Thursday, March 01, 2007

The Failure of Reason

Around once a month, since I first started this blog, I get plans in the mail for saving the world. I don’t mean this last phrase derisively; the plans come from people who are deeply concerned about the consequences of peak oil, global warming, and other manifestations of the predicament of industrial society, and set out to find a solution. Many of them are extremely well crafted and, if put into place, would accomplish much. Every one of them, even the loopiest, would likely have better results than the industrial world’s current policy of sleepwalking toward the abyss.

The most recent example arrived a couple of days ago, courtesy of Tom Wayburn, a Texas engineer and a reader of this blog; you’ll find his plan online at and He’s far from alone in his efforts. M. King Hubbert himself proposed a scheme of social and economic reorganization to deal with peak oil back in the 1970s; you can find it at These two are only a drop in the oil bucket, of course. Go looking for peak oil solutions online or in bookstores and you can find them by the dozen.

The best publicized of them, and indeed one of the best in practical terms, is the oil depletion protocol originally crafted by the Hydrocarbon Depletion Study Group at the University of Uppsala in Sweden. Richard Heinberg’s latest book The Oil Depletion Protocol does a fine job of explaining the protocol and showing how it could manage the transition to a sustainable society. It’s an extremely well thought out plan, and if implemented, would almost certainly make the coming of the deindustrial age a good deal less ugly than it will otherwise be. The only criticism it merits is that its chances of actually being put into effect make a snowball in hell look like a safe investment.

Unfortunately, the same sort of criticism can be leveled at the entire genre of peak oil solutions, from Tom Wayburn’s project to such highly publicized plans as the oil depletion protocol or the one presented in Lester Brown’s much-discussed book Plan B. There has never been a shortage of good ideas for dealing with peak oil or, for that matter, any other aspect of the predicament of industrial society. What has been lacking consistently is the collective will to put any of those ideas into practice.

It bears noticing that between 1956, when Hubbert originally announced the approach of peak oil, and the present moment, a remarkable paradox has unfolded. On the one hand, the evidence for the imminence and catastrophic potential of peak oil has grown steadily more convincing. On the other hand, the prospect that any constructive response to peak oil will actually be implemented has grown steadily more distant. Despite occasional bursts of lip service, every major political party in every major nation in the industrial world supports pro-growth economic policies that move the world further away from a transition to sustainability with each passing day, and the more imminent and obvious the dangers become, the more stubbornly the world’s political and economic systems cling to exactly the policies that guarantee the worst possible outcome in the not very long run.

Now a good part of this astonishing failure of will and vision can be traced to familiar factors. Many peak oil authors have talked about the way that today’s political and economic systems have perpetual growth hardwired into them, and malfunction or break down completely when the rate of growth even starts to approach zero. Many of them, myself among them, have also discussed the way that people’s ability to weigh benefits against risks breaks down just as spectacularly when the benefits are immediate and the risks lie somewhere in the indefinite future. Still, there’s more to the issue than this. The same underground realm of mythic narratives and magical symbols I’ve been trying to explore in recent posts has a major role in setting the stage for the paradox just outlined.

The crux of the matter, I suggest, is that attempts to change the course of industrial civilization without changing the narratives and symbols that guide it on its way are doomed to failure, and those narratives and symbols cannot be changed effectively with the toolkit that peak oil advocates have used up to this point. Behind this specific technical problem lies a much vaster predicament – the failure of the Enlightenment project of rebuilding human civilization on the foundations of reason.

The Enlightenment, for those of my readers who received an American public school education – which in matters of history, at least, amounts to no real education at all – was an 18th century movement of European thought that laid most of the intellectual foundations of the modern world. The leading lights of the movement argued that the transformation that Galileo, Newton, and their peers accomplished in the sciences needed to happen in the realms of social, political, and economic life as well. To them, the traditional ideologies that framed European society in their time amounted to one vast festering mass of medieval superstition that belonged in the compost heap of history. Voltaire’s famous outburst against the Catholic church – Ecrasez l’infame! (“Chuck the wretched thing!”) – gave voice to a generation’s revulsion against a worldview that in their minds had become all too closely bound to bigotry and autocracy.

Mind you, there was quite a bit of truth to the charge. The upper classes of 18th century Europe had been as strongly affected by the scientific revolution’s disenchantment of the world as anyone else, and in their hands, traditional ways of thinking that once wove a bond of common interest among people of different classes turned into abstractions veiling brutal injustice. Like so many social critics, though, the thinkers of the Enlightenment combined a clear if one-sided view of the problem with unworkably Utopian proposals for its solution. They argued that once superstition was dethroned and public education became universal, rational self-interest and dispassionate scientific analysis would take charge, leading society progressively toward ever better social conditions.

If this sounds familiar, it should. The ideology of the Enlightenment swept all before it, forcing even the most diehard reactionaries to phrase their dissent in the terms of an argument the Enlightenment itself defined, and it remains the common currency of social, economic, and political thought in the Western world to this day. One of its consequences is exactly the habit of producing rational plans for social improvement that spawned the torrent of peak oil solutions we’re discussing in this post. Since Voltaire’s time, the idea that building a better social mousetrap will cause the world to beat a path to one’s door has pervaded our civilization.

The irony, of course, is that neither in Voltaire’s time nor in ours has social change actually happened that way. The triumph of the Enlightenment itself did not happen because the social ideas circulated by its proponents were that much better than those of their rivals; it happened because the core mythic narrative of the Enlightenment proved to be more emotionally powerful than its rivals. That narrative, of course, is the myth of progress, the core element of the worldview that has made, and now threatens to destroy, the modern world.

This irony defines a faultline running through the middle of the modern mind. On the one hand, our economists treat human beings as rational actors making choices to maximize their own economic benefit. On the other hand, the same companies that hire those economists also pay for advertising campaigns that use the raw materials of myth and magic to encourage people to act against their own best interests, whether it’s a matter of buying overpriced fizzy sugar water or the much more serious matter of continuing to support the unthinking pursuit of business as usual in the teeth of approaching disaster. The language of rational self-interest and dispassionate scientific analysis is itself part of a mythic narrative of the sort it attempts to dismiss from serious consideration.

The crux of the problem, as suggested in an earlier post in this blog, is that human thought is mythic by its very nature. We think with myths, as inevitably as we see with eyes and eat with mouths. Thus any attempt to bring about significant social change must start from the mythic level, with an emotionally powerful and symbolically meaningful narrative, or it will go nowhere. The founders of the Enlightenment recognized this, and accomplished one of the great intellectual revolutions of history by harnessing the power of myth in the service of their project. The very nature of their legacy, though, has made it much harder for others to recognize the role of myth in social change.

Thus it’s not accidental that the great storytellers of recent history, the figures who catalyzed massive changes by the creative use of myth, have mostly come from the fringes of the Western cultural mainstream. Two examples are particularly worth citing here. Mohandas Gandhi, who broke the grip of the British Empire on India by retelling the myth of European colonialism so powerfully that even the colonial powers fell under the spell of his story, drew on his own Third World culture as well as his Western education to pose a challenge to the reigning narratives of the West that they had no way to counter. On the other side of the scale, but no less powerfully, Adolf Hitler came out of the crawlspaces of Vienna’s urban underclass with a corrupted version of Central European occult traditions, and turned them into a myth that mesmerized an entire nation and plunged the planet into the most catastrophic war in its history. In rational terms, the story of either man’s achievements seems preposterous – another measure of the limits of reason, and its failure to plumb the depths of human motivation.

If something constructive is to be done about peak oil and the rest of the predicament of industrial society, in other words, yet another round of reasonable plans will not do the trick. The powers that must be harnessed are those of myth, magic, and the irrational. What remains to be seen is whether these will be harnessed by a new Gandhi...or a new Hitler.


LizM said...

Your best argued and clearest post yet, and that's saying something. I spotted a typo, fourth paragraph from the end, third sentence down, first word -- "are" should probably be "as" -- which I mention only because I can't recall ever seeing a typo in your work before, so I assume it is something you take care to avoid.

Matt Cardin said...

Thank you for yet another extremely well considered and well crafted post, John.

Regarding the "faultline running through the middle of the modern mind," and the idea that the "language of rational self-interest and dispassionate scientific analysis is itself part of a mythic narrative of the sort it attempts to dismiss from serious consideration," and also the idea that for real, positive change to occur, "The powers that must be harnessed are those of myth, magic, and the irrational" -- yes, yes, and yes. But you've also indicated the most serious danger contained in the third of those points via your final, fearful question about a new Gandhi or a new Hitler. Generally speaking, all bets are off when we open ourselves to the irrational, including the relative likelihoods of the Gandhian or the Hitlerian scenario taking place. And under present circumstances, to invoke the irrational realm of myth may well tap into a deep, powerful, pervasive reservoir of negativity that has been brewing beneath the surface of industrial civilization and is now bubbling to the top, thus increasing the likelihood of the Hitlerian scenario unfolding no matter how skillfully the mythic revisioning is deployed.

Of course I'm not advising that we should do nothing, that we shouldn't pursue the course you're recommending. I personally think it's an inspiring vision of how to proceed, and I agree entirely with you that the mythic/irrational level is the one at which current problems must be addressed, especially since that's the source level of the basic problem anyway. In other words, I pretty much agree with you down the line. But even so, I can't read what you've said without thinking immediately of the dangers of "playing with fire," as it were. I guess I just remain so thoroughly disgusted with, and pessimistic about, the current mainstream state of things that I can't think it's going to undergo an authentic, fundamental change short of its being hamstrung by a bona fide catastrophic breakdown that unfolds over time, and this pessimism colors my thinking about the likely character of any sort of "new myth" that will win out in the foreseeable future.

norlight0 said...

I have been re-reading and thinking about Gary Snyder's essay FOUR CHANGES lately and just what a prescient document it is. Other than his missing about the inevitability of the nuclear power, much of what he said is just as true today. The associations I am making with your current comments are the need for total transformation by seizing the keys symbols of the culture--Snyder seemed to believe anything less would not make a difference.

Over the past two or three years I have been working with a group here that is inspired by Michael Shuman's "go local" approach. Not much progress is being made considering the task at hand. I have thought about Gandhi a great deal and his salt production. What I have racked my brain for is something comparable in our daily lives, a key symbol or activity that would communicate directly to people what "go local" is all about. Obviously, going local is where we are going to end up anyway so it ties in nicely with peak oil. Until that kind of transformation, there still is a great deal of space and opportunity for individual action, living the change we want to see and will come anyway. At some point, a critical mass is possible that would flip things in a very different direction.

The Naked Mechanic said...

Thank you for this beautifully reasoned post

Climate change and excessive resource consumption can be placed at the feet of an economic system that relies on exponential growth, yet business and political leaders dare not say its name as to do so would be political suicide; is it not economic growth that funds our pension plans, stock portfolios and welfare systems, what sort of fool could question that?

How do you change a system that has this inherent flaw as its very foundation? How do we expose the myth of sustainable growth and replace it with a mythology that our grandchildren can live with and live by?

John Michael Greer said...

Thank you all for your comments!

Lizm, you're quite right, it's a typo -- or rather an edito, the result of recasting a sentence without getting all the verbs switched over. I'll tweak it shortly.

Matt, I'll have some specific suggestions for how to move toward the Gandhi end of the spectrum in a future post. This is where that awkward word "magic" -- the only word we've got for working actively with mythic modes of experience -- will have to be dragged back into the discussion. The one thing I'll say here is that it's a very deeply held modern misconception that we can only be passive toward the irrational; the tools of Enlightenment consciousness can't help us there, but Enlightenment consciousness isn't the only game in town.

Norlight, you're definitely thinking in the right direction!!! More on this later.

Naked Mechanic, we change the myth in the only realm where it can actually be changed -- the realm of myth and symbol itself. Again, this will be the theme of at least one future post.

Adrynian said...

What matt cardin said. Excellent post, JMG!

The only thing I was thinking is that I would think that being able to recognize our dependence on myth would be the first step to reflecting on, and affecting, the myths and symbols of our culture(s). Thus, reason needn't be completely discarded, but rather put into a broader context that includes an understanding of its limitations, as well as the other aspects of our minds and how they shape our perceptions of and behaviours in the world. In some sense, at the end of my degree in cognitive science, this is the disillusionment I've come to feel towards my discipline: it focuses too much on the rational - the last couple hundred thousand years of our evolution - almost completely to the exclusion of all the rest of the - millions of years of developed - mental functioning that lies just beneath the surface, *especially* the emotions and myths that colour all the rest of our abstract thought.

As an aside, if I had to bet, my money would be on another Hitler, at least at first (but then I tend to be a pessimist)... one can hope that W. has at least done us all a favour and reminded us just where that goes.

norlight(), have you considered food as a localization catalyst. (I'm also a fan of local currencies, but they can be *really* difficult to get off the ground.) I don't know for sure if it will work, but gardening, farmer's markets, etc. seem to have a very good social & community-building component to them, it tastes good, and it has an excellent meme: "food security!" And even if it doesn't have the full desired effect, at least you'll be somewhat more likely to be able to eat when heat waves, droughts, aquifer depletion, and peaking NG and oil undermine agro-business and send food prices soaring.

Adrynian said...

Oh, I just had one other really brief thought about economic growth. That is that if you read "The Limits to Growth" (well actually, I read the 20year update, "Beyond the Limits"), one of the most pertinent concepts that I took from that book is the notion that the marginal utility, to use econ-speak, of growth can actually become negative. That is, the costs of growth can actually overwhelm the benefits when the pollution really builds up, the ecosystems are no longer performing the services they used to, etc. and the costs of cleaning up or replacing all of these things rises exponentially (or worse) as well.

This is something that is never, ever discussed; growth is always seen to have positive marginal utility: "we'll be better able to pay for the social services, environmental clean-up, etc." But that really isn't necessarily the case and it's absolutely necessary to recognize it. I think climate change is turning out to be the prime example of this, in fact; the costs to growth, that have until now been largely externalized, are coming back to bite us in the ass, big time.

jeff said...

I will piggy back the comment by Adrynian about the localization of food. Agriculture in general is, I believe, the one thing most susceptable to not only peak oil but also climate change. This is where We should really begin to focus our energies in the near-term. As goes food production, so goes all of society.

Warnwood said...

Astonishing, and right on target. Again and again, in discussing the problems confronting us, we come up against the notion that change must arise out of the culture itself, that all of the tools are at hand but what is lacking is the will to meaningfully employ them -- in your terms, the narrative that embues them with the necessary mythic energy to provide us with the motivation. The irony of our situation is that in this era of instantaneous publication to the masses, no single narrative binds us together. Instead, private mythologies and individual niche narratives fragment us; we become consumers not only of products but of the stories with which they're sold, and we hunger for the vast overarching narrative that will tie them all together. Excellent post. No one has spelled out the problem with more clarity.

Jim said...

Techgnosis by Erik Davis has some closely related discussion about the mythical foundation of our current worldview... though Kurzweil's vision of the Singular outstrips most estimates of just how mythical it can get.

Bill said...

Very nicely done. I would like to note that there probably already is a mythic resolution out there. There must be, because a lot of people are struggling with the prospect of Peak Oil and trying to come to grips with its realities. If some of us have come to accept the possibility of Peak Oil we must be reaching inside somewhere for that overreaching narrative that will lead the way. I think the myth of the natural man will eventually provide that model. We have come so far from our primal living design that few people in the world today would even be able to describe the natural man, let alone recognize its presence within, but that natural man is buried inside each of us and its appeal could be tapped quite easily if the situation were right.

FreeAcre said...

I would think that the mythical seeds for transformation have already been cast. They are in the fertile soil of our collective imagination, waiting to sprout when the season is right. They would have been cast by the movies watched by billions of people on this planet. Star Trek, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings,heck, even Harry Potter look toward a magic, a Force, in tune with nature to bring the sick and twisted fallen worlds into the light of renewal. Darth Cheney vanquished by Luke Skywalker. Apocalyptco. The Mayans walking away from the sickness of their civilization. Who knows? The next messiah may not be found lying in a manger, but a video game.

Sabretache said...


Superb article. Thanks.

I came across it through a reference on the ERT forum to The Energy Bulletin and naturally had to take a look at the original :-))

By way of reply to an ERT poster with land and agricultural expertise who questioned just what he could do to address the issues facing us I replied:

"Similar situation here. My answer? - Resign from 'let's try to save the world/planet/nation/civilisation/humanity' etc projects and concentrate on local community and family.

I have concluded that, short of the sort of redemption offered by classical theistic religion, human nature is in fact irredeemable. It is hard-wired with blind, self-destructive traits which render any possibility of optimally handling the confluence of peak oil, global warming and population growth (from the perspective of minimising human suffering whilst moving to a sustainable existence) non-existent.

Meanwhile we all have a life to lead, with much opportunity to help those dear to us to become a little better prepared (or less un-prepared) for what lies ahead. I have a two-year old grandson and another on the way. I spend a lot of time with him. It pains me to ponder what he will have to handle - but I do so anyway. How to convey what I know, and see ahead, to his parents without making everyone's life a misery, that's my principal conundrum these days. It's a constant battle to avoid the label 'Jeremiah' :-))".

I've linked here and look forward to more.

Gareth Doutch said...

"What has been lacking consistently is the collective will to put any of those ideas into practice."

JMG, you might like to see this movement, which is all about the "how" to get the "what" done.

Jim said...

Maybe the thing to do is not so much to foresee or invent the next grand narrative. Maybe what is called for is a return to something like polytheism, or a whole family of interlinked myths. The question I would like to pose: what myths, or metaphors, do people find useful in understanding what is happening and how a person or community needs to respond?

I find systems theory to be a powerful way to get a big picture of what is happening. A core metaphor in dynamics and chaos is that of a landscape, ideas like basins of attraction. Ecology is a primary origin and application of systems theory. The old myth of progress is one dimensional, one directional. The idea that we are wandering in a complex landscape, I think such an image can be used to encode the fact that we have choices and also that there are cliffs we can tumble over, canyons we can get trapped in, etc.

norlight0 said...

Adrynian - Food could be a powerful area for transformation and inspiration, perhaps a "feeding ourselves" garden effort ala the "victory garden"? Whatever it is would have to have high symbolic valueand connect with people on a number different levels. During the energy crises of the early and late 70's the wood stove filled such a function for many in colder sections of the country. Heating with wood had a certain romance and gave folks a sense of security with traditional associations of home and hearth. It saved lots of money and so had a practical asapect, and finally it was highly proactive, sticking it to the middle eastern countries as people declared their "energy independence". The right product or activity could galvanize hundreds of thousands of people to meet the challenges of peak oil and change their lives in dramatic ways.

John Michael Greer said...

Adrynian, of course reason still has an important role. What's needed is the recognition that reason is an analytical tool, not a source of motivation. It's exactly because progress is an emotionally compelling myth rather than a rational assessment that it's impossible for most people to grasp that growth beyond a certain point has negative marginal utility.

Warnwood, thank you, but I'm by no means convinced that we lack a metanarrative -- as I see it, the problem is that the metanarrative we've got, the faith in progress, is dysfunctional. It's precisely when the presence of a narrative isn't noticed that it's most powerful.

Bill and Freeacre, I have my own suggestions when it comes to narratives that might help us make sense of the current predicament; more about that later.

Gareth, I'll check 'em out when time permits.

Sabretache and Jim, IMO you're quite right that this work has to focus on our own lives. It's not a matter of saving the world or coming up with the next big narrative, but of finding tools and narratives that make sense of our own lives, and letting the strategies and narratives that will work sprout in that fertile soil. I see little value in attempts to define the Big Picture in abstract terms (and Kurzweil's "singularity" strikes me as abstraction taken way past the limits of relevance); what we need are the tools that will help us make the changes that need to happen in our own lives.

John Michael Greer said...

Gareth, I visited the SimPol site and have to say I'm less than impressed. First of all, all this has been tried many times before with zero success, and at a time where the changes we have to make must center on our own lives, grand plans for manipulating governments in the direction of Utopia, it seems to me, are a distraction from what needs most to be done.

Still, thank you for pointing them out -- this will feed into a future post. Right now I'm slogging my way through the last bit of David Korten's The Great Turning, and have put a couple of other posts on temporary hold in order to respond to it in the detail it deserves. No, it's not going to be a favorable review. Stay tuned...

Nnonnth said...

I *wondered* when you'd finally get back around to magic!

But now I see what you've been doing this whole time.


CB said...

I find myself struggling with the logic of your post. Yes, insightful, well-crafted and I believe accurate on several points, but it falls short of addressing why some 'myths' (presumably) lead to a critical mass of social will while others do not. And your discussion does not describe a failure of reason, but rather the use of myth as the founding premise for reason. The assumption is that an appeal to a commonly held myth can lead to significant social change, but if the myth is commonly held then the society is already well on its way toward whatever reason follows from that myth.

Gandhi and Enlightenment succeeded because the prior held myths were already unraveling. That is occurring now. But in neither instance did a new myth permanently establish a new order. That is because we need to understand the essential nature of our humanity. We establish or rebuke myths as they serve us.

When there is a critical mass of social will then there will be change. But a new myth can't be pre-constructed to create that change. A new myth only arises from a popular realization that an old myth is no longer functionally useful.

With respect to peak oil, the problem is proving to the common masses that their current myth is no longer functionally useful. Once convinced of that, a new myth will readily be ushered in. That's about all the magic there is to it.

Ali said...

An excellent post.

Another reason why I think it becomes increasingly unlikely that any real industrial/economic/cultural change will be implemented is that the current system has become amazingly adept at incorporating (one might even say usurping) the myths and stories that could conceivably provide viable alternatives, and remaking them into impotent "counterculture" trends. The process works perfectly within the myth of American cultural diversity. My favorite example is how the same company which owns the Gap clothing chain, with its conservative and clean-cut clothes for the preppy youth demographic, also owns the Hot Topic clothing chain, which caters to the gothic and alternative fashion sense of angry, apathetic and/or disillusioned teens. It seems that often the easiest way to keep something from having real cultural impact is to turn it into the trend for a counterculture which is defined by and supported from within the mainstream. Instead of the energies of such a counterculture being brought to bear upon the mainstream from the outside in order to shape and change it, they are fed back into the mainstream in order to fortify and justify it. I think this is also what's been happening with the sudden upsurge of enthusiasm for Gore-flavored environmentalism... People want to be hip and find personal profit in "saving energy and money" by, for example, turning down the heat or turning off the AC, only to spend that saved money on energy-intensive forms of entertainment and pleasure (such as video games or television, instead of on board games and books, or I don't know... going to the park for once). Their general lifestyle choices remain largely unaffected because suddenly environmentalism has become just one more choice in a line of "products" being marketed, to the profit of the same corporate interests that help exacerbate environmental problems to begin with.