Review: The Ecotechnic Future by John Michael Greer

November 19, 2009

The Ecotechnic Future: Envisioning a Post-Peak World
By John Michael Greer
271 pp. New Society Publishers – Oct. 2009. $18.95.

John Michael Greer has officially established himself as an institution within the peak oil community. Truly one of the finest minds working on the predicament of modern-day industrial civilization, he is so well-read in so many fields that he regularly gains access to insights that utterly elude his contemporaries. For this he is treasured by a growing number of loyal readers—and, I suspect, hated by equally many fellow bloggers who wish that they could be half as good.

Greer is also perhaps peak oil’s most cherishable contrarian, always pointing out the various ways in which people on all sides of the debate are woefully off-base. For example, his previous book on peak oil, The Long Descent, showed how believers in perpetual progress and prophets of imminent doom alike are sadly off the mark in their notions about the future. That book’s central thesis is that while our modern “developed” world can’t possibly be sustained into the indefinite future, we’re hardly in for the sort of sudden, utter collapse of civilization that typically forms the basis of a Roland Emmerich movie. Instead, our society will likely decline slowly and unevenly over many decades, the way that the Maya, the Roman Empire and other past civilizations have done before ours. The take-home point is that it’s a waste of time to start preparing now for either a survivalist future of mass death and marauding hordes, or whatever sustainable utopia happens to be your particular ideal, because neither one of these reflects the future that we’re actually liable to end up with—and, in any case, no one living today will still be around to see what that future might resemble.

Greer’s newest book, The Ecotechnic Future, builds on The Long Descent by sketching out some of the likely dimensions of the future that Greer believes lies on the other side of our descent. It doesn’t devote much space to explaining why our civilization is headed for collapse, or describing how people can prepare on the individual and community levels, since these were covered in his earlier book. Instead, in a series of chapters with straightforward titles like “Food,” “Home,” “Community” and “Culture,” it takes an in-depth look at the kinds of changes that we can expect in these and other aspects of our lives as industrial civilization winds down.

What, exactly, is the “ecotechnic future” to which the title refers? Well, to begin with, it’s a play on the phrase “technic society,” a term coined to describe the modern world that came into being following the Industrial Revolution. Greer’s conception of the technic society is that it’s the first human society powered primarily by nonfood energy, rather than by the food energy that has sustained, for example, the far-more-stable hunter-gatherer societies that have existed throughout history. The phase of the technic society coming to an end with the advent of peak oil is one that Greer refers to as “abundance industrialism,” in which humanity has used the immense energy contained in cheap, abundant fossil fuels to maximize the production of goods and services at the expense of gross inefficiency. In contrast, the ecotechnic society that Greer sees as the inevitable successor to abundance industrialism is one that relies wholly on renewable energy resources, and that places a premium on using them as efficiently as possible at the expense of reduced access to goods and services.

A transition away from our current economy of plunder and waste to a sustainable ecotechnic society is necessary and will happen eventually, since the resources that we’re plundering are finite, as is our planet’s ability to absorb the waste products. But Greer regards efforts to establish an ecotechnic society right in the here and now as misguided. In his view, such efforts are doomed to failure because the conditions that would allow an ecotechnic society to flourish aren’t yet in place, and we don’t have even the faintest clue what such a society would resemble.

Before we can set about creating an ecotechnic society, we must first spend several decades muddling through what Greer terms “scarcity industrialism,” in which we liquidate the second half of the planet’s oil endowment, the other remaining fossil fuels and other essential nonrenewable resources. This, in turn, will give way to a one-to-three-century “salvage society” phase, in which, having depleted these non-renewables, we scavenge the ruins of long-abandoned man-made structures for their iron, steel and other raw materials. Then, once scarcity industrialism and the salvage society have played themselves out, an ecotechnic society can slowly begin to take root. In short, to quote Greer, “[t]hose who try to plan an ecotechnic society today are in the position of a hapless engineer tasked in 1947 with drafting a plan to produce software for computers that did not exist yet.” One of the many things that you come to admire about Greer is his knack for drawing apt analogies.

In The Ecotechnic Future, Greer appropriates terminology from a variety of disciplines, including ecology, anthropology, evolutionary biology, the history of ideas and the 1970s appropriate technology movement. He persuasively argues for the need to respond adaptively to the changes ahead, and to encourage people to pursue as many different ideas as possible, rather than formulating a detailed plan of action on which everyone can agree. He reasons that the greater the number of possibilities being investigated at any one time, the more likely someone is to stumble upon something that works. He borrows the postmodern term “dissensus”—meaning “a deliberate avoidance of consensus”—in describing this adaptive approach. And he humbly admits that no plans (including his own) are infallible, and invites readers to dissent from his ideas in favor of pursuing some of their own.

Like The Long Descent, Greer’s new book incorporates a series of shorter writings that he originally published online—and, once again, their arrival in print is a happy occasion. The typical Greer essay is thoughtful, profoundly insightful, well-supported and impeccably argued; and Greer’s prose style is nothing if not elegant. His new book delivers on all of these levels in spades, the various shorter writings having simmered to great effect by the time they’re reaching us in book form. The only faint complaint I have is that I feel that the book could have been a tad longer, with the extra length being added to the chapters on various aspects of our ecotechnic future. Not that there’s anything obviously missing on which I can easily place my finger. It’s just that, at barely 20 pages, and some of them not even that long, the chapters do seem a bit skimpy. And Greer is such an engaging writer with so much to say that one looks forward to each new entry with the excitement of the proverbial giddy schoolboy (or schoolgirl, as the case may be). One can never have too much Greer, I say.

Those who are already aware of the long, bumpy decline ahead for our civilization, and who want a clearer picture of what to expect, as well as some real, practical responses, will be well-served by reading both The Ecotechnic Future and The Long Descent. But I’m happy to believe that a significant number of casual bookstore browsers who are environmentally conscious, but not yet fully in the know, also will pick up these books, will be captivated by them and will join the ranks of the converted.

Sadly, however (and as Greer would be the first to admit), these books’ ideas are doomed to be dismissed as kooky and offensive by the public at large for a long time to come. Still, Greer gets credit for being one of the precious few writers today to have undertaken the task of putting modern industrial civilization in its proper historical context—and to truly be gifted enough to do the task justice.

Frank Kaminski

Frank Kaminski is an ardent reader and reviewer of books related to natural resource depletion, climate change and other issues affecting the fate of industrial civilization. He lives in southwestern Washington state near the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge.  

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