Wednesday, May 31, 2006

On Catabolic Collapse

A couple of years ago I wrote an article titled "How Civilizations Fall: A Theory of Catabolic Collapse" -- quite the cheerful topic, granted, but it's relevant nowadays in more than an academic sense. I've never been able to find much common ground with the neoprimitivist types who insist that civilization is an awful idea and we all ought to go back to hunting and gathering, but there isn't much encouragement to be had from the cheerleaders of perpetual progress, either. In ecological terms, civilization is quite a new thing, not much more than 10,000 years old at most, and like most new evolutionary gambits, it's had its share of drastic ups and downs. Visit cities in Italy, China, or elsewhere that have been continuously inhabited for 2500 years and it's clear that, in the right environmental conditions, the civilized way of life can sustain itself over the long term; visit the ruins of Ur of the Chaldees or the Mayan metropolis of Tikal and it's equally clear that when environmental conditions don't support it, civilization is a mayfly phenomenon that flits past and vanishes in a blink of ecological time.

The question on many minds these days is whether our current industrial civilization falls into one of these categories or the other. It's a fair question, and one that a steady look at the ecological processes behind the fall of other civilizations can help answer. That was the motive behind the paper. In its original form, though, it bristles with equations, footnotes, and all the other impedimenta of the modern academic paper -- it was intended for publication in a peer-reviewed journal in the field of human ecology, a destiny it hasn't yet managed to achieve -- and to judge by the questions I've fielded since it appeared online last year, not all its readers have been able to hack their way through the scholarly undergrowth to the ideas at the core.

The idea of catabolic collapse is simple enough, and it's best communicated through a metaphor. Imagine that, instead of the fate of civilizations, we're discussing home ownership. Until recently, when people went shopping for a home, most of them were sensible about it and bought one within their means. The housing bubble of the last few years, though, encouraged quite a few people to get in over their heads, buying much more house than they could afford, on the assumption that appreciating real estate values and the other advantages of home ownership would make up the difference.

If you're one of these latter, though, you probably didn't take the time to work out just how much your huge new McMansion would cost to own, maintain, and repair, and you almost certainly didn't realize that every period of rising real estate values gives way to a period of stagnant or falling values sooner or later. As these realities begin to sink in, you find yourself in a very awkward bind, because your monthly paycheck doesn't cover all your monthly expenses. You can cover the difference for a while by refinancing your house and extracting any extra equity in cash, but that only works as long as interest rates keep dropping and home values keep rising. Once that option's closed off, you've got very few others as long as you plan on keeping the house. You can take on more debt, which means your bills go up; you can postpone maintenance and repairs, which means your house begins to fall apart, and your bills go up; or you can stop paying some of your bills, which means your house becomes much less livable, and your bills go up. Eventually you end up so deep in the hole that you can't pay the mortgage and the property taxes any more, and you lose the house.

That's catabolic collapse in a nutshell. Like suburban mansions, civilizations are complex, expensive, fragile things. To keep one going, you have to maintain and replace a whole series of capital stocks: physical (such as buildings), human (such as trained workers), information (such as agricultural knowledge), social (such as market systems), and more. If you can do this within the "monthly budget" of resources provided by the natural world and the efforts of your labor force, your civilization can last a very long time. Over time, though, civilizations tend to build their capital stocks up to levels that can't be maintained; each king (or industrial magnate) wants to build a bigger palace (or skyscraper) than the one before him, and so on. That puts a civilization into the same bind as the homeowner with the oversized house.

What happens then depends on whether the civilization's most important resources are sustainable or not. Sustainable resources are like a monthly paycheck; you've got to live within it, but as long as you can keep expenses on average at or below your paycheck, you know you can get by. If a civilization gets most of its raw materials from ecologically sound agriculture, for example, the annual harvest puts a floor under the collapse process. Even if things fall apart completely -- if the homeowner goes bankrupt and has his house foreclosed, to continue the metaphor -- that monthly paycheck will let him rent a smaller house or an apartment and start picking up the pieces. Civilizations such as ancient Egypt and imperial China, which were based on sustainable resources, cycled through this process many times, from expansion through overshoot to a self-limiting collapse that bottomed out when capital stocks got low enough to be supported by the steady resource base.

If the civilization depends on unsustainable resource use, though, the situation is a lot more serious. In terms of the metaphor, our homeowner bought the house with lottery winnings, not a monthly paycheck; his income is only a fraction of the amount he spends each month -- and not necessarily a large fraction, either. The process that leads to foreclosure is different, too. Our lottery winner can spend as freely as he wants, up to the point that his bank balance drops far enough that his checks start bouncing. By the time he runs into that limit, though, the chance to do anything about the situation is long past. The money is gone, he's faced with bills his monthly income won't even begin to cover, and by the time the collection agencies get through with him he may very well end up on the street. Civilizations such as the Classic Maya, which used core resources (in the Maya case, the fragile fertility of tropical soils) unsustainably, went through this process, and the "collection agencies" of nature left nothing behind but crumbling ruins in the Yucatan jungle.

This is not good news for our modern industrial civilization, of course, because its capital stocks are supported by winnings from the geological lottery that laid down fantastic amounts of fossilized solar energy in the form of coal, oil, and natural gas. Even the very small fraction of our resource base that comes from the "paycheck" of agriculture, forestry, and fishing depends on fossil fuels, and is being used up at unsustainable rates. Since the late 1950s, scientists have been warning that what's left of our fossil fuel resources won't sustain our current industrial system indefinitely, much less support the Utopia of perpetual economic growth promised by pundits across the political spectrum. For the most part, these warnings have been roundly ignored. If they continue to be ignored until actual shortages begin, we may be in for a very ugly future.

That future may be closer than most people like to think, too. The collapse of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina drew attention from around the world, but few people seem to have noticed the implications of the Big Easy's fate. The United States has suffered catastrophic hurricanes and other natural disasters before, and always in the past the disaster was promptly followed by a massive rebuilding program. Not this time. The French Quarter and a few other mostly undamaged portions of the city have reestablished a rough equivalent of their former life, but much of the rest of the city has been bulldozed or simply abandoned to the elements. The ruins of the Ninth Ward, like the hundreds of abandoned farm towns that dot the Great Plains states and the gutted cities of America's Rust belt, may be a harbinger of changes most Americans will find it acutely uncomfortable to face.

One place where the housing metaphor breaks down, though, is that a civilization has a fractal structure -- that is, the same patterns that define it at the topmost level also take form on smaller scales. The long-lasting cities in Italy and China mentioned at the beginning of this essay maintained urban life through the fall of empires precisely because of this fractal structure; a single city and its agricultural hinterland can survive even if the larger system comes apart. The recent spread of Peak Oil resolutions and projects by cities and towns across America is thus a very hopeful sign. It's going to take drastic changes and a great deal of economic rebuilding before these communities can get by on the more limited resources of a deindustrial future, but the crucial first steps toward sustainability are at least on the table now. If our future is to be anything but a desperate attempt to keep our balance as we skid down the slope of collapse and decline, these projects may well point the way.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Knowing Only One Story

The Druid way can be followed anywhere, but for me, at least, it's always a bit easier outside among green growing things. That doesn't require wilderness; some of the most transformative experiences of my own Druid path took place in a week of dawn meditations in the gardens in Chalice Well in Glastonbury, which hasn't been wilderness any time in the last five thousand years. Still, there's much to be said for a creekside meadow up in the Oregon Cascades, with the sun just beginning to burn through morning mist and the distant noises of the breakfast crew back at camp drowned out by birdsong and running water. That's where I was, in the middle of my dawn meditation, when three sentences whispered themselves in the silence inside my head.

Knowing many stories is wisdom.
Knowing no stories is ignorance.
Knowing only one story is death.

I've been brooding about those sentences for the year and a half since that morning, and the more I think about them the more they say to me about where we are today and how we got here.

Traditional cultures around the world have a wealth of stories, and a very large part of education in those cultures consists of sharing, learning, and thinking about those stories. They aren't simply entertainment. Stories are probably the oldest and most important of all human tools. We think with stories, by fitting the "blooming, buzzing confusion" of the universe around us into narrative patterns that make the world make sense. Even today, we use stories to tell us who we are, what the world is like, and what we can and can't do with our lives. It's just that nowadays the stories have changed.

One of the most striking things about old stories, the stories of traditional cultures, is that no two of them have the same moral. Think of the fairy tales you grew up with. They put different people in different situations with very different results. Sometimes violating a prohibition brought success ("Jack and the Beanstalk"), sometimes it brought disaster ("Sleeping Beauty"). Sometimes victory went to the humble and patient ("Cinderella"), sometimes it went to the one who was willing to try the impossible ("Puss in Boots"). There are common themes in the old stories, of course, but endless variations on them. Those differences are a source of great power. If you have a wealth of different stories to think with, odds are that whatever the world throws at you, you'll be able to find a narrative pattern that makes sense of it.

Over the last few centuries, though, the multiple-narrative approach of traditional cultures has given way, especially in the industrial West, to a way of thinking that privileges a single story above all others. Think of any currently popular political or religious ideology, and you'll likely find at its center the claim that one and only one story explains everything in the world.

For fundamentalist Christians, it's the story of Fall and Redemption ending with the Second Coming of Christ. For Marxists, it's the very similar story of dialectical materialism ending with the dictatorship of the proletariat. For rationalists, neoconservatives, most scientists, and quite a fair number of ordinary people in the developed world, it's the story of progress. The political left and right each has its own story, and the list goes on.

One symptom of knowing only one story is the certainty that whatever problem comes up, it has the same solution. For fundamentalist Christians, no matter what the problem, the solution is surrendering your will to Jesus -- or, more to the point, to the guy who claims to be able to tell you who Jesus wants you to vote for. For Marxists, the one solution for all problems is proletarian revolution. For neoconservatives, it's the free market. For scientists, it's more scientific research and education. For Democrats, it's electing Democrats; for Republicans, it's electing Republicans.

The problem is that the universe is what ecologists call a complex system. In a complex system, feedback loops and unexpected consequences make a mockery of simplistic attempts to predict effects from causes, and no one solution will effectively respond to more than a small portion of the challenges the system can throw at you. This leads to the second symptom of knowing only one story, which is repeated failure.

Recent economic history offers a good example. For the last two decades, free-market advocates in the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have been pushing a particular set of reforms on governments and economies around the world, insisting that these reforms are the one and only solution to every economic ill. Everywhere those have been fully implemented, the result has been economic and social disaster -- think East Asia in the late 1980s, or Russia and Latin America in the 1990s -- and the countries devastated by these "reforms" have returned to prosperity only after reversing them. None of this has stopped the free market's true believers from continuing to press forward toward the imaginary Utopia their story promises them.

If you know plenty of stories, and know how to think with them, the complexity of the universe is less of a problem, because you have a much better chance of being able to recognize what story the universe seems to be following, and act accordingly. If you don't know any stories at all, interestingly, you may still get by; even though you don't have the resources of story-wisdom to draw on, you may still be able to judge the situation on its own merits and act accordingly; you have flexibility.

But if you only know one story, and you're committed to the idea that the world makes sense if and only if it's interpreted through the filter of that one story, you're stuck in a rigid stance with no options for change. Much more often than not, you fail, since the complexity of the universe is such that no single story makes a useful tool for understanding more than a very small part of it. If you can recognize this and let go of your story, you can begin to learn. If you've gotten your ego wrapped up in the thought of having the one and only true story, though, and you try to force the world to fit your story rather than allowing your story to change to fit the world, the results will not be good.

This leads to the third symptom of knowing only one story, which is rage. Failure is a gift because it offers the opportunity for learning, but if the gift is too emotionally difficult to accept, the easy way out is to take refuge in rage. When we get angry with people who disagree with us about politics or religion, I'm coming to think, what really angers us is the fact that our one story doesn't fit the universe everywhere and always, and those who disagree with us simply remind us of that uncomfortable fact.

Plenty of pundits, and many ordinary people, as well have commented on the extraordinary level of anger that surges through America these days. From talk radio to political debates to everyday conversations, dialogue has given way to diatribe across the political spectrum. It's unlikely to be a coincidence that this has happened over a quarter century when the grand narratives of both major American political parties failed the test of reality. The 1960s and 1970s saw the Democrats get the chance to enact the reforms they wanted; the 1980s and the first decade of the 21st century saw the Republicans get the same opportunity. Both parties found themselves stymied by a universe that obstinately refused to play along with their stories, and too often, people on both sides turned to anger and scapegoating as a way to avoid having to rethink their ideas.

That habit of rage isn't going to help us, or anyone, as we move toward a future that promises to leave most of our culture's familiar stories in tatters. As we face the unwelcome realities of resource depletion, environmental instability, and the inevitable hangover coming on the heels of our fictive economy's decades-long binge, clinging to whatever single story appeals to us may be emotionally comforting in the short term, but it leads down a dead end familiar to those who study the history of extinct civilizations. Learning other stories, and finding out that it's possible to see the world in more than just one way, is a more viable path.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

After the Prosthetic Society

It's often said that generals prepare to fight the last war rather than the next one, and the same thing deserves to be said at least as much of societies in general. In every age, most people believe that the current state of affairs can be counted on to keep on going forever, and they plan for the future on the assumption that it'll be just like the present, only more so. Political, economic, and cultural institutions do the same thing, and too often spiritual traditions -- which exist to point out inconvenient realities -- get swept up in the consensus. Then the future comes along and does something different, and everyone who thought they knew what was coming ends up sitting in the wreckage wondering what happened.

Prophecies of the future made on the basis of conventional wisdom just don't wear very well. When I was growing up in the suburban America of the 1960s, everyone knew that by 2000 we'd have manned bases on the Moon and a Hilton hotel in orbit, while back here on the ground our homes would be run by nuclear power that would literally be too cheap to meter; you'd just pay a monthly hookup fee and use all the juice you wanted. The decaying inner cities would be replaced by huge terraced megastructures or Paolo Soleri's gargantuan arcologies, while Sealab -- does anybody remember Sealab any more? -- was going to be the prototype of whole cities under the sea. It was quite a world, but somehow it got lost in the 1970s energy crises and we ended up instead with SUVS, metastatizing suburban sprawl, and the short-term political gimmicks that papered over fossil fuel depletion for twenty years and lost us our best bet of getting through the next century without some form of collapse.

So it may not be out of line to suggest that current ideas about where we're headed are as misplaced as the atomic Utopia of 1960s futurists turned out to be. One trend usually pointed out as the wave of the future seems particularly likely to end up in this sort of debacle, and that's the replacement of human abilities with electronic and mechanical devices.

It's a huge trend, especially but not only among the middle classes of the industrial world who set fashions for the rest of the planet. Think of something that people used to do, and the salesman at your local mall can probably sell you something to do it for you. My favorite example is the breadmaking machine. A hundred years ago nearly every family baked its own bread; it's a simple, enjoyable task that can be done with Stone Age technology. Now, though, you can drop as much money as you want on a countertop machine with buttons and flashing lights that will do it for you. Similarly, people used to entertain themselves by singing and playing musical instruments, but we have CDs and iPods for that now. They used to exercise by taking walks in the park, but we have treadmill machines for that. In place of memories, we have Palm Pilots; in place of imagination, we have TVs, and so on. At the zenith of the trend came that bizarre figure of the late 20th century, the suburban couch potato, whose sole activity outside of work hours and commuting was sitting on a couch clicking a baroque array of remote controls while delivery drivers came to the door with an endless supply of consumer products ordered, bought and paid for online.

In effect, the 1980s and 1990s witnessed the creation of a prosthetic culture. A prosthetic is an artificial device that replaces a human function, and they're valuable technologies for those who have lost the use of the function in question. If you've lost a leg via accident or illness, for example an artificial leg that lets you walk again is a very good thing to have. Still, when a society starts convincing people to saw off their own legs so businesses can sell them artificial ones, something has gone wrong -- and that's not too far from the situation we're in today.

There are at least two drastic problems with our prosthetic culture. The abandonment of human abilities in favor of mechanical replacements has no little impact on who we are and what we can be. As E.M. Forster pointed out in his harrowing 1909 short story "The Machine Stops," it's hard to imagine that anyone's highest potential as a human being can be achieved in a lifestyle that consists solely of pushing buttons. On the other hand, Forsteresque remote-control dystopias are about as likely now as those undersea cities I grew up reading about, because the basis for the couch potato lifestyle is trickling away as I write these words.

The driving force behind the prosthetic culture of the 20th century's last decades was the final hurrah of the age of cheap oil. The manipulations that crashed the price of petroleum in the early 1980s made energy cheaper than it has ever been in human history. At several points in the 1990s, oil dropped to $10 a barrel, its lowest price ever once inflation is factored in. As the single largest component in the industrial world's energy mix, and the "gateway resource" that gave access to all other forms of energy -- the machines that mine coal, drill for natural gas, build hydroelectric dams, and so on are all powered by oil -- the plunging price of oil pulled the bottom out from under the cost of energy as a whole, and put the world's industrial societies into a historically unprecedented situation: for the first (and probably only) time in history, it was cheaper to build a machine to do almost everything than to have a human being do it.

In some ways, of course, that was simply the culmination of a process that got started at the beginning of the industrial revolution, and went into overdrive with the birth of the petroleum economy in the years before the First World War. Earlier efforts to replace human skills with machines had to deal with much more limited and expensive energy supplies, which forced a reliance on economies of scale; machine-made bread, for instance, had to be made in big factories, rather than home bread machines, to keep costs within reach of most consumers. The pinnacle of the age of cheap oil made energy so abundant and so inexpensive, at least in the more privileged industrial countries, that it was briefly possible to ignore economies of scale and make each middle-class person the center of a microfactory designed to produce, or at least deliver, whatever goods and services were wanted.

All that, though, depended on cheap energy, and with today's plateauing of world oil production and the approach of inevitable declines in the near future, the prosthetic culture of the last few decades is headed for the recycling bin of history.

This means that current visions of the future, and policies based on them, are in desperate need of a rethink. The decades to come will see many things that are now done by machines handed back over to human beings, for the eminently pragmatic reason that it will again be cheaper to feed, house, clothe, and train a human being to do those things than it will be to make, fuel, and maintain a machine to do them. How many things? That depends on how much renewable energy capacity gets brought online before production rates of oil and natural gas start slipping down the steep slopes of Hubbert's peak. In a worst-cast scenario in which nothing significant is done until crises start to hit -- and in the US especially, we're uncomfortably close to that scenario right now -- energy shortages could be severe enough that everything but the most essential services will have to get by on human labor.

In any realistic future, a lot of old skills are likely to be in high demand again. Professions that involve doing useful things with one's hands, brains, and a relatively simple toolkit are high on my list of hot career tracks in the 21st century. Some completely forgotten arts may see revivals; the old Art of Memory, a Renaissance system of mnemonic methods that allowed people to file and retrieve huge amounts of information at will, may be worth a second look when the energy cost of making and powering a Palm Pilot soars out of sight.

Spirituality, finally, has a good deal more obvious relevance in the future we're moving toward than it's seemed to have in the decades just past. The sort of skilled professions I've just mentioned are those that treat human potential as means; spirituality treats the fulfillment of human potential as an end in itself, the proper goal of human life. In a future when the prosthetic society is fading into memory, ways of life that focus our attention on goals we can reach without trashing the planet are likely to prove more relevant and more sustainable than a belief system that treats the accumulation of consumer gewgaws as the ultimate goal of life.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Deer in the Headlights

For those of us who grew up during the energy crises of the 1970s, there's something eerily familiar about recent headlines. Now as then, soaring energy costs make the news almost daily, part of a wider economic shift that's sending the prices of most raw materials through the roof. The countries that export the oil we in America waste so casually (OPEC then; Iran, Venezuela, and Russia now) are showing an uncomfortable eagerness to cash in their economic chips for the headier coin of international power. Meanwhile America's balance of trade sinks further into a sea of red ink as imported consumer goods from our largest Asian trading partner (Japan then, China now) overwhelm faltering US exports, sending the dollar skidding downwards against most foreign currencies. In Yogi Berra's famous words, it's deja vu all over again.

Then as now, too, the rising cost of oil isn't simply the result of market vagaries or the alleged wickedness of oil companies. It comes out of the awkward fit between our current economic arrangements and the hard facts of petroleum geology. In 1970, the United States reached the crest of its Hubbert peak -- the point at which so much oil has been pumped out of a given area that production declines from then on, no matter what you do. A society raised on fantasies of endless supplies of cheap domestic energy had to retool its foreign policy, its economy, and its culture to deal with a new reality of dependence on overseas reserves. Much of the economic and cultural turmoil of the decade after 1970 came out of the wrenching changes demanded by that shift.

Fast forward to 2006, and the same crisis looms on a global scale. The exact timing of the whole world's Hubbert peak is hard to judge, not least because many oil producing countries treat accurate information about their oil reserves as state secrets, but production worldwide has been bumping along an uneven plateau since midway through 2004 -- a good sign that the peak isn't far off, and may already have arrived. Today's predicament has fewer solutions than the crisis of the 1970s, though, because postpeak America could simply import oil from countries that hadn't yet reached their own Hubbert peaks. Today, most of the world's oil producing countries have already peaked, and newly discovered oilfields brought on line only help to cover the deficit from old fields that are running dry.

But speaking of solutions points to an unsettling difference between the energy crises of the 1970s and the one we face right now. When energy costs soared in the early 1970s, there was just as much finger-pointing and scapegoat hunting as there is today, to be sure, but plenty of people went to work on constructive responses to the crisis. The 1970s were a boomtime for the now-forgotten appropriate technology movement, which evolved an impressive toolkit of methods to conserve energy and raw materials. Two other movements, organic agriculture and recycling, moved off the drawing boards to become profitable industries during those same years. More generally, conservation had a pervasive presence on the cultural radar screens of the time. Most Americans in those years knew about insulation and weatherstripping, and at least glanced at the miles-per-gallon numbers when shopping for a car. Ironically, the success of these gambits turned out to be their undoing -- declining demand for energy in the US was an important factor in crashing the price of oil in the 1980s and convincing too many people that conservation was a thing of the past.

At this point we're several years into the current energy crisis. We've seen electricity shortages, rolling brownouts, and epic spikes in the price of oil and natural gas, but somehow the constructive attitude of the 1970s has yet to surface. If anything, things are moving the other way. Other than a few independent thinkers on the cultural fringe, politicians and pundits alike insist that nothing can be done about energy prices in the short term, and their proposals for the long term add up to business as usual -- spend more, drill more, pump more, consume more. Conservation hasn't even begun to enter the national discussion about energy yet.

It needs to appear there, and soon. The experience of the 1970s showed that Americans can cut their energy use much further and more easily than current assumptions allow. As oil and natural gas start to slide down the far side of their respective Hubbert curves, the sooner those cuts are made, the more energy will be available in the future, and the sooner we begin to adapt to a new and more frugal way of using energy, the less disruption we'll face as frugality stops being an option and turns into a hard necessity.

Fortunately, we don't have to wait for the politicians to extract their heads from the sand to do something about the situation. It doesn't take an act of Congress to put a new layer of insulation in the attic, weatherstrip the door, turn down the thermostat a bit, or walk those two blocks to the grocery store instead of driving there -- and it might not hurt to pay a visit to the local used book store, and see if they've got any copies of durable 1970s appropriate-technology classics like The Integral Urban House or Rainbook in stock.

If the people lead, eventually the leaders will follow. It's that or stand there like deer in the headlights until the future we don't want to face crashes into us anyway.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Real Druids

This year's Earth Day in Ashland, Oregon, where I live, featured an interfaith service at the local Unitarian church, and I wasn't too surprised to get a call inviting me to be one of the presenters. Like the other interfaith events I've been to, this one was sparsely attended but enthusiastic; a choir sang upbeat songs about saving the planet in between snippets of Buddhist sutras, Baha'i prayers, Taoist poetry, and yes, a bit of Druid ritual. Afterwards, though, as I was folding up my robes, a kid about eight years old came into the little alcove where the presenters stashed their gear, looked up at me and asked, "Are you a real Druid?"

Half an hour later, as I walked home through Oregon rain, the question still burned.

It's not an easy question to answer. The original Druids, the priests and wizards of the ancient Celts, went extinct more than a thousand years ago, and all their beliefs, practices, and teachings went with them. Maybe they were the wise oak-priests of today's historical fantasies, maybe they were the "obscure barbarian priesthood of interest only to specialists" that historians like the late Stuart Piggott prefer to imagine. We'll never know, because they and almost everything connected with them vanished in the early Dark Ages.

Some modern Druid groups in the 19th and early 20th centuries, to their lasting discredit, claimed direct connections to the ancient Celtic Druids they didn't have. The real roots of the modern Druid movement go in a different direction: to the first stages of the Industrial Revolution in early 18th century Britain, and the Hobson's choice between dogmatic religion and materialist science, the two victors in the reality wars of the late Renaissance. Plenty of people sought a third option that embraced nature and spirit alike, and some of them found inspiration in the scraps of classical writing, medieval legend, and Celtic folklore that referred to the ancient Druids.

Historians call the result the Druid Revival. By the middle years of the 18th century there were organized Druid groups active in Britain, and by the beginning of the next century the Revival spread to America and France. The Druid order I head, the Ancient Order of Druids in America (AODA), was founded in 1912, so to some extent we're the new kid on the block: part of a tradition that's been active in the western world for close to three centuries, proclaiming in its quiet way the holiness of nature and the need for human beings to return to harmony with the living earth.

That's a message that could bear repeating these days. I don't think it's an accident that the Druid Revival started alongside the Industrial Revolution, as the western world began to launch itself on a trajectory that's bringing it up against hard planetary limits in our own time. Those first modern Druids pointed out the road our civilization didn't take, a sustainable path in harmony with the living world. The ancient Celtic Druids whose example inspired them lived in a different age, with different challenges, but their reverence for forests and the powers of nature still guides and motivates Druids today.

I can't say that all this went through my mind as I fumbled for an answer to the kid's question, but when you use the word "Druid" for yourself and your spirituality nowadays, issues like these are never far away. "Yes," I told him finally. "Yes, I am."

He grinned, and said, "I thought so. Thanks!" Then he scampered off, and I walked home through the rain with history spinning in my head.