Collapse Now and Avoid the Rush: The Best of The Archdruid Report
By John Michael Greer
234 pp. Founders House Publishing – Feb. 2015. $15.99.
Like John Michael Greer’s numerous other books on the subject of industrial civilization’s demise, this one reveals its author to be an astonishingly gifted guide to a future that most people refuse to contemplate. The 25 short writings it contains were originally published on Greer’s former blog, The Archdruid Report, which was an institution among a considerable swath of the ecologically aware public. The blog sought to explore our crisis through weekly posts—most of them essays, but some of them fiction pieces that Greer later parlayed into novels—that were unfailingly brilliant, contrarian, beautifully written and nearly unclassifiable in their range and variety. Whether this collection delivers on its subtitle, The Best of The Archdruid Report, is tough for me to judge since I’m a fanboy of all of Greer’s writing. However, I can conclusively say it’s a handy place to find some of Greer’s great short works.
Greer started The Archdruid Report in 2006, right around the time that industrial society reached the critical juncture represented by the peak in global conventional oil production. Having long studied the process of decline undergone by previous civilizations that have overshot their resources, Greer saw ours facing the same fate in generations to come. The Archdruid Report drew on Greer’s scholarship, insights as a practicing druid and experience in sustainable living and appropriate tech to help others prepare for the tough road ahead. The blog became a sensation, garnering hundreds of thousands of page views per month and a worldwide readership, as well as generating material for more than a dozen books. After a marvelously prolific 11-year run, Greer decided it was time to close down the blog, realizing that he had said all he really had to say about the basic shape of our predicament. He began a new blog called Ecosophia, which has a spiritual focus.
The entries in this collection are eclectic but share a common thread. They all seek to answer why we inhabitants of the modern industrial world collectively believe the things we do about our reality. We’re in the midst of an ecological collapse and a civilizational decline, both of our own making, but aren’t acting as though we appreciate the gravity of our crisis. We’re part of the natural world yet regard it as separate from us. And we’ve developed a host of nonsensical rationalizations for our unsustainable behaviors. For Greer, a key point that must be grasped is that humans aren’t as smart as we like to think we are; we’re better at emoting than at thinking. Thus, we tend to rely on emotionally appealing stories—rather than logic or evidence—to make sense of our world, and we generally make decisions based on emotions, only later looking for logical rationales for the choices we’ve made.
To Greer’s mind, many troubling aspects of modern American life are the result of the world refusing to work the way our stories tell us it should. The central narrative of our culture, that of progress, is at odds with the mounting signs of regression we see all around us, and people are reacting to the mismatch in ever more irrational ways. Greer views this as one reason for the growing popularity, amidst America’s deteriorating public health, of conspiracy theories that claim cures for cancer are being suppressed. “[W]e ought to be getting healthier,” writes Greer, “but we’re not, so a scapegoat has to be found to justify the widening gap between the narrative we prefer and the reality we get.”
Numerous essays urge us to critically examine and, when necessary, abandon the stories each of us holds dearest. In “Knowing Only One Story,” Greer explains how our culture’s singular focus on the story of progress is ill-suited to the complex system that is our universe, which resists simplistic understandings. He says we would do well to emulate traditional cultures’ use of multiple narratives, since having a wealth of stories to think with means we’re able to find narrative patterns that make sense of whatever travails life may bring.
“The Blood of the Earth, or Pulp Nonfiction” throws into sharp, rather amusing relief just how out of touch the narrative of progress is with today’s reality. Its central argument is that our present world has more in common with popular fantasy literature tropes than with contemporary notions of progress. The similarities Greer finds between our world and those of pulp fantasy are uncanny indeed. For example, both involve sprawling empires in decline and decadent aristocracies that preside in high towers and practice the techniques of magic. (In our world, this magical practice consists of propagandistic incantations in the form of advertising, and the conjuring of vast sums of imaginary wealth in the form of banking.)
Environmentalists who fail to live in accordance with their supposed concern for the planet are an object of pungent criticism from Greer, who sees them as undermining their cause by sending the message that they don’t really believe in what they preach. The author is on solid ground in leveling this criticism, since his lifestyle matches his convictions. Greer’s chosen modes of travel, for example, emit little carbon, as he lives locally, gets by largely on foot and has never held a driver’s license. He is adamant that we should not take any proposal for reducing our energy usage seriously “until and unless the people proposing it actually do use less energy themselves, preferably by adopting the measures they urge on others.” He adds that this isn’t just a matter of principle; it’s also pragmatic, since effective social change movements start on an individual level. Greer says he makes a point of not advocating anything he hasn’t tried himself.
Those whose lifestyles contribute to the very ecological harm they claim to be concerned about will often, Greer argues, rationalize their hypocrisy by insisting that they have no agency in the matter. Again, Greer sees the popularity of conspiracy theories as one manifestation of this insistence. If you think some all-powerful elite is pulling the strings, it’s easy to see yourself as powerless to bring about change. The same goes for apocalyptic fantasies: If the world is about to end, no amount of activism will make the least bit of difference. In much the same fashion, it’s become quite common for people to assert that our society is on the verge of some new technological advance or spiritual transformation that will solve all our problems. These types of statements are especially appealing because they’re impossible to prove or disprove.
Originally published in 2009, “The Pornography of Political Fear” chillingly describes a habit of American political discourse that Greer sees as being on the rise in recent decades. It consists of asserting that others possess only the beliefs and motives that you happen to impute to them. Greer reflects on all the hyperbolic anti-George W. Bush rhetoric that claimed, without evidence, that Bush intended to extend his presidency indefinitely, inter dissidents in concentration camps and otherwise run roughshod over American norms and values. He goes on to recount how President Bill Clinton’s foes made similarly outlandish assertions about his supposed intentions that likewise proved to be mistaken. For Greer, the purpose of such claims is to help provide a culturally approved opportunity to enjoy “the forbidden pleasures of unrestrained hate.” He cautions that when we allow this political-fear-mongering porn to pass for reasonable discourse, we help pave the road to totalitarianism.
The author has a knack for finding common threads among seemingly unrelated things, and his trenchantly titled “Pepperspraying the Future” showcases this talent to full effect. It looks at the core theme underlying three notable news items from late 2011: a Thanksgiving shopper who assaulted other shoppers with pepper spray to beat them to a big sale, a politician’s absurdly unrealistic assessment of America’s energy outlook and a Canadian minister’s cynical comment about that nation’s future commitment to the Kyoto climate change protocol. All three, says Greer, bespeak “an attitude—it could as well be described as a belief, or even a religion—that treats the satisfaction of short term cravings for material goods as the only thing that really matters.” Each example is a case of someone blithely sweeping aside any obstacles in the way of continued material consumption, be they other shoppers, the laws of science or the wellbeing of future Canadian citizens.
“Refusing the Call: A Tale Rewritten” exemplifies Greer’s genius for using his fiction to turn accepted narratives on their heads. Whether he’s upending technothriller conventions by having the Americans get defeated for once (as in his effective political suspense novel Twilight’s Last Gleaming) or presenting a sci-fi future that rules out the possibility of interstellar travel (as he did in his astounding Star’s Reach), Greer delights in weaving yarns that both defy storytelling clichés and present fresh, exciting perspectives on the issues of our age. Here he offers an alternate telling of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy that serves as a satire on our society’s failure to face its current crisis. Set in a world in which Frodo Baggins declines his mission to destroy the Ring, it has the villain Sauron steadily continue his conquest of Middle-earth while Frodo descends into a psychological abyss with many parallels to the psychology of present-day industrial society.
Among the questions most frequently fielded by Greer is when he expects industrial civilization’s long-overdue collapse to finally occur. His answer is that it’s already been going on for several decades. Societal decline, he stresses, is a centuries-long process, not a sudden, dramatic event. “The Onset of Catabolic Collapse” attempts to pinpoint the exact year in which Greer believes the United States, in particular, entered its gradual, terminal descent—that year being 1974. For Greer, that is when America abruptly began shedding its heavy industry, family farms and working class, as well as liquidating one of its most vital remaining domestic natural resources: the Alaskan North Slope oil reserves. These trends have proceeded so slowly that most people have come to accept them as normal rather than as signs of a nation in decline.
“The Next Ten Billion Years” shows how at home Greer is dealing with immensely long time perspectives. It outlines a future history for the human species that gleefully contradicts the dogma that present-day humanity is the pinnacle of evolution. In Greer’s vision, industrial civilization never achieves interstellar travel or any of its other lofty goals; rather, it wanes like all civilizations that outstrip their resource bases. It ultimately proves to be just one in a line of several thousand civilizations that come and go over the next 10 million years. Humans eventually go extinct and a new species descended from raccoons becomes the world’s new dominant sentient creatures. Greer takes this future history all the way to the point where Earth has been destroyed by the sun and life has begun anew elsewhere. The beauty of this piece is how deftly it puts our current civilization into its proper perspective as a tiny mote on a vast canvas.
This book’s final essay, titled “The Time of the Seedbearers,” peers considerably less far ahead, to a time when our current way of life has passed out of living memory and the next wave of civilizations is forming around the world. The seedbearers envisioned by Greer are people who make it their mission to preserve the highest achievements of our age and carry them into the future. “If anything of value is to get through the harsh decades and centuries ahead of us, if anything worth saving is to be rescued from the wreck of our civilization, there’s plenty of work to do,” writes Greer. One crucial part of this work is the preservation of our stories and important texts. How wonderfully fitting and serendipitous it will be if this eminently erudite book is among the artifacts to survive.