The Blood of the Earth: An Essay on Magic and Peak Oil
By John Michael Greer
178 pp., first edition hardcover. Scarlet Imprint – May 2012. $75.00. Also available in paperback for $24.95.
It was as an inquisitive young man during the 1970s that John Michael Greer—now an accomplished author and an indispensable source of wisdom on things both worldly and otherworldly—began to question the world around him. Raised in a suburban neighborhood near Seattle, Washington, he felt deeply unfulfilled by both the trappings of the suburban lifestyle and those of American intellectual life, for he plainly did not fit into either. He was a youth of uncommon intelligence, intensity, focus and creative ability, and he owed these gifts largely to an autism spectrum disorder that he’s had his whole life (and that he incidentally shares with the present reviewer) called Asperger’s syndrome.1 Like many with Asperger’s, Greer skipped the typical social life of an adolescent in favor of a search for truth and meaning. He read voraciously and widely, and over time amassed a broad and penetrating intellect.
His book The Blood of the Earth is, in many ways, a grand culmination of this intellectual journey. It draws on twin themes developed throughout Greer’s work—the regrettable fate of industrial civilization and the extraordinary potential of ceremonial magic—and relates them both in brilliant and myriad ways. Greer sees several key connections between the two. To begin with, they’re both fundamentally issues of mind and consciousness, rather than of material reality. The imminent resource shortages that our society faces are rooted not in the dwindling quantities of these resources left to be extracted, but in the thinking that people in wealthy nations have used to justify their lavish lifestyles. As for magic, its main purpose is not to make objects appear out of thin air, as in so many pop culture misrepresentations of magic, but rather to cause changes to one’s consciousness.
A few other similarities are well worth noting here. First, the general public is averse to both topics and is unable to accept their reality. There’s also the fact that both magic and the machinations of industrial society in its dying throes make use of incantations, spells and other magical rites. Indeed, Greer points out that the chants of "drill, baby, drill" coming from Sarah Palin and John McCain during the 2008 presidential race were quite literally an incantation, one whose purpose was much the same as that of incantations in occult magical practices: to soothe and to enchant rather than to effect change in the physical world. This parallel can be extended further, to the way in which all those who stand in thrall to technology and the idea of progress are immersed in a spell as powerful as anything a magician could create.
Greer describes the question of what magic is and what it does as being “a sufficiently vexed” one that an entire chapter is needed at the beginning of the book to address it. In this chapter, he clarifies that he’s not talking about stage magic or the kind depicted in light entertainments, but rather the occult practices of esoteric traditions. Focused on spiritual development, this type of magic is “the art and science of causing change in consciousness in accordance with will.”2 Thus, unlike the physical sciences, magic is not a means of directly manipulating matter and energy, so it isn’t capable of bringing about the technological leap that most people think will save our civilization from ruin. However, it can be used to change people’s perception of our crisis so that they can respond to it more intelligently.
Besides magic, another crucial concept that Greer defines at length is that of peak oil, which refers to the point at which conventional world oil production stops increasing and begins irreversibly declining. It’s now clear that this peak has already occurred—it happened in 2005, according to the best available data. It’s equally apparent, reasons Greer, that our society waited far too long to deal with the threat that peak oil poses. A report commissioned by the U.S. Department of Energy in 2005, and now widely known as “the Hirsch report,” concluded that we would have had to anticipate the peak by two decades in order to avert serious economic impacts from it. Greer thus contends that our society faces a protracted period of steep decline, much like those of the Anasazi, Maya and other doomed civilizations that have waned through the ages because they overshot their resources.
Ever since the improvement of the steam engine in late 18th-century England helped spur the industrial revolution, machines have held a profound enchantment over us. Their power to transform the world has given us a misplaced sense of superiority and omnipotence, to use Greer’s terms, and has duped us into believing that we’re destined to forever progress to higher states. These mistaken perceptions keep us from seeing the blind alley down which they lead. For example, as fuel prices began to soar at the dawn of the millennium, economists maintained that the higher prices would create new supply and make unconventional energy sources more economical. That hasn’t happened, of course, and yet most people haven’t taken economists to task on this or any of their other false predictions on energy. Such questioning would cut to the core of our culture’s cherished “Myth of the Machine,” to quote the title of a classic Lewis Mumford book that Greer cites.
The glib reassurances uttered by economists and other pundits represent a form of magic known as thaumaturgy. This type of magic plays on people’s non-rational, primal drives in order to gain control over them. Greer observes that soft drink companies make very effective use of thaumaturgy in persuading us to pay money for carbonated corn syrup beverages that are bad for our health. He also shows how thaumaturgic principles are at work in advertisers’ efforts to portray automobile dependence as freedom, and the solitary act of watching TV alone at home as a form of community involvement. Similarly outlandish distortions of the truth are to be found in the prevailing views about our energy future pedaled by the press, politicians and energy industry leaders. And yet, most people uncritically accept these, too, as fact. Thus, Greer insists that anyone who hopes to prepare for the actual future ahead must work to undo the effects of these thaumaturgic spells.
The antithesis of thaumaturgy is theurgy, or “divine work.” Theurgy’s purpose is to purge the mind and will of the biological drives and social reactions that thaumaturgy seeks to exploit. In contrast to the latter’s stealthy manipulation of the masses, theurgy works on an individual level and cannot be passively received, but must be mastered through long training and hard work. Himself a practicing mage, Greer well knows the pains involved in this process. He believes that for those willing to undertake the necessary discipline, it is as viable a means of purifying one’s reason and will as it was during the ancient Greek period in which it originated—yet it’s hardly the only means.
The Blood of the Earth discusses in detail the habits of mind that we must overcome if we are to earnestly face the future. Chief among these is the tendency to think in binaries, or in pairs of opposites with no middle ground in between. Greer traces this impulse to our primate ancestors, who had to quickly distinguish between food/non-food, predator/non-predator, etc. It was an instinct well suited to conditions at that time, but it’s since become a hindrance in attempts to make sense of our future. For instance, when asked how they see the world energy situation unfolding in coming years, most people envision either a continuation of business as usual or a cataclysmic collapse, in spite of the vast range of conceivable scenarios in between. The remedy for binary thinking, says Greer, is to make a conscious effort to think of additional possibilities whenever faced with a binary.
Due to his well-founded conviction that we face a predicament rather than a problem with a solution, Greer offers no hope of solutions. Instead, he shares his thoughts on some intelligent, proactive measures that can be taken to better prepare oneself for the inevitable decline of the industrial world. He stresses that we must, above all, curtail our exposure to the “manufactured popular pseudoculture” that tells us what to think and what to do. An excellent first step in this direction is to throw away the TV, since, true to the term “programming,” it plays a huge role in administering mind control. Just as important as shunning pop culture is filling the resulting void with something worthwhile, be it classic literature, music or the arts. When in doubt about what to choose, advises Greer, a good rule is to pick something old enough that it is in no way a product of today’s collective thinking.
In order to be effective, of course, this freeing of the mind must be accompanied by action. And Greer suggests three main lines of action: learning one thing, giving up one thing and saving one thing. When choosing something to learn, it’s wise to pick a practical skill like gardening or soap-making, since the demand for such necessities will far outlast the present-day market economy’s ability to supply them. As for things to give up, one excellent choice is the car. As fuel becomes ever scarcer, cars will become a tremendous burden and the ability to get around on foot will be hugely advantageous. Lastly, saving one thing refers to choosing a cultural legacy to preserve for posterity. There is much of our culture that will be lost forever if no one takes up this last task, due to the impermanence of today’s electronic media and books printed on high-acid paper.
Greer’s studies into magical practice give him a fascinating perspective on the crisis of modern civilization. He first got started in magic during his teens, drawn by the lure of a world that is, in his words, “much bigger, much stranger, much less rigidly defined than we’re told by the propagandists of modern science and the materialist worldview.”3 He went on to follow a druid path as well, eventually attaining his current, lofty title of Grand Archdruid of the Grand Grove of the Ancient Order of Druids in America. He also has long had a sweet tooth for science fiction and fantasy literature (something that makes him more than okay in my book) and a talent for bringing it to bear in his scholarship. It will be a real treat to see what he comes up with for his next book—and we won’t have long to wait, given his prodigious output.
1 John Michael Greer, interview with Karagan Griffith, "Mystery Teachings from the Living Earth – with John Michael Greer," Witchtalk, Apr. 24, 2012, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SybRgLgCr68 (accessed July 24, 2013); Greer, interview with Imagicka, “The New Encyclopedia of the Occult: TWPT Talks to John Michael Greer,” The Wiccan/Pagan Times, Mar. 1, 2004, http://redroom.com/member/john-michael-greer/press/the-new-encyclopedia-of-the-occult-twpt-talks-to-john-michael-greer (accessed July 20, 2013); Greer, “John Michael Greer – Detroit Community Lecture – ‘Not The Future We Ordered’,” YouTube video of lecture given at the Detroit Masonic Temple in Detroit, MI, on Apr. 20, 2013, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KDSTK3a_q9k (accessed Aug. 19, 2013).
2 Greer has cited this definition of magic by Dion Fortune numerous times in his writings, as he finds it to be among the most apt and useful.
3 Greer, interview with Ian Punnett, "Coast to Coast AM – Monster Lore – Main Show,” YouTube upload of show originally aired on Coast to Coast AM on Oct. 22, 2005, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I0xAdTDvoEg (uploaded Jun 7, 2013; accessed July 14, 2013).</sub>
The Blood of the Earth: An Essay on Magic and Peak Oil