Thursday, April 05, 2007

The Shadow of our Downfall

The problem of the monkey trap, the theme of last week’s Archdruid Report post, is already a potent factor in contemporary society. Watch the way that pundits and politicians keep trying to solve today’s crises with yesterday’s solutions, no matter how counterproductive the results, and it’s hard not to see a reflection of the poor monkey trying to get its hand out of the trap without letting go of the food that keeps it stuck there. When you realize that you’re in a hole, a popular slogan says, the first thing to do is stop digging. Still, this is easy to say but a good deal harder to put into practice, especially when digging has been so successful and profitable for so long that it’s the only thing you really know how to do any more.

Yet the monkey trap fastened to the hand of modern industrial society has implications not often grasped, and it’s one of those I want to address this week. As with some of the other topics I’ve explored here, it’s best to come at this one in a roundabout way, and so we’ll begin from an unlikely starting point and talk a bit about the history of the New Age movement. It’s common for people who hope to be taken seriously in the wider community to roll their eyes when the New Age or any of the movements of thought associated with it come up for discussion. This fashionable scorn, though, misses the chance to watch a crucial barometer of social trends. In any civilization, it’s the cults, fads, and passions of the fringe that point out roads that the rest of society will presently take.

If some prescient Roman scholar of the reign of Nero or Claudius, say, wanted to catch some whisper of the world that would supplant his own, he’d have been wasting his time to listen to speeches in the Forum or lectures in the fashionable academies of the day. He would have had to search out the cultural underbelly of his age, where strange cults from distant lands bid for the loyalties of those long since alienated from the worship of Jupiter Optimus Maximus. The Middle Ages already existed there in larval form, long before anyone in Rome had ever heard of Goths or Huns, or thought of Jesus of Nazareth, if at all, as anything but a footnote in the history of a minor province somewhere back east.

Now the New Age movement is unlikely to become for the coming deindustrial age what Christianity became during and after Rome’s catabolic collapse. If it had an equivalent in the classical scene, it was the Gnostic movement – like the New Age, a diffuse and wildly diverse phenomenon popular among the privileged classes of its time, and reflecting those classes’ attitudes and interests far too closely to survive the collapse of the society that gave them their status. Gnosticism’s Achilles heel was its intense spiritual elitism -- its rigid distinction between the few who had the capacity for gnosis (redeeming knowledge) and the many who did not. The New Age movement formulates its notions of privilege in a different way...and therein lies a tale.

The New Age movement had unprepossessing beginnings. To begin with, there was never that much new about it. Nearly all its ingredients were first assembled by the Spiritualist movement of the mid-19th century: channelling (they called it “mediumship” back then), alternative health systems, positive-thinking psychology, an intense reverence for Asian spiritual wisdom that never quite stooped to learn much about the actual teachings of the East, and all the rest. By the 1970s, when the New Age movement began to coalesce, this package was the common property of a dizzying range of alternative spiritualities in the Western world, including a network of people in Britain and America who believed they were receiving messages from flying saucers.

One of the commonplaces of these communications was the claim that the Space Brothers were about to land en masse and usher in a new age of peace, brotherhood, and spiritual awakening. Claims of this sort have a long history, of course, and the contactee community made the trip from grand announcements of imminent First Contact to embarrassed excuses for the saucers’ failure to appear with even more than the usual frequency; one of the classics of modern sociology, When Prophecy Fails, focuses on a prime example from the 1950s. After repeated disappointments, though, several members of the contactee community came up with a novel response – the proposal that believers should live their lives in the ordinary world as if the new age had already arrived. By making the prophesied great change a reality in their own lives here and now, they hoped to catalyze it in the world as a whole.

It’s a brilliant strategy, for more reasons than one. To begin with, of course, making changes in your own life is the necessary first step toward making them at any other level of human society; Gandhi’s comment “You must be the change you hope to see in the world” is as much a guide to effective tactics as anything else. Yet there’s more going on here than clever politics; another factor at work is a very old but very potent technique for shaping consciousness. Put the ideal and the real cheek by jowl and learn to live with the cognitive dissonance between them, and the paradox itself can become a source of creativity and insight. It’s a core technique in the toolkit of initiatory schools since ancient times. Whether the original New Age communities got the idea from that source, or stumbled across it on their own, it quickly caught fire and spread across alternative scenes throughout the industrial world.

The strategy of paradox has a vulnerability, though. It’s all too easy to lose track of the “as if,” the gap between the ideal world and the real one where creative paradox lives, and start believing that the ideal world is the one that actually exists. That way lies the futile heroics of Don Quixote, who maps the ideal world of chivalric romance onto the prosaic realities of the Spanish countryside with such abandon that he tries to assault windmills under the delusion that they’re wicked giants. Of course the windmills fail to play their assigned parts in the romance, and clobber him. Something similar happened to the New Age movement as it became less visionary and more marketable, and the subtle discipline of “live as though you’re creating the reality you experience” got dumbed down into “you create the reality you experience.”

Now of course each of us does play a part in creating the reality we experience, and subtle factors such as expectations and assumptions have a much more powerful role in that than most people realize. The old initiatory schools used to teach simple tricks for working with those latter early in their training programs, to give neophytes the confidence to tackle the much subtler and more demanding work ahead of them. As the New Age movement gained members and lost focus, though, gimmicks of this sort became the basis for a philosophy of cosmic consumerism that claims the universe is supposedly set up to give people whatever they happen to want, so long as they ask for it in the right way.

It’s a very popular viewpoint, especially among the privileged middle classes of the industrial world, who are used to getting pretty much whatever they want anyway. It also sells exceedingly well, as its latest rehash – the current book and video phenomenon titled The Secret – shows clearly enough. The problem is that beyond a certain point, it doesn’t work in practice. You can try as hard as you like to convince yourself that the universe wants to give you whatever you want to get, but that doesn’t mean you will get it. At that point, the monkey trap closes tight around your hand, because the ideology you’ve embraced tells you that you have to believe completely in it to make it work, and so any awareness that it’s not working gets shoved aside as an obstacle to success.

Responses to this predicament in the New Age scene have covered the entire range of monkey antics, but one in particular bears noticing. In recent years, large sections of the New Age movement have become passionate supporters of conspiracy theories. David Icke’s bizarre Reptilian theory, which claims that all the world’s political, economic, and cultural leaders are actually evil lizards from another planet, is only one of many popular flavors of New Age paranoia these days. Older and potentially more dangerous theories have also begun to surface; it’s not precisely a comforting sign that Icke and several other New Age conspiracy gurus have reprinted the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the hoary anti-Semitic forgery that helped inspire National Socialism, in their books.

Why this shift from visionary mysticism to paranoiac conspiracy culture? Psychologist Carl Jung offers a key to understanding in his discussion of “projecting the shadow.” The shadow, in Jung’s theory, is the sum total of everything we don’t accept about ourselves. We try any number of psychological tricks to keep from becoming aware of our shadows, but one of the standard methods is to project it onto someone else. Instead of owning up to the fact that we have characteristics we claim to despise, we see those characteristics in them – whether “them” is an ethnic group, a religious community, a political party, or what have you. The more intense our hypocrisy, the more forcefully we project our own negative characteristics on somebody else, and the more savagely we hate them for it.

This is exactly what’s going on in large parts of the New Age community today, with a twist. The shadow of the New Age is the reality of limitation – the hard fact that you can’t always get what you want, no matter how much you want it. Projecting that shadow is one effective way to deal with it, and conspiracy theories allow the faithful to project the shadow of their failure onto a fantasy of ultimate evil. In David Icke’s theories, for example, the Reptilians aren’t just to blame for everything wrong with the world, they deliberately created and maintain the “illusion” of a material reality with real, inflexible limits. Thus believers in Icke’s worldview can maintain their faith in their ability to create their own reality; if it doesn’t work in practice, that’s because the space lizards are slithering around behind the scenes messing things up.

Now all this may seem to have little to do with the themes of peak oil and catabolic collapse that have taken up so much space in this blog, but there’s a direct connection. The myth of progress, like the belief that everyone creates their own reality, raises expectations that the real world – especially in an age of diminishing resources – simply isn’t able to meet. As the gap between expectation and experience grows, so, too, does the potential for paranoia and hatred. Those who cling to faith in progress are too likely to go looking for scapegoats when the future fails to deliver the better world they expect. The explosive rise of a politics of rage on all sides of the political continuum, especially but not only in the US, suggests that this process may be well under way already. As finger-pointing and shouted insults drown out reasoned political dialogue, it seems to me, the real target for the fingers and shouts on all sides may be the projected shadow of the industrial world’s approaching downfall.

That bodes very ill indeed for any large-scale constructive response to the predicament before us. What might be done in the face of this prospect will take up the next several posts on this blog.


norlight0 said...

Good post with many good points. It resonated in a couple ways. One is the concern about the likelihood of scapegoating as the world enters the decline of cheap oil. This is one of the first points made in Mick Winter's recent book "peak oil" decline. The other association I had was Jung's concept of "shadow" with the quote, "Perhaps our present unease is caused by a long shadow cast backward by the future". I don't know who said it, but I think of it often in regard to peak oil.

Thirty years ago there were some people who directly and intuitively understood the real implications of the oil shocks and changed their lives with very little conflict or fanfare. I know a number of people personally who function in the professional world and also live off the grid, and whose material standard of living is far beneath that of the typical middle class family. While they benefit from the scaffolding of the larger society in some ways, they also show it is possible live very differently than we do now and still be happy and healthy. Obviously, the benefits of the larger society should not be undersestimated, but the I still find their example inspiring and hopeful.

Pancho67 said...

Thought provoking and well written post, but why must the industrial age END due to a scarcity of oil? There are many promising altenatives to oil which when fully employed should provide significant amounts of energy.

Efficiencies and innovations made possible by fossil fuels are enabling the shift to alternative technologies that are less dependant on oil. Consider also the recent dramatic shift in acceptance by the public and as a consequence governments in many developed countries of the threat of global warming. There seems to be a growing acceptance of the need to use alternative energy sources and to live more efficiently.

So while I am still concerned about the difficulties that we will face over the coming years I am confident that in the long run we will avoid as you put it the "end of the industrial world".

LizM said...

What a great essay! And so true about the "intense reverence for Asian spiritual wisdom that never quite stooped to learn much about the actual teachings of the East". Some of the stuff that New Agers and others leave behind or never get to is focused on two of your points: first, that we reject and project much about ourselves that we just don't want; and second, that it is worth cultivating a mindstate beyond the limitations of physical phenomena, whilst keeping them firmly in view and understanding that they are part of human birth.

I would add a third observation. The alchemist of old became the chemist; the astrologer, the astronomer. Both were salutary developments, and yet something was lost in the transition, which is a sense of the magic we already possess. If you have a headache, aspirin is powerful magic. We don't think of it that way because we rely on it so heavily that it vanishes from the mind and becomes ordinary. But there is nothing ordinary about the ability to make pain disappear, or fly, or make things cold. The magic we live with daily relies in large part on cheap energy. Even our modern aspirin, I believe, is a petroleum derivative. But before there was cheap energy, the world got along on other kinds of magic, other conversions of matter and its properties, which we've forgotten how to use. For purposes of recovering and advancing that magic, our own homes and our own lives will do as well as any other laboratory or specimen.

Loveandlight said...

As a former orthodox New Ager, I have a quite a bit to say about this, so I hope I won't be thought a comment hog if I make more than one post.

During a period in my life during which I was very lonely and frightened (I had reason to be considering I had not managed my life very well and the consequences of this mismanagement were coming to a head), I embraced the philosophy of the New-Age "Bible" known as A Course In Miracles. Of course, much like many born-again Xtians and the actual Bible, I didn't actually read the thing from cover to cover (religious scriptures have a way of more effectively inducing sleep than a double dose of Unisom pills). Rather I read Marianne Williamson's "Cliff Notes" summation of ACIM philosophy titled A Return To Love. I knew of it because Oprah Winfrey on her TV show in 1992 held up Williamson's book as a panacea that would teach you the right beliefs about life that one needed to have in order to make life work in the way one needed.

Having this ontological life-raft to which I could cling gave me the ability to navigate the rocky period through which I was going without my ego getting too much in the way. ACIM makes the human ego into the shadow, but it makes the claim that there is no darkness and there is no shadow in ultimate reality because the ego is an illusion that makes us have negative beliefs about life that are also an illusion. The result was that the resolution of the rocky period was not as disastrous as it might have been. I now think that's because I reached out to the Divine Spirit and didn't let my habitual negativity and false pride get in the way of doing that.

Unfortunately, I had this naive idea that because I now had "the right beliefs", everything in my life would be hunky-dory and it would be as if my past mistakes had never happened. Well, those expectations hit real life's steel-reinforced concrete wall doing 80 MPH. I continued to cling to my New Age belief-system after that for a while. After all, I did (and still do) have psychological problems that left me with serious self-esteem and self-capability issues, and one could well have argued that my substantial psychological baggage was the reason why I experienced limitations in "creating my reality".

My next comment will describe why I finally decided to discard New Age orthodoxy.

I realize I'm doing more than my share of personal venting here, but I've wanted to discuss this chapter in my personal journey in a public forum where it would be at least somewhat appropriate for me to do so for a while now. Readers are of course free to skip over my ramblings if they'd rather focus on other aspects of JMG's post. :-)

Loveandlight said...

The big obstacle to continuing to have "the right beliefs" was that A Course In Miracles, and indeed much of orthodox New-Age thinking, is very fundamentalist by nature. The New Age teaches that you individually are 100% responsible for 100% of the reality you experience 100% of the time. I defy anyone to tell me that such absolutism doesn't constitute a seriously fundamentalist mindset. You would think I'm saying that the New Age teaches that the world is black and white the way fundamentalist Xtianity does, but ACIM goes one better. It says that that true reality is just pure bright white light because everything else is just an illusion of which one needs to cure oneself with the philosphy's coldly detached otherworldliness. It is simply an anathema to the way my mind and personality are set up to be able to sustain such a fundamentalist mindset indefinitely.

The first disruption to pure belief I encountered was in realizing that a channelled entity whose sermons informed my early belief would in fact often contradict itself on very specific matters when it seemed to be expedient for the true mythology to change as if "we have always been at war with Eurasia". Such willful credulity on the part of New Agers who follow these teachings has a lot to do with why the mainstream refuses to take the New Age Movement seriously.

I hope JMG will forgive me for indulging some Gen-Xer "snark" here, but the thing that finally did it for me was realizing what fatuous clowns New Agers tend to be in actual practice. When you express any frustrations with failed attempts to "create your reality", it's not unusual for them to respond with the very thick defensive self-righteousness one might expect from blinkered fundamentalists. New Agers also believe that any illness you might have can be cured by thinking the correct thoughts and having the right beliefs, and the unbelievably mean-spirited self-righteousness that these myopic cretins would display towards a friend of mind who has struggled with severe chronic illness all of her adult life exposed the rank hypocrisy of New Agers who talk of love and inner peace. New Agers also seem to be in the habit of making sweeping pronouncements that have a way of turning out to be pure ill-informed BS.

Much of New Age teaching conveys the impression that one must be nearly perfect to "get the goodies" that come from "reality-creation." Not only is that pretty stringent in and of itself, but when you look at how New Agers and see the absurd attitudes and behaviors that seem to comprise "perfection", you really have to ask yourself why on Earth would you want such "perfection"??

And yes, learning about Peak Oil and the limitations against which collective human experience is about to collide also made it rather difficult to sustain belief in orthodox New Age philosophy.

I would just say that in closing that at least some of the entities that New Age gurus channel are probably actual noncorporeal entities with mostly good intentions, but that doesn't mean these entities are absolutely right in everything they say. And yes, others of these channels are probably fake shows that self-proclaimed channellers are staging for the credulous.

So I guess I would say that my own experience validates in spades what our illustrious bloghost is saying here.

John Michael Greer said...

Many thanks, all! Norlight, the folks who embraced appropriate technology and a simpler lifestyle in the 70s were one of my sources of inspiration then and now. One useful alternative to paranoia and scapegoating, it seems to me, is constructive action...and the examples you've mentioned show one good way to approach that.

Pancho, you need to do more homework; this has been hashed out over and over again by this point. None of the proposed replacements for oil and other fossil fuels have anything like the net energy -- the energy that's left after you subtract the energy needed to get it -- to maintain modern industrial society or anything like it. That's the problem we face, and repeating the mantra "technology will save us" doesn't change that hard reality.

Lizm, I see you're using your crystal ball again. Down the road a ways I plan on talking quite a bit more about the transition that separates alchemy from chemistry (and the equivalents in other fields of human knowledge), and what might be worth picking out of the dumpster so hastily filled with the culture of the Renaissance 350 years ago. More on this later.

Loveandlight, thank you for sharing your experience -- not an uncommon one, I'm afraid. That said, please avoid slanging the people you disagree with; there are better ways to express your disagreement than what S.I. Hayakawa used to call "snarl words." I'm not going to delete your post because I think you've said some important things, but I may be grumpier next time.

In some ways, you know, this is simply a matter of prose style. One of the basic rules of good writing is "show, don't tell." If you call somebody a myopic cretin, for example, all that tells us is that you're peeved. If you portray that person in a way that makes the reader think "wow, what a myopic cretin," you've made your point far more effectively.

Yes, I'll get off my grammarian's soapbox now.

Loveandlight said...

Loveandlight, thank you for sharing your experience -- not an uncommon one, I'm afraid. That said, please avoid slanging the people you disagree with; there are better ways to express your disagreement than what S.I. Hayakawa used to call "snarl words." I'm not going to delete your post because I think you've said some important things, but I may be grumpier next time.

Apologies appropriately offered. In my defense, I'm a Myers-Briggs INFJ ("Protector"), and one of our traits is that we really seriously don't like people who hurt or disrespect somebody that we care about a great deal. [Smeagle] We hatesss them! Yesss, Preciousss, we hatesss them forever! [/Smeagle] :D :D :D :D

Nnonnth said...

I'm beginning very much to enjoy the grand sweep of your vision on this blog, JMG. I can't be the only one to have noticed how many of the issues you tackle here connect back to others you've addressed before, that a web is building.

In your rather acidic dismissal of New Ageism, you point out its inability to come to terms with the gap between what is there and what is wished. And this gap is surely the same one that revolutions (the subjects of previous diatribes here) attempt to bridge - placing a 'new reality' in the social order, so as to make it conform suddenly to an ideal.

In LoveandLight's dislike of the 'Course in Miracles' philosophy, with its pedantic vedantic insistence on the doctrine of 'one true reality, and it's not physical', I don't think I'm wrong in hearing echoes of the questions of immanence vs. transcendence that you tackled a while ago. There are systems of spirituality which maintain the central importance of the material world - I'm presuming Druidism as you practice it is one of these - and those I feel are not only more trustworthy but of more practical use at the moment...

'Cosmic consumerism' is highly apt! And consumerism infantilizes... I think perhaps the New Age crowd would do well to mix their doctrines with some of the stoics you mentioned way back. Funnily enough I also think they are actually right in their central doctrine, that you manifest what you wish to manifest - the problem though is that they fail to define the 'you'...

True spiritual work is hard graft, as hard as ordinary life and then some... maturity is meant to be the result I feel, but this is not always borne in mind by the modern crowd. (They don't deserve the level of opprobrium you are dishing however.)

Perhaps what your blog argues for most is human common sense and reasonableness in the end... I fear like you that as cracks show in our society everyone will insist that it's 'someone else's fault'. Korten, New Agers, whoever - they will all 'find the problem' in something or some place 'other'. Each of these will build a myth to support this viewpoint of course...

Hence I admire your insistence on the necessity of realizing there is no catastrophe, just a natural process in train. What is needed above all now is a very steady head, hand and heart. With so many gifts given to us from oil, we must not become suddenly emotional when they are taken away - on the contrary we must be more grounded and adult than ever.

Best to all, NN

Loveandlight said...

(They don't deserve the level of opprobrium you are dishing however.)

I must respectfully disagree. :-)

the problem though is that they fail to define the 'you'...

ACIM itself defines the real, true "you" as the person who has realzied the Atonement or At-One-Ment (New-Agers are quite fond of their little deconstructionist word-games, you'll notice) in which the ego is transcended and all thoughts and opinions are those of the Spirit, or God, from whom our existence originates. When we do this, we recognize our fundamental unity with our fellow humans and all creation, and everything "miraculously" works itself out to everybody's and everything's benefit.

A fine-sounding idea, but how realistic is it? And one may well ask the same rhetorical question of any answers to criticisms of the New Age that can be drawn from the text and teachings of ACIM.

John Michael Greer said...

Loveandlight, thank you for understanding. I've mostly had the opportunity to watch New Age enthusiasts mess up their own lives, rather than those of other people, thus my attitude tends more toward the sardonic than the angry -- but of course it's true that one of the things that New Age attitudes can justify is an extraordinarily callous disregard for real human suffering. We could also have a long conversation someday about the problems with the ACIM (and generic New Age) definition of the "true self."

Nnonth, thank you! Yes, I'm basically saying the same things over and over again in different ways. It's not so much a planned structure of ideas as a quilt made from a limited assortment of fabrics.

You're quite right, btw, that the modern Druid tradition tends to see nature and the material world as holy in their own right, and thinks of human beings as one small and not particularly special part of a much greater community. I can sympathize with the desire to see humanity as the apex of evolution and the darlings of creation -- most people like to have their ego stroked. In our present predicament, though, it's a pleasure that leads down dark roads. If my critique strays into dishing out opprobrium, as you've suggested, that's the motivation.

Loveandlight said...

For anyone who might be interested, I mounted something of a defense of primitivism in the Immenanentizing the Eschaton comments thread. I should have done so at the time the post was current, but Wisconsin winters have a way of sapping one's motivation. The gist of my defense is that there is a difference between mature, realistic primitivism and the naive sort of primitivism that "immanentizes the Eschaton".

Also, I'm not necessarily emotionally married to the idea of humanity returning to hunter-gathering existence. I hope our species can survive in a mode of life that is much simpler and is functional, sustainable, and adaptable, and who is Loveandlight to say for sure what that should be or will be? I just think the primitivist critique of where we went wrong these past ten millenia has the most to offer in the way of comprehensive understanding. (That's what you get for making me go back and read that particular post, NN! :-D )

Nnonnth said...

LoveandLight, I've read ACIM cover to cover myself and understand its contents pretty well. Whilst I can empathize with the distaste you have for the movement based on personal experience, and would never recommend a wholly New Age 'approach to life' for anyone (!), nonetheless I must say that:

1. There are plenty who move through the movement and on to other things, it acting as a gateway.

2. I don't actually know too many of these people who literally believe we are going to be 'rescued' by aliens! and

3. I'd prefer a society addicted to reiki and acupuncture over one addicted to tylenol and prozac. In other words, in the small things that don't take too much work, research, or wisdom, new age has moved things a little in the right direction.

Of course it is very different if they claim to have 'the answer'! But I never believe anyone who says that.

The 'fundamental interconnectedness of all things' is something definitely perceived by a multitude of spiritual traditions, and although this business of pretending you perceive it when you really don't is a bit laughable, trying to live as if it were the case is really not a bad idea IMHO.

If you do your darnedest and still can't live that way, and start to blame others for this fact, then that as JMG says is when things get less salutory. As such the shadow of the New Age movement shows a lack of ability to be reasonable and personally responsible, I don't doubt it and the danger associated.

So far though, they have not bombed anyone or waged war against anyone, which puts them ahead of many more 'respectable' religions! (I except Druidism from this I guess!) So the fact that at bottom they may be philosophically unsound is to me not that big of a deal. After all, if one can see through it, what is the problem?

Best NN

FARfetched said...

This was good. As a Christian, I have always looked for a handle on New Ageism — it's important to understand the ideas, even if you don't agree with all of them — and you've pretty well confirmed that there isn't a handle.

Of course, we attempt to alter reality (through prayer), but there's also the example of Paul: "I have learned to be content in all circumstances." Many of us, including some here who probably spit at seeing the name "Paul," could benefit from that example. I've come to believe that changing reality is really the privilege of God, or whatever you choose to call the Creator — we can be instruments of that change, especially when we let go of our own wants and focus on improving the lives of others — but it's dangerous to confuse the tool with the Wielder in this case.

One of the biggest spiritual steps I ever made was when I realized that the God of the Old Testament is the same unchanged God of the New Testament — God hasn't changed, but our perceptions of God change over time. Even in the OT, where we assume God is all blood-and-thunder, we see the forgiving nature of God in the stories of Job (look toward the end rather than the beginning) and especially Jonah.

We progress as a race, understanding more and more as time goes on — you couldn't expect a group of semi-nomadic technologically backward (even for their time) people to grasp cosmologic concepts like the Big Bang, inflation, or billions of light-years. So scripture put it in terms they could understand: "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth… And God said, 'Let there be light.' And there was light." As we learned science, we learned the details. (Sure, the fundies refuse to look beyond the early version, but it's not surprising they don't believe in evolution as they haven't evolved themselves.)

So perhaps we can't alter reality, except in ways intended by the Creator, but we can alter the way we relate to reality. Some people deny what's coming, and won't be able to cope when it arrives; others will adapt in real time; a few have already adjusted their lives to meet the new reality when it comes. Religion, whether Pagan, Christian, or the Eastern faiths, will adapt as well. Personally, I think that Christianity will get knocked off its perch (which, speaking as a Christian, will be a good thing) — I envision a short period of theocracy (logic says 7 years, to correspond to the Tribulation, but my heart says 5), followed by a backlash, penitence, and true revival of the selfless faith that spread beyond a city and (to its eventual detriment) conquered the Roman Empire.

Nnonnth said...

Well, just to say it, I agree with this:

There's also the example of Paul: "I have learned to be content in all circumstances." Many of us, including some here who probably spit at seeing the name "Paul," could benefit from that example.

very much, but it's why I tried to bring the stoics back in there since it was their central tenet! One could hardly call it a specifically 'christian' or 'pauline' idea since they made it the foundation of their ideas centuries before that time.

Of course there was more to stoicism than that, they had quite a spiritual system going I believe, but since they never actually made a religion out of this, one could easily 'retrofit' their ideas onto New Ageism or indeed anything else, without anyone 'spitting' on anyone for doctrinaire reasons!

But there - I'm not really sure we're any longer on topic, so I'll shut up...


Loveandlight said...


You do have a point. I did do some pretty important growing and changing during my sojourn in the New Age, and I took away some ideas that stay with me to this day. I guess I'm just trying to burn my ideological bridges so that I may continue moving forward as opposed to looking backward. Wouldn't want to turn into a pillar of salt, ya know! ;-)

FARfetched said...

Thanks, Nnonnth. I think this is all on-topic, because whatever comes is going to have a spiritual dimension as well as physical, financial, and emotional.

But when it happens, I know one thing: I won't miss my commute. ;-)

Maura said...

A very interesting post again. One point of concern in relation to the final few words of the article. The British National party (BNP - not a pleasant lot, the "National" should tell you something) are almost the only UK political party of note to take an interest in peak oil, sometimes turning up at public meetings and conferences, quietly taking notes. It has been said that they see peak oil and the likely economic chaos resulting from it as their opportunity to gain power, whether in formal government or otherwise, whereas in "normal" economic times they would get nowhere.

I think in many countries there is an underbelly of potential support for such groups who can identify scapegoats to "blame" for the destruction of people's careers and consumerist aspirations in a post-peak environment.

mc said...

"Put the ideal and the real cheek by jowl and learn to live with the cognitive dissonance between them, and the paradox itself can become a source of creativity and insight."

What happens though when the dissonance is more than most can handle? That is what is happening today. We face the collapse of civilization and ecological devastation. Where do we turn? The government of this country is so corrupt, it is akin to a crime syndicate. Who needs the lizard folks when we have corporate govt. And there is no promised land to migrate to at this point.

When presented with the looming disasters, most turn away from the truth. How many citizens can face the treachery and decadence of their govt. officials? How many citizens can face the looming breakdown of life as we know it? How many can handle this degree of cognitive dissonance?

I submit, not many. So, they attempt to deal with their acute anxiety through magical thinking (among numerous methods). At this point, some of the New Age antidotes, seem to provide comfort and give the illusion of control to some people. However, as the crisis of collapse worsens, the power of positive/magical thinking will prove ineffectual at every level. Survival will demand a stronger medicine.

Matt said...

Less of a comment on the particulars of the post, and more towards the general content, here. I came in about two weeks back and have since read the back posts. Just real good stuff, here, Mr. Greer.

I had my head swollen with optimism two years back by McDonough and Braungart's Cradle to Cradle, and accidentally mated it with to Kunstler's Long Emergency. To quote you (Whoa) I too used to "believe that the current state of affairs can be counted on to keep on going forever" and planning my future "on the assumption that it'll be just like the present, only more so."

Long story short, I decided to go back to school in an Appropriate Technology grad program. I'm pretty dang glad to be going back to school, and that's the first time this long time ago good student has felt that in a--well, it's been awhile.

On the optimistic days I feel like I'm going to be reshaping the world through my actions, and some days I feel like the future is already coming and nothing I can do can change it. Then I read your blog, and it always makes me realize, I think, that it doesn't matter how I feel. I'll act, and if it works, I hope the world will be a better place in the end. But, really, who's to judge?

So, thanks.


RJ said...

Lizard People aside, how can we not imagine a huge conspiracy? I mean, who's got the jump on everyone concerning peak oil?

John Michael Greer said...

Loveandlight, I'll check out your defense of neoprimitivism as time permits. FWIW, though I don't agree with the theory that civilization is bad by definition, the idea of going back to a radically lower technological level is likely to be one of the more workable strategies in the years to come.

Nnonth, of course you're right -- there are good things that have come out of the New Age movement, and it's a very diverse scene, not all of which fits the terms of my critique. On the other hand, I do know quite a few people who expect to be rescued by the Space Brothers, and quite a few more who are into a search for scapegoats far too reminiscent of central Europe in the 1930s.
Of course, you'll get no argument from me about the virtues of Stoicism! Yes, it had a deep spiritual dimension, rather akin to early Taoism, as well as its potent moral teachings, and a passion for logic that would be well worth cultivating -- it's as much from the Stoics as from earlier Platonism that the Neoplatonists got the concept that spirituality can and should embrace logic rather than trying to ignore it.

Farfetched, your quote from Paul is good -- a nice bit of Stoicism; you can tell that Paul was very much a part of the intellectual life of his time. For what it's worth, I don't agree with you that current mythologies (such as the big bang) are "more advanced" than those of the second millennium BCE, when yours were codified; that's all part of the myth of progress, which I feel badly needs to be put out to pasture.

Also, I think we'll be spared the interval of theocracy; the window of opportunity for that has passed. You may not know that the number of Protestant Christians in the US has been in freefall for more than three decades, and dropped below 50% (for the first time since colonial days) in 2005. Today's political Evangelicalism has basically driven the last nail in the coffin; it's always fatal for a religion to let it be turned into a wholly owned subsidiary of a political party. Doubtless, though, Christianity will survive, and I hope it does -- it potentially has a lot to offer a deindustrializing world, especially if it gets its act together and gets out of the political propaganda business.

Maura, this is one of my main concerns right now. A lot of people on the far shores of politics are paying attention to peak oil, and making plans. The longer the mainstream avoids the subject, the more mileage the extremists will get.

MC, take a hard look at the way you're demonizing politicians. This is just another example of the search for scapegoats I discussed in my post.

Matt, thank you! You've made this archdruid's day. The more people take practical steps to deal with our predicament -- and getting a degree in appropriate tech certainly counts -- the better our future is likely to be.

RJ, hunting for scapegoats isn't going to help our predicament, no matter how emotionally appealing it may seem. What are you doing in your own life to build a better future? That's the question that needs to be asked.

Loveandlight said...

MC, take a hard look at the way you're demonizing politicians. This is just another example of the search for scapegoats I discussed in my post.

Agreed. There is a shocking amount of corruption in business and government, but that has more to do with the fact that the unearned largess of empire and fossil-fuel energy has made us all decadent and morally flabby. People with money, power, and influence simply have more opportunities to act out their baser drives on a large scale.

mc said...

I will clarify: I do not demonize all politicians - primarily the current administration and their lackeys. Why? To quote from Catton (Overshoot):"What do we do about it? must be replaced by a different query that does not assume all problems are soluble: What must we avoid doing to keep from making a bad situation unnecessarily worse?"

That is what this administration has done - made it worse. They lied to bring about war...for oil. The so-called war on terrorism is a giant hoax played out with an anti-arab/muslim racial card. They have decided that what we don't have, we will steal (America's oil production as a 6-pack; then 4 are empty.

So, if you want to call that demonizing these so-called leaders, then that is ok with me. I call it stating the truth in order to avoid staying on this path and to wake up about these types of decision-makers. We can do better and I hope (and pray)that we learn from this debacle and choose more wisely in the future.

John Michael Greer said...

MC, I grant that the current administration has pursued some remarkably foolish policies. Still, it's a mistake to assume that the people currently in positions of political authority are the problem, and throwing them out will solve it. It won't. It's worth noting that none of the people currently vying for the positions now held by Bush, Blair, etc. have anything more constructive to say about the predicament of industrial society than the ones they want to replace. In this sense, politics is a distraction from the work that most needs to be done. Blaming our predicament on current political leaders is an evasion of our own responsibility, and using the language of conspiracy theory in the service of that evasion does a disservice to everyone.

dopamine said...

If you learn enough about this world and yourself you will find that your consciousness need not limit itself to your body and the image of yourself that is scattered about the neurons in you brain. Eventually you can transcend yourself and become everything. You realize that your consciousness need not be limited to your body but can encompass everything. It’s a very invigorating sensation. Your body and its death are no longer of much consequence when you can “step outside” into a much larger reality. You can no longer die because you are everything including the agent of your death. This feeling is hard to maintain after you have left the quiet and go about your “human” business in the everyday world but it is very worthwhile. Unfortunately many people will never know that peace because it is obscured by the programs in their brains and an environment of meaningless distractions. It is possible to spend many hours quietly with only your brain as entertainment and no stimulus in the real world can come close to matching it. Ask a Buddhist. Maybe Druids can too. What’s really great is that it doesn’t require burning any fossil fuels. Want to take a trip? Close your eyes and you can take a trip that reality cannot come close to matching. And I’m not trained in some “New Age” discipline. I wear weejuns and polo shirts and am usually immersed in this increasingly sad matrix of life like the rest of you. If people could only experience the beauty within perhaps they would not need to indulge their bodies with every imaginable stimulus. When they do only pursue these external pleasures, they are left with only a soulless body. Peak oil and partial deindustrialization may allow a renaissance of some true religious experience.

John Michael Greer said...

Dopamine, meditation has been part of the Druid path since the beginning of the Druid Revival some three hundred years ago, and mystical experience is a natural outgrowth of that. Most of us don't use it as an entertainment system, though, and as you'd expect from a bunch of nature mystics, we tend to be interested in integrating mystical states with ordinary modes of consciousness, not simply bailing out on the world's problems. More on this later.

Pandabonium said...

This is the best blog I have ever come across. The comments are excellent as well.

I see I have a lot of "catch up" reading to do here.

Thank you, JMG.

Marielle said...

Those of us who believe that we each create our own reality must be very careful not to lose a sense of compassion for those who are suffering. There is no reason not to sympathize with those who are suffering and try to help, if we can. And this concept of "creating your own reality" makes a lot more sense for those who also believe in reincarnation.

Yes, I'm one of those "new agers", although I've never read ACIM. My sources are much older. But, I know for a fact that creative visualization combined with a (24x7) deep and profound sense of gratitude, faith, and purpose to expand life does indeed work. Is it easy? Not at first but it does get easier. I was shocked when I heard that Oprah was pushing "The Secret". Are the masses ready for this information? We will see :) Those who use it in the proper way will see true rewards while those who use it to get new plasma television sets so they can watch American Idol on a big screen might be disappointed.

Addofio said...

I fear I'm one of those people who can't sustain the tension between reality and ideal (as mc suggested), and cope, most of the time, by simply turning my attention elsewhere. But what has enabled me to keep going when I do look clearly at what I fear is coming down the pike, is the thought that each of us has a role to play right where we are, wherever we find ourselves. Even politicians. So while I agree that the political process is unlikely to save us--I guess I think any other process, by itself, is equally unlikely to save us. (And by "save us" I don't mean preserve our current industrial system--I mean avoid the worst of the possible scenarios. Nor by "us" do I mean me--I seriously doubt I will survive any serious, widespread disruption of the world.) We each play some part, large or small, and perhaps if enough of us play our parts well enough--well, just perhaps my 3 a.m. visions won't come into reality.

(BTW, I have a wordpress blog, not blogger, at, if you want to check me out for bona fides. I just set up the blogger account so I could leave the comment.

I've been reading your blog intermittently for a few weeks now, when I have the brainpower to focus on it, and I really like your commitment to balance and reason (as I perceive it--you might use other words.) At some point I'm going to go back and dig into your archives in order to understand your thinking better.)

markos said...

Hi John. Just checking in to say that I'm still avidly reading your writing before and since your blog. I look forward to gleaning more wisdom from your lucid and erudite thinking each week. Cheers, Mark.

John Michael Greer said...

Pandabonium and Markos, many thanks for the encouragement!

Marielle, I have no argument with your suggestion that it's useful to approach the world with a positive attitude and some practical techniques for causing change in consciousness. As for reincarnation, Druids have been into that since ancient times; when Taliesin said "I have been all things previously," he wasn't engaging in poetic hyperbole. While I have my doubts about some features of the New Age movement, especially in its more popularized forms, I don't mean to dismiss it completely.

But your comments about "The Secret" -- good heavens, I take it nobody reads 19th century New Thought literature any more! Everything in "The Secret" was published back then for audiences of millions, and most of the books in question explain it better and recognize the limitations of what, after all, is a fairly simple technique.

Addofio, I know the 3 am visions -- I get 'em too. My best guess, though, is that they're more a reflection of collective fears than of approaching reality; we face a slow decline, not a sudden collapse into nightmare. When you have time to go digging into the archives of this blog you'll find that discussed there in far too much detail!

riverbird said...

>>"creating your own reality" makes a lot more sense for those who also believe in reincarnation.<<

and karma.

>>the 3 am visions -- I get 'em too. My best guess, though, is that they're more a reflection of collective fears than of approaching reality; we face a slow decline, not a sudden collapse into nightmare.<<

How many of us couuld say that?! "I get 'em too." But maybe some of both, collective fears as well as visions of pathways through shadowed areas of future scenes.

I agree that we face a slow decline, but I think too, we will also see sharp declines, mini collapses, along the way of fits and jolts and drops embedded in this longer decline. One of the primary things we are talking about locally is 'resiliency of systems'; having multiple systems and option in place or available as others peter out or fail abruptly. Resiliency on both a personal level as well as at a community level.

A couple cases in point: first a friend here lost electric power for several weeks and in the meantimie managed to get a wood stove put in thier place. Secondly, my sister in CO, living at 9,000 ft, lost their natural gas in January while it was -9 F. The entire town lost the gas supply to to an explosion in the mainline to the town. Shortly after the electric circuits also blew out as everyone switched over to electric for heat and everythihng else. My sister and her family were able to move in with neighbors who had wood heat, I imagine they'll be doing somethihng similar at their home.

If you want a trial run for yourself to see what your vulnerabilities are, turn off your electric breaker for a week and discover what your 'other' real life is. A very good practice that will help define where your gaps are and allow you to develop greater reesiliency at your personal level. Phase two, shut off your municipal water and see where you are.

These scenarios may or not actually develop in time, but they do give one a good sense of where they sit and to what extent they are Dependent on larger systems. And what then if fuel prices influenced deliveries to the local Safeway? Last week I bought a bag of chicken feed as supplement for some hens I keep. It was 30% more expensive than last month, mostly due to the fact that corn is being diverted to ethanol production. Ripples seem to be spreading wide . . . .

Matt Cardin said...

But your comments about "The Secret" -- good heavens, I take it nobody reads 19th century New Thought literature any more! Everything in "The Secret" was published back then for audiences of millions, and most of the books in question explain it better and recognize the limitations of what, after all, is a fairly simple technique.

A huge thanks for noting this, John. For months now I've stood by and watched the conversation about The Secret unfold on various message boards, and also in various in-person conversation, and have been rather shocked to find not a single person acknowledging the obvious fact that the book and video are nothing but a blatant repackaging of New Thought. I've considered stepping into these conversations several times to point this out and see if anybody is interested, or to see if by chance anybody else has been sitting back and similarly recognizing the historical amnesia in action. But on each occasion I've ended up deciding just to watch and see how far the conversation runs in its historical vacuum.

Anyway, I'm really digging all of your recent posts. You continue to highlight and clarify many important things with uncommon grace and precision.

lususnaturae said...

My compliments on your blog...well-reasoned, well-mannered writing seems to be a rarity these days. Most unfortunate.

On this topic, I, too, was surprised by how few people recognized the latest glossy re-packaging of very old ideas. (the secret, in particular)
One thing that always mystifies (and disappoints) me is the human fondness for accepting any given set of ideas as 'the whole truth' - rather than examining and separating the wheat from the chaff. For instance, the law of attraction and the power of intent demonstrably do have some affect on our lives, but to ascribe absolutely everything to them seems no more well-reasoned than ascribing everything to, say, space lizards. We appear as a species to have an inexhaustible capacity for wanting and accepting easy, all-encompassing answers to life's mysteries....especially answers which either claim we are special favorites on earth, or are practically omnipotent - for whatever reason.

I think that our ease-inspired complacency (and ill-advised faith in our own and technology's omnipotence) will prevent the majority of us from making meaningful changes until true crisis of some sort begins. (which would be nothing new historically, but sad all the same) After all, why look honestly at the fearsome shadow behind us when the tv is so much more flattering and entertaining?