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Three more offerings from the incessantly fertile mind of John Michael Greer.
After Progress: Reason and Religion at the End of the Industrial Age
263 pp. New Society Publishers – Apr. 2015. $19.95.
Whenever John Michael Greer is asked how he manages to be such a prolific author, he says it’s because he doesn’t watch or own a TV. However, I suspect another, not insignificant factor is his being an ingenious polymath. In the more than 30 nonfiction volumes he’s turned out in just 19 years of publishing books, he has expounded authoritatively on topics as wide-ranging as politics, ecological economics, psychology, geomancy, mystical teachings and the history of science fiction. He has also amply proven himself as a storyteller, having produced three gripping and fascinating future-set novels—and with a fourth one in the works. Oh, and by the way, he’s fluent in both Latin and medieval French. If ditching one’s TV were the only prerequisite for achieving this kind of productivity, there would be droves of sets left on street curbs around the world by envious admirers of Greer’s writing. Take it from me, though: It doesn’t work.
Most of Greer’s work deals in some way with the comparative history of ideas, and his latest book, After Progress, is a case in point. It examines a set of ideas that is at once our society’s most cherished belief system and the driving force behind today’s worst crises: our widespread, uncritical faith in “progress.” Greer has long observed that people across the developed world accord progress the same reverence that medieval peasants paid to heaven and hell, and that questioning this reverence is taboo. If someone suggests in polite company that maybe we’ve had too much progress, and that it might be time to dial it back a bit in order to leave behind a more livable planet for our descendants, the most likely reactions from others, Greer has found, are “blank incomprehension and incandescent rage.” In After Progress, Greer poses the probing questions about progress that others are unwilling to ask.
Our collective faith in progress is quite literally a religion, argues Greer. It enjoys near-universal acceptance throughout the industrial world, even by those who claim to reject it, and pervades our perceptions of reality. As such, it represents what the late sociologist Robert Bellah (borrowing a phrase coined by 18th-century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau) would have termed a “civil religion.” In 1967, Bellah pointed out the existence of a category of widely accepted belief systems that possess all the distinctive features of a religion, except for the requirement that followers believe in a deity or deities. The example he focused on in his seminal writing on the subject1 was American civil religion, which he argued has its own set of quasi-religious rituals, sacred texts and symbols derived from our national history. Greer builds on Bellah’s work to examine what he calls today’s “civil religion of progress.”
This religion first gained traction in the 1800s, spurred by the explosive growth of the industrial revolution and the waning of belief in the Christian God, whom German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche famously pronounced dead in 1882. For those who found they could no longer believe in God, but who still had the emotional needs that faith in a deity fulfilled, progress proved a more than adequate fallback. And for people in general, religious or not, progress had the added virtue of being a highly adaptive belief system. Those who played by its rules by embracing growth and trusting in the purported miracles of science generally came out ahead of those who did not do these things.
It’s thus easy to understand why, for such people, the future functioned as heaven, a utopian scenario of plenty and technological apotheosis with humanity destined to spread across the galaxy. But we’ve reached a point where the conditions that allowed belief in progress to flourish have waned. As we move deeper into the age of resource scarcity, economic contraction and ecological blowback, contends Greer, it will become increasingly apparent that the God of Progress is dead.
From crumbling infrastructures to plummeting standards of living, the reality around us is filled with facts that contradict the comforting assurances of the progress narrative. However, people have developed stealthy ways of ignoring the contradictions. One of these is what Greer calls “thoughtstoppers,” or offhandedly made remarks that serve to prevent the speaker from giving any further thought to the topic being discussed. An example familiar to everyone in the peak oil/sustainability movement is the glib comment “They’ll think of something,” said in response to the crisis posed by fossil fuel depletion. Another thoughtstopper is one Greer hears whenever he tries to point out how the latest speculative bubble, in today’s case the fracking boom, is in fact a bubble: “It’s different this time.” The speaker has amassed a litany of examples showing how this time is different, but has conspicuously ignored all the ways in which it’s the same as previous bubbles.
Lest one think that Greer criticizes only believers in progress, it’s important to mention that he levels just as much criticism against those who adhere to the antireligion of progress, that of apocalypse. For followers of this latter faith, the future functions as hell, an unprecedented ecological apocalypse brought about by the dark side to progress, and unfolding at a pace worthy of a Hollywood disaster film. Like its cheery counterpart, the apocalypse narrative goes against the actual pattern of history, which is marked by slow, repeated cycles of civilizational rise and decline, rather than perpetual advancement or abrupt collapse.
The notion that cyclic patterns exist in history is key to the theories of Oswald Spengler, Arnold Toynbee, Giambattista Vico and a number of other historians whose work Greer has studied extensively. Proponents of cyclic history use an analytical method known as morphology, which consists of comparing similar sequences of things—depending on the field, these can be anything from events on a timeline to animal species on an evolutionary tree of life—to tease out common threads. Greer laments that this approach, once a mainstay of historical research (and still much used in the life sciences and other disciplines), is no longer part of the toolkit of most historians. That’s a pity because of how well suited it is to making accurate predictions about the future based on observed patterns from the past.
Nor is it merely the plausibility progress enjoyed during the growth phase of industrial civilization that gives it its power; it’s also its potent emotional appeal. In fact, Greer reasons that this second factor is the more crucial. He often refers to the mythologized version of history one finds peddled in public schools and on pop-history TV channels as a morality play centering on the conflict between a heroic lone visionary and the dour naysayers whom the visionary proves wrong. Greer points to numerous instances of history being forcibly hammered into this narrative, but a particularly pointed one is the claim that most people in Christopher Columbus’ time believed the world to be flat. In point of fact, the standard high school astronomy textbook in 1492, De Sphaera by Johannes de Sacrobosco, contained detailed proofs to the contrary.
The doctored version of our history alluded to above has as its hero that strange abstraction “Man,” and as its antagonist, the equally abstract entity “Nature.” Every incarnation of the myth involves Man nobly taking some stride in the project of conquering Nature, and thus moving further along on the “ever-victorious journey from the caves to the stars”—to quote Greer—that is assumed to be Man’s destiny. By the end of this journey, goes the myth, Man will have achieved salvation from past ignorance and superstition, the natural world and even human mortality. In keeping with the derivative nature of civil religions in general, this narrative takes much of its symbolism from Christian tradition. For example, Greer notes that the iconic image of Man traveling into space on a flaming rocketship bears more than a passing similarity to that of Jesus ascending into heaven from the Mount of Olives.
Greer takes heart in what he sees as an increasing trend among the public to reject progress and embrace the ways of nature instead. He increasingly observes people doing this not only because of the loss of credibility progress has suffered, but because they no longer find themselves drawn to its emotional lure. Such people view nature not as an enemy to be beaten but as a source of wonder, enchantment and comfort. This alternative sensibility is, of course, nothing new, but Greer sees it taking hold right now in a big way. And those who would like a comprehensive overview of its terrain could scarcely do better than to read After Progress.
Twilight’s Last Gleaming
390 pp. Karnac Books – Nov. 2014. $14.95.
With its taut pacing, espionage trappings and richly detailed descriptions of military apparatus and weaponry, this book about a near-future collapse of the American empire has a distinctly Clancyesque feel. And indeed, Greer has said that he is deeply in Tom Clancy’s debt for a series of promo books the latter wrote for the U.S. military that proved invaluable as research materials.2 Still, there’s a crucial sense in which Twilight’s Last Gleaming is at odds with the usual Clancy thriller. Clancy’s tales, like technothrillers in general, are about American heroes besting their foes through superior technology and prowess. Greer turns this convention on its head by having the U.S. empire founder on the incompetence and complacency that are increasingly turning out to be the true stock in trade of the nation’s leadership and military machine.
It’s no accident, for example, that America’s president in the novel’s setting of 2025 has the last name Weed. Greer has explained that while he’s never himself imbibed in the drug by that name, he understands its effects on the mind well enough to know that it’s a fitting name for the doltish and ultimately tragic figure of President Jameson Weed.3 There’s also a bit of dark suggestiveness in the name of Weed’s vice president, Leonard Gurney, for this future administration is every bit as much about blasting people into gurneys and body bags as any number of real-life U.S. administrations have been.
As befits the current trend with thrillers, this novel has a big, sprawling cast. The characters span half a dozen countries and include national leaders, ambassadors, military officials, governors, journalists, academics and other prominent personalities. It’s doubtless rather subversive of me to admit this, but the most compelling and finely realized characters are two Chinese men who play a pivotal role in ousting America from empire status and positioning China to take its place.
These two characters are a general named Liu Shenyen and his mentor who teaches strategic studies at Beijing’s Academy of Military Science, Fang Liyao. Shenyen takes Liyao out for lunch one day to ask his advice on how to handle a geopolitical development that could make America “immensely vulnerable” if played right. A large oilfield has been discovered off the coast of Tanzania, an ally of China’s, and there can be little doubt that a U.S. invasion aimed at taking that oil is in the offing. China and its allies have long been secretly readying for military confrontation with America, and the anticipated U.S. strike seems like an opportunity to put this preparation to use. Liyao is happy to advise Shenyen on this matter, viewing it as a challenge. Over the course of the story, the two of them meet many times to strategize.
During their conversations, Liyao is a fount of profound historical insights, no doubt due to Greer’s own astonishing command of history. One of my favorite points of his is how America has, up until now, never known military defeat. When Shenyen challenges this assertion by asking what about Vietnam, Iraq, Pakistan and Venezuela, Liyao elaborates that there’s a difference “between losing a war and being unable to win one.” True to Liyao’s word, the complacency bred by America’s unfamiliarity with defeat will prove to be its Achilles’ heel.
When the U.S. forces do come—deployed on the trumped-up pretense of a humanitarian intervention—they fall into a trap years in the making. The Chinese have numbers, technology and the element of surprise all on their side. Their assault begins with a cyber attack that cripples the U.S. military satellite system for days. Amidst the chaos, they severely deplete America’s supply of fighter-bombers and sink a carrier group. The war front then shifts to Kenya, an American ally that is in China’s crosshairs for letting America use its territory and airspace to attack Tanzania. After eight weeks of fighting, the Chinese finally deal the mortal blow of overtaking America’s key military base on Diego Garcia atoll.
The United States doubles down. President Weed declares that if China does not withdraw all military forces from East Africa and Diego Garcia, America will retaliate with tactical nuclear strikes. China’s premier lets it be known that his nation will not bow to threats and will respond in kind to any attack from America. Soon Russia’s president vows to use nuclear weapons against America if it does so against China. The standoff lasts five days and brings the world the closest it’s ever been to nuclear annihilation.
I’m not giving anything away by saying that America doesn’t emerge the victor. The country endures its first ever outright military defeat, and in the process finds itself demoted to the status of subject nation to the new supreme world power. The remainder of the plot carries the story forward by about another year and a half and depicts in detail how America adapts to having its imperial wealth pump cut off. There are currency and financial crises, an ever-dwindling base of foreign allies and imports, a transition to third world standards of living and the specter of national dissolution. In short, it’s a picture consistent with Greer’s view that the time of America’s collapse will be as turbulent as life in central Europe was during the faltering of the British Empire between 1914 and shortly after the Second World War.4
One of the novel’s main themes is the utter irrelevance of the federal government to the lives of everyday Americans in this new age. Powerless to keep order, protect its citizens or reestablish a hold on global dominance—and out of touch with the individual needs of the states over which it presides—the federal government has become an antiquated institution. Its fate is ultimately decided during a constitutional convention convened by vote of the legislatures of two-thirds of the states. (It’s a measure of how dire the state of the nation is that this is the first time the ability of the states to amend the constitution without involving the federal government has been invoked.)
Greer has confided to me that he found writing Twilight’s Last Gleaming emotionally difficult. In his words, it evoked “the sort of bleak emotional state you’d get from writing an account of someone you care about drinking himself to death instead of dealing with his problems.” For years he’s watched his nation blindly pursue policies that are setting it up for the messiest possible end. This book succeeds as a cautionary tale about the consequences of continuing down this path.
The Fires of Shalsha
242 pp. Starseed Publications – Jan. 2009. $15.95.
The Fires of Shalsha is Greer’s least typical but perhaps most intriguing novel. While it deals with quintessential Greer themes like the nature of progress and the limits to industrial growth, it does so using science fiction tropes in a story set on a future colony planet. The novel was first written in 1985, when the issues it explores were not as openly discussed as they are today5—and this perhaps explains their being framed in hard sci-fi terms. At any rate, for those who enjoy sci-fi, here is a fascinating, complex tale that does the genre proud. It’s all the more remarkable in that it’s Greer’s first novel.
The story takes place on Eridan, a planet of indeterminate location inhabited by a post-Earth human industrial civilization. Earth became devoid of life long ago due to runaway climate change, but not before a critical mass of refugees could escape to establish settlements elsewhere. It has been more than two centuries since the starships carrying these humans left Earth, and during this time a number of colony worlds have taken shape. However, we never learn any details of worlds other than Eridan, and it seems the novel’s characters don’t know much about them either.
Eridan’s inhabitants, much like modern-day industrial humans, lived through an era of high technology during which machines dominated their lives, the threat of nuclear apocalypse loomed and drones slaughtered scores at the hands of a genocidal Planetary Directorate. This regime was eventually brought down by insurgents who used one of the Directorate’s own nuclear weapons against it. Since then, Eridan has enjoyed a prolonged peace maintained by adherence to a set of rules known as the Six Laws. These laws, punishable by death, forbid people from organizing into social hierarchies, forming communities of more than 10,000 people and using violence or weapons of mass destruction, among other things.
As the novel opens, Eridan’s long run of peace has been broken. More than 100 people near the community of Talin Shelter have been killed by large caliber gunfire from an unknown source. (“Shelter” is the term used to describe a typical community on Eridan, consisting of a concrete structure housing between 5,000 and 8,000 residents, powered by wind and fed by hydroponics.) A team of Halka warriors, or armed enforcers of the Six Laws, is on the scene investigating. In the absence of footprints or body dismemberment, the Halka rule out an attack by one of the wandering bands of cannibals known as outrunners. That leaves only the possibility of an assault by at least one of the battle-drones used by the Directorate during the war. What clinches this assessment is the discovery of several sets of linear burn marks in the ground, doubtless left by drone levitation devices. Someone, somewhere is attempting to revive the age of dominion through machines.
The Halka find one survivor, a young man named Jerre Amadan, who will go on to become a new initiate into the Halka order. For the time being, though, Jerre is amnesic and too traumatized to speak save for one brief phrase in a language no one else recognizes. Stefan Jatanni, one of the Halka who discovered Jerre, wonders with a chill whether the mysterious words could be drone command language, overheard by Jerre during the attack. Since Jerre can’t speak, Stefan tries to glean some insight into the young man’s thoughts using “subtle awareness,” a form of extrasensory perception common among the Halka. He’s unable to get through.
In the wake of the attack, Stefan feels compelled to declare an “Orange Sky,” the lowest of three high alerts used by the Halka to indicate a potential threat to one or more of the Shelters. It’s a rare measure last taken nearly 15 years ago, and Stefan knows he’s accepting a grave risk in resorting to it. For such alerts are to be sounded only with the prior approval of a judgment circle that meets to decide on such matters, and the penalty for breaking this rule is death. And so it is that Stefan finds himself the focus of the next judgment circle, likely facing execution as he attempts to answer for his decision. Luckily, he’s able to avert this fate by convincing the others that he did the right thing.
What troubles Stefan isn’t the battle-drones’ mere existence but the fact that their recent attack seems like a harbinger of war. It isn’t uncommon, even this long after the fall of the Directorate, to find drones zipping around on autopilot, continuing to carry out old programming. But the actions of these drones didn’t seem automated; these were sophisticated ambush tactics that were more likely orchestrated by a living foe in the present. In addition, Stefan has begun having psychic visions in which he sees an army of drones murder scores in a war aimed at restoring the Directorate’s old stronghold city of Shalsha.
Though persuaded of the possibility that Stefan may be right, the rest of the circle bars him from taking part in battle preparations or joining in the search for drones—it seems that visionaries have historically brought great danger to the Halka. Instead he is to supervise the rehabilitation of Jerre by a mindhealer in another Shelter. (This mindhealer belongs to the Halvedna, a mystical order whose pacifist methods provide a counterpoint to the vigilant Halka ways.) In the time during which Stefan holds this post, much of interest transpires in terms of character development, world building and conceptual breakthrough. And then, when circumstances conspire to put Stefan on the battlefield despite his initial orders, he also becomes an involving battle hero.
It must be said that this novel sits a bit oddly within the Greer literary canon due to its use of science fiction devices like interstellar travel and the colonization of other worlds. As any earnest sci-fi fan can tell you, and as Greer has himself remarked, the notion that humans could travel to another solar system and inhabit one of its worlds is far-fetched. To begin with, the distances involved would be so vast that the voyage would take many lifetimes. There are three ways of dealing with this inconvenience, the first of which is to have the journey be undertaken by way of a generation starship, i.e., one on which successive generations live out their entire lives before the destination is reached. From the limited exposition we’re given on the journey to Eridan, it doesn’t seem like this is how the colonists got there. That leaves only the even more improbable expedients of wormholes and faster than light travel. Still, the implausibility can be forgiven on the grounds that Greer is aiming for allegory, not scientific believability, with his tale, a feeling enhanced by the story’s paranormal elements.
Having now produced three distinctly different novels in addition to his nonfiction works, and with a fourth novel brewing, Greer is continually showing himself to be a versatile and dazzlingly accomplished author. His portrait of a far-future post-oil America, Star’s Reach
(reviewed by me here
), is an epic tale packed with ideas. It not only homages the great works of the hard sci-fi tradition but also rightly criticizes those cherished sci-fi conventions, such as interstellar travel (as discussed above) that are questionable given our current understanding of physics. While details about his forthcoming novel, tentatively titled Moon Path to Innsmouth
, haven’t yet been revealed, Greer has disclosed that it’s very much informed by the concerns raised in his nonfiction. In his usual brisk, no-nonsense manner, he knocked out its first draft in just eight weeks.6
1 Robert N. Bellah, “Civil Religion in America,” Daedalus, Vol. 96, No. 1 (Winter 1967): 1–21.
2 John Michael Greer, interview with KMO, "451: Twilight’s Reach,” C-Realm Podcast, Brooklyn, NY, Feb. 4, 2015 (accessed July 2, 2015).
4 Greer, interview with James Howard Kunstler, "KunstlerCast 256 — A Conversation with John Michael Greer,” The KunstlerCast, Greenwich, NY, Jul. 31, 2014 (accessed June 12, 2015).
5 Greer, personal communication with the author, Oct. 14, 2014.