Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Religion and Peak Oil: The City of Progress

In previous posts on this blog I’ve argued at some length that the roots of the contemporary crisis of industrial society have little to do with the technical issues that occupy so much of today’s Peak Oil discussions. Words I’ve used to point toward the core dimensions of our predicament include “social,” “psychological,” and “intellectual,” and once or twice I’ve even risked the ire of sensible people everywhere by venturing on words like “spiritual.”

Yet there’s a more forthright way to talk about these issues, and that starts from the admission that the present situation is ultimately a religous crisis. As the aspect of human life that links it back (in Latin, re-ligere, the root of religio) to its roots in the realm of ultimate concern, religion undergirds and defines every other aspect of a culture. When events bring a civilization’s most basic assumptions into question, it’s high time to look toward the religious dimension of that civilization for the ultimate cause.

Mind you, the last few centuries of intellectual history make statements like this remarkably easy to misunderstand. Like those people who use the word “superstition” only for those folk beliefs they don’t hold themselves, most of the cultures of the contemporary industrial world use the word “religion” purely for those belief systems the majority of modern people don’t consider absolutely true. This odd habit of speech has its roots in the complicated compromise between Protestant piety and nascent scientific materialism in 17th century Britain, but it remains firmly fixed in place today, and it makes clarity a real challenge in talking about the subject of this post.

When I suggest that our current predicament has its roots in a religious crisis, then, I don’t mean to say Christianity has much to do with the matter. In most of the Western world, Christianity in any of its historic forms has been a minority religion for centuries. The illusion that it remained a majority faith rose because a newer faith took over its outward forms, in much the same way that a hermit crab takes over the cast-off shell of a snail and pulls it along behind it through the sand. That newer faith, of course, is the religion of progress, the established church and dogmatic faith of the modern industrial world.

Cultural critic Christopher Lasch, in his scathing study The True and Only Heaven, anatomized the way that the faith in progress eclipsed older religious traditions in the modern Western world, but even he didn’t take the argument as far as it can go. To speak of progress as a religion is not to indulge in metaphor. Progress has its own creation myth, rooted in popular distortions of Darwin’s theory of natural selection that twisted the messy, aimless realities of biological evolution until it fit the mythic image of a linear ascent from primeval pond scum to the American suburban middle class. It has its saints, its martyrs, and its hagiographies, ringing endless changes on the theme of the visionary genius disproving the entrenched errors of the past. It has its priests and teachers, of whom the late Carl Sagan – arguably one of the most innovative theologians of the last century, with his mythic “We are star-stuff” narrative that fused 19th century positivism with the latest astrophysics – is probably the best known.

Finally, of course, it has its own heaven, a grand vision of perpetual improvement toward a Promethean future among the stars. It’s impossible to make sense of the predicament of the industrial world, it seems to me, without recognizing the sheer intellectual and emotional power of this vision. The religious revolution that made the faith in progress the defining religious idiom of the modern world happened, at least in part, because the progressive myth proved more appealing than the narratives of Christianity it replaced. It’s one thing to anchor your hopes for a better world in the unknowable territory on the far side of death, to trust so completely in the evidence of things not seen. It’s quite another to reimagine the world you know in the light of technological and social changes going on right in front of you, trace the trajectory of those changes right on out to the stars, and embrace the changes themselves as vehicles of redemption and proofs of the approaching millennium.

What the mythic power of the vision made it all but impossible to grasp, though, was that the progress of the last three hundred years, while very real, was the product of two temporary and self-limiting sets of circumstances. One of these unfolded from the wars of conquest and colonization that gave European nations control of most of the planet in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, and enabled them to prosper mightily at the expense of the world’s other peoples, just as previous empires did in their time. The second and far greater was the discovery that fossil fuels could be used in place of wind, water and muscle to power human technologies. From the perspective of the myth of progress, these things were simply side effects of the Western world’s embrace of a true doctrine of nature; the possibility that they were the causes of progress, not its effects, was literally unthinkable.

The weakness of the religion of progress, though, forms a precise mirror to its strengths. A religion that claims to justify itself by works rather than faith stands or falls by its ability to make good on its promises, and for the last few decades the promises of the religion of progress have been wearing noticeably thin. Despite a flurry of media ceremonies parading new technological advances before the faithful like so many saints’ relics, most people in the industrial world have long since noticed the steady erosion in standards of living, public health, and the quantity and quality of products for sale since the energy crises of the 1970s. The promise of a better future rings increasingly hollow in a world where most people recognize that important measures of well-being have lost ground in recent years, and show no signs of turning around any time soon.

While the religion of progress is a relatively new thing, the predicament of a faith that fails to make good on its promises is not. One of the fundamental documents of the civilization that modern industrial society replaced, Augustine of Hippo’s The City of God, maps out that predicament with the brutal clarity only the eyes of a triumphant doctrinal opponent can manage. A few years before Augustine set pen to parchment, the Visigothic king Alaric tossed the most basic assumptions of the Roman world into history’s rubbish heap when his horsemen crushed the imperial army at Hadrianopolis, swept across southern Europe to the gates of Rome and sacked the city of the Caesars. The empire’s Pagan population, then still close to a majority, argued that the gods had deserted Rome because Rome had deserted her gods.

Augustine’s response launched shockwaves in the Western zeitgeist that have not entirely faded even today. In place of the pax deorum, the Roman Pagan concept of a pact between humanity and divinity that guaranteed the blessing of the gods on human society, Augustine argued that it was a fatal mistake to conflate the world of social life in historical time with the world of spiritual truth in eternity. The hard line of division he drew between two cities, the City of Man doomed to perish and the City of God destined to reign forever, put a full stop at the end of the long and by no means inglorious history of classical civil religion, and defined a new religious consciousness that was able to cope, as classical Paganism could not, with the implosion of the ancient world and the coming of the Dark Ages.

Augustine’s distinction is typical, in many ways, of religious consciousness in ages of decline, just as the confident belief that ultimate truths stand guarantor to current social arrangements is typical of religious consciousness in ages of progress; the pax progressus of the last few centuries mirrors not only the emotional tone but a surprising amount of the rhetoric of the pax deorum of ancient Rome. To the extent that anything like the medieval Christianity Augustine played so large a role in founding survives in today’s Christian churches, it might conceivably become a significant social as well as religious resource as industrial civilization slides down the slope into its own dark ages. Still, as suggested above, most of what passes for Christianity these days – or for that matter, most of what passes under every religious label you care to name – is simply the religion of progress under another name, and this is above all true exactly of those churches that today’s liberal pundits are quickest to label “medieval,” the fundamentalists.

The part likely to be played in an age of peak oil by fundamentalism, Christian and otherwise, is significant enough that next week’s Archdruid Report post will center on it. That role, I will suggest, will have little in common with either the political ambitions of the fundamentalist churches themselves or the nightmares indulged in by their liberal opponents in and out of clerical collars. Still, it’s a fair bet that when peak oil crashes into the gates of the City of Progress like a modern incarnation of Alaric’s Visigoths, any meaningful response to that hard reality will have to reach back to those issues of ultimate concern that are religion’s proper subject. What forms that response might take will be the focus of the third part of this series.


Danby said...

Well, John, as you know, I ave a totally different perspective on religion and religious history than you. Yet, overall I feel that your essay here is well-reasoned and balanced.

I do have a few nits to pick, though.
In most of the Western world, Christianity in any of its historic forms has been a minority religion for centuries.
From my perspective, this is just untrue. It might be said to be true of the powerful and elite, but it was not true on a culture-wide basis, outside of the Protestant countries, and perhaps France, until after WWI. Of course, the powerful and elites have always scoffed at religion, all the way back to Assyria and Egypt. Except when it could be turned to their advantage.

Even in the protestant world there was plenty of genuine Christianity, especially among the rank and file. Then again, entire movements and denominations of Christianity, such as Methodism, could be said to have swallowed progressivism entire.

You are right to call progressivism a religion. It fulfills the functions of religion, telling us who we are and how we got here. It as all the attributes of religion, except it is remarkably ambivalent on the subject of Deity. It doesn't really demand anything of it's adherents, except a smug, sneering sort of superiority. Which is why it is more appealing to some than real religion.

I think the religion of progress is fading, not so much from it's failure to deliver improved living standards, or a better life, but rather from it's invention of total war. War has become a sheer horror, devastating the lives of entire populations in ways that were impossible to conceive during the hundred-years war. The American Revolution generated only 40,000-odd deaths in 8 years. The Battle of Verdun in WWI cost 5 times that many men (over 220,000) their lives in 9 months.

Finally, were do you come up with a dualism of liberalism vs fundamentalism. Fundamentalism is a variety of liberalism, not it's opposite. Granted, the two sides (fundamentalism and liberal Christianity) hate each other, but so did Trotsky and Stalin.

And, whatever you may think of fundamentalism, it is certainly NOT mediaeval.

Step Back said...

The religion of Perpetual Progress yes. But ours is a polytheist society. We also believe in the religion of The Market.

Followers of The Market deity do not inherently guarantee that the paradise of "Perpetual Progress" will come to its adherents. But they do believe that supply will always rise to meet demand, that The Market will always provide.

The ultimate lie is that we are fundamentally monotheistic. However, just as the Romans did, we divide our everyday thoughts into separate compartments. When we think of the coming scientific "Singularity", that gets compartmentalized into our Scientific Progress domain. When we think about how the "Genius of the Marketplace" will be unleashed (to use John Kerry's term for it) we attribute that to the Invisible Appendage weaving its magic and allocating scarce resources to the "best" and the brightest so they can continue to bring salvation to the rest of us.

Once we put our heads to it, I'm sure we can think up many more religions that we, the alleged "monotheists" believe in. Need one look much further than to our worship of Stars and "Idols"? (American ones of course.)

dopamine said...

Beliefs are reserved for those areas of our mind not filled with knowledge and experience. Religions fill those empty spaces with various mental constructions that are usually very seductive to the suffering. A heavenly place where all your needs are met and all of your deceased family and friends will be there to greet you. As with the evolution/creationism debate, the same area of the mind cannot entertain both ideas at the same time unless you try to say something like “God made the molecules that result in evolution, it’s all a part of God’s plan.” Religions grow and proselytize by finding “lost souls” and indoctrinating them, promising them great rewards after death in return for curbing their beastly passions and desires on earth.
It’s interesting that religion has been allowed to exist for so long by the ruling classes but it does tend to pacify beastly passions and promises rewards after death. If anything this could promote social harmony and limit the amount of material wealth that had to be diverted from the upper classes to the poor. In many cases religions have taken over national governance (Iran) and in other cases religion has been strongly suppressed (China). In many ways the progress of technological evolution powered with fossil fuels has delivered heaven on earth for many, and many more suffering people now want it (China, India), to the great consternation of many religious leaders who would rather you rely on them to deliver their promised land in the sky. Disney World, Las Vegas, curing disease, unlimited food, affordable world-wide transportation – our own heaven on earth. But maybe it would have been better never to have had it than to have it and lose it. Here is a brief glimpse at life in Europe without the benefit of fossil fuels from Jay Hanson’s site. Also see

A really excellent account of life in a typical seventeenth century
European village, where population and resources are in natural
"balance", can be found in AFTER THE BLACK DEATH, by George Huppert;
Indiana Univ. Pr., 1998.

"Sennely is a typical self-sufficient village near the French City of
Orleans. It consists of subsistence farmers whose needs are supplied
locally: rye grain for bread, cattle, pigs, apples, pears, plums,
chestnuts, garden vegetables, fish in the ponds, and bees for honey
and wax.

"Population and resources are more-or-less in balance because of the
poor health of the residents: they tended to be stunted, bent over,
and of a yellowish complexion. By the time children were ten or
twelve, they assumed the generally unpleasant appearance of their
elders: they moved slowly, had poor teeth, and distended bellies.
Girls reached the age of 18 before first ministration.

"Malnutrition was the norm. One third of the babies died in the first
year and only one third reached adulthood. Most couples had only one
or two children before their marriage was broken by the death of one
parent. 'Yet, for all that, Sennely was not badly off when compared to
other villages.'" [p. 3]


Maybe religion will make a comeback and scientific thought will be banished as the promise of heaven on earth begins to break down under the collective weight of our desires. I sure hope we can save antibiotics and vitamins, we sure will need them when we live in our own Sennely.

Roy Smith said...

John -

I am a member of Seattle Peak Oil Awareness (, and we have been contemplating the issues surrounding building community preparedness for Peak Oil and its aftermath for some time. One key part of a slowly emerging consensus is the realization that preparing communities to weather the coming storms will be adopting a religion that is more appropriate to our true circumstances. By this, I mean a religion in the way that it appears you perceive religion, not religion as Dopamine views it - his view can be summed up as religion being a heresy against that other great religion of the modern age, Scientism. (Scientism being the view that there is one objective Truth that explains all, and that humans can unravel this Truth with nothing more than our own cleverness. It is really a variation on the Myth of Progress).

Much of how society responds to catabolic collapse will depend on what myth is used to explain the first crises and stages of collapse. If the widely accepted explanation becomes Peak Oil, we as a society will be in a much more constructive place than we will be if the popular explanation is the failure or malevolence of a particular group the explanation cites insufficient amount of effort towards "progress" and research to solve "the problem" (which, as you have pointed out in other posts, isn't a problem so much as it is a predicament).

When seen in this context, one of the most important tasks of those concerned with Peak Oil is finding or inventing the myths and stories do a better job of explaining our present circumstances and point people in directions that create more positive reponses and can generate hope in the face of the predicament.

John Michael Greer said...

Dan, thank you for the compliment! As for Christianity's status as a minority religion, well, a lot depends on definition, of course. My point is that since 1700 or so, a large and growing fraction of people in the western world -- and by no means only among the political classes -- have redefined the words and forms of Christianity in terms that come straight out of the religion of progress.

Yes, this has centered in the Protestant countries, and above all in the English-speaking ones, but those have been setting the tone for western civilization since not long after 1688. But when a significant number of 18th century clergymen could (and did) present Jesus of Nazareth primarily as a moral example toward which the world would inevitably progress, I think it's fair to say historic Christianity had been left far behind by that point

You're likely right that modern war has done a lot to undercut the myth of progress in the last century. My hope is that it's not the primary force undercutting it in the next century!

As for a dualism between today's political left and fundamentalism, you may want to glance back at what I wrote, because it was pretty much what you did. The two are rivals for power, but not much more divides them, and it's only in the rhetoric of today's progressives that fundamentalism has anything medieval about it at all. Much more on this next week.

Step Back, who said that the religion of progress was monotheist? Listen to the promoters of today's capitalist (or, more precisely, market socialist) ideologies and you'll find that progress is supposed to be one of the gifts of the great god Market. There are plenty of other abstract divinities in the progressive pantheon, of course, but they all further the march of progress.

Dopamine, thank you for a classic statement of progress theology! I couldn't have made up a better example if I was trying for satire. You might think about the possibility that Jay Hanson, given his obsession about immiment mass death, may just possibly have selected the most extreme description of medieval life he could find to back up the claim -- an essential part of the religion of progress -- that anything but more of the status quo is Hell on earth.

Roy, glad to hear this! If more people in the Peak Oil community start wrestling with the language of myth and the narratives that define the world for us, we may just be able to make something constructive out of this predicament.

dopamine said...

I must admit that the 13th century example provided by Jay was a bit understated. I think it can be much worse, especially if we fail to successfully transition to something else in time. Progress myth? At the time all of this started (technological evolution) they could not have imagined how it would eventually end. It certainly is progress to be able to save your child’s life with antibiotics rather than beseeching the spirits of the forest or the mystical one God of Christianity to save them with some ill-defined “power”. I’m just sorry our leverage will soon be reduced and all we will have are prayers mumbled into the darkness of our own minds as the real forces of natural selection lay waste to legions of those who cannot distinguish reality from fantasy.

jason said...

I'm a cultural materialist--by my view, intellectual and religious ideology rises and falls according to material concerns, rather than as an independent variable. The Classical world had the Cynics, but they weren't the ones that rose to prominence. Why is that? The fact is, there's a whole universe of ideas always bumping about, just like there's genetic variation. What makes one ideology take hold while another languishes has more to do, I think, with the material concerns of a society at a given place and time--the same way the genetic variations that rise to prominence do so because they match selective pressures. In short, memes are the grist of the cultural materialist mill.

Are you familiar with Catton's Overshoot? He makes the case that our religion of progressivism--which I think you've captured in spirit and history quite well here--arise from the sudden material, economic shifts in European life following Columbus' discovery of the New World. I synopsized this on my site in "Age of Exuberance."

So, what do you think of Catton's argument? Do you dismiss it entirely, or do you agree that religion and other ideologies take root according to how well they fulfill a society's adaptive needs?

John Michael Greer said...

Dopamine, at this point you're simply preaching. I'd encourage you to take an honest look at the alternatives to modern technology, medical and otherwise, rather than simply denouncing them in a way that makes it clear you don't know much about them.

Jason, I've been a fan of Catton's since Overshoot first came out in 1980, and his arguments inform most of what I'm saying in this blog. I'd certainly agree that material factors have a powerful influence on the intellectual and religious dimensions of culture.
However, the reverse is also true -- intellectual and religious factors shape the material dimensions of culture in powerful ways. The relationship between material and spiritual factors is not either/or, but both/and.

Thus I'm not a cultural materialist -- certainly not in the strict Marvin Harris sense; I'm a cultural systems theorist, looking at culture as a whole system shaped by the interplay of many different factors. Material factors play a key role, especially in situations like the birth of the Age of Exuberance, but they don't stand alone. In the case of the cultures of early modern Europe, for instance, very similar material conditions gave rise to very different cultural forms, because the intellectual and spiritual factors were different.

Of course the 64,000-barrel questions at this point is how the awkward material realities of the coming deindustrial age will interact with existing intellectual and spiritual factors, and whether influencing the latter can move us in the direction of a less traumatic result. I don't have the answers to those questions, but I have some guesses, and we'll be talking about those down the road a bit.

Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...

It is wonderful, John, to see you highlighting
the necessity of theology, and the danger of
superficial substitutes for theology, so skilfully in your blog.

Looking at things from a Catholic perspective, I'd say that
the religion of progress was
an exercise in self-deception. In addition, I'd suggest that the logic
of the process was dissected in an interesting way
by John Henry Cardinal Newman and G.K. Chesterton. I'm guessing
that both of them would
have classified the religion of progress as a species of idolatry.

The best modern Catholic intellectuals, Newman and Chesterton
among them, value the discernment of "signs of the times". At the
moment, that challenge-to-discern probably includes rereading the
monastic Rule of Benedict of Nursia.
A possible useful contemporary secular
gloss on Benedict is Roberto Vacca.
The site has Vacca's
"Coming Dark Age", though I myself found his fascinating
book, with its remarks on quasi-monastic lifeboat communities,
in a Toronto second-hand store.
Our challenge-to-discern probably also
includes revisiting the writings of Dorothy Day
(her light, but interesting, newspaper work
is at,
keeping up our contacts with the local Catholic Worker house,
and meditating in solidarity with Ignatius of
Loyola (whose method is successfully captured by

As I have said before, I try to articulate a Catholic response
to the times in "Utopia 2184", available free of
charge at The kernel of my
response is at the end of Chapter 3, where I in essence bid
farewell to a spiritual guide, Saint Thomas More, at the
conclusion of a sobering peregrination through 22nd-century Kent:

My most heavily pencil-annotated book, I guess, apart from such
altogether impossible tomes as Calculus on Manifolds, is Fifty
Meditations on the Passion. By an 'Archbishop Goodier, S.J.'
Author is thus one of the Shock Troops.
[Note added in explanation for this blog: "Shock Troops" is
a colloquial Catholic appellation for the Jesuits, the order
founded by Ignatius.] Published 1925, this
edition 1963. Nihil obstat, etc. From the shop of the Cistercian
monastery outside Melbourne that I visited in 1982 upon
preparing for reception into the Church, that is to say for
Confirmation and First Communion. Page 43, Meditation XLIII 'The
Opened Side'. Point one: 'Development of points scarcely
needed.' Point three: 'Intra [within] tua [thy]
vulnera [wounds] absconde [hide-away, conceal] me [me].'
Reflection III under Meditation XLIII: 'Mary Looking On'. Point
one of reflection, a quotation: '"Thy own soul."' Point two of
reflection, a quotation: '"A sword shall pierce."' Point three
of reflection, not a quotation: 'And so with all the Saints -

Saint Thomas More died opposing Henry VIII. Henry, in earlier
life pleased to be styled Fidei [of-the-Faith] Defensor
[Defender, Upholder], helped set England on
a mercantilist and ultimately capitalist path, in a chain of
causes and effects not uncoloured by his break with Rome. It was
that innovative, mercantilist, and (to apply our own
contemporary, facile, grammatically negative, doubtless
superficial, adjective) un-medieval way of doing things that
became in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the American
way. That same way consequently became, in my own terrified pair
of centuries, the global way.

That bit about America is a bit grim, and
it is easy to take grim-and-cheap shots against the American way
even from the quasi-American suburbs of Toronto. But
it remains true that we
have to assent to the sword that pierces us,
i.e., that we have to school our hearts
in our personal and communal suffering.
The cult of progress offers us spurious substitutes
for the ultimately redemptive study and assent that
reality requires of us. It is not that our
unhappy sword is blunted or
deflected (say, by some magical promise of bliss-in-the-hereafter;
it is a confusion to regard the prospective bliss of heaven
as a palliative that cancels the agony of the incoming sword).
Rather, a Catholic theological process strives to make the
suffering meaningful by exhibiting it as an opportunity
for our own freely chosen
participation in a sacrificial self-renunciation
stemming from the creating triune Godhead, freely executed within
history in Roman Palestine, and kept present to our
hungering and thirsting contemporary communities under the
visible forms of bread and wine at Mass.

Our central task over the coming decades
and centuries is to understand our
communal suffering - why it has happened, where it is happening,
to whom it is happening, why it need not have happened, how
we have become complicit in its happening. There is a gift, although a
troubling one, in our ongoing social and technological collapse. That
gift, should we choose to take it - we do have to take off
the wrapping paper, we do have to make an effort to
pry open the box, we do have labour to
preserve the necessary knowledge, in history, in sociology,
in philology, in chemistry, in plant science, in
every branch of physics - is the gift
of insight. That is a gift we can have even as we scoop up
pestilential water from our local creek and pillage the ruins of
our local skyscrapers for metals.

In general, I'd suggest that much can be now done,
at this (early?) stage in our protracted journey
out of slumber toward wakefulness, by returning
to our Golden Oldies, in other words to
authorities of the stature of Newman, Chesterton, and
Benedict of Nursia. Thanks, John, for your particular service of
calling us back to Augustine!

hoping that other Catholic readers may later be able
to develop this line of thought,
whether on this blog or on other blogs,

Tom = Toomas Karmo (in Toronto)
(where see, apart from "Utopia 2184",
* letter to USA Ambassador in Canada regarding
prophetic witness of Christian Peacemaker Teams
Iraq detainee James Loney
* pamphlet on pacifism
* some other stuff)

Patrick The Cynic said...

WELL SAID, Sir, well said!

Yes, this really IS a crisis of religion - the "religion" of progress, the Idolatry of Artefacts, as CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien identified as being the great corporate sin of our times.

Unfortunately, "religion" (as CS Lewis said) is a horrible word, with all of the wrong identifications, and all of the baggage of bad associations. But religion (or the formalised set of beliefs is as central to CS Lewis as it is for (as you correctly point out) Saint Carl of Sagan, or Saint Richard of Dawkins. Or even Saint Carl of Marx, or Saint Leon of Trotsky, or Saint Vladmir Illych of Lenin, or Joseph of Stalin, the Apostate.

Yes, these guys held all of their "beliefs" with a force comparable to that of a religion.

"Let no-one say we are an unimaginative age" wrote CS Lewis and he was talking about the Myth of Progress, based purely on Darwinism. Darwinism ends up being as much of a religion as any other, with, as you note, all of the characteristics of one.

Danby said...

Step Back,
See my previous post, particularly the bit about a "smug, sneering sort of superiority."

jason said...

In the case of the cultures of early modern Europe, for instance, very similar material conditions gave rise to very different cultural forms, because the intellectual and spiritual factors were different.

Hmmm ... I don't really see it. The various early modern European cultures really impress me for their remarkable homogeneity.

Step Back said...

I gather you are a religious person. I respect that.
However, there is a certain smugness in calling other people "smug." A truly humble person realizes he is no better than any of his human brethren, irrespective of whether "they" bow to the Deity you consider to be the one "true" One or not.

We are all lemmings on the ledge.
We all have brains developed by the random and unintelligent actions of evolution. Let us therefore gather into a flock, pray (or bray) together, comfort each other and say Amen. amen. :-)

FARfetched said...

One thought I had upon reading this was a short story by (I think) Poul Anderson, written from a standpoint of centuries in the future, looking back on the 20th century pantheon. From that point of view, this certainly is a religious crisis: the false gods of this age are about to fail us.

I also thought about the fundamentalist end-times theory, a literalist mash-up of the two Apocalyptic books in the Bible (Daniel and Revelation) plus snippets from other books & letters. The "Left Behind" series lays out the entire thing pretty well, dragging it out far far longer than necessary though. :-) While proponents claim a literalist interpretation, I've never heard any of them insist that the great Battle of Armageddon will be fought with swords and horses. But an end to abundant energy would certainly put the armies of the world back on horseback!

More to the point: Danby says religion is about "telling us who we are and how we got here." Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't that more the function of a mythos? It's easy to conflate the two, certainly, but religion more strictly defines our relationship (or back-link, as JMG points out) to our God or gods. But the two are strongly related, and will work together to orient us in the future.

I fear that a mythos of blame (whether the target is capitalism, science, or a foreign "them") will be far too easy to create; it would be readily embraced by scared, angry, hungry people — and readily promulgated by those willing to exploit them. It doesn't take much imagination to see where this leads. Somehow, we have to counter it with a mythos closer to the truth: we got ourselves into this mess, and we have to work together to make the best of it instead of killing each other over the scraps.

John Michael Greer said...

Tom, I figured this post would draw a response from you! The challenge of embracing suffering as a gift is an immense one, and no easier now than it's ever been, but it's crucial if much of value is to be salvaged from the present mess.

You and Patrick both argue that the religion of progress is a false religion. Of course from your respective points of view, that may be appropriate, but it's not actually my point here. Whatever the ultimate value of the religion of progress, it has filled the same role in the lives of millions that your faith fills in your lives, and its credo gives meaning to their lives as yours does to you. One of the most shattering aspects of the approaching crisis is precisely that this deeply held faith faces catastrophic disconfirmation. That's likely to have immense social and spiritual consequences over the next few centuries.

Jason, I don't know what to say, other than that my degree is in history of ideas and early modern Europe was a major focus of my studies. You might want to reflect, though, over why it was that the industrial revolution happened in Protestant countries long before it spread to Catholic ones, despite nearly identical resource bases.

Farfetched, you're thinking of "Bullwinch's Mythology," a fine little satire of Anderson's. Again, though, dismissing the gods of progress as false makes it hard to recognize the explosive cultural impact of their Gotterdammerung.

I'd suggest also that mythoi, plural, form a better response to our present situation than a single mythos, however close that may be to somebody's version of the truth. Single vision, to use Blake's phrase, is one of the things that got us here -- the insistence that every story has to end "and they progressed happily ever after." We need a wealth of diverse stories to think with!

But the fundamentalist story -- that's single vision in spades. More on this next week.

Step Back said...

Do you think we all were endoctrinated into the "single vision" thing (the one true story myth or the tunnel vision syndrome) due to our prolonged incarciration in education camp?

This has been an interesting discussion. Can't wait for your next installment.

For (allegedly) daily journal entries, see said...
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Seaweed_Shark said...

In this otherwise excellent essay, the one statement I find troubling is

...most people in the industrial world have long since noticed the steady erosion in standards of living, public health, and the quantity and quality of products for sale since the energy crises of the 1970s. The promise of a better future rings increasingly hollow in a world where most people recognize that important measures of well-being have lost ground in recent years, and show no signs of turning around any time soon.

This is a statement that ought to be subject to empirical verification, yet you provide none. In fact one can find hundreds of millions of people in the world who would say that they are a great deal better off now than thirty years ago: people in India who used to walk but now have scooters, people who used to die from disease but now have antibiotics. The advocates of the contemporary global commercial regime are zealous to demonstrate, with various economic data, that everyone is becoming better off, and that the world's poorest have seen the greatest improvement. You have no doubt read the writings of Tom Friedman and other such promoters of the cult of commercial capitalism and futurism. They provide facts and figures. Where are yours?

Personally I agree with your conclusion that the cult of ever-increasing prosperity will fail when the wind changes, that much of our current system is built on sand. But the hard facts and figures assembled by the international organizations do not paint so clear a picture. One ends up arguing about complex details such as the proliferation of weapons, which constitute a kind of wealth in may people's eyes. What empirical evidence compels you to conclude that "most people" are worse off now than in 1970, when cars had no seat belts, meat came wrapped in waxed paper, coal smoke hung in clouds over many of our cities, and so on?

John Michael Greer said...

Seaweed Shark, of course the numbers being promulgated by governments and NGOs show that we're better off than ever before; as Bernard Gross pointed out some decades ago in his insufficiently read book Friendly Fascism,, economic indicators have become economic vindicators, massaged to justify current policies. I'd recommend you look up the role of "hedonic adjustments" in the falsification of the US cost of living.

I'd also encourage you to look beyond canned numbers and irrelevancies like what kind of wrapper is on your meat, and note the way actual standards of living have changed. In 1970, for example, for most American families, having a second income was a luxury. How many American families can say that today?

senecascenes said...

My initial response was lost through my complete inability to sign in.

At any rate, I look forward to your next installment with great interest as the study of fundamentalist behavior in all forms is a favorite topic of mine.

riverbird said...

step back >> We all have brains developed by the random and unintelligent actions of evolution. Let us therefore gather into a flock, pray (or bray) together, comfort each other and say Amen.<<

you reveal here your own religious bias, or lack of. while am not one to pray to a single deity, per se, I wouldn't go so far as to sugest that evolution is unintelligent. more i would say that nature has it's own intrinsic intelligence, doesn't it? God aside

The Naked Mechanic said...

The Ecology of Work is an essay by Curtis White, posted at

..."As Leo Tolstoy wrote in his famous essay “My Religion,” faith is not about obedience to church dogma, and it is not about “submission to established authority.” A people’s religion is “the principle by which they live.”

The establishment of those principles by which we might live would begin with three questions. First, what does it mean to be a human being? Second, what is my relation to other human beings? And third, what is my relation to Being as such, the ongoing miracle that there is something rather than nothing? If the answer to these questions is that the purpose of being human is “the pursuit of happiness” (understood as success, which is understood as the accumulation of money); and if our relation to others is a relation to mere things (with nothing to offer but their labor); and if our relation to the world is only to “resources” (that we should exploit for profit); then we should be very comfortable with the world we have. If it goes to perdition at least we can say that we acted in good faith. But if, on the other hand, we answer that there should be a greater sense of self-worth in being a human, more justice in our relation to others, and more reverence for Being, then we must either live in bad faith with capitalism or begin describing a future whose fundamental values and whose daily activities are radically different from what we currently endure. The risk I propose is simply a return to our nobility. We should refuse to be mere functions of a system that we cannot in good conscience defend. And we should insist on a recognition of the mystery, the miracle, and the dignity of things, from frogs to forests, simply because they are..."

Caryl said...

Thanks for an excellent and well-written essay. I began following the Peak Oil debate at the end of the decade of the 1990's, started a website devoted to energy, then gradually metamorphosed it (and myself) into a more religious mode, which included conversion to Catholicism.
While I agree with you that the Doctrine of Progress did and does serve as a sort of "religion" for people, this must inevitably raise the question: what is a valid religion? Western man's pride in his scientific accomplishments etc. was understandable and in many cases justified. But when you lose the sense of the dangers of pride, you glory in the sense of your autonomy, that you can "do it on your own," owe no one and nothing anything, and that in fact have no obligations beyond amassing wealth and power and exploiting Nature to your own ends - this is not religion but idolatry.
It is true that people are beginning to wake up to the fact that this "idolatry" doesn't really offer them the stability and hope they need. But on the other hand, most forms of Christianity (esp. Protestant but also somewhat in Catholicism) are so weakened - and the worst of these have virtually abdicated from Christianity and have become Caesar-worshippers -- well, the question has to be raised whether there yet remains sufficient depth of understanding for people to be able to distinguish true and false religion--and even more to the point, whether sufficient numbers of people even exist for such a recognition to become effective. For one of the unplanned results of the "Religion of Progress" has been the destruction of living communities. But only a strong community can hope to exert a force against the incredible entropy of the market system and its shills for "progress." So I would also suggest a secondary aspect of your question would involve looking at the way the market shills, media, political correctors, Statists, secularists, etc. engage in ways to divide people. For I think that the Doctrine of Progress has either died or been defeated, and what has taken its place is the doctrine of Might Is Right - whose oldest technique in the book is "Divide and conquer."

eboy said...

Good post J.M.G. I am going to reserve a more complete comment. Until I further understand what is meant by druidism, and where you will go with your discussion of fundamentalism. Atheism is a fundamentalist religion.

I like respect for creation, and for life. My religion embraces the teaching: "All nations may walk in the name of their Gods, but we will walk in the name of the LORD."

Caryl. Understanding idolatry is probably the core problem that we face.
Imagine that a planet was discovered that could support all life and we could build a new ark.
If the people going to the new world believed that 'he with the most things when he dies wins'
Then its just a matter of time before the quest for a new earth would begin
all over again.
Where do druids stand on the 10 commandments?
(Moral relativism?)

"The soothe-sayers are mired. Their existence foretold. Always chasing, chasing fool's gold."

tRB said...

First, I would like to say that I don't think people are using the term "fundamentalism" correctly. It seems that many of you mean "supremacism" instead.

Second, I have to ask a question that will make me even less popular. We have seen a description of a present and future in which recent philosophical views about inevitable material gain are found wanting and are abandoned. What place do you see in this future for people like me who have a different take on "progress" than the mainstream here in North America?

To me, the idea of "progress" includes social progress, such as more-egalitarian social arrangements, especially for women. But I don't think that this is just going to happen. People need to work for it, and we still might not get it. It seems that the philosophy that you call "the religion of Progress" either ignores social change, or it sees rewards for the “righteous” (think of the “Protestant work ethic” and how it ties to “the myth of Progress”).

Another form of progress I favor is in the realm of scientific knowledge. However, I distinguish scientific discovery from technological invention, which the status quo seems to intentionally conflate. I'm also more interested in ecological research than, say, research in chemistry to develop new kinds of deodorant. What's more, I don't expect that scientific discoveries are inevitable, or that they are limitless. There may be some things that we can never know or understand. Is this view still within the "scientism" you and Roy describe, and thus part of the "myth of Progress"?

And as with avenues of scientific research, I don't think that technical innovations are either inherently inevitable or inherently good. In fact, I would go further and advocate the prevention of or abandonment and remediation of various destructive technologies (such as nuclear power and weapons, or genetically-modified foods) in favor of technologies that do not use heavy resource inputs and can be more-easily controlled by regular people. So, yes, a new class of Clipper ships would be a great technological innovation, but gray-goo weapons would not. And yet, these changes in emphasis are not going to be inevitable, and might not even happen this way at all. How does this square with your model of "progressivism"?

Finally, with words that will probably be taken the wrong way, I honestly don't think that there are any supernatural forces. But at the same time, while I might argue with believers I won't use force to compel them to pretend to no longer believe. Is this a view that is part of "progressivism"? It seems that you are envisioning a new rise in faith, so would my lack of faith put me outside the future's circle of respectable discussion? (Judging from some comments here, it may already be too late; I certainly don’t feel welcome.) How likely are these future societies to be open enough to not only decline to persecute or shun atheists but maybe even allow them into society’s conversation? And how might that openness (or lack of same) be shaped by what we do today?

If anyone else would like to reply, please do so. Thanks.

Roy Smith said...

Another form of progress I favor is in the realm of scientific knowledge. However, I distinguish scientific discovery from technological invention, which the status quo seems to intentionally conflate. I'm also more interested in ecological research than, say, research in chemistry to develop new kinds of deodorant. What's more, I don't expect that scientific discoveries are inevitable, or that they are limitless. There may be some things that we can never know or understand. Is this view still within the "scientism" you and Roy describe, and thus part of the "myth of Progress"?

Scientism, as I use the term, refers to the belief that all questions can be answered, all problems solved, and all predicaments can be addressed using nothing more than the scientific method. I am very comfortable and generally in agreement with your view on science. Science and religion both have their limits.

Finally, with words that will probably be taken the wrong way, I honestly don't think that there are any supernatural forces. But at the same time, while I might argue with believers I won't use force to compel them to pretend to no longer believe. Is this a view that is part of "progressivism"? It seems that you are envisioning a new rise in faith, so would my lack of faith put me outside the future's circle of respectable discussion? (Judging from some comments here, it may already be too late; I certainly don’t feel welcome.)

Since this blog deals specifically with spirituality and faith and how they intersect with the predicament of Peak Oil, I expect it attracts those who are more likely to have religious views than those who do not. For me, personally, at least, I am religious. That being said, I'm not sure I believe there are any "supernatural forces", at least none in the way you appear to be using the phrase. Religion, for me, serves to give a frame of reference for subjects which science is poorly equipped to deal with (human nature, for instance).

With regards to envisioning a rise in "faith", you appear to be equating faith with superstition; i.e., taking things that don't seem to make sense as fact because your religion tells you to do so. Faith for me is different; it is a belief that the universe is fundamentally benign, that humanity is capable of spiritual growth (or humanity is capable of becoming wiser, if you prefer to not use the s word), and that God loves us and has compassion (not sure how to translate that into non-theistic terms at the moment, but it can probably be done). Using my definition of faith, I am not only anticipating but I am hoping for an increase of faith. I concur with you that an increase in superstition would be bad.

L8M said...

To read this post and following discussion is rather surreal experience... where your minds are people....

Danby said...

Everyone has something to say. Some want to find a common ground. Some want to correct errors of fact or thinking (guilty, yer honor), some want to defend their faith, which they see being attacked, and some want to disparage any idea with which they disagree. None of it necessarily relates directly to what John wrote.

I could have written a long essay on what I think on the topics presented, which Lord knows are quite different from what John wrote, but that rather strays from the topic, I think

Thomas Mazanec said...

The quintessential vision of progress's "Heaven" is the Orion's Arm Universe Project. If Lockheed's claimed fusion reactor is piffle (which I would have called any new company's claim, but which an established company like Lockheed makes me wonder) I would hope there webpages are transcribed to paper and preserved for future generations to have, when the Dark Age passes and stable societies emerge.

chas said...

Castalia, from Hermann Hesse's Glass Bead Game (Der Glasperlenspiel), fits the bill perfectly.