John Michael Greer’s latest nonfiction book looks at the likely trajectory for North America over the next five centuries. It’s too late, he says, to avert a collapse and ensuing dark age. Perhaps if we had embraced the alternative technologies that Greer himself was involved in exploring in the 1980s we could have avoided this fate, but instead we chose Ronald Reagan, Morning in America, and a continued addiction to fossil fuels and economic growth. Now a combination of climate change and resource depletion, together with the cultural changes that reliably go along with a failing empire, guarantees that we will follow the time-honored path of previous collapsing civilizations.
As with Greer’s previous books, I have to take his word for these historical patterns as I’m not enough of a student of history to have my own opinion; but he does cite sources for many of these claims. These citations in turn link to a reading list. As with the last Greer book I reviewed on this site (Decline and Fall: the end of empire and the future of democracy in 21st century America), those readers who closely follow his writing will not find a great deal that’s new in this book. But for anyone who doesn’t follow the Archdruid Report faithfully, there is much food for thought here—and despite the similar theme, little overlap with Decline and Fall. Greer spends little time persuading the reader that “a hard rain’s a-gonna fall”—instead he focuses on the likely outcomes over the next five centuries, after which he thinks a renaissance of some kind may come. He looks especially at North America, but much of his history-informed theorizing will apply to Europe and elsewhere too.
The titles of the chapters provide a pretty good overview of the themes: The Wake of Industrial Civilization is the first chapter and introduction, followed by the Ecological Aftermath, the Demographic Consequences, the Political Unraveling, the Economic Collapse, the Suicide of Science, the Twilight of Technology, the Dissolution of Culture; and the Road to a Renaissance.
The Ecological Aftermath focuses on climate change while acknowledging other environmental assaults of our society, notably upon the oceans, but he also mentions topsoil loss and “the long-term consequences of industrial America’s frankly brainless dumping of persistent radiological and chemical poisons”… the results of that last one will outlast the dark age. He projects that North America will mostly dry out, with deserts overtaking all of the US Southwest and into the central plains, whose grassland will extend all the way to the Allegheny Plateau. The most habitable areas, he thinks, will be in New England, the Eastern seaboard (that is, the new seaboard after rising seas take out the cities of the current coastline) the Great Lakes region, and some of the Pacific coast. He bases this on historical patterns when our continent was warmer than today. This leads into the Demographic Consequences. Without the fossil fuel subsidy, our land will support nowhere near today’s population, and the ecological damage will reduce its carrying capacity further. Large-scale migration is also inevitable.
The Political Unraveling covers familiar terrain; you could call it class struggle. He refers to the time of “elite senility” in which those who run our world for their own benefit lost the ability and inclination to respond to crises. This opens the way to the warbands who will eventually rise to take power after some crisis… not a pleasant scenario but all too realistic.
The Economic Collapse looks at what Greer calls “intermediation” which is the habit of inserting specialists and bureaucrats between producers and consumers. With the breakdown will come “disintermediation” or a reduction in complexity. Much of this has to do with the end of the subsidy provided by fossil fuels. The Suicide of Science, on the other hand, has more to do with the mistakes of scientists and those who speak for them. He includes here the complete change in what we are told about nutrition, the venal manipulation of studies by the pharmaceutical industry, and the arrogance of prominent atheists. This is compared with the fate of intellectuals of earlier civilizations in decline—the association between these intellectuals and the elite led to their victimization.
The Twilight of Technology might not be what you’d expect, after that. Instead, Greer insists on looking at technologies individually, and asking whether they are affordable, useful, and actually improve lives. Many fashionable ones fail this test, once you take externalities into account. Here Greer makes the important point that to be useful, technologies often need to have a suite of associated technologies supported, and so it would be very useful to think through which technologies are worth preserving and therefore looking into maintaining the associated suites (he didn’t mention it, but it strikes me that bicycles are said to be the most efficient means of transportation known; what can we use for tires in the deindustrial future?)
The final chapter is, as you might expect, the one where he talks about solutions. First he dispenses with the notion that some technical miracle will allow us to continue living in accustomed, wasteful ways—or that some apocalypse will end the whole show and free us from having to do anything about anything. His advice amounts to two things: to protect yourself and ease the transition, “collapse now and avoid the rush.” In other words, transition to a lifestyle that doesn’t depend on a global economy, money, and fossil fuels. Perhaps, he suggests, it’s already too late to move to the country, grow your own food and so forth unless you are already well along with that program. But finding ways to do for yourself and your family, and to produce something your neighbors will need, is a sensible course.
The other focus here is what you can do for humanity, to preserve the good parts of our culture for a future civilization that will emerge after the dark age. Here he mentions his own project of getting into letterpress printing, as books can be a durable way to preserve information.
The difference between Greer’s works and those of authors covering similar terrain is that Greer refuses to sugarcoat anything. No, we aren’t going to painlessly transition to a brave new green economy; and no, we aren’t going to work cooperatively to bring all of humanity (not to mention other life forms) through the coming crises with as little pain as possible. For a reader willing to face hard realities, this book is well worth reading.