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It’s to John Michael Greer’s immense credit that his work examines aspects of our collective cultural life few others dare touch–and does so more deeply than anyone else’s work does. With a background in the comparative history of ideas, Greer is keenly interested in how people make sense of their world in the context of the cultural narratives in which they’ve been immersed. He is fascinated as well by the psychological processes that come into play when people’s experiences of the world contradict these familiar narratives. As such, he finds today’s world, with its delusions and denial about humankind’s ecological crisis, to be ripe with fodder for his musings and writings.
STAR’S REACH: A Novel of the Deindustrial Future,
Founders House Publishing, April 2014, 376 pages, $19.99
Since I’m a sucker for good science fiction, I’ll start with the novel. Star’s Reach is a work of remarkable imagination and sophistication in its use of both environmental themes and sci-fi tropes. At the same time, it ventures into territory that’s sure to be controversial among environmentalists and sci-fi devotees alike. The former will appreciate the book’s earnest appraisal of our crisis, while the latter will admire its skillful rendering of sci-fi conventions. However, both groups may grumble about the path of human evolution the novel posits. Contrary to the utopian imaginings of many sci-fi fans, the book’s future is one in which humankind has regressed technologically; and contrary to predictions by the more pessimistic doomsayers, the descent has happened slowly rather than with the gratifying suddenness of a Hollywood disaster movie.
Greer has long believed that our civilization faces a slow, graduated decline in the times ahead. In keeping with this view, Star’s Reach depicts a 25th-century America in which the ruins of our civilization are still being scavenged 400 years after its fall began. The inhabitants of this future America have different notions than we do about progress. They equate progress with undoing the harm we did to Earth (or "Mam Gaia," as they call her) in pursuit of endless growth. They regard us and our legacy with bewilderment, anger and horror, and they have strict taboos against activities that could be construed as attempting to resurrect old ways. Also, the machines of our era have replaced vampires, spooks, and other sinister things in their folklore, with a favorite pastime being the telling of "robot stories" around a campfire.
America (now colloquially referred to as "Meriga") has changed profoundly. Because petroleum-based agrochemicals are no longer available, a majority of Americans are farming to keep themselves and their neighbors fed. In the absence of manufactured goods, there’s also been a revival of the household economy, which is how people obtain clothes and other necessities. Illiteracy is commonplace and standardized spelling a dying art. Racial categories as we now know them no longer exist; everyone’s skin is some shade of brown. Many of today’s familiar cities have been lost to rising seas, and a semi-tropical climate prevails over much of the remaining land. There’s still a president and a national government, but both relocated long ago when D.C. flooded. Perhaps saddest of all, disease and deformities run rampant from leftover industrial wastes.
The story opens near what is now Chattanooga ("Shanuga" in the local dialect of this future), Tennessee. Our main character is a young "ruinman" named Trey. Ruinmen disassemble old buildings for their steel, copper and other materials, often at great risk to life and limb. When we first meet Trey, he holds the rank of "prentice," which is similar to a journeyman in one of today’s building trades–except, of course, that it entails demolition rather than construction. Trey has shown great promise and is positioning himself to become a "mister," which will allow him to manage his own digs.
One day Trey finds the mummified remains of a man holding a mysterious letter that tells of a place called Star’s Reach. This place is legendary among locals; everyone knows the story of how old-world scientists at a top-secret facility used radios as big as houses and antennas the size of towns to try to pick up messages from space. Rumor has it they intercepted one but chose not to tell anyone what it said. Instead, like the infamous Heaven’s Gate cult, they committed mass suicide. Since then, many have set out to uncover the mystery behind Star’s Reach, but have likewise wound up dead. Trey resolves to succeed where they’ve failed.
Trey’s decision to search for Star’s Reach marks the beginning of an auspicious line of story development, one that harkens to the work of sci-fi icons like Larry Niven and Arthur C. Clarke. And, sci-fi aficionado that he is, Greer tells an engrossing tale filled with ideas and reverent homage to the mythology of the genre. Among the classic sci-fi concepts to receive a nod in Star’s Reach are alien first contact, interstellar travel and the conundrum known as Fermi’s paradox. This last concerns the high estimates that have been made as to the probability of intelligent life existing elsewhere in our galaxy, versus our lack of evidence for such life.
Without giving much away, I can say that the plot directly involves extraterrestrial contact. At Star’s Reach, Trey and his party discover a communication from a race of bizarre life forms called Cetans. They live in a different solar system, on a world that the original researchers at Star’s Reach named Tau Ceti II. This planet is roughly Earth’s size but has liquid hydrocarbons instead of water and golden reddish-orange skies instead of blue ones. The Cetans themselves resemble sheets of yellow plastic floating in the hydrocarbon oceans.
After reviewing the Cetans’ message from four centuries ago, Trey and the others realize that humans aren’t the only sentient species to have overshot their world’s carrying capacity. The Cetans have established communication with 40 other alien races, most of whom have gone through the same cycle. This doesn’t exactly inspire confidence that one of these other races could somehow come to our rescue and help us regain what we’ve lost. Such was a last, desperate hope many clung to toward the end of the old world, and it’s a hope that stands to be dashed. Trey and the others are starting to understand why the researchers at Star’s Reach became despondent enough to kill themselves after discovering the aliens’ message.
To learn any more story details you’ll have to buy the book, an investment that I can assure you will pay endless dividends.
NOT THE FUTURE WE ORDERED: Peak Oil, Psychology, and the Myth of Progress,
Karnac Books, Feb. 2013, 160 pages, £11.99.
Not the Future We Ordered attributes our collective blindness to the crisis of civilization to our unwavering faith in progress. From the perspective of the progress "myth," to use Greer’s term, the egregious wrongs industrialism has committed against Earth and humanity are either necessary sacrifices (e.g., smog, light pollution) or temporary problems to be overcome as progress continues its inevitable advance (e.g., climate change, oil depletion).
The author anticipates that many readers will misinterpret his use of the word myth in statements like the one above, so he defines the term early in the book. A myth, for Greer, is a story that the people of a given culture use to make sense of their world and society. This is at odds with the definition that most people know today—which can be simply stated as "something that isn’t true"—but it’s closer to the word’s traditional sense. To quote from The Long Descent (New Society Publishers, 2008), another of Greer’s books on industrial decline, the myth of progress regards our species’ history as "a grand tale of human improvement." The profound ways in which we’ve transformed the world in recent centuries, insists this myth, have been normal, rather than the result of temporary energy abundance, and we can count on them continuing indefinitely, despite a preponderance of contrary evidence.
A big obstacle to seeing the myth of progress for what it is and accepting the true dimensions of our predicament is what social critic James Howard Kunstler calls "the psychology of previous investment." Greer elaborates that the more one invests into something, in the form of time, emotion or money, the more difficult it is to let it go. Giving up our belief in progress would require admitting that a great many people have wasted their lives in pursuit of technologies and modes of living that have no future in the absence of cheap abundant energy.
In order to keep from having to face the destructive consequences of our pursuit of progress, argues Greer, our culture has reframed our crisis in personal terms. For example, the millions of Americans who have become long-term unemployed in recent years are led to believe they’re responsible for their plights, since they lack the skills or initiative to find work. However, the true culprit that no one wants to discuss is the permanent economic contraction gripping the industrial world.
Greer goes on to cite two similar examples from history: the emergence of "housewife syndrome" in 1950s America and a mental illness diagnosed in black slaves in the Old South called drapetomania. According to doctors who diagnosed these conditions, mental illness was to blame for a woman’s unhappiness at being confined to housewifery, or a slave’s desire to flee slavery. This way of turning a shared crisis into a personal pathology allowed people to keep from having to question the entrenched institutional structures of female domesticity and slavery—and it’s used in a similar fashion today.
In his advice for counselors and other assisting professionals, Greer stresses the need to let people know they’re not to blame for their economic circumstances. The failures and other bad things that have happened to them are due to the sea change sweeping across the land, not to any inadequacies on the part of individuals. It will no doubt take more than affirmations from a therapist to get out from under the pall cast by a disintegrating society, but such affirmations are a good start.
DECLINE AND FALL: The End of Empire and the Future of Democracy in 21st Century America,
New Society Publishers, April 2014, 304 pages, $19.95.
When people speak of the American "empire," it’s usually in the context of inflammatory political oratory or rhetoric that villainizes the nation for its hubris, hypocrisy or murderousness. This is the sort of language Greer tries to avoid in Decline and Fall, his treatise on imperial America and its future. While he agrees that America constitutes an empire, and one as rapacious as any before it, he doesn’t pass judgment on it. "The moral dimensions of American empire," he states, "will be left to my readers to judge for themselves."
Decline and Fall argues that America’s empire is waning due to a dwindling supply of wealth from both its subject nations and the planet. The book further contends that if we’re to squarely face the crisis this waning portends, we must begin an earnest public discussion about imperial America, where it’s going and what will come after it. Again, Greer sees the main obstacles to such a dialogue as psychological, stemming from the enormous investments we’ve made in our current way of life. Though he believes our society will eventually drop all pretenses about this lifestyle being sustainable, he doesn’t see this happening until many years, and many tumbles down the path to collapse, from now. Thus, it’s imperative that individuals and communities begin making their own preparations independent of national-level assistance.
Greer has an unconventional but superbly spot-on definition of empire. Whereas most definitions somehow fail to mention what an empire does, Greer fills in this detail with aplomb. For him, an empire is "a wealth pump, a device to enrich one nation at the expense of others." His expanded definition goes as follows: "An empire is an arrangement among nations, backed and usually imposed by military force, that extracts wealth from a periphery of subject nations and concentrates it in the imperial core."
One important distinction Greer emphasizes is that between the fall of an empire and the fall of a whole civilization. These are two separate phenomena that sometimes, but not always, happen simultaneously. In the cases of imperial Rome and present-day America, notes Greer, the two types of collapse have coincided. But in the example of the British Empire, they did not. The dissolution of imperial Britain during the last century didn’t end industrial civilization, but rather transferred global empire status to the nation whose fall eventually will: America. Greer criticizes collapse scholars Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee, whose work he admires overall, for failing to differentiate between the two types of collapse.
It’s a common lament that the 5 percent of the world’s people who live in America command one-quarter of all oil production and one-third of the world’s other resources and industrial products. However, as Greer observes, it’s deemed "distinctly impolite" to associate this disparity with the fact that the United States has more than 500 military bases all over the world and spends more on military/defense programs annually than do all other nations combined. Yet to Greer, this state of affairs perfectly explains the wealth and privilege most Americans enjoy. Indeed, Decline and Fall describes how America has used military force or threat of military force to make other nations do its bidding, often under the guise of "free trade." He refers to the latter "a system of international exchange that prohibits governments from taxing or prohibiting the movement of goods, services, or money across borders."
An accomplished scholar of political, economic and intellectual history, Greer offers rare historical insights that help make sense of the realities faced by imperial America. For example, he brings up a now-little-known period called the Long Depression, a worldwide economic slump that lasted from 1873 to 1879 and became known as the "Great Depression" (until, of course, the 1930s depression laid an enduring claim to that title).* Greer thinks this original Great Depression has been forgotten largely because it invalidates core tenets of modern-day economic thought. Most crucially, it disproves Adam Smith’s concept of an "invisible hand" regulating free markets and maximizing prosperity for everyone. To acknowledge the Long Depression is to realize that a free-market economy left to itself can produce calamity just as easily as it can positive outcomes.
One of the overriding themes of Decline and Fall is the wishful thinking that undergirds most proposed solutions to our predicament. Greer says he long ago concluded that the chorus of calls for dubious techno-fixes amounts to nothing more than incantation. Its purpose isn’t to deal with the problems it claims to address, but to reassure people that we can keep living the way we do now indefinitely. What’s needed is a new orientation toward technology that heeds the scale, resources and natural balance of each community. Technology of this type is what the late British economist E.F. Schumacher termed appropriate or intermediate technology, and examples of it include human powered-vehicles, rainwater harvesting systems and passive solar building design.
Another part of preparing for a "post-America future," writes Greer, is relearning the skills of competent rhetoric and communication. These skills have become a lost art, which concerns Greer given how vital they are to democratic process.
My one nitpicky criticism of Decline and Fall is that it fails to define a term or two. For instance, it uses the word "ecotechnic," which Greer coined in another book, without defining it again for new readers. (The term describes communities geared toward lower material consumption, greater efficiency in the use of renewable energy and curtailment of nonrenewable energy sources.) However, this imperfection barely detracts from the riveting discussion that is the vast majority of this book.