Book Review: Not The Future We Ordered: Peak Oil, Psychology, and the Myth of Progress
[This just-released book will be available for purchase in stores and online very soon.]
If you visit John Michael Greer’s Amazon Page you are likely to be incredulous when you discover how many books he has written, and you’ll soon discover that collecting all of his articles online is nearly an impossible task. A voracious reader, a prolific writer, a brilliant thinker whose work is intermittently sprinkled with delightful humor, Greer has become one of the most prominent and credible voices among those articulating the collapse of industrial civilization.
His latest offering Not The Future We Ordered: Peak Oil, Psychology, and The Myth of Progress published by Karnac Books of London, follows Mystery Teachings From The Living Earth: An Introduction To Spiritual Ecology. Both works reveal a more profound engagement with psychology than may be found in previous offerings and deliver a style in which the cerebral is richly complemented by the soulful.
Not The Future We Ordered begins with “The Unmentionable Crisis” in which Greer articulates the machinations of a society in denial of its predicament that like a skillful contortionist, is adept at reframing the crisis in contrast to anyone who would dare to name it, labeling their assertion as at best, a “personal issue” and at worst, a pathology. Nevertheless, the gap between the cultural narrative and reality is astounding when Greer introduces the “troublesome” Hubbert’s curve and its dire implications. Yet even through the energy challenges of the 1970s, society ignored the science of Hubbard and succeeded only in mastering the defense mechanism of denial. Or as Greer notes:
None of these changes affected the reality of the industrial world’s dependence on fossil fuels, and on petroleum in particular. They simply made it possible to ignore that dependence for a few decades longer, and thus allowed the industrial world to back itself into a corner from which there would be few palatable escapes. It is one of the bitter ironies of recent history that the few decades of willful blindness bought by the political maneuverings of the early 1980s comprised exactly the window of time that would have been needed to make a successful transition from fossil fuels to some more enduring energy source.
The reality of peak oil necessarily compels society to ask questions of value—what is really important to us? And in so doing, we confront some of the central myths of our culture. When Greer uses the word myth, he is not using it in exactly the same way that many in the modern world use it, that is, as a synonym for untrue. Rather, he uses myth to describe the narrative of a culture or as I have often written, the old stories on which the paradigm of civilization is based. Central to the modern narrative is the notion of progress. In fact, Greer argues that the myth of progress for modernity, and especially for Americans, has transcended a “notion” and has actually become more of a civil religion—a fundamental tenet of civilization and that questioning it is tantamount to heresy. And, the emotional ramifications of questioning progress or abandoning the myth altogether are enormous. In fact, much of Not The Future We Ordered is an explanation of the psychology of coming to terms with the end of progress.
Greer does not write timidly about this. He lays out for the reader the social and individual implications of the disparity between the narrative of progress and the reality that it is over:
The cognitive dissonance between the belief in progress and the experience of regress will thus no doubt result in some remarkable irrationalities—and, indeed, a case could be made that it has already done so, on the collective as well as the individual scales. It may result—again, on collective as well as individual scales—in a level of psychological stress capable of forcing a psychotic break on the individual or collective scale.
What strikes me here is the likelihood of emotional breakdown in tandem with societal breakdown. People unravel as systems unravel. So where does society or the individual go from there? Greer concludes:
Eventually, as the myth of progress disproves itself, the great majority of people will be forced to abandon their belief in that myth and pass through a grieving process for a narrative that gave meaning to their lives, and for the glorious future of perpetual progress that will never be.
And what is the nature of the grieving process to which Greer refers? It is none other than Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s Five Stages of Grief. Loyal readers of Greer will note that he has been writing about the five stages in relation to peak oil for some time.
And while I agree that this model is not only appropriate but inevitable for those inhabitants of industrial civilization who do not die or go mad in the throes of a collapsing empire, I believe that much more needs to be stated specifically about what the five stages entail and how we move through them intact. For example:
An article by Kubler-Ross and David Kessler describes denial:
This first stage of grieving helps us to survive the loss. In this stage, the world becomes meaningless and overwhelming. Life makes no sense. We are in a state of shock and denial. We go numb. We wonder how we can go on, if we can go on, why we should go on. We try to find a way to simply get through each day. Denial and shock help us to cope and make survival possible. Denial helps us to pace our feelings of grief. There is a grace in denial. It is nature’s way of letting in only as much as we can handle.
In relation to peak oil and the unraveling of society, for as long as possible, we deny that it is occurring. We minimize it, proclaim that technology will save us, and possibly project our woes on others as the cause of our adversity. If we just had a President from a different party, if those nasty immigrants would just go back to where they “belong,” if we just get a better job or buy another house, everything will work itself out. When these tactics no longer work or prove futile, we are then confronted with the losses our predicament has dealt us, and we either choose to persevere, we have a psychotic break, or we decide to end our life. If we opt for perseverance, anger is inevitable.
It is crucial to allow the anger to run its course but not run over other people. While this is no time to “make nice,” taking our anger out on others either emotionally or physically will only engender more loss. Anger is merely indicative of the enormous pain it conceals. It is also an empowering emotion, and when we allow it, we are likely to discover more options and tap into vast stores of emotional strength. Suppressing it is disempowering and is likely to leave us marinating in our pain. Feeling the anger liberates and unblocks the psyche and body. It is a crucial step in the direction of healing and moving forward to acceptance.
Kubler-Ross and Kessler note:
Anger is strength and it can be an anchor, giving temporary structure to the nothingness of loss. At first grief feels like being lost at sea: no connection to anything….Suddenly you have a structure —your anger….The anger becomes a bridge over the open sea, a connection from you to them. It is something to hold onto; and a connection made from the strength of anger feels better than nothing.
As we struggle to cope with the pain, we often find ourselves playing “let’s make a deal”—with ourselves, with god, with relatives, with whomever. Often we attempt to control things over which we have no control. A father may tell himself that if he just prepares sufficiently for a world where people are starving, he can guarantee that his family will never go hungry. Sometimes people subtly convince themselves that if they just solarize the house and buy a hybrid vehicle, they will be exempt from future energy depletion. As Kessler and Kubler-Ross would say, “We remain in the past, trying to negotiate our way out of the hurt.” Or we jump to the future and assume that we can ward off further pain. But the pain of a society unraveling lasts a long time, perhaps for the rest of our lives. In fact, that pain is the very next thing that begs to be confronted consciously and courageously.
Kubler-Ross chose to use this word, but we may also use the words sorrow or grief. When she refers to depression in this context, it is not synonymous with clinical depression although in my opinion, clinical depression often does result from unexpressed grief. Losing a way of life to which we have become accustomed and probably have lived with from birth is an enormous loss. We can also use the word mourning. Losses must be mourned, and we must allow ourselves to feel the sorrow. For this reason, grief work, in my opinion, is crucial preparation for navigating a future which is certain to confront us with a plethora of losses, and unless we are willing to grieve them consciously, we are likely to be overwhelmed and emotionally engulfed by them. Furthermore, there is no possibility of moving into a place of acceptance or reinvestment in one’s life without grieving the losses.
I hasten to add that acceptance does not mean agreement with or “becoming OK” with what has happened. Rather, it means learning to live without what we have lost, learning to live in a new way, realizing that life without what we have lost is the new normal. We have good and bad days. We move forward with fits and starts. Nevertheless, we form new relationships, change our lifestyle, invent new ways of getting our needs met, discover new options that we hadn’t even considered, and ultimately realize that we are survivors. We come to appreciate our previously-untapped resilience, and dare I say, we may even experience unprecedented joy and contentment with our lives. We willingly trade the narrative of infinite progress for what James Howard Kunstler calls “handmade lives.” Our truth becomes not the future we ordered, but the one we are willing to create.
In Not The Future We Ordered, Greer offers two inspirational challenges to the reader. One is a new definition of the word hope. “Hope is not optimism,” he says. “It is not the passive expectation that good things will inevitably come one’s way. Rather, it is the recognition that no matter what the circumstances might be, there are positive goals that can be achieved if they are pursued with forethought and a sustained willingness to try.”
Additionally, Greer issues a clarion call to psychotherapists and helping professionals to move through their own denial and learn the realities of our predicament because they will “find themselves called upon to deal with the individual and collective psychological impacts of the arrival of a future unpleasantly different from the one most of us expect.”
I wholeheartedly recommend Not The Future We Ordered. Just as we face a future that we did not order, Greer suggests strategies that we may not have “ordered” for preparing emotionally and spiritually to navigate it. These require commitment and a great deal of personal introspection, alongside dynamic engagement with the community in order to create more resilient lives. Yet as Greer draws the book to its conclusion he provides an invitation:
…it is time to listen to the voice that tells us, “Honey, I’m really sorry, but Santa Claus isn’t coming this year”. Having heard that, and done whatever grieving we need to do, we need to draw in a deep breath, accept the hard facts of our future, and make the best of the limited options the choices of the past have given us. That process could be greatly facilitated by therapists and other members of the helping professions who have come to terms with the realities of the present age and done their own grieving for the imaginary future promised by the myth of progress….
Not The Future We Ordered abandons all hubris and radically redefines “hope,” moving it from passive expectation to pro-active empowerment.
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