other way. Is it any wonder that it was a complete failure?
So what I advise is that people start by looking at their own lives and saying okay, how is my life going to change as energy constraints continue to squeeze in, and then get ahead of the change instead of being dragged along behind it? Get ahead of it, give yourself some space, work through the learning curve picking up the skills you’re going to need. Do it now, so that by the time it’s necessary, you’re comfortable with it, you know what you’re doing. You’ve already insulated your place. You may have a solar [hot] water system in place if you can afford one. You’ve torn up some of the grass in back and turned it into a vegetable garden so that you can stretch out staples. You know how to cook from scratch so you’re not dependent on the vast corporate structure. You have these various skills. You maybe started developing some tradable skills. You’ve got a little basement workshop where you’re doing something you can barter with your friends. You’re brewing beer in the basement, you know? That’s actually my number one suggestion for a lot of people – learn how to brew beer. If the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse knock on your door and you can offer each of them a cold one, they’re your friends.
Chris Martenson: [Laugh] Well, that’s certainly an excellent skill, I think, at any age. I’ve done all the things you’ve mentioned, actually, and what I found along the way – And by the way, I was propelled – I’ll be completely honest – I was propelled by something, which was that I was trying to avoid a potentially unpleasant future. So this was kind of a push, but once I got there and learned these things and started dabbling with them, it would pull me.
Like if you took me and drop-kicked me ten years ago into my old life, I would just hightail it out of there as fast as I possibly could into this new life. Because the advantages in the quality-of-life things that come from being engaged and curious and busy with stuff that has meaning, that I can control, and not being as dependent on things that I don’t understand, there’s a lot of benefit in all of this for me, which goes way beyond saving some money and being a little more resilient.
John Michael Greer: Here’s the secret that nobody wants to talk about. The American suburban corporate lifestyle is boring. It is dull; it is dreadfully, draggingly unappealing. And we have to numb ourselves with television and all kinds of other chatterbox things to keep ourselves from noticing how screamingly bored we are. Whereas if you turn off the TV – better yet, take the TV out and toss it in the dumpster, okay? And actually do something with your life, instead of just sitting there passively absorbing what the nice man in the nice advertisement from the nice corporation wants you to buy. If you actually get out there and have a life, it’s a lot more fun, shocking as that may seem. Scrap the Wii. Get out there and do something.
Chris Martenson: Yeah. So on that note, I could go on with you forever, and we’re coming up on the end of our time here. These are all just very trenchant, very poignant observations. And I do believe that if we just take a step back – and a lot of people are – that’s what a crisis affords us. One of the opportunities in the crisis is to step back and go all right, well, something needs changing here, and all of a sudden you see all these things that could be changed. It kind of opens up the conversation to people who are ready to engage in it, and more and more people are.
John Michael Greer: To use the Internet slang, it’s a clue by four.
Chris Martenson: A clue by four?
John Michael Greer: A clue by four. That’s a two by four applied to the side of your head to give you a clue. That’s the greatest advantage of crisis – it is a clue by four. You get whacked, and then you go ohhhhh.
Chris Martenson: Oh. Well, that happened to me, so I’m a proud member with a big welt on the side of my head.
John Michael Greer: There you go.
Chris Martenson: And it’s been wonderful for me. So I’ve already mentioned people can follow you at TheArchdruidReport.blogspot.com, and that’s great. How else? What else should people be reading and knowing about you?
John Michael Greer: Other than that, I don’t have a personal website. Anyone who’s interested in the Druid spirituality that I practice, that’s www.AODA.org, the Ancient Order of Druids in America. And I have all kinds of books, which are available at your favorite local full service bookstore. And that’s about what I can think of.
Chris Martenson: Well, fantastic. Until next time, I really want to thank you for your time and this wonderful conversation.
John Michael Greer: Thank you, I’ve enjoyed our conversation.
Chris Martenson: Me too. Until then. We’ll see you. Have a great set of holidays.
John Michael Greer: I will do that. You, too.
Chris Martenson: Thank you.
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