Thursday, May 10, 2007

Religion and Peak Oil: The Next Spirituality

It may be prophetic that science fiction, that cracked but not always clouded mirror of our imagined futures, so often makes religion central to narratives about a world after industrial civilization. That fashion was set in a big way by Walter M. Miller’s 1959 bestseller A Canticle for Leibowitz, which leapt past the then-popular genre of nuclear holocaust novels to envision a centuries-long reprise of the Dark Ages, complete with Catholic monks guarding the knowledge of the past. Miller’s book covered a lot of philosophical and theological ground, but among its core themes was the argument that religion — specifically, of course, Catholic Christianity — was the wellspring of humanity’s better possibilities, and would be more important than ever when progress betrayed the hopes of its votaries.

In the hothouse environment of mid-20th century science fiction, a retort from the other side was not long in arriving. It came from Edgar Pangborn, whose award-winning 1965 novel Davy was in large part a counterblast aimed at Miller’s vision. In Pangborn’s future history, the collapse of industrial society was followed by the slow rise of a neomedieval society shackled to superstition and ignorance by the Holy Murcan Church. Like A Canticle for Liebowitz, Davy covered quite a bit of intellectual ground, and Pangborn’s invented Murcan religion was at least as much a scathing satire on the American Protestant religiosity of his own time as it was an attempt to imagine a religion of the future. Central to Pangborn’s vision, though, was the argument that religion was the zenith of human folly, an arrogant claim to privileged knowledge about the unknowable that inevitably lashed out violently against those too sane to accept its pretensions.

Of course these two arguments have been fodder for countless debates since Christianity lost its hold on the collective imagination of the Western world some centuries back,. One feature of the dispute that deserves more attention than it has usually received, though, is the extent to which both sides present the choice between them as the only option there is. Such recent antireligous polemics as Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, for example, found their arguments explicitly on the insistence that the kind of religion represented by conservative Christians is the only kind worth debating, just as the equal and opposite polemics from conservative Christians commonly claim that any religion different from theirs is tantamount to Dawkins’ evangelical atheism.

Now this sort of binary thinking, to use the term some branches of the Druid tradition give it, is pervasive in contemporary Western cultures, not least because it’s proven to be immensely profitable for the two mutually dependent sides of a great many such disputes. Behind the quadrennial antics of the mutually interchangeable Demublican and Repocratic politicians in America, to name only one of many examples, lies a canny good cop-bad cop routine, in which each side shakes down an assortment of captive constituencies by bellowing as loud as possible about how terrible a victory by the other side would be. Yet it’s a mistake to assume that a binary of this sort necessarily remains fixed in place forever.

The classical world provides a good example of the way such relationships can unravel. Well before the beginning of the Common Era, the religious landscape of the Greco-Roman world broke open along a line of fracture defined by the gap between an archaic polytheism rooted more in poetry than theology, and a rationalist movement among the political classes that sought individual perfection through moral philosophy. Relations between the two sides were never quite as bitter as the equivalent strains in our own culture; the decision of the Athenian court that condemned Socrates to death for introducing new gods was mirrored in Plato’s insistence that poets would be driven out of his imaginary Republic, but at the same time many Roman intellectuals argued that the religio Romana was justified by its role in maintaining social order.

In classical times, the religious stalemate lasted until a third force – Christianity – entered the picture from outside. One of the foundations of Christian victory was the polemic the two older forces used against one another. Christian apologists could, and did, copy the philosophers in denouncing the gods of Olympus for their dubious morals, then turn around and assail the philosophers for their arrogance and impiety. It wasn’t until the end of the third century CE that philosophers such as Iamblichus and Proclus tried to build a united opposition to Christianity, and by then it was far too late. The classical world was already sliding down the slope of its own catabolic collapse, and the future of the Mediterranean world belonged to the new religious vision exemplified by Christianity and, a little later, Islam as well.

It’s very popular to see this transition as historically inevitable, and to point to features in Christianity that make it “more advanced” than classical Paganism, but this simply rehashes the myth of progress in a different key. Comparative history suggests that things could have turned out differently. In Nara- and Heian-period Japan, for example, a very similar divide between imported Buddhism and indigenous Shinto took a very different course. Japan found its equivalents of Iamblichus and Proclus much earlier, in the persons of Buddhist leaders such as Kobo Daishi and Dengyo Daishi who worked to establish common ground with the older faith, and the resulting accommodation proved to be so durable that a millennium and a half later, most Japanese still practice both faiths.

Despite all the arguments of historical determinists, history does seem to be contingent rather than determined – which is to say, of course, that in human affairs slight causes can have vast effects, and trying to predict the future in advance is a risky proposition at best. This is above all true of religious history, where the vision of a prince, a camel driver, or a tentmaker on the road to Damascus can catch fire in the imaginations of millions and send the world careening down a completely unexpected path. Thus it would be a waste of time to point to one religious movement or another and proclaim it as the necessary wave of the future. A glance at some of the possibilities might be worthwhile, but such a glance must be tempered with the recognition that history seems to take a perverse delight in embarrassing would-be prophets.

For the religion of progress in any of its forms – the straightforward atheist anthropolatry of Richard Dawkins and his peers, or the quasi-theistic versions that use the forms of older faiths but redefine them in progressive terms – the coming of the deindustrial age promises a major crisis of faith. The same is true of today’s Christian fundamentalism, which rejects the progressive vision but has made itself just as vulnerable to a future that shows no particular interest in conforming to its apocalyptic prophecies. My guess, and it’s only a guess, is that despite their current popularity both these faiths are on their way out; too much hostility stands between them to allow the sort of mutual accommodation that happened between Shinto and Buddhism in Japan, and some more recently arrived faiths have already begun to work the same strategy on them that Christianity worked on classical Paganism and Greek philosophy.

Catholicism is another matter. While American Protestantism has been losing members steadily for decades, the Catholic church has been holding steady, not least because so much immigration into the US today comes from predominantly Catholic countries. Demographics have worked very much in Catholicism’s favor, and will very likely continue to do so. Whether the church in America can hold together in the face of the issues pulling it toward schism is a good question, but if it can manage that, A Canticle for Liebowitz may not be as farfetched as it looks.

Buddhism, it seems to me, is also very much worth watching. In the last few decades, especially but not only on the west coast, Buddhism has transformed itself from an exotic foreign import to a homegrown faith with a growing popular appeal, and Buddhist monasteries can be found all over North America these days – there are three of them within a short drive of the town where I live. If it continues along its present growth curve, Buddhism could turn into a major religious force in North America over the next few centuries.

Yet it’s also worth watching the fringes, and keeping an eye out for wild cards. Christianity was a legally proscribed minority faith only a few generations before it seized control of the Roman world. In a world of contingencies, where slight causes can drive vast effects, some religious movement barely large enough to be noticed today might turn into the dominant religion of North America a few centuries down the road. Arnold Toynbee noted in his massive A Study of History that the downslope of civilizations seem to be the incubators of universal religions, and rarely so dramatically as in times when the most basic assumptions of a civilization are visibly disproving themselves. This is such a time, in case you haven’t noticed.

It’s probably wise to mention here that I would be more flabbergasted than anyone else if my own Druid faith were to become any sort of major force in the religious landscape of the future. Born in the 18th century out of a three-way pileup between mystical Anglicanism, fragmentary Celtic traditions, and the first stirrings of what we now call environmental awareness, modern Druidry is distinguished more by its wry sense of humor than by any sort of missionary fervor or mass appeal. Many of us in the contemporary Druid movement are aware of peak oil and the other dimensions of the predicament of industrial society, and are taking action in response, but all things considered, the Church of Elvis probably has a better chance of becoming the universal religion of the future than we do.

Still, whatever religion or combination of religions rises to prominence as industrial society slides down the far side of Hubbert’s peak, the religious dimension will very likely play a massive role in the way today’s society’s adapt to tomorrow’s world of harsh limits and harsher choices. As the aspect of human life that deals with ultimate concerns, religion is among the most potent of all motivating factors, and it seems to me that any serious attempt to make something positive out of the approaching mess will have to draw on religious motivations, in one way or another, if it is to have any chance of meeting the challenges of our future. Thus attempts to imagine the next economy, the next society, or even the next energy system might be well advised to take at least a passing glance in the direction of the next spirituality as well.


LizM said...

Another fascinating post. I'm wondering whether the religion of the future will not be some sort of synthesis that incorporates the necessities of resource scarcity and makes them virtues. The nice thing about Buddhism is that it makes a virtue of having less, and also doing less (like sitting still). And then, a religion that begins with "life is suffering" will never fail to deliver.

But it seems to me that a lot of what was practiced as religion prior to the modern era was a sort of ritualized economy (or ecology). A sacred cow, for example, is not eaten for dinner, and thus lives to contribute energy, fertilizer, transportation, farm equipment, and food to the human community that protects it. I've also read about small temples that were actually seasonal irrigation devices. But I think that kind of spiritual genius comes to a population that stays put, and that's not us just yet, more's the pity.

[BTW, tiny typo in paragraph 3, line three. Comma followed by a period.]

Joel said...

I agree, great post.

Another tiny typo: I think you want a plural "societies" in the last paragraph, not a posessive.

As to ritualized economy & ecology, I think my fellow citizens of the San Francisco Bay Area are perhaps even obsessed with what and how they eat than they would be if they all tried to keep kosher. People deprive themselves and have an amazingly detailed sense of righteousness/wickedness over their eating habits. This food morality seems likely to become imbued with more and more spiritual character as the reasons behind the various promotions and prohibitions fall away from the public's attention.

Jim said...

Perhaps the major religious wave(s) of the next century or two will not come so much out of the USA or Europe. African Anglicanism and Latin American Catholicism are growingly influential. Islam is obviously huge.

But what I really wonder about is China. It looks to me like some kind of avalanche just waiting to happen. But I sure can't tell which way the flood will pour! Robert Neville's _Boston Confucianism_ might be worth a look, along with de Bary's _The Trouble with Confucianism_. If resource conflicts lead to anarchy, maybe some kind of Napoleon will emerge.

Is Confucianism a kind of religion of the emperor? Maybe that turmoil in 300 BCE China could be another model to study, alongside Rome or Greece.

John Michael Greer said...

Lizm, I've long been convinced that religion and ecology aren't two things but one. (Mind you, that's the sort of thing you'd expect a Druid to say.) Most religions in their premodern forms include quite a bit of ecological common sense, and also quite a bit of more general common sense about the inevitability of limits and the value of accepting them. Those are lessons we have to relearn in a big way.

Joel, American culture has long been obsessed with the idea that if you can identify something as "bad" and not only get rid of it, but denounce it, that makes you good. Today's food morality is simply another form of that. It may be too much to ask for. but I'd hope to see a little less self-righteousness in the religious vision of the future.

Jim, of course there's a world of possibilities out there. I expect Latin American cultures to have a huge impact on the future of North America for many reasons, demography among them, and that gives Catholicism as well as several other religious movements a great deal of momentum in this hemisphere.

As for China, yes, that's the big question -- and I don't have a clue about the answer, other than an uncomfortable feeling that a Greater China extending from Kamchatka to the Urals and from the Arctic Ocean quite probably to Australia is a pretty fair bet.

Jeffrey said...

JMG, I've been reading your essays for a few weeks now, and I find them absolutely fascinating. I can't say that I am convinced of a coming deindustrial age, but I appreciate the clear-eyed, pessimistic, good-humoured, non-alarmist way you approach you subject. I espcially appreciate the understanding of human nature that you bring to your writing about the challenges ahead.

A brief note about me. I found your blog through a link to your site on John Thackara's blog ( Probably the best label for me is evangelical christian (with a rapidly expanding view of the world), so you can include at least on of us in your fanbase demographic.

I would be interested in your sources for your information about fundamentalism's history, and also the 3-years till leaving statistic. I'd like to learn a bit more of my history.

Finally, is there a distinction in your mind and writing between fundamentalism and evangelicalism, or are they different things?


Simon said...


I don't think that religion and ecology are necessarily one thing, as you more or less admit in the caveat "in their premodern forms". However, ecology nowadays is a rational, scientific understanding of the world. Many people aren't really rational or scientific in their worldview, and that is an important element to consider when trying to spread ecological sensitivity.
Personalizing the ecosphere will contribute much more to that goal than rationalizing it.

Hardleft Millenarian said...

Dear JMG,

Regarding Christian fundamentalism, you state that the future "shows no particular interest in conforming to its apocalyptic prophecies." I don't think this is true at all; in fact, I think it is remarkable just how much current historical trends ARE aligning themselves with many aspects of this biblically based vision.

The centerpiece of this alignment is, of course, the modern nation of Israel. Throughout the 19th century and even before, biblical literalists were predicting the reemergence of Israel as a national entity - many long before the trend in this direction became at all discernable in any human sense, with the decline of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of modern Zionism.

Biblical prophecy also indicates very clearly, in places such as Daniel and Zechariah, that Israel will incur the hostility of most of the other nations of the world, as part of a trajectory leading to its eventually being pitted against the rest of the world in history's final armed conflict. This, too, is indeed happening; Israel's only friend on the world stage is the United States - a fact of current world affairs that is also rather strikingly reconcilable with biblical prophecies.

It is possible to go on at great length about all of this, actually, but for the moment, I will mention only one final thing. Ezekiel 38-39 depicts a conflict often referred to as the "Gog-Magog War." While it is not possible to draw a definitive picture of Israel's antagonists as predicted in those chapters, it is quite clear that a substantial number of those antagonists correspond to Islamic nations surrounding Israel today who are indeed its mortal enemies. Most notably for present purposes, Persia is specifically mentioned among their number. Given the volatility affecting affairs today in West Asia, it is not at all difficult to envision an armed conflict in the foreseeable future that corresponds very closely to the contours of these prophecies.

I can discuss all this in more detail in later posts, based on how our exchange develops. But I think that what I have said so far is sufficient, at the very least, to raise serious questions about your claims that the current state of the world bears no resemblance whatsoever to Christian apocalyptic as understood by fundamentalists.

(One important final point to add is the following: I completely agree with you that the Pre-tribulation rapture has no biblical basis, and that most biblical literalists today are in grave error on this point.)

MawKernewek said...

I am an evangelical Christian (UK). As I understand it, the principal difference between evangelicalism and fundamentalism is the latter's strong insistence upon literalism in Biblical interpretation, whereas the former is more likely to consider texts in their varying genres and cultural context.

This particularly expresses itself in the attitute towards creation, fundamentalists being likely to believe in a literal 6 24hr day creation, and towards Biblical prophecy, with fundamentalists being much more likely to identify such prophecy with specific current events and to believe the second coming and the end of the world are going to happen in their lifetime.

There is also a tendency among fundamentalists to have a strong doctrine of separation from the world (in the context of society), whereas evangelicals would be more likely to believe they are called to live a Christian life within the world.

What this all means in the context of a deindustrial society is anyone's guess, although if you believe the world is ending soon then you might not think it so important that we look after it well..

Danby said...

Francis Cardinal George once said "In America, everyone's a Calvinist, including the Catholics." And we might add, the neo-pagans. One of the aspects of that is the tendency of people in the US to believe that what counts is what you think and believe, rather than what you do. This is a direct expression of the Calvinist (and other Protestant) principle of sola fidei. I think that's why American culture has long been obsessed with the idea that if you can identify something as "bad" and not only get rid of it, but denounce it, that makes you good."

China is in the midst of a great spiritual crisis. The God of Communism that was forced on the society at gunpoint is rather obviously dead. No-one would be willing to take a bullet for the victory of the proletariat anymore. Such power as is left in the Communist structures exists for the sake of it's own perpetuation. As one would expect, other forces are moving in, quite rapidly, to take it's place. Fulan Gong, Baptist and Evangelical house churches, Catholicism and Buddhist Temples are all exploding in membership, despite vigorous, even hysterical persecution by government authorities. I would expect Buddhism to eventually win out, but then in 3rd century Rome, I'd have put my money on Mithraism.

I would say that religion and ecology are not the same thing, but are both expressed and conserved by the force of tradition. Often, tradition, religion, and tribal identity all get conflated into the same spot in the human thought process, but they aren't really the same thing.

OH, and Millenarian, I've been reading the same thing in Protestant tracts since the mid-seventies, and I've read them in tracts from the 1890's. I'm sure John could take you back considerably earlier than that. The Millerites spent the night of October 21, 1844 sitting on their rooftops, waiting for the Rapture. Their chronology was at least 162 years off. Be careful before you start believing this stuff. Jesus himself said "But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only."

Hardleft Millenarian said...

Dear danby,

I am well aware of the hazards associated with taking apocalyptic prophecy seriously, and of the many grievous errors that have arisen in connection with this enterprise throughout Christian history. (And I would agree with JMG that the prevalence of "Progress Ideology" in various orthodox Christian guises constitutes one important class of such errors.)

However, I believe it is demonstrable that such biblical records as the Book of Daniel, Zechariah, Revelation, etc., are in fact the results of divinely inspired oracles that contain, among other things, genuinely predictive prophecies. Many of these prophecies have already been fulfilled historically, especially at the time of the First Advent of Christ - some in such truly remarkable fashion that they admit of being the basis for non-circular proofs of the veracity of the Judeo-Christian faith.

Given this state of affairs, and the fact that the world today stands on the precipice of wrenching changes (as we all agree), I do not think it is unreasonable to attempt to take a sober-minded and prayerful look at what sort of hope the as-yet unfulfilled prophecies in the Judeo-Christian record of divine oracles might be able to offer the world in its distress. I have been attempting this myself in a serious way for about four years now.

Many of the errors that have historically afficted those who take a close look at biblical prophecy have rather obvious sources, once one begins to become knowledgeable about the topic. The error of Millerism, for example, has its roots in the intellectually untenable combination of biblical literalism with the tendentious "historicist" interpretation of the Book of Revelation that is characteristic of classical Protestantism. Biblically, Miller himself based this on a non-literal and therefore erroneous adherence to the idea that a day is equivalent to a year in certain key contexts in the Bible, a misinterpretation based on a misreading of a couple of texts from Numbers and Ezekiel. The basis of this particular error is removed if, consistently with a commitment to biblical literalism, one makes a "day" in the Bible MEAN a day, and one adopts a "futurist" reading of Revelation.

There are also characteristic errors associated with the current "dispensationalist" version of apocalyptic interpretation, despite the considerable advances it has helped make in correctly interpreting various apocalyptic biblical texts through careful exegesis over the past 170 years or so. I have already mentioned the erroneous and non-biblical adherence to the doctrine of the pre-Tribulation Rapture; another error, of equal gravity, in my view, is their unconditional allegiance to the nation of Israel. This overlooks what the more careful exegetes in their tradition have not failed to notice based on a careful analysis of passages such as Ezekiel 24, Zechariah 12, and Revelation 12, namely, that Israel is destined to be regathered initially in a state of unbelief and apostasy, and thus in a manner displeasing to God. By failing to recognize this, American evangelicals are thus lending unquestioning moral and political support to an entity which requires profound moral and spiritual purging - something that the Bible also clearly predicts will eventually happen.

But I think that's enough said for the moment. In concluding this post, let me just say that the reason this topic interests me is because I deeply believe that it leads humanity to its one true source of hope in the crisis currently facing humanity.

FARfetched said...

Looking at the historical arc of religions, it's strange how their success is often what leads to their undoing. It seems that a religion can either have spiritual power or political power, but not both.

Take the early Christian church, for example: the dedication of individuals to something greater than themselves was a great attractor, echoed in quotes from Josephus and even one of the Caesars. Being a Christian in those days was hazardous, but at the same time provided a safety net of fellows ready to help you if you lost everything to accident or persecution. Eventually, Christianity became enough of a force that Constantine co-opted it.

Becoming the state religion of a crumbling Empire was bad enough, but it got worse: the Empire collapsed, and the Church ended up getting sucked into the political vacuum and deposited into the scattered seats of power throughout Europe. Having so much political power cost the Church its spiritual power, and Christians groped their way through the Dark Ages until Martin Luther began the Reformation.

We're seeing much the same thing happening today with the fundies. Timelines are compressed, like any other timeline these days, but it's the same arc with a tighter radius. Dedication to a cause, co-opting by a political entity (the GOP in this case), rise to political power, loss of spiritual power, corruption, and (coming soon) the fall. Fortunately, the Dark Ages to come will be more technological than spiritual — thanks to diversity. Besides the fundie Christians, there are Catholics, non-fundie Protestant sects, and the whole array of Asian faiths and Pagan traditions that weren't pervading Europe after the collapse of Empire. (Sure, the old pagan religion was around, but I'm guessing it declined with the Empire, and was finally stamped out by the Catholics.) If our God/gods is/are good, the various religions can peacefully co-exist with none of them having the upper hand.

OK, that's a lot of blithering on my part, but I think the core is solid: political power kills spiritual power. Write that down. :-)

tRB said...

To: John Michael Greer:

Re: accomodations

I would be only a little surprised to see further "mutual accommodation" between atheism and Buddhism. Most forms of Buddhism are atheistic to begin with, and even the Dalai Lama has taken a great interest in neuroscience and supports scientific analysis. There are limits to the accommodation, however.

On the other side, there are already atheists (and even a few anti-theists) who adhere to various Buddhist practices, such as meditation and right action. And, fortunately, they aren't all as annoying as Sam Harris!

My wife tells me that a Buddhist retreat center she visits in New York has a big cross on the side of the main building. It used to be a Christian monastery (don't know what denomination, but probably Catholic), and now it's run by North American Buddhists. I find this an interesting sequence; we'll see how often it is repeated.

Re: faith and not faith

As for your claim that to not believe in something for which there is no evidence is itself to believe in something for which there is no evidence, I suppose it's too late to get into that.

Re: atheism and energy-source shifts

I can agree with the idea that it is folly to take for granted improvements in the human situation. I would also decry as foolish those people who see having more "stuff" as some kind of divine right in a magically inevitable trajectory called Progress (with a capital "P"). And I can accept the expectation that some people who go from being economic "winners" to being "losers" will lose this childish sense of entitlement, grow disappointed with the very idea, and turn to religion. Some people with increasingly tenuous material sustenance may even start to believe in God and rewards in an afterlife because it makes them feel better about the pain in their real life.

But I don't see this as a universal. Higher energy costs will have major implications for engineering and economics. But I don't see how the heating bills for my house have anything to do with my not happening to believe that any of the gods are real. The two issues aren't related as far as I'm concerned, and I'd be surprised if I'm the only one like this. Now, it seems that you are anticipating broad social trends, and you may be onto something if that is the question you are answering. If so, I think you are saying more about social phenomena (such as the philosophical flexibilities of the majority of North Americans) than you are about the existence or non-existence of any of the millions of the world’s deities.

Furthermore, I don't see how a long-term energy crisis undermines the scientific method, empiricism, logic, evidence-based research, peer review, and all of the other things that were initially developed in eras that consumed less energy than we do today. And in the future, many people will continue to use these tools to understand our energy options and our ecological surroundings, and to adapt to changing circumstances. Two hundred years from now, there will still be plenty of science practiced, and there will also happen to be plenty of people who happen to not believe in any of the gods, but they will do so using less energy than we use today.

So why would someone like me read this blog? Because I like your ideas about cooperation and community as key strategies for successfully navigating the energy descent. These antidotes to MadMax-dom also provide havens for minorities like me.

GliderGuider said...

If I may be permitted a short personal testimony...

The single most shocking thing that has happened to me on my journey to a full understanding of the implications of the intersecting crises we are facing has been a thunderbolt recognition and acceptance of my own spirituality.

I'm 56, the son of scientists, a lifelong "strong atheist" in a family of them - in fact we boast four unbroken generations of strong atheists, from my maternal grandparents down to my nieces. I called myself a "hard-assed rationalist/reductionist, and all my life would have no truck nor trade with "spiritual" ideas.

About six months ago I truly understood the calamity in front of us, in all its grim glory. Peak Oil, fish depletion, soil fertility depletion, fresh water depletion, Global Warming, pervasive chemical pollution - and especially the genetic underpinnings of human behaviour that make it utterly impossible for us to respond to the crisis appropriately as a civilization or species.

That is a very grim perception. Notwithstanding the occasional rays of hope provided by the science of complex adaptive cycles or Resilience Theory, it is enough to throw a pope into despair. That was where I was stuck for many months. I had traversed Kubler-Ross' five stages and arrived at "acceptance". I asked myself "Now what?" but found no answer.

Very recently that all changed. I'm still not sure exactly why or how, but I realized that what was missing from my understanding of the universe, nature and humanity was reverence. I have always felt a sense of scientific wonder, but had actively rejected any notion of reverence or worship - probably due to the associations with formal religions and their essentially anti-human, anti-nature dogmas. As soon as I realized that I needed to feel reverence for nature and allowed myself to feel a sense of the sacred in the earth and all its components, the despair suddenly vanished.

What is, is. We have injured our Earth Mother grievously, through our intentional but unaware actions. The best we can do is to tell her (or perhaps we are just telling ourselves) that we know that, are sorry for the hurt, and will do as much as we can to put it right.

Based on my experience, what will help a person come to terms with this cataclysm is to complete a three-stage journey of understanding. First you need to accept intellectually that the crisis is real, and in many ways final. Then you need to accept emotionally that the situation is irrevocable. Finally you need to come to a spiritual acceptance of our fate and the fate of the Earth Mother's other children, along with our role in determining that fate.

I now realize that I am some sort of pantheist, and probably always have been. Gods and Goddesses are still foreign to my thinking, but I suspect I will use them as metaphorical focal points or levers in my journey to spiritual understanding of the situation.

Anyway, I think there is about to be an enormous surge in spiritual awakening, as the shape of the crisis clarifies through the mists of fragmentary data, denial and deliberate obscurantism by vested interests. Such growth is a great boon, and should be encouraged and nurtured wherever we notice its seeds.

John Michael Greer said...

Jeff, I'd suggest Paul Boyer's "When Time Shall Be No More" as a good starting place for research into contemporary American fundamentalism. There's a huge literature on the subject, well worth your attention. I don't equate evangelicalism with fundamentalism across the board, though there's a lot of overlap; if pressed to define a difference, I'd probably end up suggesting that fundamentalism is what happens to evangelical Protestant Christianity when it becomes watered down into sound bites for the sake of marketing.

Simon (and Dan), I'd have to write something close to a book to really explain what I mean by equating ecology and religion. The five-cent version is that ecology is the science of whole systems, and any description of whole systems works out implicitly or explicitly to a statement of religious belief. (Yes, I consider atheist materialism a form of religious belief.)

Hardleft, your argument would be more convincing if people hadn't been making wildly inaccurate predictions by interpreting the same scriptures in the same way for well over two thousand years. I don't consider myself much of a Bible scholar -- the "holy book" Druids study is what Renaissance mystics called the "Book of Nature," the living world around us -- but I do know that every scrap of prophetic material in either of the testaments can be interpreted more ways than your average Rohrschach inkblot, and with much the same results.

Still, I'm sure we could go round and round about that for a long time, and it's probably not a worthwhile use of bandwidth. It's also irrelevant to my point, which was that history shows no particular inclination to follow the sort of Dispensationalist apocalyptic central to most fundamentalist visions of the future, and this will drive a major crisis of faith for many fundamentalists in the not too distant future.

Mawkernewek, thanks for the crisp definitions -- the only detail I'd quibble over is that fundamentalists tend toward separatism only when they become convinced that political power is out of their grasp. (Good to hear a voice from Cornwall, btw -- my a dhysk Kernewek gans "Kernewek Dre Lyther.")

Dan, no argument at all about the Calvinist nature of American culture -- look at the constant pursuit of "visible signs of election," just to start with -- nor about the religious revolution taking shape in China's future.

Farfetched, you've done a good job of reiterating one of the standard narratives of Protestantism, a classic myth of loss and recovery. The spiritual power of Christianity was arguably never greater than in the Dark Ages, when Irish monks kept the light of classical culture burning and spread their faith across half a continent. I'd argue that since political power flows out of culturally accepted narratives, every religion has a great deal of political power. That power becomes obvious only when it's contested; it's been usefully pointed out that leadership becomes tyranny when the demand for orders fails to keep up with the supply.

TRB, well, you've offered a clear statement of a very common set of beliefs these days. It's one I find misleading, but I think you already know that. The faith of scientism isn't simply a matter of not believing in gods; it has positive beliefs and values that are deeply intertwined with unprovable statements about the nature of the cosmos (such as "no gods exist"). But as you say, it's probably too late to get into that.

I certainly hope the kind of instrumental logic that undergirds today's science will continue to be practiced into the future -- it's a very useful set of mental tools, one of the best our species has devised for unraveling certain classes of questions about material phenomena. I very much doubt, though, that the ideological superstructure built on that foundation will outlast the twilight of progress. Nor is a disbelief in gods particularly necessary, or even helpful, for those who want to use the method -- from Isaac Newton to Albert Einstein, many of the greatest scientists have been theists.

Just as there are said to be no atheists in foxholes, I think it's likely there will be few atheists on the toboggan ride down the far side of Hubbert's peak. Still, I'm willing to be proved wrong -- and we'll be moving away from religious issues and into some of the other dimensions of the deindustrial age with next week's post.

Gliderguider, you might be astonished to learn how often I hear accounts pretty much identical to yours from newcomers to the Druid order I head. (I've never met a person who converted to Druidry; what happens over and over again is that people realize that what we have to say is what they've always believed, deep down, all along.) One of these days, when I'm ready to alienate just about everyone who reads these posts, I may just talk about the potential role of nature spirituality in the deindustrial age -- but that's a topic for future reference.

Caryl said...

Another excellent post! I am glad to find in you an ally in the work of Arnold Toynbee. It says a lot about our culture today that the work of this great historian has fallen into neglect.
Toynbee's "higher religions" are Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism. He defines higher religions on p. 218 of Reconsiderations: "[They] are attempts to put individual human souls into direct communion with absolute spiritual Reality, without the mediation of either non-human nature or the human society - whatever it may be - in which the soul in search of God is a participant in consequence of Man's being a social creature."
But this is not to say that Nature is not important. T.S. Eliot in "Christianity and Culture" admits that "a wrong attitude towards nature implies, somewhere, a wrong attitude toward God, and that the consequence is is an inevitable doom... it would as well for us to face the permanent conditions upon which God allows us to live on this planet."
In bringing up the issue of "a wrong attitude toward nature" and therefore a "wrong attitude to God," we would have to face, sooner or later, the question of truth. It is easy enough to see how the higher religions have often fallen from truth, for their practices have often fallen short of their ideals. Nevertheless, what is the significance of the anti-religious movement, such as Dawkins et al, but that it aims to strip man of all supernatural knowledge and therefore make him totally manipulable - totally a creature of fashion and the State?
In this respect it would be good to recall Ortega y Gasset's phrase -- "Science, art, justice, manners, religion, are orbits of reality which do not overwhelm our persons in a brutal way as hunger or cold does; they exist only for him who wills them to exist."
To me the significance of that last part really needs to be digested - religion (apart from the question of its truth) exists "only for him who wills it to exist." In the religious tradition this "will" is called faith. Ultimately, it seems to me, the "will" in this sense is the force that opposes that other will which we see everywhere today - the "will to power."
Of course one will have to choose which "will" to adhere to, and it is the momentousness of this choice which defines the essence of religion.
I believe that Western humanity has now reached the point of its development where that choice is now being faced. There is still a big pretence that no choice is needed - and that is the significance of the atheists, in my opinion.
Is it a choice between good and evil? Perhaps it comes down to that in the end.
One final thought- from Simone Weil - "To be possessed by the bad, it is not necessary to have consented to it; but the good never possesses the soul until she has said yes..."
We are living in a time of the destruction of nature, law, and grace. Clearly, something is being asked of us - to "consent to the good" which is perhaps a religious act.
Thank you for bringing these issues to a wider audience. I salute you for your intelligent and penetrating analysis.

Hardleft Millenarian said...

Dear JMG,

With all due respect - and I do have immense respect for your erudition and thoughtfulness, despite my fundamental disagreements with you - I think that you have given the substance of my two previous posts on this thread short shrift. (Perhaps that is natural, given that you were attempting to address several posts at one time.)

I will take the approach of responding to the individual elements of your response to me; my rejoinders to your points will be in capitals:

Hardleft, your argument would be more convincing if people hadn't been making wildly inaccurate predictions by interpreting the same scriptures in the same way for well over two thousand years.



I don't consider myself much of a Bible scholar -- the "holy book" Druids study is what Renaissance mystics called the "Book of Nature," the living world around us -- but I do know that every scrap of prophetic material in either of the testaments can be interpreted more ways than your average Rohrschach inkblot, and with much the same results.


Still, I'm sure we could go round and round about that for a long time, and it's probably not a worthwhile use of bandwidth.


It's also irrelevant to my point, which was that history shows no particular inclination to follow the sort of Dispensationalist apocalyptic central to most fundamentalist visions of the future,


and this will drive a major crisis of faith for many fundamentalists in the not too distant future.


(I apologize for the caps, as it lends the wrong impression about my style. But the only way of changing it now would be to retype everything from scratch; I hope everyone will indulge the fact that I have not done this.)

Danby said...

Christians groped their way through the Dark Ages until Martin Luther began the Reformation

Whisky Tango Foxtrot? 800 years of the early and high middle ages thrown out of your account entirely? The invention of the University, the Hospital, The Mendicant Orders, the catherdral, and are evidence of spiritual bankruptcy? St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Francis, St. Dominic, all as nothing? Learn some history! And reading Jack Chick tracts doesn't count.

Danby said...


1 DON'T SHOUT. WE CAN HEAR YOU! Use the <b>bold</b> or <i>italic</i> tags to set off text

2 This is a fundamental untruth. A bald lie if you will. The early church certainly did not subscribe to the pseudo-literalist pre-millenialism of modern protestantism. They understood the book of Revelation is about the Roman persecutions, not about the end times. In fact, the addition of Revelations to the canon of scripture is one of the arguments used to argue that the theology of the Church changed with Constantine. It's just a ridiculous argument. Read your church fathers.

3 The idea that the theology of the church changed with Constantine is another lie, of the ridiculous type told by Dan Brown. The outline of the Church's theology is there in the Didache, from about 90AD. It is thoroughly explicated by the Eastern and Western Fathers, much of it a hundred years before Constantine.


John is entitled to do anything he wants with your post. It's his blog. I am also entitled to do whatever I want with your post, as I am ignorant neither of tradition nor scripture. In fact, it's deuced odd seeing a Protestant pulling tradition out of his rhetorical hatbox. It thought that Tradition was the enemy of Scripture.

Thus far, I have refrained from arguing my beliefs on this site, as I think it's contrary to what our good host is trying to accomplish. As a considerate guest, I'm willing to work with him. I suggest you try the same.

Danby said...

The early church certainly did not subscribe to the pseudo-literalist pre-millenialism of modern protestantism.
soud read:
The early church certainly did not subscribe to the pseudo-literalist post-millenialism of modern protestantism.

John Michael Greer said...

Caryl, I've been a fan as well as a critic of Toynbee for many years now -- we had a condensed version of A Study of History in my childhood home. The fine details of his definition of "higher religions" are perhaps open to debate, but that's a topic for a much wider discussion than this one. Eliot's comment about attitudes toward nature might be a good opening for such a discussion, as an important point of agreement between our differing viewpoints.

I think you miss Dawkins' agenda, though. He's arguing for a distinctive faith, one that makes man its object of veneration and angrily denies the possibility that anything greater or higher than humanity can exist. To my mind, that's a core theme of contemporary thought -- anthropolatry, the worship of man as man. Rather than making the individual a puppet of fashion and the state, it proposes to make the individual human ego absolutely supreme. The myth of Lucifer in your tradition is probably a good narrative model for the results.

Hardleft, please be aware that I get emails and letters all the time from people who believe that they have extracted the infallible key to the future from some source or other. Nothing you've said makes you stand out particularly among that crowd. Since there aren't enough hours in the day for me to pursue all the studies that are immediately relevant to my work, I have to draw a line somewhere, and your claims -- like those of dozens of others who claim to have figured out prophecies from the Bible or elsewhere -- fall outside it.

Also, I don't mean to be rude, but you seem not to have noticed that I don't belong to your religion, don't consider its teachings to be true, and don't find its scriptures to be any more inspired, inerrant, or relevant to our present situation than any other collection of Iron Age folklore and myth. Mind you, I find much of value in folklore and myth, yours as well as that of other people, but I believe they need to be understood as symbolic narratives, not forced into the Procrustean bed of the literalism that has failed so consistently in the past.

So I'm basically not interested in yet another rehash of Biblical prophecy. As I said, there aren't enough hours in the day.

Dan, I'm impressed -- the Book of Revelations as an account of the Roman persecutions? This has been my interpretation for quite some years now, and a very accurate prophecy it turned out to be, if seen in that light. Still, I had no idea such a viewpoint was acceptable from within the realm of Catholic orthodoxy. Most interesting.

lorenbliss said...

I think, eloquent sir, the only error in your “Religion and Peak Oil” hypothesis is that perhaps you take your own brand of spirituality a bit too lightly.

As someone who irredeemably trashed his own academic career more than 30 years ago by arguing in a meticulously documented Fairhaven College senior thesis that the Counterculture was the first wave of the resurrection of the goddess -- but also as someone who recognizes the satirical element in Druidry, the satyrical element in Wicca and the Druidical element in the Gaia Hypothesis -- I believe the entire pagan renaissance is based on recognition (however subconsciously and/or inarticulately) of the causal progression from the advent of patriarchy to the unapologetically murderous anti-female, anti-nature ethos at the core of Abrahamic religion, thence to the articulation of these principles via Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and finally to their (inevitable) expression as theocracy, capitalism, fascism and the unavoidable consequences now inflicted on ourselves and the entire planet. But these consequences are deliberately mislabeled to obstruct our understanding of what is happening: given our now-total dependence on petroleum and the total collapse that will result from its exhaustion, what we are facing is not “peak oil” but species failure, just as “global warming” is in fact terminal climate change -- not one apocalypse but two, and each synergistically intensifying the other into a horror without human precedent.

Just as the cataclysmic explosion of Kallist√© in 1628 BCE seems to have blasted away the final psychological barrier to the advent of patriarchy, so will the forthcoming double-apocalypse -- immeasurably worsened by the associated technological failure (which itself has no precedent in human experience) -- probably discredit forever the Abrahamic god whether invoked as Yehveh, Jesu or Allah: not the least because the apocalypse itself is that god’s self-fulfilling, self-inflicted prophecy. Ideas do have consequences.

Nor is Marxism likely to endure apocalyptic stress. Admittedly Marx retains many attractive aspects particularly since post-apocalyptic societies will either be communalist (localized socialism) as we now see in Cuba or fascist (probably with theocratic underpinnings) as we now see the ruling class methodically imposing on the United States. But classical Marxism nevertheless posits an irresolvable binary conflict between materialism and idealism and thus implicitly rejects spirituality out of hand. Since such rejection would almost certainly prove anathema in a post-apocalyptic world, Marxism -- at least in anything resembling its present form -- is likely to dwindle into irrelevance also. The seeming hybrid between Marxism and Christianity typical of Latin America is probably reflective more of lingering tribal economic values (as restated by Marx) and the lingering native earth-centered spiritual values atop which Christianity is nothing more than a gloss: a quality that, like Roman influence in Celtic Britain, will quickly vanish with the forthcoming second collapse of Rome.

But in this same post-apocalyptic context, the Gaia Hypothesis -- another manifestation of the resurrection of the goddess -- reunites both science and spirituality into the ancient whole so incisively expressed four thousand years ago on the Salisbury Plain. Thus it not only heals the breach between materialism and idealism -- what is more material that an idealism (i.e. spirituality) based on observation of the material world? -- but also offers atheists a satisfying metaphor even as, by implication, it provides the spiritually inclined with an ethos that implicitly duplicates what was no doubt the original creation story: in the beginning was the Mother and she gave birth. Buddhism, Taoism, the revitalized American Aboriginal spiritualities (especially the American tradition of the spirit quest), could all thus become Gaian methodologies, even as Tao Te Ching becomes a universal assertion of mystical truth: “The Tao that can be named is not the real Tao,” which surely compares to Taliesin’s “there is nothing in which I have not been.” (The implication the earliest of the three Taliesins was a Celtic Lao Tzu -- his work deliberately riddled to protect its wisdom from prying inquisitors and then further distorted to seeming nonsense by bad or ignorant translators -- is intentional.)

In any case the point I am making is that the new religion is already here: Marshall McLuhan was arguing as much 40 years ago, albeit so obliquely his readers nearly always failed to see beyond the medium to his message. I was deliberately far less coy in my 1976 thesis, naming names, dumping all the academically acceptable euphemisms, arguing that the “revolution in consciousness“ proclaimed by the Counterculture in 1967 was in fact the aforementioned resurrection of the goddess (which I had concluded only days after I heard the revolution first proclaimed by East Village Other Editor Walter Bowart), and that this revolution was not just genuinely revolutionary but indeed more revolutionary than anything since the sack of Knossos -- precisely because the politics, economics and culture implicit in the goddess-symbol are the diametrical opposite of the present day Abrahamic/capitalist/fascist order. Then I spent the next nine years assembling the thesis and seven more years after that enlarging my work into a book entitled “Glimpses of a Pale Dancer” -- all of it, notes, photographs, everything else destroyed by a mysterious fire in 1983, just as it seemed on the brink of certain publication. Three years later, Edward Whitmont of the Carl Jung Institute published The Return of the Goddess, which built from interpretation of the dreams of therapands the same hypothesis I constructed from analysis of the folk renaissance, the lyrics of rock poetry, Countercultural rituals (including be-ins and rock festivals), symbolism, drug visions and the advent of defacto matriarchy (including deliberate single motherhood) in the Counterculture itself -- a trend especially evident on rural communes. Taking McLuhan’s reasoning to its logical conclusion, this was/is nothing less than preparation for the apocalypse and post-apocalyptic human survival, with which Whitmont surely concurs. Note that Robert Graves foresaw our looming plight as early as 1944:

The log they crowned as king
Grew sodden, lurched and sank,
Dark waters bubble from the spring
An owl floats by on silent wing…

Caryl said...

Hi John-
Thanks for your comments. Concerning Nature and Grace, remember St. Thomas Aquinas: "Grace presupposes nature and brings it to perfection." This means, as I see it, that religious truth and development can only build upon what is already there (i.e. nature).
St. Thomas was of course repudiated by Martin Luther and the Reformation - which threw out the philosophical and metaphysical traditions of Catholicism. Luther wanted to burn all the works of Aquinas. The protestant tendency was thus to drive a wedge between nature and grace. We see this playing out today as e.g. the repudiation of one's natural, tribal, sexual,cultural etc. identity and the attempt to substitute these for something else presumably "chosen." This allows entry for all the high tech manipulators and basically subjects people to the science establishment. One could say that this establishment thrives on the division between nature and grace!
Along these lines the Israeli convert Israel Shamir remarks in his book "Pardes" that "... a man is connected to this world by four ties: he has roots in his native soil; he belongs to his family, his territorial community, and to God. As long as the ties survive, a man cannot be enslaved. These four pivotal figures represent the ancient figure of the Cross as it was depicted by the ancestors of modern Palestianians on rocks and walls. Long before it served as a tool of execution, the Cross was a great mystic sign of old, hidden from laymen."
Thus my point about Dawkins is that the "anthropolatry" you so justly describe as his religion is actually a covert agenda of the New World Order which aims to deprive man of his cultural identity and thus to enslave him to materialism.
This is another stage in the original fissure brought on by Protestantism's divorce of nature and grace.
You have a fine and responsive mind!

Pancho67 said...


I wonder if in pursuing your studies you have read anything on "Cradle to Cradle" design, specifically the writings of William McDonough & Michael Braungart?

Their ideas seem to offer a model for maintaining an industrial society beyond the exhaustion of "cheap" fossil fuels which of course is at the core of and contrary to your views.

As a matter of interest they claim the Chinese government has incorporated this concept in policy.

I am usually impressed by the depth of knowledge and clarity of thought expressed in your writings so would be very interested to read your opinion on their ideas.

For those new to "cradle to cradle design", I include a link and a short quote:-

"Imagine a world in which all the things we make, use, and consume provide nutrition for nature and industry—a world in which growth is good and human activity generates a delightful, restorative ecological footprint.

While this may seem like heresy to many in the world of sustainable development, the destructive qualities of today’s cradle-to-grave industrial system can be seen as the result of a fundamental design problem, not the inevitable outcome of consumption and economic activity. Indeed, good design—principled design based on the laws of nature—can transform the making and consumption of things into a regenerative force."

Danby said...

The standard understanding of Revelation (or rather, Apocalypse) in Catholic biblical interpretation is that it was written as a consolation for the persecuted, and a foretelling, masked in symbolism, of the overthrow of their persecutors.

GliderGuider said...


I've been thinking a lot about what happens after the coming dissolution, how we get through that to a post-industrial civilization, what characteristics such a civilization would need in order to avoid re-making the same mistakes that have doomed us.

Some of the qualities I think ought to be brought through the bottleneck and encouraged in the next civilization cycle should be: matriarchy, nurturing as opposed to controlling, respect for nature (probably we'd need to insist on reverence for nature in order to make the attitude stick), and valuing personal development over material economic growth.

We will probably need to establish relatively small, isolated "survivability refuges" to ensure the transition. this leads to the question of how the necessary values can be established in those refuges.

It has occurred to me that the obvious nuclei for such lifeboat communities would be covens. The values are there in Wicca and other pagan religions, and certainly their emphasis on non-technological solutions to healing could be very valuable.

Is this in line with your hint in your comment about spirituality in a post-industrial civilization?

John Michael Greer said...

Lorenbliss, er, thanks, but if you glance back over my previous posts on this blog you'll find that I disagree with just about every word you wrote here. I find Cynthia Eller's critique of the matriarchal/patriarchal mythos in her The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory convincing, and it does not seem even slightly useful to me to force history into the Procrustean bed of a morality play, as it seems to me you've done here.

I've also spent most of the posts on this blog arguing against your apocalyptic take on the approaching decline and fall of industrial society. We're facing the collapse of a civilization, something that's happened many times in the past and will happen again many times in the future; it's not an easy thing to live through, but it's an ordinary part of the cycle of things, not the end of the world.

Caryl, I haven't read Aquinas in a long time -- probably should remedy that sometime. But I still think you're mistaken in assuming a sinister covert agenda behind Dawkins et al. I've yet to see evidence that the whole New World Order business is anything but John Birch Society paranoia -- in fact, the term was invented by Robert Welch some decades before one of Bush Sr.'s scriptwriters decided to use it. It seems to me that it's a mistake to credit conspiracy for something that can be more than adequately explained by folly and arrogance!

Pancho67, I've read some of the "cradle to cradle" material. It's an ingenious notion. The problem, of course, is that in a market economy, the additional cost per unit of making something fit the model renders it uncompetitive, and thus makes the whole system financially unfeasible. Our economy of waste has arisen precisely because it's the cheapest option. The market economy we have today has evolved to concentrate profits in the hands of a few while dumping costs on society as a whole.

Can that be changed? Of course, and it will have to be, but changing the fundamental framework of a society is a very slow and difficult process, not least because the people who benefit most from the existing order are at once those with the most to lose, and those with the most ability to throw a wrench in the process of change. This latter, I suspect, is an important reason why most societies, faced with a choice between fundamental change and collapse, choose collapse.

One other thing. We're way too late in the game for top-down systematic change to work -- within a few years, most nation-states will be caught up in full time damage control, with very little to spare in the way of resources for anything but dealing with immediate crises. This is one of the reasons I've been so insistent that individual change is the place we have to start. We simply don't have enough time for anything else now.

Dan, most interesting. I've often thought that the Book of Revelations might usefully be seen as an accurate prophecy of the Roman persecutions, the fall of the Empire, and the rise of early Christian Europe, in the standard symbolic language of first-century apocalyptic.

John Michael Greer said...

Gliderguider, I certainly can't speak for the Wiccans, not being one, and the field of contemporary Paganism is in a state of rapid flux. More generally, though, I think the next spirituality will almost inevitably see nature as a locus, if not the locus, of the sacred, if only because people who approach nature with reverence will tend to do a lot better over the next few centuries than those who treat it with the kind of casual disdain our extravagant energy consumption has taught most of us to practice. There's a Darwinian dimension to the rise and fall of religions; those that meet the needs of an age prosper, those that don't go under.

I also think that a shift toward the pursuit of spiritual goals is inevitable, if only because material prosperity will be out of reach for the vast majority of people soon enough. One of the advantages of salvation is that it's a renewable resource. As I've argued before, also, a focus on human potential rather than its mechanical imitations opens up possibilities we desperately need as the concentrated energy that made a machine culture possible runs out.

It's probably not out of place to mention that at least some of us in the Druid community are thinking along the same lines you are. As I commented in the post, I have no illusions that Druidry might become a major religion in the future -- I just don't see it has having the mass appeal -- but there are steps that somebody's got to take, and nobody else seems to be taking. We may end up contributing to some future religious synthesis, and in the meantime, there's a lot of work to be done that we can do.

The Naked Mechanic said...

"One of these days, when I'm ready to alienate just about everyone who reads these posts, I may just talk about the potential role of nature spirituality in the deindustrial age -- but that's a topic for future reference."

Not too far in the future I hope, am currently reading the Druidry Handbook and find that it blends well with Holmgren's "Permaculture, Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability" and Jim Ife's "Community Development, community based alternatives in an age of globalisation", it all comes down to respect for the other.

lorenbliss said...

In response:

John I apologize for being ignorant of your previous work. I linked to EnergyBulletin in connection with an essay I am writing for another website (I am a semi-retired newspaperman and still write for a living) and while at EB I discovered your Mayan hypothesis, which I think is profoundly useful in terms of its understanding of how many societies have died in the past. Further links brought me here, where eventually I was moved to comment as above, fully aware of the crocodillian dangers of jumping, as it were, into a strange river in midstream.

Nevertheless despite being eloquently presented your Mayan hypothesis ignores the two historically unique elements of the present crisis. One of these is a climate turned increasingly hostile, not colder (which we humans have many times survived), but radically hotter (which there is compelling evidence we cannot survive -- note for example Lovelock’s projections). The other is the total loss of technology, something that is without precedent in human experience.

Until the magnitude of this impending technological loss is acknowledged, there is absolutely nothing we can do to compensate for it. Like the apocalypse itself it has two parts: the total loss of infinitely fragile modern technology that will result from petroleum depletion, combined with the absolute (and already irrevocable) loss (mostly via genocide) of all of the basic, hitherto robust technologies that enabled humanity to survive all previous cultural or civilizational collapses. The consequences of these losses would be devastating in even the most benign climate.

For example, note what happens when some band of smug and hopelessly petro-technology dependent yuppies get trapped in a wilderness disaster, run out of packaged foods, stove fuel and matches and then all die because they have not a clue how to make fire, hunt, fish, gather edible plants and insects, build adequate shelter or even find potable water. Such disasters occur in our planet’s back country every year. Indeed on a much larger scale this was a major aspect of what happened in the aftermath of Katrina -- modern technology failed completely, the ruling class deliberately chose to inflict social Darwinist/Malthusian consequences by its refusal to restore technology, and none of the victims had any compensatory skills or tools.

Contrast this with the Mayans: even when their cities became unlivable, they still possessed the basic tools for firemaking, shelter-building and foraging as well as the skills required to use these tools. It was the Mayans’ preservation of their basic technology and skills that saved them, just as such preservation saved the survivors of every other collapsed civilization or culture. But our technology cannot survive petroleum exhaustion; without petroleum it is not even possible to utilize electricity because without petroleum there is no way to insulate electrical wiring.

And thanks to our own infinite arrogance, we have no compensatory technology. Once the power fails for good and the light switches are dead forever, we cannot suddenly begin again making fire with bow-drills or weaving fishnets from cedar bark or hunting with atlatl or bow and arrows. True what little of the requisite knowledge was not destroyed by the deliberate extermination of so-called “primitive peoples” is preserved in libraries, but is still rendered useless because the skills to employ such tools -- a legacy that dates beyond the Paleolithic to the earliest proto-humans -- take lifetimes to learn. Moreover the intellectual deterioration evident in the Britney Spears/Blackberry culture suggests Americans have literally become too stupid to survive without present-day technology: a people rendered so moronic they cannot even master the technique of making change in retail transactions could not even begin to master the intricate skills our allegedly primitive ancestors took for granted -- and in the evolutionary sense, there is overwhelming reason to believe that mental capacity once lost is lost forever.

In this sense, our doom was sealed not by the Industrial Revolution, not even by the advent of its terminal petroleum phase, but by the unspeakable arrogance with which we flung away entirely the multi-million year legacy that would have enabled us -- just as it enabled Minoans, Romans, Mayans and Chinese -- to survive. We burned all the bridges to the past beyond any possibility of recovery and now we are marooned -- even without the impact of climate change -- in a global miasma of our own making.

And I believe our only hope for survival is to acknowledge the magnitude of what we are facing -- because only then can we begin to react accordingly. This is an extension of principle so aptly articulated by Sartre and Camus based on their experiences under Nazi German occupation: that only when we acknowledge that there is absolutely no hope do we acquire the freedom of action -- in today’s terms, the ability to think outside the box -- that may lead us to solutions that provide rational cause for hope.

As to your dismissal of the contest between matriarchy and patriarchy as a mere “morality play,” I obviously differ, and rather profoundly so. The allegedly historical arguments used to discredit the entire notion of matriarchy seem to me entirely too reminiscent of the historical distortions reflexively advanced by capitalism to discredit the concept of class-struggle (which I, though not technically a Marxist -- at least not in the classical sense -- happen to regard as perhaps the one absolute truth of human socioeconomic and political history). Thus because of this similarity to other reactionary dezinformatsiya (information I know to be not only false but Big Lie false, whether through lessons learned as a member of two AFL/CIO unions or as the socioeconomic-issues writer I was for most of my half-century journalism career), I am profoundly skeptical of Eller’s original assertions. Never mind the fact she has since backed substantially away from her original absolutism -- though in any case, as she herself notes, the controversy is ultimately about ideology rather than history.

Indeed -- despite the impression I gave above (the unfortunate result of both haste and a quest for brevity) -- my ultimate position toward any history prior to the 1840s (the birthdates of my great grandparents) is that of the agnostic: I don’t know what happened; I wasn’t there, and neither were any of my sources. Which does not, however, keep me from forming opinions that are of course based on the politics of my own experience -- and also changing such opinions as new information warrants.

But the fact remains that what you belittle as the reduction of history to a “morality play” is ultimately recognition that ideas have consequences -- sometimes very dire ones -- which recognition (particularly in Marxist terms) is therefore an absolutely legitimate effort to broaden our understanding of those very processes. Since exactly the same can be said of the principle of class-struggle itself, it would seem you reject that too -- a rejection surely implicit in your insistence on an ethos that is the diametrical opposite of class-struggle: the (implicitly self-disempowering) New Age doctrine that effective change can only occur within the individual. Yet it is precisely within the individual that change is reflexively obstructed by the shibboleths implanted for just that purpose -- note for example the patently absurd phenomenon of self-proclaimed “evolved souls” who assuage their alleged consciences by glibly proclaiming the necessity of “sustainable society” even as they selfishly refuse to abandon the ecocidal luxuries that make sustainability impossible: hence the SUV with the bumper-sticker that reads “think green.”

But “green” invariably hides another argument for the preservation of capitalism -- which merely intensifies the problem. This is (or should be) especially obvious now that the ruling class has shown us that its response to the apocalypse (however defined) is to concentrate maximum wealth and power for itself and downsize, outsource and otherwise subjugate all the rest of us into ultimate slavery. The only effective response -- and history is unequivocal on this point -- is not abject surrender by shrinkage into individual fantasy but rather deliberate expansion into collective action -- which (just as the Cuban example shows) is our only hope of survival:

For those unfamiliar with collective action -- as the vast majority of today’s alienated, union-deprived and politically neutralized Americans are -- collective action is simultaneously an individual learning or consciousness-raising process, the concurrent building of community, and the resultant emergence of solidarity: organization (which includes governance and thus government) enabling us to do collectively what we cannot do individually. Paradoxically, collective action invariably arises from the grass-roots -- though such change comes not from “the individual” but from the cooperation of many individuals to achieve external goals. But it is often inspired from above (Lenin, Trotsky, Ho Chi Minh, Martin Luther King Jr. etc.). Thus when effective collective action is methodically obstructed (as it is here in the United States) by a fascism of anti-intellectuality that was imposed long before the advent of the socioeconomic and political fascism it now fosters -- collective action is profoundly difficult to achieve without encouragement from without. It is also impossible to maintain without the very unity of principles you decry as the reduction of history to a “morality play.”

The methodical prohibition of solidarity combines with the methodically imposed destruction of community and various psycho-economic factors to create the very real despair that absurdly seeks to blend the contradictions of consumeroid obsession and “think green” into self-reassuring proclamations of a “New Age“ of alleged enlightenment. Thus too the even more ludicrous notion -- an ultimate example of capitalism’s characteristic Step Right Up con-job -- that we can use a dying but still deadly poisonous technology as an antidote to what is killing us. Enron lives: as if having been accidentally bitten by one cottonmouth, we should now deliberately seek the bites of a dozen more in the belief the additional venom will somehow heals us.

I see now my initial impression we stood on common ground was woefully mistaken. Thus I respectfully withdraw -- and I most sincerely apologize for the intrusion -- though I will surely continue reading your work.

Caryl said...

I don't think that Dawkins is part of a "sinister covert NWO agenda." Life is a whole, and the kind of people and the kind of ideas that receive acclaim and publishing support are part of a zeitgeist. Let us just say that the aims of a global government-business network are furthered by the kinds of ideas he proposes. People who are rooted and have a strong faith and confidence in the spirit don't tend to make the best consumers.
Anyhow, the best book on the New World Order phenomenon is John McMurtry's "Value Wars: The Global Market and the Life Economy."
Thanks again for your great site.

Jim said...

We do seem headed into "yet another" collapse of a civilization. Maybe this is the largest scale collapse yet seen on the planet, but hard to know. The current world population is likely higher than ever before - but then, what percentage of the population actually enjoys the fruits of the present structure? For many people, the coming collapse could end up being a good thing.

But I am certainly among the lucky few. I can go to amazon and abebooks, and stack up a library that practically rivals legendary Alexandria. Plus with air travel, either the great teacher will pass through my neighborhood, or I can make the trip myself. Electric appliances & petroleum transportation mean I have the time for profound spiritual study and practice, despite a full time job. (Not that having the time means I actually take advantage of the opportunity!!!)

Any sort of personal survivalism is ridiculous. Sure, keep 20 gallons of drinkable water in the closet, etc. My little apartment has a northern exposure, so gardening is out. But really, I am practically an old man anyway. Whatever I do, my personal end is all too close. So then, what do I do?

Cultural survivalism is the obvious answer. Maybe I can help steer the world onto a path where all the beautiful fruits we current enjoy can somehow continue to be available. Perhaps I should help develop better batteries, or carbon sequestration systems, or put my shoulder to the tasks of reorienting people's values and behaviors to be much more restrained in their consumption of resources.

But it really does seem like we are in serious overshoot. Surely we still can steer toward the best of whatever options are actually open to us.

What intrigues me is not so much the trough we are starting to fall into, but the crest beyond. What amazes me is the fragile paths by which much classical literature, of many traditions, has come down to us. I recall reading how Boethius brought his personal library to some monastery when he retired from the world - and much of the Greek and Latin literature that we have is because of those copies.

The hurricane warning flags are up. The smart move is not to figure out ways to continue the normal routines of life, as much as possible, right through the storm. The smart move is to realize that the storm is so powerful that accomodation cannot be refused. The smart game must be to nail plywood over the windows, to secure what is valuable, to stay off the roads, to evacuate the flood-prone areas.

Or another analogy, we are in autumn. The smart move is not to be planting. Winter is too powerful to refuse accomodation. Bring in the harvest and save the seeds for replanting in the spring.

Of course, what makes the analogies weak: none of us will be around for spring. Life must continue during winter too or else there will be no one to do the spring planting!

Anyway, it seems to me that what is called for the coming decades is to "batten the hatches". How can we keep the most valuable aspects of our cultural heritage alive, even if a a relatively dormant mode, to keep these precious resources available to future generations?

Danby said...

Lorenbliss said;
Once the power fails for good and the light switches are dead forever, we cannot suddenly begin again making fire with bow-drills or weaving fishnets from cedar bark or hunting with atlatl or bow and arrows.

What do you mean "we", white man? Speak for yourself. I've spent a good part of my life learning how to do these kinds of things (well, not the atlatl), and teaching my children how to do them and many other skills besides. I believe you could drop my family and me into an utterly remote forest in any temperate zone, without even a jackknife, and within a week we'd have shelter, tools, the beginning of a reliable food supply. Within a month we'd have a food stockpile and weapons. Within a year, we'd have a house, a garden, a larder, and iron tools, if there was iron to find and smelt. I can appeal to the testimony of JMG on this point.

Being ready for a situation you see coming is your own responsibility. I've seen collapse coming for over 20 years. If I'm wrong, and the West somehow muddles through, I'm all the happier, but if I'm right, we're ready.

I find the entire class struggle view of history to be completely unconvincing. It may explain some of what happened in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries, but it isn't even reflected in my own life right now. I find a much more useful analysis is one that approaches history from the perspective that man is a tribal animal. The extreme civilizational violence and genocide of the 20th century can be seen as the inevitable result of trying to supplant man's normal loyalties to God, tribe and clan with a synthetic loyalty to fictions such as nation, party, ideology, the Revolution, Democracy, and a thousand other idiot notions.

Oh, and gutta percha, gum rubber, shellac, boiled linseed oil, urethane (made from cow urine) and cotton have a been used, and are being used as electrical insulators.

Oil is not going to suddenly disappear. As the supply gradually depletes, the price will go up and people will have to make choices as to what no longer makes sense to purchase. There will be petroleum available well into the next century, for a price. Our doom is the economic collapse that will follow on when oil hits $300/bbl.

lorenbliss said...

I know I promised to withdraw but, alas, Danby's remarks demand response. I too possess substantial survival skills, sufficient proof of which should be demonstrated by my knowledge that the secret to successful firemaking is having proper material with which to catch the spark (charred cotton is best with flint and steel, as is cedar dust with a bow drill).

But at age 67 I can no longer draw a longbow or even effectively wield an axe (thanks to slowly but steadily deteriorating back injuries inflicted by the habitual drunken driver who broadsided me in 1978), though I surely have other means of foraging and defense, and my overall wilderness skills including the ability to track and stalk and find edibles all remain at a high level.

My knowledge of such things is the near-lifetime legacy of many sources: the lessons and observations of a solitary childhood spent more in rural areas than in cities (which along with the associated canine companionship surely more than compensated for the fact I had no family worthy of the name); additional back-country skills formerly taught by Boy Scouts and Explorer Scouts (skills these organizations have sadly since abandoned in the name of political correctness); invaluable lessons learned during diverse vacations and exiles that included several long backwoods treks either alone or accompanied a dog or two, work on commercial fishing vessels and in rural caretaking and -- especially during low-income episodes -- the economically essential practices of subsistence agriculture and hunting. But I did not acquire these skills on my own; I acquired them from people who were willing to teach them to me and who were supportively patient while I refined the skills afield; I acquired other skills from books, again with practice in the field; and I acquired still more skills by diligent observation and adaptation: contrary to urban folklore, nowhere on the planet is keen intelligence more useful than in the wilderness.

I had already begin acquiring these skills long before I sensed the impending apocalypse, the initial intimations of which arose from my recognition of the huge extent to which the folk renaissance of the late 1950s was not just an anomaly but a paradox. But intuition became undeniable clarity on the night of 9 November 1965 when the largest electrical failure in human experience stranded me on the Eighth Avenue Subway in Manhattan -- until I organized my fellow passengers into a successful escape from the A Train. Then, out on the darkened streets and under a smirking gibbous moon, I glimpsed the City as it will be in the future: not bright with promise but dark with abandonment and desolation.

But I was hardly devastated. Having lived entire seasons without running water or electricity when northern Michigan was still mostly a non-electrified wilderness, having lived more briefly in parts of Southern Appalachia and the deeper South without these conveniences, and having lived through weather-related power outages and systemic water-district failures in the rural Pacific Northwest that have lasted as long as a month, I have repeatedly witnessed the general adaptability of rural folk to whatever obtains (or does not obtain) from Mother Nature’s womb of infinite surprises. I have also observed time and again the total paralysis of most urbanites in the face of even minor technological disruptions. The very best urbanites in North American when confronted by such challenges are New Yorkers (who may be the best urbanites on earth in challenging circumstances), but even the best of these still have light years to go to compare to with the most dense and hormonally preoccupied rural 12-year-olds when the technology goes tango uniform and the resultant disaster sends us back to basics.

The difference between the poor in post-Katrina New Orleans and the similarly afflicted poor out in the bayou country was this very difference between city and country. In the city everything went to hell the second the lights went off but out on the bayou the loss of technology made little difference: the trot lines still yielded catfish, the crawdad holes still produced, the gardens still gave up their beans and tomatoes and okra, and back deeper in the swamp on the little island beyond the cypress trees and under the Spanish moss, ole Robichaux’s still kept on dribbling out the finest sploe around.

Nevertheless survival skills can surely be taught -- witness snake-eater training in all the world’s special forces -- but it still takes a great deal of time and practice to learn them. And that is precisely what urbanites lack: not merely the time, but -- with national wilderness-access policies deliberately ever more manipulated to limit wilderness access only to the very wealthy and thus make it their exclusive playground -- the opportunities have already become rare if not nonexistent.

For example in Washington state due to its policy of road closures, wilderness access is now effectively limited to the horse aristocracy and the rare few who can afford enough time off work to be able to hike the two or three days it takes -- again thanks to the road closures -- just to get into genuine wilderness. The ruling class of course loves it: the back country has already become as exclusive as a country club. Hence the potential of survival itself is increasingly restricted, which -- given the Machiavellianism now afoot in service to social Darwinism and Malthusianism -- I strongly doubt is accidental. The ruling class intent is clearly to herd ever more of us into cities and imprison us there to maximize the Malthusian kill.

Here of course the principle of class struggle is itself a survival mechanism -- without it we cannot recognize what is being done to us in the economic and sociopolitical senses, much less why -- which lack of recognition inflicts yet another huge vulnerability.

However if I were to have to pick one survival skill as more important than all others, it would be the skill of stillness -- inner as well as outer -- which I need not explain to anyone else who possesses it and cannot possibly explain to anyone who does not. And that stillness is so subversive to the present socioeconomic order it is tabooed from cradle to grave.

By the way I am not as “white” as you suspect: Germanic by name and Celtic by ancestry yes, but a small part Mohawk as well, the proud legacy of my mother’s folk.

John Michael Greer said...

Naked Mechanic, I haven't read Ife's book, but any resemblance between The Druidry Handbook and Holmgren's excellent work on permaculture is, well, purely ecological. Every religious tradition draws its metaphors from somewhere; Druidry, at least as I understand it uses the environmental sciences as a primary source of narratives and conceptual tools for understanding the world.

Loren, you've done a very good job here of outlining the differences between our viewpoints. I disagree completely with your implication that the end of industrial society will happen quickly -- the downside of the Hubbert curve is likely to take about as long as the upside did -- and so your image of yuppies starving to death has nothing to do with the future we're actually facing. Please be aware, also, that quite a few people are already learning low-tech survival skills, and none of the very large number I know belong to the "horse aristocracy," whatever that happens to be in your neck of the woods; here in southern Oregon a lot of middle class and working class people own horses, and there are small farms where draft horses do the drayage and plowing.

You're quite right, by the way, that I consider the mythology of class struggle to be another one-dimensional morality play. Of course social classes engage in conflict from time to time, and the various factions in the political class use their influence to pursue their own agendas, but once you leap to the idea that there's always a wicked ruling class who oppresses everyone else, to my mind, you've moved from history to dualistic myth. But if that myth works for you, by all means proceed with it.

Caryl, many thanks for the clarification! I hear from members of the black helicopter crowd fairly often, and jumped to the conclusion that you were talking the same line -- glad to hear this is not the case.

Jim, thank you. You've basically summed up the core concerns of this blog, and some of the issues I've made central to my work. I agree that all we can do is try to make our own short lives count for something.

In terms of your seasonal metaphor -- one that is very deeply rooted in my own thinking as well -- autumn is ending and most of the harvest has been wasted, rather than being saved for the cold months to come. Our task, as I see it, is to glean what seeds we can so that there's something to plant come winter's end.

Dan, the only quibble I can find with your very sensible comments is the overspecificity of the last sentence. I don't think doom is waiting for us when oil prices go zooming up -- for that matter, I expect them to do pretty much what they've done for the last few years, zigzagging up big steps and down small ones, for decades to come. For that matter, I don't think our predicament will give rise to a single specific doom.

Rather, it's the death of a thousand cuts we have to watch for -- energy shortages here, economic decline there, deadly weather driven by climate change somewhere else, infrastructure breakdown, epidemic diseases, and so on. When will that start? Wrong question; it's already happening.

My guess is that the severity will increase gradually enough that fifty years from now, people will still think it's business as usual, even though the average standard of living in the United States then will be close to Third World standards, entire cities have been wrecked and abandoned, and most Americans will never be able to afford a refrigerator. Like the old story of the frog in the saucepan, people will let almost any change slip by if it happens slowly enough. But, of course, we'll see.

Danby said...

I've reread my response, and I'm sorry I come across as challenging you. That was not my intent.

I think the peice that's missing in your analysis is the clan and tribe. I can understand that, if, as you say, you had no family worthy of the name.

I am convinced that membership in a tribe is what will determine survival for millions over the next thirty years.

The tribe has been driven out of our society specifically to make room for other attachments, such as work, school, political party, etc. It is to the point where the word tribal itself as become an insult.

Yet the tribe is the natural second-level organizational unit of the human race. Working as a tribe as been the guarantor of human survival through co-operation ever since there has been a creature you could call human. To the point that in some places, exile from the tribe was substituted for a death sentence.

Our inborn tribalism as been broken not only because it became unnecessary, but also because it interferes with the centralizing tendency of national government. The elites wanted people to be isolated, disconnected and therefore vulnerable, so they created a situation in which that was the easiest and most prosperous path to take.

Unless we can create true tribal analogues, (like the Sunshine family) or rebuild our own tribes (like some traditional Catholics and some Mormons), we remain isolated, disconnected and vulnerable. A tribal structure can give us a way to pass on our accumulated knowledge in the form of tradition, and give us a firm base of support on which to build our lives.

jason said...

You wrote, "This is above all true of religious history, where the vision of a prince, a camel driver, or a tentmaker on the road to Damascus can catch fire in the imaginations of millions and send the world careening down a completely unexpected path."

I can't say I'm too convinced. When the conditions are right, it can be hard to tell where the spark will come from precisely, but the course of a wildfire is really determined by the layout of dry tinder, and the causes for that are far more systemic. Cultural materialism, I think, tells you when the conditions appear; when a tentmaker is throwing a lit match into a puddle, and when it's being thrown on dry tinder. Such ideas arise regularly--why do some take off, while others don't? It's all about the setting--the material needs of a society. In that, the general shape is imminently predictable; the details, less so. Anyone could tell that Germany in the 1930s would become a totalitarian state. That it would be Adolf Hitler and not someone else, and some other minor details, those were still up to chance.

Or, to step away from metaphor and address your other example directly, how much did the reconciliation of Shinto and Buddhism really change? Even had Buddhism insisted on rolling over Shinto, it would have been forced to become more "Shinto-like," as all religions must adapt to converted populations to one degree or another. The overall shape of the essentially unified Japanese religion seems like it would not have changed greatly. The iconography, the names of the gods or spirits invoked, and the superficial level of the religion might have changed, but the emphases, the basic beliefs, the general shape of the religion has not. By the same token, I have no doubt that in 200 years, American-born tribes will still be invoking the name of Jesus, and other superficial invocations of Christianity will proliferate, but the general shape of the religion will be animistic, and shamanic, for the simple reason that nothing else has much chance of surviving.

lorenbliss said...

This really is too thought-provoking a thread to leave. Hence, even before finishing my first cup of coffee -- I was up very late with work -- here are three responses:

To JMG: I surely don’t see the collapse happening all at once, but I don’t see it happening all gradually either. I believe post-Katrina New Orleans is one of many informative examples: a longtime friend who lives in the area tells me the poorer quarters of the city are still without electricity and basic services -- that it is now obvious they will never be restored unless the poor themselves are ousted and flung into permanent homelessness by gentrification. She also says New Orleans, which is her birthplace, will never be rebuilt, and that economic factors permanently prohibit the return of its displaced persons -- which as I pointed out to her is a condition without any U.S. precedent since the Civil War, even considering the Dust Bowl migrations. (Those of us who never lived in the South often don't realize Sherman burned entire towns that were never rebuilt -- desolations that were still charred brick ruins, wildly overgrown with kudzu and deadly with nesting copperheads -- when I saw them in the 1940s and 1950s: one of the main reasons Southern anger lingered as long as it did.)

Moreover the deliberate denial of basic technology apparent in post-Katrina New Orleans -- denial that clearly expresses not just economic and racial discrimination but intentional euthanasia by neglect -- has no precedent at all: it is in fact the first society-wide, purely economic application of the strategy and tactics of genocide perfected during the Indian Wars.

Another example is the fragility of the electrical supply system. Note in particular the San Juan Islands of Puget Sound: the January 1989 storm that brought Washington its highest winds and lowest temperatures ever recorded -- 110 mph (sustained) and 17 deg. F below zero for several relentless days (when the sky cleared it became something out of a Jack London novel: not the usual blue but stark arctic white with sundogs eerily tripling or quadrupling the suns) -- also tore down all the transmission lines into the San Juans, with the result some of the islands had no electricity for up to six weeks. Next time one of these record-breaking arctic storms pounces -- say in 2030 with the economy in the state of collapse we can already see coming -- the de-electrification of the islands will be permanent.

So it will go, gradual declines punctuated by local or regional cataclysms, the results often many times worsened (assuming continuation of present-day RepublicRatic policies) by deliberately induced Malthusian socioeconomic cleansing. An earthquake ruins Seattle, collapses all the bridges on I-5, and neither bridges nor city is rebuilt -- at least not until all the region's poor have died. Or another regional power outage hits the Northeast, shuts down Wall Street, and because of its synergistic effect on an economy already in crisis, electrical service is never fully restored simply because the cost is unaffordable. Of all the fiction writers I have ever read on such subjects, Jean Hegland (Into the Forest) sees this process most clearly, though she compresses a multi-year process into a few seasons. In any case the collapse will be neither gradual nor sudden but a combination of both with the impact geometrically worsened by each increment. Arrhythmic dominoes.

Unless of course a killer bug gets loose from a germ warfare lab somewhere, in which case we could go to bed in the space age and (assuming we survive) wake up back in the Lower Paleolithic, albeit with an abundance of garbage (TV sets, SUVs, Blackberries, Britney Spears video tapes etc.) to nurture our readjustment.

To Danby: Despite our radically differing socioeconomic analysis, I absolutely agree with you about the necessity of tribes. (Did you know that much of Marx’s inspiration was the primitive communism of tribal life?) However (and probably because I was there to see it) I have for years felt the more moronic members of the Counterculture rendered “tribe” useless as a descriptive or analytical term by their idiotic and illiterate misappropriations of it, for example Sky River (a rock festival c. 1970) as “a gathering of the tribes.” Thus instead of “tribe” I speak of “community” -- note the above link to the Cuban solution to the sudden cut off of their petroleum supplies (and technology in general) inflicted by the collapse of the Soviet Union (which -- aside to JMG -- is yet another example of the modes of apocalyptic collapse). A very large part of the Cuban solution is abandonment of the central planning that is endemic (and ultimately ruinous) to communism and replacing it with an ethos as yet not officially named but which I believe can very accurately be titled “communalism.” From these communities (which by the way are inherently democratic) -- in socioeconomic terms, from their empowerment and growth in solidarity -- will undoubtedly come the tribes of the future. Again the value of Marx, who teaches us that tribes are as much an economic institution as a kinship system.

The same mandates of an apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic economy will almost certainly abate the absolute (and typically brutally abusive) patriarchy inherent in traditional Abrahamic families: when everybody has to work for survival, the harem of trinket females -- beaten wives and incest-broken daughters -- essential to the maintenance of patriarchy will become functionally obsolete very quickly. Hence I argue (as do McLuhan, Whitmont, Graves, Barbara Mor and many others) that the matrilineal family structure we saw make its sudden re-appearance especially in the Back-to-the-Land communes of the Counterculture is probably the familial structure of the future -- or at least the one that will prove dominant. This is not a matter of ideology but function: just as my ancestors understood, whether Iroquoian or Celtic, it frees the males to hunt, fish and scavenge even as it organizes the females for agriculture.

(By the way: I took absolutely no offense at your apparent challenge: indeed I believe the challenging of one another’s thinking and the growth that so often results is perhaps the greatest boon of such sites as these.)

To Jason:: I believe you are correct about the persistence of the Jesus image, also (note my comments above) about shamanism and animism, though I suspect this will all be in a larger context of the already apparent, strong and implicitly revolutionary shift toward re-recognition of the supremacy of Nature: again the significance of the Gaia Hypothesis, whether as scientific metaphor or the modern restatement of humanity’s oldest creed.

Something similar is already happening in some of the remaining American Aboriginal tribes: though there is a huge, growing (and thanks to typical Christian behavior, ever-more-violent) schism between Christians and Traditionalists, there are also aboriginal families within which people who invoke Wolf and Raven or Eagle and Coyote coexist with those who invoke Jesus and Mary.

As to the duration of Jesus himself, there is already a strong tendency among the most radical U.S. Catholics to redefine the godhead as at least partly female (in the original Greek of the scriptures, the Holy Ghost is named in a female-gendered noun), and so to regard Mary’s “Mother of God” title as a reflection of her role as the earthly incarnation of the Holy Spirit: note the assertion in the Apostle’s Creed that Jesus was “conceived by the Holy Ghost” (i.e., by the merging of the divine female with her earthly counterpart). This inches ever more closely to the ancient/modern pagan conception of the priestess as the earthly vessel of the goddess. When applied in a Christian context, it redefines Jesus as not only a son of the goddess but the most recent incarnation of the Dying God, the Once and Future King and thus of the breathtakingly ancient lineage of Bendigied Vron, Bran the Blessed of the oldest surviving Celtic myths. In this interpretation, Jesus’ membership in that goddess-mothered brotherhood is underscored by all the betrayals Jesus suffered, evident not just in his own death and the subsequent belittlement of his lover the Magdelene, but in the ultimate betrayal of the distortion and outright rejection of his message by the (patriarchal) church ever since. Or so the most radical Catholics are coming to believe -- especially many of the ever-more-rebellious nuns.

One of the lessons of history is that -- as you obviously understand -- deities do not vanish overnight. Instead they evolve like any other living human construct: a divinity is after all a dynamic symbiosis of reality and ideal, as Mary Daly said, “a verb.” Another such lesson is that elements that coalesce into a new religion are apparent long before the actual coalescence: note for example the preludes to Christianity evident not just in the eternal Judaic quest for a messiah but in Mithranism, the various Grecian mystery religions and the doctrines associated with Ahura-Mazda.

(Thank you JMG, for a superb site. Despite disagreements -- or quite probably because of them -- this is as compelling an on-line discussion as I have participated in for years. Thanks again.)

Jim said...

lorenbliss - thanks for the great thoughts... just one tweak: you refer to "Traditionalists" - I don't think you are referring to thinkers in the line of Guenon, Coomaraswamy, Schuon, etc. I'm not sure if some other use of that term has been gaining popularity, or if it is more your personal use. But it is definitely confusing to me, and I expect to quite a few others. See e.g. Sedgewick's Against the Modern World for a nice overview of the Guenon school. (Or maybe that's what you meant, and I just missed the connection???)

John Michael Greer said...

Dan, I tend to use the term "community" rather than "tribe," since even traditional human societies display so much variation I'm not sure the tribal model is as innate as you suggest. Still, at this point of history it's a distinction without a difference, because tribalism seems to be an inevitable consequence of the implosion of a civilization. Whether tribes are inevitable in some abstract sense, in other words, they're inevitable now.

Jason, the problem with your analysis is that the "details" include most of what counts as history. Let's take your example of 1930s Germany. It was certainly likely that the Weimar republic would end in the establishment of a totalitarian state. On the other hand, it could just as easily have been on the lines of Franco's Spain, an isolationist dictatorship that withdrew from international politics: probable result, no Second World War in Europe. It could just as well have been a Marxist dictatorship: probable result, a German-Soviet alliance against the West, and the probable defeat of the western powers in a very different Second World War.

But this all unfolds from the wider issue with cultural materialism, which is that it's as unverifiable as any other historical hypothesis. History isn't a science, because it's impossible to control the variables or replicate experiments, and so a materialist account of history is simply another model. I don't find it a convincing one; you clearly do, and that's about as far as the discussion will ever go.

Loren, it would take me a blog post to respond to your latest, and much of it has been covered in previous posts here. Very briefly, we're closer to agreement about the pace of collapse than I think either of us expected -- I've argued in detail here for a slow decline punctuated by local catastrophes, and yes, post-Katrina New Orleans is exhibit A. (Exhibit B is the very large proportion of the Great Plains that has reverted to the old definition of "frontier" -- fewer than 2 white folks per square mile -- and has seen even the most basic modern services go away.)

I'm not going to address the rest of your points, for reasons of space, and another reason I'll be posting to the main blog page in a few minutes. Rather, I think it's time for me to say to you what was said to me in a not dissimilar situation: it's time for you to launch a blog of your own on these topics.

You obviously have a lot to say and a very specific viewpoint on our common predicament, and that ought to be part of the wider discussion, not simply an appendix to my posts. You're welcome to keep posting comments here -- whether or not I agree with them! -- but your own blog is the place for detailed discussions of your take on the coming of the deindustrial age.

Jim, Traditionalist is also the term used these days in Native American circles, where it means those who follow the old ways of their tribes. That's the sense in which I took Loren's comment. I certainly hope he didn't mean Guenon, Evola, et al.!

lorenbliss said...

Jim and JMG -- I used "traditionalist" in exactly the sense JMG suggested: First Nations people who follow the old ways of their tribes, aka American Aboriginal or "Native American" spirituality. (I dislike the term "Native American" because, technically speaking, all of us born on this continent are "native Americans"; hence I use the more linguistically precise Canadian terms, "American Aboriginals" or "First Nations Peoples" -- never mind the people themselves just say "Indian," as in American Indian Movement or AIM.) In any case I had no idea the term "traditionalist" had any other usages in which the symbols Wolf, Raven, Eagle and Coyote might appear.

John Michael Greer said...

Loren, thanks for the clarification. I'm sorry to say that some of the other kind of Traditionalists -- notably Frithjof Schuon -- have made an effort to commandeer First Nations spirituality into the service of their, shall we say, revolt against the modern world. Thus the confusion.

Danby said...

I will not pass comment on most of your post because on most points either we simply have a differing understanding of how the world works, or it is a topic on which I have no particular knowledge. I do however have a few comment at various points.

Matriarchy works fine in some contexts, but not typically in a situation of perpetual war. There is a reason that patriarchy became the default social organization in Europe prior to Classical times. I believe that it was because patriarchal societies are better at waging war. In the mid-term future, that is likely to again (still) be an important consideration. Then again, I don't view patriarchy as inherently evil. I aim to become a patriarch myself in the clan I am building. And no, I don't surround myself with "trinket females -- beaten wives and incest-broken daughters" and I don't see these as inherent in a patriarchal system.

I agree that the term "tribe" was debased in the '60's. That usage however, is gone and the hippies have become a joke to the younger generation. I've made a conscious decision to reclaim the word to it's proper use.

I can't claim any expertise in Native American society or politics, but I can in Catholic matters, having been in the trenches of this particular war for over 20 years.

The radical Catholics you describe do certainly exist, and indeed have considerable power in the formal structures of the Church, particularly in America and Europe. The great majority of them, however, are over 60 years of age. Their movement will die out with their generation. They have proven unable to reproduce themselves. The reasons are threefold. Because of their belief in the appropriateness of birth control and abortion, they are far less likely to have children, or to have as many children as the traditionalists. Because they have largely destroyed the Catholic schools system, they have far less access to the minds of other people's children. They give their own children and anyone else they may convert to their views of religion no reason to join or stay within the Catholic church. In fact, it's a bit of a mystery to traditionalists why they stay themselves, except many of them have very comfortable lives thanks to the institution that they denounce. The "ever-more-rebellious nuns" are unable to recruit new members to their orders. Traditionalist orders are bursting at the seams.

Oh, and it's simply a lie that Mary of Magdala was Jesus' lover. Contrary to 3rd century gnostics, the Rev Sun Myung Moon and (God forbid) Dan Brown, it's not an ancient truth hidden by the evil patriachalists of the 4th century Church.

LorenBliss said...

Danby, the claim that Mary of Magdala was Jesus' lover is many centuries older than Brown's lit-fad befoggedness or Moon’s snake-oil opportunism. I am a student of history, not a gullible moron. The belief in Magdala's psychosensual role seems to have first achieved historical notice via the Celtic church (the destruction of which was the religious motive for papal approval of Guillaume le Ba'tard's invasion of Britain in 1066), though I have no doubt the Magdalene claim was ancient even then -- there is some evidence it was a central belief of the Cathars too -- and it is surely reinforced by “The Gospel of Mary," which has of course itself long since been banned (and mostly destroyed) as heretical.

A corollary supposition -- supportive or not depending on the context in which it is placed -- is the late Robert Graves’ argument the Magdalene was a priestess of the Samaritan triple goddess, which is based on his own (truly formidable) knowledge of ancient texts. Graves by the way takes the non-supportive stance -- this in the long-out-of-print novel King Jesus -- and argues that Mary of Magdala was Jesus’ enemy, that in retaliation for his denial of the goddess, Mary cursed him with the unspeakably awful death of crucifixion.

As to the longevity of the goddess within Catholic theology, the "Mother of God" title given Mary the mother of Jesus originally belonged to the Great Goddess, as did virtually all the other titles by which Mary is invoked via "The Litany of the Blessed Virgin." Meanwhile the theology of the Celtic Church was essentially that of the radical Catholics today. Such conceptualizations surely wax and wane, but they never vanish entirely, and factors outside the church demonstrate that today they are more powerful than they have been for perhaps 36 centuries.

Nor does the patriarchy's murderous opposition ever cease. It is thus no coincidence that the global demand for Abrahamic theocracy and all its attendant horrors -- the burning alive of witches, the stoning-to-death of adulteresses, the impalement of homosexuals, etc. ad nauseum -- is again also at an all-time high. Indeed this factor -- the infinitely violent reaction of the Abrahamic patriarchy to the (relative) liberation of women inherent in Westernesse -- is the missing element without which the broader meaning of the Oklahoma City and 9/11 atrocities and similar incidents large and small (and thus the real nature of the theocratic threat) remains hopelessly obscure: there is nothing in the universe more terrifying to such men than genuinely self-possessed females.

It is thus only fair to note that what might be termed the pro-goddess/pro-woman/pro-nature element in Christianity is countered and in fact overwhelmed by the far more powerful anti-goddess/anti-woman/anti-nature impulse. This institutionalized hatred is unquestionably the main theme of the entire history of Christendom (just as it is equally evident in the histories of Judaism, Islam and capitalism), though the one Christian document that articulated misogynism as the core principle of Abrahamic faith, “The Gospel of the Egyptians,” was adjudged to be a bit too revealing and, after the First Council of Nicea (c. 325 CE), all extant copies were methodically hunted down and destroyed. However we know of it from Classical Roman sources of proven reliability. Thus its words provide what in the hearts and minds of a growing multitude is the ultimate and final damnation of Christianity and indeed of all Abrahamic doctrine, this in the voice of Jesus himself: “I am come to destroy the powers of the female and all her works.”

As to the nature of those powers -- especially the allegation that patriarchy is inherently superior to matriarchy in war-making -- note the history of Minoan Civilization, which thanks to the ongoing discoveries in archaeology even skeptics now have to admit was dominated by women. Minoan civilization lasted at least a thousand years -- far longer than any comparable civilization since -- and was at the height of its political, economic and cultural prowess when it was overthrown: not by invasion, but by a volcanic cataclysm equivalent in destructive power to at least 27 hydrogen bombs. But even then, facing this destruction, the Minoans managed to evacuate all the cities within range of the explosion itself, rescuing not just people but pets, domestic animals and indeed all moveable possessions: something we have never been able to accomplish since then: note the damning evidence of both Pompeii/Herculaneum and New Orleans.

Alas not even the Minoan evacuations were sufficient to protect against the 450-foot tsunami generated by the explosion -- an explosion that not only devastated the entire region with its unthinkably huge displacement of sea water but by the nuclear-winter effect of its ejecta changed the world climate, inflicting repeated famine for perhaps a full century.

Mostly though the tsunami broke the back of the superb Minoan military -- sailors and marines who for at least ten centuries had kept the barbarians at bay -- and now (just as today’s street gangs run amok in the wake of modern disaster), finally with the help of the worst natural disaster in human history, these criminals and outlaws took over.

And never again have we cared enough about ourselves -- rich and poor alike -- to evacuate our cities in the face of disaster.

As to matriarchy, it is the norm everywhere else in nature: note for example the structure of the wolf pack and the primate band.

And as to the validity of the goddess symbol as a description of reality, note the modern scientific rediscovery of the biological fact that all life is originally female -- perhaps the most illustrative example of why the ultimate enemy of Abrahamic religion is science -- why the followers of Abrahamic creeds so reflexively despise science and scientific inquiry.

Hardleft Millenarian said...

Dear JMG,

As before, I will reply to your remarks on a point-by-point basis - only in this instance I will avoid the unintentionally screaming caps, and preface my replies with the symbol >> :

Hardleft, please be aware that I get emails and letters all the time from people who believe that they have extracted the infallible key to the future from some source or other. Nothing you've said makes you stand out particularly among that crowd. Since there aren't enough hours in the day for me to pursue all the studies that are immediately relevant to my work, I have to draw a line somewhere, and your claims -- like those of dozens of others who claim to have figured out prophecies from the Bible or elsewhere -- fall outside it.

>> I believe that even the very limited points I have made so far deserve more of your attention than that. You have made the completely unsupported assertion that the state of the world as we see it today "shows no particular interest in conforming to [the] apocalyptic prophecies" as interpreted by Biblical literalists. I have brought to your attention at least three specific features of the world, all relating to the existence of Israel as a nation, that refute this assertion. If you choose to ignore what I have tried to bring to your attention, that does not change the fact that they amply refute your original claim, and that you ought therefore to take the possibility that biblical prophecy is genuinely inspired by God more seriously than you do.

Also, I don't mean to be rude, but you seem not to have noticed that I don't belong to your religion, don't consider its teachings to be true, and don't find its scriptures to be any more inspired, inerrant, or relevant to our present situation than any other collection of Iron Age folklore and myth.

>> I am, of course, well aware that you do not belong to my religion. However, I believe that my religion is true, and that it can be demonstrated to be true on the basis of evidence which, when cumulatively considered, is intellectually compelling. By trying to point out to you that there are many particular aspects of the world scene today that DO bear a startling resemblance to what biblical literalists have been expecting for hundreds of years, I am also presenting you with a small portion of that mass of evidence.

Mind you, I find much of value in folklore and myth, yours as well as that of other people

>> Dismissing the historical and prophetic portions of the Judeo-Christian Scriptures as "folklore and myth" is something that must be proven, not merely asserted. The Higher Biblical Criticism with which you are undoubtedly familiar from your studies of comparative religion do not succeed in proving this, because all of its argumentation can be shown to be fundamentally circular - that is, it can be shown that it "proves" the Judeo-Christian Scriptures to be "folklore and myth" only by assuming it a priori at the outset. By contrast, the fulfillment of prophecies such as the ones I have previously alluded to may be used as the basis for non-circular, logically sound arguments of a probabilistic nature for the veracity of Judeo-Christian revelation.

but I believe they need to be understood as symbolic narratives, not forced into the Procrustean bed of the literalism that has failed so consistently in the past.

>> But the reason why Biblical prophecy has failed so often in the past is precisely because it has NOT been taken literally, even by major figures in the Church (except in the very early Church and fairly recently - to oversimplify a rather complex picture of the history of interpretation). The best example illustrating my point is the concept of Israel itself: Until fairly recently, references to Israel in Old Testament prophecies were generally understood to refer to the Church, thus fundamentally distorting their meaning. When Israel, by contrast, is understood literally as Israel, the prophecies prove to bear a remarkable resemblance to the developing shape of the world scene today.

So I'm basically not interested in yet another rehash of Biblical prophecy. As I said, there aren't enough hours in the day.

>> You are of course free not to give serious consideration to what I have been proposing to you. But from an intellectual standpoint, you have no justification whatsoever for making this decision on the grounds that the state of the world as we see it today "shows no particular interest in conforming to [the] apocalyptic prophecies" as interpreted by Biblical literalists.

Angelo said...

What I rarely hear discussed when the planetary context is being drafted into words is the very real on-the-ground situation. It seems to me that apprehensions of social collapse or social adjustment as future scenarios are themselves faulty, incoherent and disassociated from the reality that surrounds us. All of this partaking of future plots, all of these admissions of changing facts and figures does not alleviate the strain of a human species destroying the life bed upon which it rests. As we speak. As we breathe. As of right now.

As of right now the frogs are disappearing and many other creatures have long since gone. As of right now the water is undrinkable, the air thick and hazy. As of right now the human being lives a reflection of his thoughts, as it ever was. As of right now millions are struggling day by day in the riches of the West as cogs in an amorphous beast, living to work and working to live.

As we speak millions die of our inadequacy and inability to distribute with wisdom and care, in our name, for our systems, and for our comforts.

A collapse perhaps? How slow? How fast? What these questions really represent is our selfish desire to capture before hand the remaining fruit before someone else. Never mind the fact that many have no fruit at all, nor that their fruit was taken and held over for us and our systems and our comforts.

These discussions can prove fruitful and ultimately supportive of reality when the context of a collapse recognizes that collapse has already occurred. Ask the fishes that once inhabited the great dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico about the coming collapse. Ask the never ending number of native villages displaced for corporate consumption schemes about the coming collapse.

Marshall McLuhan is whispering his now old tune, "you are all living in the rear view folks".

Ask Africa what they think of the coming collapse, ask those in the massive urban slums of Brazil, Argentina, China, Etc...

This is a discussion of the few, by the few, for the few. Where the few have designated the context as it suits them and their paradigm of change and, of course, comfort.

I'm all for seeking answers to our solutions and solutions to our answers, but the context has to be just right if anything we endeavor to produce will be of any lasting value.

We are in a post-era, we are the villagers going hungry and we've all turned to cannibalism to stave off the pains. If all life has value what value have we decided upon when making our calculations?

Thomas Mazanec said...

Catholicism does have the advantage of having proved that it can survive a Dark Age before.

Nathan said...

John, you wrote: "...the coming of the deindustrial age promises a major crisis of faith. The same is true of today’s Christian fundamentalism, which rejects the progressive vision but has made itself just as vulnerable to a future that shows no particular interest in conforming to its apocalyptic prophecies."

Hmm, the ultimate apocalyptic book in the Christian canon is the Revelation of Jesus Christ, given to the Apostle John. Here's what Chapter 18 of this book has to say. Sounds a lot like the collapse of a global industrial consumer culture to me:

[Rev 18:1-24 ESV] 1 After this I saw another angel coming down from heaven, having great authority, and the earth was made bright with his glory. 2 And he called out with a mighty voice, "Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great! She has become a dwelling place for demons, a haunt for every unclean spirit, a haunt for every unclean bird, a haunt for every unclean and detestable beast. 4 Then I heard another voice from heaven saying, "Come out of her, my people, lest you take part in her sins, lest you share in her plagues; 5 for her sins are heaped high as heaven, and God has remembered her iniquities. 8 For this reason her plagues will come in a single day, death and mourning and famine, and she will be burned up with fire; for mighty is the Lord God who has judged her." 9 And the kings of the earth, who committed sexual immorality and lived in luxury with her, will weep and wail over her when they see the smoke of her burning. 10 They will stand far off, in fear of her torment, and say, "Alas! Alas! You great city, you mighty city, Babylon! For in a single hour your judgment has come." 11 And the merchants of the earth weep and mourn for her, since no one buys their cargo anymore, 12 cargo of gold, silver, jewels, pearls, fine linen, purple cloth, silk, scarlet cloth, all kinds of scented wood, all kinds of articles of ivory, all kinds of articles of costly wood, bronze, iron and marble, 13 cinnamon, spice, incense, myrrh, frankincense, wine, oil, fine flour, wheat, cattle and sheep, horses and chariots, and slaves, that is, human souls. 15 The merchants of these wares, who gained wealth from her, will stand far off, in fear of her torment, weeping and mourning aloud, 16 "Alas, alas, for the great city that was clothed in fine linen, in purple and scarlet, adorned with gold, with jewels, and with pearls! 17 For in a single hour all this wealth has been laid waste." And all shipmasters and seafaring men, sailors and all whose trade is on the sea, stood far off 19 And they threw dust on their heads as they wept and mourned, crying out, "Alas, alas, for the great city where all who had ships at sea grew rich by her wealth! For in a single hour she has been laid waste. 20 Rejoice over her, O heaven, and you saints and apostles and prophets, for God has given judgment for you against her!"

An industrial collapse doesn't have to usher in the Christian Last Day. But the upcoming collapse isn't unpredicted by Christian scripture. There are many conservative Christians for whom apocalyptic date-setting has never been the point. I believe these Christians will continue to be about the work of the Bridegroom during and after the unavoidable collapse we've baked in.