Wednesday, July 25, 2007

A Failure of Mimesis

Though I disagree with him as often as not, James Howard Kunstler is one of my favorite authors in the peak oil field today. For all the intemperance of his style – and it’s hard not to admire somebody who can turn the spit-slinging vitriolic diatribe into an art form – he’s one of the few thinkers in circulation these days who has found his way to the elusive middle ground between those current incarnations of Pollyanna and Chicken Little, the believers in perpetual progress and the believers in imminent apocalypse. Reading his book The Long Emergency, more than anything else, convinced me that it was worth trying to get my own distinctly unpopular views on the future of industrial society into circulation, and his blog is one of the few I read regularly.

Thus I took it as a bit of synchronicity a few weeks back when he posted an essay titled “Thuggo and Sluggo” on his blog Clusterfuck Nation, waxing irate about the way the younger generation has embraced the urban gang esthetic. Now of course jeremiads about the younger generation have likely been in fashion since Cro-Magnon times; there’s a great passage in one of the classical Roman moralists (unfortunately I’ve misplaced the reference) about how kids these days don’t listen to their parents, stay out all night drinking, drive their chariots too fast, think about nothing but sports and sex, and so on. But there’s a subtle difference between this timeless plaint of parents everywhere and the phenomenon Kunstler discussed, and the difference ties into the theme of last week’s post – the theme of culture death.

Ironically, some of the best insights into the phenomenon Kunstler denounces can be found in the urbane academic prose of Arnold Toynbee’s ten-volume A Study of History. As a young man, Toynbee watched Europe tear itself to shreds in the fratricidal frenzy of the First World War, and the experience left him with a passionate desire to understand why civilizations rise and fall. Economic explanations of the sort central to my theory of catabolic collapse held little appeal for him, and he had even less interest in environmental issues; his focus was on the social transformations that move societies along the trajectory of growth and decline.

His argument, insofar as it’s possible to sum up hundreds of pages of subtle reasoning in a paragraph or so, is that civilizations emerge when a creative minority inspires the rest of their society with a vision of human possibility powerful and appealing enough to break through what he calls the “cake of custom,” the rigid body of tradition that shapes the behavior of traditional cultures. The key to their success is the universal human habit of mimesis – our incurable habit of trying to imitate what impresses us. When you were five years old and played at being a superhero – look, I’m Spiderman! – you were practicing mimesis; today, whenever you think about what you want to become, or what you want society to become, you still are. In traditional societies, the models for mimesis are tribal elders and tribal traditions, which accounts for the immense stability of tribal custom. Civilizations rise when a creative minority with an openness to new visions becomes the focus of mimesis instead.

The downside arrives when the creative minority loses the ability to inspire, and settles for the power to coerce. As its role as a source of inspiration dwindles, so does its role as the focus of mimesis. People stop wanting to become like the members of the dominant minority, and start aiming their hopes and dreams elsewhere. This splits their society into two unequal halves, a dominant minority clinging to power by ever more coercive means, and an internal proletariat that goes through the motions of participation but no longer shares its society’s values and goals. Finally the internal proletariat makes common cause with the external proletariat – the people of surrounding societies who are exploited by the civilization, and never had any stake in its survival to begin with – and everything comes crashing down.

It’s an intriguing analysis, and Toynbee was by no means averse to applying its lessons to his own society. In his view the formerly creative minority of Western civilization was well on its way to becoming a dominant minority, maintaining its position solely by economic and political force, and the rest of Western society was equally far along the road to becoming an internal proletariat with no stake in the civilization of its rulers. He argued that the fault for this “schism in the body politic” lay squarely with the elite classes, who were increasingly unfit to lead, unable to follow, and unwilling to get out of the way.

This criticism is all the more interesting because Toynbee was himself a member of the elite he excoriated. For most of his life he was the leading intellectual light of the Royal Institute of International Affairs (RIIA), the British equivalent and ally of the much-denounced Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) in New York. It doesn’t speak well of the current crop of conspiracy theorists that so few of them have noticed Toynbee’s role as the source of the ideas that guide these two organizations, but then the fact that the CFR also publishes a quarterly journal of foreign affairs to which anyone can subscribe has escaped most of them, too.

Set Toynbee’s theory next to Kunstler’s diatribe and it’s clear at once that the two of them are talking about the same thing. Kunstler’s “Thuggo and Sluggo,” his white suburban teens borrowing their dress, speech, music, and manners from inner city nonwhite gang members, are poster children for the failure of mimesis in contemporary America. It’s easy to denouce Thuggo for his taste in clothes and his fondness for rap music, but there’s something very important and deeply troubling underlying these things.

What, after all, does our society offer this young person we’re calling Thuggo? Suppose he plays the game; what prizes can he expect to win? Downward mobility has become one of the most pervasive and least discussed facts of life in America today, and nowhere so much as in the options we offer young people from the lower middle class on down. It’s still popular to invoke the ghost of David Ricardo and insist that globalization is a rising tide that lifts all boats, but the hard reality is that the last thirty years have seen America’s once proud and prosperous working class thrown to the wolves, so corporations could keep boosting their quarterly profits and the middle class could maintain a filmy illusion of wealth through access to cheap consumer goods. Every $25 an hour factory job offshored to the Third World and replaced with an $8 an hour job flipping burgers is one less reason for the children of working class families to embrace the values that the middle class thinks they ought to have.

This situation bears on the end of the industrial age in many ways, but I’ll focus on only one of them here. One thing you’ll hear if you read any amount of peak oil literature is the complaint that so few people are willing to do anything about the approaching end of the age of cheap abundant energy. Even within the peak oil community, a surprisingly small number of people have taken the sort of simple practical steps that will make their own lives much easier as energy starts becoming scarce and expensive – growing a vegetable garden, learning to get by on less energy, and so on. Outside the peak oil community, almost nobody is listening at all.

From Toynbee’s useful perspective, this is simply another failure of mimesis. Those of us who write and speak publicly about peak oil and other aspects of the predicament of the industrial world are trying to break through a “cake of custom” every bit as firmly entrenched as the traditions of any tribal society could be, but we’ve arguably been trying to do it with the wrong tools and in the wrong way. Denunciation won’t do the job, and neither will carefully reasoned proofs backed with an infinity of footnotes; both those, entertaining as they are, fairly quickly become exercises in preaching to the choir. It might be worth suggesting that a change in approach is in order. If the peak oil movement can present a vision of the future that inspires and energizes people outside the peak oil scene – including those rap-listening, wide-wearing kids whose energy has gone unharnessed by any other movement for change for so long – the possibilities for constructive change may be greater than many people now suspect. We’ll be talking about this more in later posts.


Mike said...

Kunstler comes agross as a grumpy old man doing a 'kids these days!' schtick. As you mentioned, oldsters have been bemoaning the bad habits of youth for centuries, and I have a hard time seeing this as anything different.

We'be been appropriating culture from the disadvantaged (primarily black) for at least fifty years -- jazz, bop, rock, punk, rap. You can argue that Western culture has been in decline for that long, and that may well be, but that's not what Kunstler is saying -- his is just more 'when I was a boy...'

Danby said...

Nice fantasy.

The problem with "present[ing] a vision of the future that inspires and energizes people outside the peak oil scene" is that there is no single vision of the future to present. This is where the Utopians and Chicken Little (Al Gore, call you office!) have it all over the realists. Utopians can present a unified vision because they're making it up. Chicken Littles can present a unified vision because they're displaying their fears, which are pretty similar from person to person.

Realists have the handicap that they're constrained by reality and an honest disagreement about how things will work out, and what's the best policy.

I'm probably as close to you as anyone on this board in my understanding of how Peak Oil will shake out. We spent a lot of time discussing these subjects in years past. But if you asked me to describe what's the best course of action in the present age, my prescriptions would not much agree with yours outside the most simple and obvious points. Why? Because I view Culture as King, and traditional culture as the best and most obvious response to our current crisis.

John Michael Greer said...

Mike, I read Kunstler's diatribe differently, but not much point in arguing it. You may be interested to know that Toynbee, back when the white appropriation of black culture was still new, already tabbed it as a sign that the internal mimesis of Western culture was breaking down.

Dan, you'll note that the Utopians and Chicken Littles aren't doing very well just now at attracting mimesis, either. Of course you're right that the peak oil movement isn't going to sit down and settle on a common plan for the future -- and if they did, it would have the mass appeal of month old liverwurst. If some strong vision does emerge from the peak oil scene it'll be the work of individual visionaries or old traditions.

But I'd suggest that you're selling yourself short when you label your response 'realism.' Your ideas draw their context from what you've called 'traditional culture' and I'd describe a little less vaguely as the Catholic tradition. That's a system of ideals, among other things, and also (not incidentally) a powerful focus for what Toynbee calls mimesis. That's one of the reasons I've suggested in previous posts that Catholicism may fill the same role in the coming dark age that it did in the last one.

And the differences between our proposed plans of action are still based, as when we discussed the matter all those years ago, on basic differences in ideals and, ultimately, spiritualities. Here as elsewhere, it's the apparently abstract presuppositions of philosophy and faith that define one man's realism as another's fantasy. But more on this later.

Ariel said...

I'm pretty sure you are aware of this, but just in case - I would like to point out to one person who is leading a whole movement that IS dealing with the post-peak oil today.
You have probably heard of Rob Hoskins and his transition town concept. Here is a person actually coming up with a plan (communally, mind you - he is the last person to do this by himself, or for himself only) that is involving his whole town. and its already become a movement in the UK, the transition movement.
his blog at is my most favourite (together with yours), and he is by far the most proactive,actually doing it while talking about it (and very well.. his blog is well designed and written). so, maybe not in the states, but in the UK there are definetely people already doing this. if you havent had a chance to read up on the transtition network activites, i recommend it, as a shining beacon of practical light...

enjoy your blog immensely.

Roy Smith said...

Making Mimesis to work for peak oil realists (i.e., those who are neither Utopians or Chicken Littles) does not require peak oil realists to forge a consensus about the shape of the future; it requires that a "creative minority" of peak oil realists present a vision that includes a realistic assessment of peak oil and its consequences and yet also inspires people to work for a common future. The truly effective vision will draw in people from a much wider range than just the (currently) peak oil aware, and to a degree will transcend differences in perceptions as to how exactly the future will play out. The purpose of the vision is not to predict the future; it is to present a believable yet inspiring possibility of the future.

How to form this sort of vision has been a somewhat regular topic of discussion at Seattle Peak Oil Awareness, and I have to say that the answers are neither obvious nor easy. I have also been discussing it at times with people in my church, and I actually think that it may be more fruitful to approach these sorts of questions in the context of religion/spirituality, whether in established groups or groups that are still getting their feet underneath them. I think this may be because religious groups already have a bias towards thinking about human possibility vs. strictly analytical, realistic ways of thinking about the future.

Loveandlight said...

As someone who likes to gaze upon attractive young men, I am a bit disheartened that something as dopey-looking as wearing their pants practically down around their knees is considered a sexy fashion by them. It ain't sexy, it's goofy!

DeadBeat Dad said...

Thanks for keying your narrative into the CFN topic on 'THUGGO'. Several of us made almost identical observations in the CFN comment section. These men are foundering and disenfranchised . You have placed this in a broader intellectual framework, with historical references to where this has happened before.

The consequences may be profound with our current leadership ignoring the growing frustration of a class who realize that they are playing a game rigged for others benefit . The disruptions and dislocations of the Great Depression and the 1960’s may be replayed, as the ClusterFuck nation readership has noted, by a class which will never enjoy the benefits for which many mistakenly labor.

Unfortunately, this time, these events will occur in a generation which has millions who were damaged by incarceration, and have access to the newest models of high powered weapons. Many of the college educated classes never realized their dreams which they were promised, so will be in little mood to defend the current elite. The educated ‘wanna be’s have been excluded from recognition, and will not side with this vanishingly small group of remaining ‘stakeholders’.

FARfetched said...

I said much the same thing in my comments on Kunstler's post: the whole "look" is a sign that the person in question has opted-out of the system. Less effort, same result… that doesn't require a lot of thought!

I agree with Roy that peak oilers need a vision to get people interested, but it has to be a positive vision. Or "spin," if you insist. The right-wing has been successful with their "framing" of issues; for example, turning their dark vision of mass transportation as a crime vector, only used by Them, into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Such tricks make it easier to get people to oppose "wasting their tax money" on mass transportation.

I've been a little less ambitious myself — instead of a far-reaching cultural shift, I've been thinking along the lines of the conservation PSAs that were all over the place in the 70s. Appeal to people's self-interest — conserving fuel would not only help everyone, it would help them directly. Drive it home with a tag line like "Good for you, good for America."

That does nothing to reach the disaffected, though. What kind of visions would inspire them?

yooper said...

John, very thought provoking article. I don't know what to think of Kunstler, I keep thinking after reading his articles, that this man just does'nt "get it". However, this man has, "got it", to say the very least.. He's attempting to take readers back, little steps at a time, describing our declining society. From the hulled out industrial factories that are vacant today, to suggestions, that suburbia might not be far behind.

Today, a young man who was introduced to "peak oil" through a copy of the "Long Emergency", emailed me. He lives just outside the Detroit Metropolitian area and loves to hunt and fish on lands there. He expressed, that he could'nt wait for the communters to return to the city....

I had to ask him, return to what? Go to where? Not only have the industrial complexes been abandoned, but whole neighborhoods lay in ruins, unfit for anyone to go back too.

As for offering hope for this younger generation, let's attempt to keep it in the simplist of forms. What I like most about your story so far, is that the charactors are expressing hope,love and even, promise. Perhaps the world is crumbling around them, but is there no enjoyment in their daily lives? Is there no comfort that can be found from one another?

I am a professional artist, and know that only "happy rainbow pictures" sell, not doom and gloom.

For one John, I'm very much enjoying the picture you're painting, stroke for stroke. You're message does not escape my eye! I'll learn from it, and hopefully can pass this message on to others, especially to the ones who must endure the time ahead.

Thanks, yooper

Dwig said...

Those of us who write and speak publicly about peak oil and other aspects of the predicament of the industrial world are trying to break through a “cake of custom” every bit as firmly entrenched as the traditions of any tribal society could be, but we’ve arguably been trying to do it with the wrong tools and in the wrong way. Denunciation won’t do the job, and neither will carefully reasoned proofs backed with an infinity of footnotes; both those, entertaining as they are, fairly quickly become exercises in preaching to the choir. It might be worth suggesting that a change in approach is in order.

One tool that I've thought of is scenario planning. Since we can't present a single compelling vision of how the decline will play out, let's look at a range of possibilities, from the relatively benign to the darkest. For an example of scenario envisioning in this area, if not planning, check out Hardin Tibbs' 1998 essay Sustainability. (A somewhat similar approach was taken in South Africa in the wake of the collapse of apartheid, by the group that developed the Mont Fleur Scenarios. Also see Adam Kahane's book "Solving Tough Problems", which discusses that and other efforts to reach common understanding in the midst of conflict.)

Ahavah bat Sarah said...

I didn't know this thought had a name when I wrote about it not too long ago, but as I was reviewing and commenting on one of the chapters of the newish book "Freedomnomics," I took issue with the author's contention that kids want education to move up in the world. I told the author (who actually reads my posts and replies to them, for some strange reason) that this is simply no longer the case.

Communities are having to pass laws against dropping out of school with higher and higher age limits and more and more punitive measures, but it appears to be to no avail. Kids no longer see any value in education, largely because they see their parents, older siblings or younger aunts, uncles and cousins who went to college and are being crushed under loads of student loans - or worse, their jobs still don't pay enough to raise their standard of living any higher than the people they know who work at walmart or burger king.

This problem is fast creeping up the middle class ladder - it's no longer confined to kids in poor neighborhoods. Whereas the poor and middle classes used to believe a college education was a "ticket to success," now they don't. And if a college degree has no value, they think to themselves, then why get a high school diploma - after all, it's only good for getting into college.

At best, a lot of important historical and cultural information is going to be lost soon because the young generation will never be exposed to it. At worst, we'll end up with a whole generation of kids who have no idea how to do anything, or where to find out - and can't even imagine the colonial days or pioneer days to try and save themselves when their technological world grinds to a halt.

lloydinter said...

I agree with your analysis John—I'm a regular reader of JHK and while it wasn't one of his better posts (a little undigested perhaps), the fit with Toynbee had occurred to me as well.

I've always been conscious of the need for alternative visions of society to have an erotic component: a sensual as well as an intellectual aspect. This was certainly true for the counterculture in the sixties and I think largely explains its enormous appeal—it even gathered me up in far-off Australia.

I'm currently writing a book dealing with the Peak Oil crisis as it will affect Australia specifically, and I'm very conscious of the rather dour cast of a lot of Peak Oil writing (Kunstler and yourself being notable exceptions). Maybe it’s unavoidable. Maybe it’s just another symptom of cultural collapse that attractive alternatives have been squeezed out or subsumed by the dominant paradigm just before the crisis arrives.

My book is going to be a survival manual, but it will essentially consist of a fleshed-out collection of dos and don'ts, rather than a vision splendid of the New Jerusalem. Maybe that's a job for someone else!

Danby said...

I don't call my response realism, but my attempt at understanding the problem. Any attempt to plan for the future based on anything less than a strict and intellectually honest attempt to get to the reality of the current situation will succeed only by accident.

My response is certainly traditional Catholicism, but that's not my universal prescription for dealing with the peak oil crisis. As any Catholic, I ultimately believe everyone would be better off spiritually and practically by repenting of their sin and seeking union with Christ. But everyone is not going to do that. What is available to those who will not or cannot embrace the traditional Catholicism will be better off embracing any of hundreds of traditional cultures that were abandoned or destroyed in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.
If one cannot embrace traditional Catholicism, better to become an Amishman, Newfoundland Scot, or authentic adherent of Native Hawaiian culture than to have your life, family and livelihood destroyed in the coming economic collapse

I'm with Chesterton,"But there are some people, nevertheless --and I am one of them-- who think that the most practical and important thing about a man is still his view of the universe. We think that for a landlady considering a lodger, it is important to know his income, but still more important to know his philosophy. We think that for a general about to fight an enemy, it is important to know the enemy's numbers, but still more important to know the enemy's philosophy.

We think the question is not whether the theory of the cosmos affects matters, but whether in the long run, anything else affects them."

The point of the baggy pants, as with so many fashions of the teenage male, is not to look sexy, but to proclaim as loudly as possible "I'm not gay!" When gays are perceived as wearing baggy pants they'll go out of style faster than you can imagine. I've seen it happen with everything from hair length to boots.

jewishfarmer said...

I'm interested by this post in part because I find the question of whether mimesis is, in fact, the force of change so interesting. My doctoral advisor is presently at work on a book arguing that the human relationship to models is vicarious, rather than mimetic - we are not trying to be like the source of cultural change, but to derive pleasure from our connection with them, which includes mimetic practice in the service of the vicarious.

I personally have no very strong opinion on this subject, save to admit it is an interesting question.

The other issue this raises for me is the one of romanticism. Virtually all large scale cultural change from mimetic movements are romantic, in the sense of "romanticism" - that is the postulation of a transcendence of the present condition, a simultaneous looking forward and back. The Hippies were romatics, one could make a case for both the modernists and their antithesis, the socialists, the American transcendentalists, the Romantics, and so on. The problem, of course, with romantic movements is that, to paraphrase Marx, all the world mourns that Lenny Bruce died young, but all the world rejoices that most of the hippies did (not literally, of course) - that is, most romantics are either mimetic or vicarious poseurs, performing without depth.

All of this is mostly speculation on your interesting essay. But I do think that it might be worth asking the question of what relationship Sluggo and Thuggo actually have. Because if Sluggo wants to be like a rap artist, that's one thing, and if we offer Sluggo something better, cooler, more fun (the peak oil movement really needs to work on pleasure in participation - the pleasure of contemplating advance scenarios will not do it for everyone), he might participate. But if Sluggo only wants the vicarious pleasure of experiencing emotion, of watching and deriving satisfaction from the emotion generated by someone else, that requires a different set of enticements.



sharon said...

I think you have something in suggesting that there's a need for positive vision.

My suggestion would be to begin with very basic values that directly confront and oppose the dominant values of the present society.

Among these would be:

The private ownership of land or any other natural resource is immoral; humans cannot own anything that their labor did not create.

The purpose of work is not to gain money or profit, but to gain a livelihood.

Humans are intended to live in cooperative relationship to each other, not in competitive relationship.

The desire to have more power or material possessions than others is a moral evil; people who seek wealth and power are contemptible.

Cynic said...

&pArchdruid, this is the first comment I've made - I admire your writings, and they seem to coincide with what I've been thinking, but put them in a better and more articulate way than I can.

But I note with disquiet that, while you have correctly pointed out that the present Society is not really doing much to "engage" (awful word...) with young people, neither is the Peak Oil guys. Kunstler does so darn well because his grumpiness matches the grumpiness of the young - never expressed as well as Kunstler's, of course, but still, it's the same disgruntlement with the same idiocy.

My disquiet stems from the idea of "present[ing] a vision of the future that inspires and energizes people outside the peak oil scene" to attract the mimesis of the young.In other words, something new to show how the new stuff is not as good as it seems to be. This is where the whole problem lies - what is needed is not something NEW but something very old.

The Greenies made this very same fatal mistake of simultaneously decrying everything new, while dreaming up ever more "new" jargon. Which has descended, predictably, into clich├ęs ; generalisations. Green politics is new thing to sweep away the new thing, as it were. This is easiest to see in the terms they use: "Eco" this and "eco" that; Bio this and bio that, when they should have just been honest enough to say "we're talking about the old-style traditional lifestyle" (even the word lifestyle is jargon, of course...)

There is broadcast on Aussie TV a repeat of a British program called "Grumpy Old Men" (and it's near relative, grumpy old women). This is a series of interviews with ageing baby boomers about the stuff that annoys them in modern Society.

But virtually EVERYONE I know, young and old, complains about the same things. The only dimwits who like these aspects of modern life are either the brain-dead yuppies; the salecritters who market the dross to said brain-dead yuppies or the insultants who make megabucks out of telling us what we already know - that we don't like it. After all, why be part of the solution, when there's SO much money to be made prolonging the problem:

If complaints about this or that horrible aspect of modern life make one a grumpy old man (or woman) then most teenagers I've met must be 65 years old and well ready for the pension.

NO - going back to my point - and to tie it in with yours - Kunstler appeals because he navigates past the treacherous twin shoals of hopeless optimism and callow "doomerism" . He (correctly) dismisses the clueless worshipping of "neophilia" (a jargon word meaning love of the new) while also noting that the "times gone past" weren't as good as memory might suggest. The result is very appealing to most.

But it's the same as the appeal (and skill) of JRR Tolkien's Lord Of The Rings - and you never thought you'd ever hear James Kunstler mentioned in the same sentence as JRR Tolkien! Tolkien is intelligent enough to realise that "it is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour [help and assistance] of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evils in the fields that we know, so that those who came after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule."

What the speaker (Gandalf) was referring to was an assault on the almost-invincible armies of the Dark Lord with a small force. What we are talking about is about as daunting, but much more pedestrian in it's nature - Peak Oil.

The point? James Howard Kunstler, yourself, JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis, Tolstoy, Erasmus, Augustine,GK Chesterton all referred to - and preferred - an older style of thinking, thinking that had nearly been swept away in their own times. But so do most teenagers. So do most grumpy old Baby Boomers, who have had their fill and more of the lies of the PR agencies that if they rush out and buy this-or-that then they will get Nirvana. Instead they get debt of all kinds: monetary debt (bankruptcy when that doesn't work out); marital debt (divorce when that doesn't work out); familial debt ("Death of a salesman" was all about this); temporal debt ("why haven't I got time to do...") and likely spiritual debt (though crass consumerism has it's own dark spirituality).

You've made this very point again and again. My disquiet stems from this: you're impressed with the old - druidism is old, though as you correctly point out, the modern version is actually quite recent. But you seem - perhaps this is an over subtlety -to be recommending a "new vision" to cure the "new vision".

UM, perhaps what's actually needed is a very OLD thing...called Tradition...perhaps?

How does one sell such a thing? No need to. Indeed the very LACK of powerful sales technique is what gives it such a hold on the "mimesis" of today.

Even the sales critters realise this, and know that the way to reduce sales resistance (CS Lewis wrote extensively about this very topic) is to appear to reject sales techniques. Kunstler's point about modern male fashion is that it's sold by seeming to reject the sales techniques of the "establishment". This was similar to the sales technique used to diddle the Woodstock Baby Boomers out of their cash by buying blue jeans and guitars and drugs to show they didn't fit in with those who bought things.

Sell them something new by telling them it's a rejection of something old. Throw out your tried and true stuff for the untested and crass. If you can persuade people to be "up to date" then they become eternally out of date. "Oh, that's so nineties" is a well-worn phrase that will be so "noughties" soon.

The answer is stuff you've hinted at and (likely) try to live, but may not even know it. It is the very same thing as the appeal of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings: love of the (real) past. To realise that every footprint is actually heavy with the past. We cannot put our foot down anywhere on this green earth - or on the bits that are brown or blue-ish, either, without stirring the dust of history. This is the very thing that makes Lord of the Rings so very appealing - and druidism. And a myriad of other things.

Even someone as materialistic as old man Henry Ford felt it - he ended up longing for what he thought was his childhood. Not the (alleged) innocence of children, Ole Production Line Henry was longing for the fact that it (his childhood) happened a long time ago (Henry Ford was an old man by this time). Oddly, this was from the very man who insisted that history is bunk [ie: rubbish].

Touch THAT longing for the old and Peak Oil will have hit more than a mere jackpot, it'll have hit the motherlode itself. Tolkien knew it and knew that longing to be one of the everlasting bits of a human that no amount of showy PT Barnam-isms can displace. He knew to awaken it was a huge task. He knew it was a necessary task. But he succeeded. Well, I think he did. So do the tens of thousands who have read his works.

I hesitate to assign myself - and yourself - such a vital role, but we are the inheritors of Tolkien's legacy, the work he carefully crafted to awaken the old, and the love of the old. Yes, we're (likely) not worthy inheritors. Yes, it means more than the energy debates about Oil and issues surrounding it.

But as Matt Savinar has hinted at: Peak Oil is (itself) but a symptom of the disease. You've hinted at it yourself.

Part of the cure is the love of the old. The Buddhists know it. The Jews live it. The Muslims aspire to it. The modern person yearns for it. The Christians used to know it, but have forgotten it (which is why those who do love the old are usually not Christian any more) in a pathetic desire to appear "up to date" or they have ditched the very core and essence of Christianity, indeed of religion, in order to pursue political power. The deceivers, such as Jim Jones of the Jonestown Massacre fame, try to fake this love of the old.

Materialism cannot supply it. Nor can the psychopaths who run our Society. Jim Jones is reported to have thrown down his Bible one day and bellowed "too many people are looking at this instead of looking at me!" Perhaps the Kool-aid with cyanide would have been avoided if they HAD looked at you, Mr Jones.

It is a profound thing that is being recommended. But - as Tolkien and Lewis found out - and Buddha before them and Aristotle and Plato and St Augustine and Master K'ung Futzu (Confucius) - it's a really enjoyable thing, too.

Perhaps we need to realise the truism that is contained within the phrase "old fashioned honesty". The new fashion is rather it's opposite, and people are sick of it. We need to realise that enjoyment is old fashioned, too.

"Man, please thy maker and be MERRY."

Merry Old England really did exist. It's high time that the merry and the old bit returned to this pitiless world.

Perhaps it's too much to think that Peak Oil will be gentle enough to get this across, I suppose? But then, it was too much for Tolkien to think that people would be interested in a story about the ending and passing away of an invented world that had more history per square millimetre than most people experience in a cubic mile of lifetime.

bryant said...


This was a very thought-provoking post – thank you for your effort.

It is interesting; once you use Toynbee’s perspective, many events become less confusing.

A personal, and fairly limited example: my mother frequently complains about the "made-up names" people give their children these days (these days=last 30 years). These names, like Kanye, were not rooted in biblical, European or Anglo-Saxon tradition. According to her, proper names were ones like William, Edward, and Paul. She found these "new" names threatening, in part, I’m sure, because they seemed to originate from inner city black culture, but in large measure because she saw them as inferior, and a rejection of her culture. I always thought her objections were silly and irrelevant, but placed within the framework of societal mimesis, it seems much less benign.

I am not convinced that her (our?) culture is really worth preserving, but that she instinctively recognized the threat suggests that Toynbee is at least partially correct.

theFlyintheOintment said...

The "Peak Oil" community, which appears to be a smaller group amongst many advocating competing notions of "sustainability," seems to assume that at some time in the future geological realities will thrust their agenda and spokespeople into the public discourse. I think this is a mistaken assumption.

The "Peak Oil" community itself disagrees about a collective approach, yet visit a "community" discussion board, or attend a meeting, and one will quickly discover a gathering of adherents, bordering on disciples, of their own approach to the exclusion of other possibilities. In fact, the level of righteousness that I've encountered has been intolerable, even though I tend to agree more often then not.

Unless this characteristic of the "Peak Oil" community is addressed, I see the broader movement fracturing along lines of disagreement, existing only as organic groups organized around uniformity of thought, while competing amongst one another. Of course, my call for self-reflection assumes the "Peak Oil" community, as a whole, desires something other than continuing as a self-serving vehicle for it, and it's adherents.

While you suggest a "change of approach" is in order, I ask what is the underlying purpose of the current approach? I would argue that, by and large, the current approach has been about self-validation. You don't come out and say it, but you allude to it: "Denunciation won’t do the job, and neither will carefully reasoned proofs backed with an infinity of footnotes; both those, entertaining as they are, fairly quickly become exercises in preaching to the choir." In other words, I'm right, and your wrong; look how smart I am; look at all the books I've read; look at all the people that agree with me.

People don't want to hear their wrong, or that they need to make this or that lifestyle change. People want to be heard, given a hand when needed, and feel part of something larger than themselves.

If any of the "Sustainability" communities manage to gain a larger appeal, it will be because they satisfy the psychological needs of the individual, offer different types of material and technical assistance as needed, while the spokespeople embody a lifestyle--more precisely, an identity--for others to emulate.

yooper said...

John, I'm surprized of the caliber of company this post is entertaining, great! Gee, what a great bunch of people! I'm sorry, if I stepped on any toes lately...

What I'm gathering from many readers here is, how can we unite those inside the "peak oil" circle, to actually communicate to those outside. Possibly come across with a message that's more plausible...

Here's the catch, no matter what we do, a message of this type cannot be accepted by the main populace, period. As Hanson, has suggested it's not in most peoples genes to think regressively, they can only think progressivly. For 35 plus years I could not for the life of me, figure why people could not "invision" a die-off, that is so amply laid out for them, (be it in footnotes or whatever). So why even bother to attempt this? There is no changing the world at this point, so why make peoples lives miserable, by in effect, telling them they're going to die? No? Then anyone of you that have replied to this post please tell me, how this would'nt be the case for anyone of the 300 million in this country? I can assure you most of these people want to live. Sadly, this will not be the case. Do you have really have any idea that might keep your own hide intact, let alone someone eles? If not, then why bother writing about it? Think, by giving these people a "heads up" will actually save their lives? These kind of questions are of a "personal nature", in my opinion, of course, you must answer them for yourselves, and come to terms with that..........

Futhermore, anyone that actually wishes for this decline or collaspe and is veiwing the same picture as I am (whether it's the long decline or apocalyptic collaspe), then I'm going to strongy suggest either you're insane and/or evil. As Hanson suggests, I'm going to strongly suggest that most people and some here on this post are incapable of invisioning such a sceniaro. Not there, nobody home. How else can you justify wising for this when so many must die? Perhaps you might,"think" what might happen in the future, however this only takes you as far as your knowledge and experience has taken you at this point. To this day, my mind is "open", to other ideas, concepts.

Do I have any answers for you? After living with this "monkey on my back" for so long and thousands upon thousands of hours of research and practical experince, the answer is a resounding, "NO!"

All I can offer to readers is of my own experience, period. Really, I'm no further, "ahead" now than when I started this journey. Perhaps, a thought or two, to add to your own. For one, I'm not out there to change your world, perhaps, at best, better understand it..................

Thanks, yooper.

John Michael Greer said...

Apologies to all who had to wait for their comments to be posted - I was at a weekend t'ai chi ch'uan intensive from Thursday evening on and had no internet access. Many thanks for a bumper crop of insightful comments!

Ariel, of course there are some people working hard in various ways on practical responses to peak oil -- just nowhere near so many as the scale of the challenge demands. Hoskins' work is first rate -- he's grasped, as so many others still have not, that change has to start in people's lives and neighborhoods or it goes nowhere.

Roy, couldn't have said it better myself. I agree (obviously) that a religious perspective is invaluable for making sense of our predicament; it's precisely the job of religion to put things into the context of ultimate concerns, however badly that job has been done by some recent practitioners.

Loveandlight, I can't think of a fashion statement anywhere that doesn't look goofy from some perspective!

Deadbeat Dad, yes, it's exactly the recognition that the game isn't worth playing any more -- a recognition that seems entirely justified at this point -- that's motivating the rejection of the symbols of cultural conformity by so much of today's youth.

Farfetched, if I knew what visions would reach the disaffected I'd be blaring them out at top volume on every media outlet I could get, instead of posting essays here.

Yooper, I have a similar reaction to Kunstler -- some of his stuff seems astonishingly insightful to me, some seems hopelessly batwitted. Mind you, he doubtless has similar opinions of my stuff if he's even noticed its existence yet. But it's precisely the fact that life goes on, even in hard times, that I think most needs to be communicated. There's a great passage in Theodore Sturgeon's story "The Hurkle is a Happy Beast" about that -- unfortunately I've misplaced the collection that contains it.

Dwig, scenario planning is a very useful tool, especially when it's used to break out of conventional assumptions. My narratives use some of the same tools, as you've probably noticed.

Ahavah, it's a real problem, but the kids who decide education isn't worth anything to them are, at least in my view, making a reasoned response to the situation around them. An American public school education is worth almost nothing these days, and kids aren't irrational when they value it accordingly. Of course you're right that this will likely have drastic effects in the near to middle future, but that's simply part of the predicament.

Lloyd, your book sounds excellent and much needed.

Dan, you'll get no argument from me about the Chesterton quote. I have my doubts, though, that -- Catholicism excepted -- anybody can really adopt the traditional cultures you've cited without being born into them, or at least going through a long and challenging process of acculturation. One of the reasons I tend to talk about pre-corporate American culture is precisely that, even in its last lingering scraps, it's probably more accessible to my primary audience than most other options.

Sharon (1), I think the relationship between mimesis and vicarious enjoyment is likely much more of a "both/and" than an "either/or" situation. But it's a valid question. As for "romanticism," I'm still not sure to what extent that's a useful term and to what extent it's a buzzword in which the condemnatory and complimentary senses have gotten so tangled it means almost nothing any more.

Sharon (2), the sort of thing you're proposing is rooted in a radical moral dualism that would make most third-century Gnostics blush. You've started by coming up with an account of the values of the current society cast in the most negative possible light, phrased a set of opposing statements so they look as positive as possible, and think you've gotten somewhere. Please read my essay on contemporary radicalism here for a more complete discussion of why this sort of thinking leads nowhere.

Cynic, as I see it, at least, our predicament requires something a good deal more subtle than a simple binary division between "good-old" and "bad-new." You're certainly right that many of the attitudes we need most right now are attitudes that were common in earlier times. The problem here is that trying to shift history into reverse has been tried countless times and it simply doesn't work. The closest thing to success you get is something brand new dressed up in old clothes -- Christian fundamentalism is a classic example, a self-proclaimed "old time religion" that nobody before around 1850 would have recognized at all.

Tolkien, who has been one of my favorite writers from boyhood on, has what I think is a better strategy. You must have read his essay "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics," where he talks about the viewpoint of the Beowulf author in terms that apply equally well to his own relationship to the Norse myths he used. It's clear from that essay that he wanted to communicate some very old values and ways of thinking in his fiction, but he knew better than to think he could use old forms for the purpose. Instead, he created new forms of stunning originality and creativity -- forms that had a powerful impact on their time; I'm convinced that the Sixties would not have been what they were if most of the youth of the period hadn't had dog-eared copies of Tolkien's trilogy in their backpacks.

The founders of the Druid Revival, the spiritual movement out of which my own work evolves, had much the same idea. Their Druidry was inspired by bits and pieces of Celtic lore, but on the whole, it was a new thing, created in response to the newborn industrial society of the 18th century, and it's been changing ever since in response to changing times.

By the way, when you spell tradition with a capital T, I do hope you don't mean the farrago pieced together by Guenon, Evola, et al.

Bryant, you can expect to hear a good deal more from Toynbee here in the months to come. Mind you, that's partly because I recently got a complete copy of his 10-volume A Study of History, but it's also because he has an enormous amount of insight to offer.

Fly, you're quite right about the peak oil movement -- much of it is arrogant, self-righteous, and self-marginalizing, presenting its case in ways guaranteed to attract as few people as possible. It has also tended to consistently overstate its case so drastically that when the reality of peak oil arrives, the hardcore peakistas may be the last people on earth to recognize it. It's happened before, though, that what was a fringe movement with similar problems has changed into a broader and less self-defeating social phenomenon with time and the press of circumstances; with any luck that can happen here too.

Yooper, I don't expect to get a message out to the wider community, much less to unite the peak oil movement behind a single vision -- that will happen long after pigs sprout wings and fly through the air singing Wagner arias. My goal here is the more modest one of helping people to look at the future we're facing in ways that I think will be a bit more conducive not only to bare survival, but to the preservation of cultural treasures and human values. I've got other projects under way in other contexts, of course, but that's the point of this blog. So I'm with you; I don't have the answers either.

Joe said...


I'd like to ask a very naive question, with a point.

Exactly what is the "Peak Oil Crisis?"

Let me refine that question a bit.

I've opined elsewhere that I don't think the peak oil issue is going to play out apocalyptically, but let's assume I'm wrong, and that we actually get the absolute worst case scenario for dynamic systems overshoot. What kind of hit is our technolgically-weakened, self-absorbed, short-sighted global civilization going to take? A 50% decrease in population? An 80% decrease in population?

Starting in the 14th century, the Black Death inflicted a 33% population reduction throughout Europe over the course of three centuries, yet Europe survived with most of its social institutions relatively intact.

In the 16th century, smallpox inflicted up to a 95% population reduction on the Americas, yet the Spanish found recognizeable (though terribly weak and demoralized) resistance to their invasion, and had the Europeans not moved in, it seems reasonable that by now, the native Americans would have re-populated both continents.

At the end of the Permian era (about 250 million years ago) it's commonly estimated that 95% of ALL marine life died, and 70% of ALL land life, yet here we are.

Exactly what do we lose in the worst-case peak oil scenario?

Lives, of course. But in 100 years, virtually every person alive today will be dead, anyway. 99.999...% of us will be utterly forgotten, as well, along with all our joys and sufferings.

Governments and economic structures, of course. Since those are working so well and equitably around the world, I can see where losing all of that would be a real shame. (I'm being sarcastic).

Technology? Is this whole hoopla about losing the Internet, iPods, and Hummers?

Exactly what is all the peak oil concern and tension all about?

People are primarily reactive, not proactive. This is an evolutionary strategy refined over, not years, not centuries, not millennia, but millions of years, by the simple process of trying random things (repeatedly) and generally discarding anything that doesn't work. Not only is this blend of reactive/proactive not going to change much or easily, but I personally doubt that you can invent anything that works much better.

People en masse are not going to grow their own vegetable gardens when produce is abundant, varied, and cheap at the nearby supermarket. People en masse are not going to walk to the supermarket on a hot day (or through a driving blizzard) when they can drive a petro-chemically fueled vehicle in comfort for $0.50. (30 MPG, a 5-mile round trip, $3.00/g, do the math).

On the other hand, when the circumstances change, people will react and adapt their behaviors. We are actually quite good at that. If we were koala bears, I'd be worried. But we aren't.

If you want anything like a consensus on peak oil, I think you need to start with a consensus on exactly why it is a problem. Or even whether it is a problem.

After all, isn't the root of all our various Mathusian dilemmas an excess of population? From that standpoint, it looks like the worst-case peak oil crisis is a solution, not a problem.

John Michael Greer said...

Joe, I've discussed the likely outcome of the predicament of industrial society (of which peak oil is only one part) in quite a few posts here already. I'd encourage you to read these in particular:

Briefing for the Descent
Cycles of Sustainability
Glimpsing the Deindustrial Age

And also the theory of civilizational decline underlying these posts:

How Civilizations Fall: A Theory of Catabolic Collapse

As you'll discover if you read these and other posts here, I'm no more convinced that peak oil will have apocalyptic results than you are. What I'm suggesting, rather, is that between the two options that hog pretty much all the space in today's discourse about the future -- the belief in perpetual progress and the belief in imminent apocalypse -- there's a more likely third possibility, the possibility of decline: the fate that has overtaken pretty much all past civilizations, in other words.

Your three examples -- the Black Death, the post-Columbian dieoffs in the New World, and the end-Permian mass extinction -- are all exogenous events that primarily impact population. What I'm discussing instead is the likelihood of an endogenous process (not a single event) that primarily impacts economic systems and only secondarily affects population (along with political structures, technology, and much more). An example that fits my model would be the collapse of the Roman Empire in the west between 300 and 500 CE. If you'll review that -- I particularly suggest Michael Grant's histories of the subject -- you'll have a much clearer idea of what's being discussed here.

Jon said...

Kudos on your latest post. If you're looking to increase readership, keep writing in this manner (i.e., forget the post-apocalypse fiction series-save that stuff for your book) and you'll get traffic. People who are aware of peak oil are hungry for the here and now not the distant future (see Dimtry Orlov). If you are not familar with Paul Fussell, a current day Toynbee, start with "Doing Battle..." it's an interesting read of one individual's pre and post WW2 remembrances

I too read Kunstler, not so much for Kunstler, but more for the comments. Unfortunately his blog has been taken over by spammers and a few of the more erudite posters have left; the blog now requires registration for comments, so I'm hoping these posters will soon be back. Kunstler, imho, is stuck on variations of the Y2K theme and fails to make to connect that it's not peak oil which dooms us, but rather the economic fallout of peak oil that will destroy America, i.e. an economy baseed on growth powered by cheap oil will not grow when the price of oil is no longer cheap and that monkey will be the straw that breaks the camel's back. Adding to this thought is the willingness of the American powers that be to facilitate the destruction of America's economy. All this is what's keeps me up at night planning escape scenarios.

Yet behind all this doom and gloom I see a few bright spots, technologically speaking, concentrated solar power for one: ( And microwaved hydrocarbon fracturing, though I can't find the EROI of this process, it sounds promising: It is also amusing, to me at least, that Al Gore's TN residence is energy inefficient, gas budget over 1k per month, and Geo. Bush's Crawford TX ranch uses passive solar and collects rainfall & recycles gray water for irrigation for a minimal carbon footprint.

As always, I'm interested in your feedback even though I'm presently feeling like Virginia Woolf during the blitz.

MBE said...

I am a documentary filmmaker who has for the last 2 years been struggling with how to prepare the world for the devastations of peak oil and climate change. My husband reads your posts on a regular basis and sent me this post. I believe he hoped it would inspire me, but instead, it has driven me into a bit of depressed thought...

The rich people of the world (and the middle class who believe they should be rich) worry about making money, and the poor of the world worry about making money. How do we get them to worry about anything else? How do we get them to worry about the future?

I believe we are unusual, that a human has to be altruistic to do what we're doing: changing our own lifestyles and helping others to do the same. How do we get others to follow? Maybe we can't. Maybe we can only work on preparing the world, our infrastructures, for the fallout. I'm not sure trying to prepare people is working, or will ever work.

I agree that inspiring and energizing is the only way to motivate most people. In film, journalism and communication schools, we learn that study after study shows fear and inspirational personal stories as the only motivators for action.

I was filming at a conference last week for social entrepreneurs from around the world who are all working toward sustainable change in their countries. I spoke with a woman at the conference - a woman from rural Kenya - who calls the videos NGOs produce about world poverty and famine "pornography." I agree with her - my husband and I have referred similarly to "disaster porn." For most people, it is sad, it is tragic, and it shuts people down emotionally - they avoid it, and they walk away while doing nothing. Yes, these media and the negative rants that come out of the peak oil community do serve to convert a few (they converted my husband and I) but they will not convert most people.

So what kind of media about peak oil can inspire and energize? How can you turn a nearly world-ending scenario into a good thing? By showing that it will bring us closer together within our communities? That it will slow down our lifestyles and allow us to enjoy the little things in life? That you will see more stars in the sky when there are no lights on in the cities? That you don't have to mimic gangster pimps, you can mimic happy, poor, dirty organic farmers? How do we turn that barreling high-speed train of thought around - from thinking that we have to preserve our consumer society at all costs, to thinking that it's ok to live more simply, that you might be happier... especially if you do it now while you still can. (Wait - that was negative again.) How can we portray this as an inspiring and energizing thing to people who are not aware of the severe changes in store for us?

And, I hate to ask, but how many people who ARE peak oil aware are actually seriously changing their lifestyles? Have we even preached enough to our own choir?

(And as a side note, I have followed Kunstler for years, and much as I love him, why is he spending his time ranting about the clothing of youth rather than figuring out how to change society? I guess we all have our traditional human moments.)

I suppose I'm asking, what are the inspirational, powerful, and appealing reasons to prepare for the fallout of peak oil (and, I believe, climate change)? It's a question I've asked myself for two years. Since I didn't have an answer, last year I made a short movie about the changes in store for us and how to prepare. It was largely based on fear. And it doesn't seem to have worked. I can't get it into a single film festival, and it has died without distribution.

So I'm ready for any conclusions you come to. We all desperately need a better direction.

Thanks for your post.

FARfetched said...

Joe, Jon has touched on the real problem here: not that we're at or near a production peak — but that demand for oil has grown faster than supply, and we're at or near a point where demand is higher than what the "market" can supply. An economy and culture based on endless growth cannot survive a permanent shortage.

I don't subscribe to the die-off theories, although if someone starts lobbing nukes in a last-ditch oil grab, all bets are off. But changes are a-comin'. If enough people get on top of the situation and do something to reduce consumption (of anything, but it all comes back to petroleum), then we can possibly unwind ourselves back to a more sustainable lifestyle without too much disruption.

BTW, Joe, if you think food is cheap… have you priced corn or bell peppers lately? I planted six bell pepper plants & have not regretted it in the least. Corn we get from the in-laws or neighbors. Sure, there aren't many people who can go from nothing to a large garden all at once, but growing stuff in beds and/or containers (which can be done even on an apartment balcony) is a start. I think we have a few years before we really start feeling a constant pinch from fuel shortages, and probably longer before it really affects food production & delivery, so we all have a few years to start small & build up our own production capacity.

Coming back to the topic, this might be a way to get the attention of the disaffected: the society you're blowing off is going to have major problems in a few years; get your low-tech chops together & you might be "on top" in the end. You have to appeal to their self-interest....

Joe said...


Thank you for the references. Three very good essays, and I particularly liked your paper on catabolic social decline.

One thing that jumped out at me from that paper was your comment about grasses and fish. Every catastrophe has a silver lining, so to speak.

One of the stories about the Hindu goddess Kali is that in her aspect of bloodthirsty slayer and goddess of war, she lays waste to everything around her until she hears the small cry of a newborn child. Then she ceases to make war and suckles the child. Her destruction creates the tabula rasa upon which the new story, the new life, can be written.

I still don't have an answer to my question, however. Why the big concern over peak oil?

Again, let me try to clarify the question.

Oil was a useless commodity two hundred years ago, and was only just becoming valuable a hundred years ago. It became the centerpiece of wealth and "energy production" only in the last half of the 20th century. Within the next 50 years, it will be gone.


It's merely change, and change is the only truly inevitable thing in this stage of our cooling Earth's lifespan. Personally, I don't think the oil economy is anywhere near the most significant of the social changes that have taken place during roughly the same time period.

A much bigger change, for instance, was water treatment technology. The simple expedient of adding a small amount of inexpensive and mostly-harmless chlorine bleach to public water supplies (first done in 1850) has made healthy cities possible on a scale undreamed-of in any earlier time. That isn't at all affected by the oil economy.

I'm having trouble seeing why the loss of oil is such a big deal. It will certainly mark the end of certain habits we've developed in the course of my lifetime, such as suburban arcologies, family vacation trips, global integrated economies, and one-day business trips to distant locales. But we adapted very quickly to these changes as they came on, and will "unadapt" just as quickly. Barring, of course, an Apocalypse scenario that catches us all in the loo.

Meanwhile, we have a contrapuntal and little-acknowledged crisis taking place right under us that the vanishing of the global oil economy would actually help to solve.

Remember The Jetsons? The 1960's cartoon? If you recall, George Jetson's "job" was pushing a button on his desk, sometimes several times on a rough day, and this was reflective of the mindset of the 50's and 60's: the Age of Labor was over, largely due to technology and abundant cheap energy.

We aren't there, of course, but we're surprisingly close, and we've reached an interesting point where our efficient, energy-intensive, labor-light agricultural and manufacturing processes are creating a true scarcity of jobs - it isn't merely a matter of outsourcing. However, our economy has not made a corresponding shift to the leisure-oriented economy sometimes predicted in the 50's and 60's. Instead, we are still demanding that people earn their privilege to live through labor, even though there is less and less real work for them to do. The Jetson's cartoon was remarkably prescient: we still have to put in that 40-hour week and put up with the abusive boss, even though all we do is push a button.

The result is an approaching catastrophe in education. I'm sure people have noticed that everyone is going back to school. If you look at the educational system carefully, it's pretty clear that it isn't about education, nor has it been for at least the last 50 years (probably a lot longer). It makes much more sense when viewed as a holding pool for an excess labor force, containing primarly young people seeking to enter the workforce before the old-timers are ready to leave, but increasingly containing as well all of the downsized and underemployed. Education additionally serves as a kind of artificial meritocracy for doing triage on a large workforce trying to enter a limited workplace.

When my father was entering the workforce (late 1920's) a high-school education was overkill for most skilled jobs, the training for which was always done on-the-job. My father became a surveyor and a licensed professional engineer many years before he got his GED, which he was eventually forced to do because of the growing emphasis on the educational meritocracy. Today, you can't even imagine someone being an "engineer" without a college degree, and many of those same skilled jobs that did not require a high school diploma in 1930, require two or more master's degrees today. Which is, on even a moment's thought, simply ludicrous.

From my conversations with young people, this is a far bigger crisis than peak oil. I mentioned peak oil to one bright young man the other night, and his comment was a contemptuous, "Butter, or margarine?" He was referring to the flip-flopping that health professionals have taken in his lifetime on the health dangers of butter versus margarine. Meaning that he didn't believe a word of any of it - to him, it's all fear-based deceptive advertising, paid for by some power- or profit-based interest trying to sell something. Peak Oil and the Axis of Evil and Butter Versus Margarine all belong in the same trashcan, so far as he is concerned.

But the job market is something he experiences. Educational triage is something he experiences. Those experiences are deeply alienating our upcoming generations, preventing their buy-in to "our way of life."

Can the discontinuous transition from one civilization to the next be analyzed and predicted solely on the basis of production and waste (as in your article), or does it have a cognitive/social/spiritual dimension as well? Can a civilization make a discontinuous transition simply because its next generation is fed up with it, and refuses to buy-in to its verities? I think your example of Vladimir Lenin indicates that it is quite possible.

So as I see it, the loss of the energy-rich oil economy might be a real boon for the collective entity known as the United States, as well as other "civilized" nations. It will create a lot of skilled jobs as the global economy deflates and is replaced by local production of food and other necessities, to say nothing of comforts. It could draw power away from an increasingly fascist national government into local communities. Far from Apocalypse, it could result in a relatively gentle transition into a more sustainable network of local economies that elicit inter-generational buy-in and support.

At the very least, it could certainly be guided in that direction by people who believed it was possible.

This is all assuming our energy surplus shifts to an energy deficit as oil declines, something I'm not at all convinced will happen.

It's possible that we've reached a technological dead-end when it comes to releasing usable energy from natural resources. I rather doubt it, however. Instead, I know from personal experience that modern academic research is focused primarily on career-building (in all fields), which leads to an intense conservatism in research; while industrial research, when not so badly-managed that it accomplishes nothing at all (I worked for several years in the $10M/year R&D facility of a billion-dollar private corporation that turned out nothing for twenty years - we called ourselves "the fishbowl" because our primary purpose, so far as we could deduce, was to wear white lab coats and pocket-protectors for viewing by VIP visitors), is focused primarily on conservative short-term profitability in existing markets. And individual inventors, who are perhaps the best sources of true innovation, need a buyer. None of these "innovation" processes is likely to produce anything interesting under the current circumstances. When energy circumstances change, however, the innovation equation will change, and then there will be a great many people trying very hard to make a whole lot of money.

I will be very surprised if they all come up completely empty-handed. In some ways, I wonder if perhaps that isn't the real worst-case scenario, since it is likely to allow things to simply continue without any fundamental changes. Or maybe we will get cold fusion, almost-unlimited energy, and a successful transition to a leisure-based economy (whatever that might look like)....

However this all works out - and it is kind of fun to peer into the crystal ball and play with what might happen - I'm not sure I see any kind of "problem" inherent in peak oil.

Yes, we lose the American Empire at some point, but only because history tells us that is inevitable, whether it is peak oil or avian flu or government corruption that pushes us over the edge (I'd currently put my money on government corruption.) We'll lose all our civilization's tax records, but (some) great literature and music will be preserved just because some people, somewhere, will care enough to preserve it. Some people will suffer and die. Some will thrive. Most will go from day to day, much as they do now.

It's just change.

Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...

Dear John = JMG:

(A) Thanks for continuing to blog. Although I am too busy and
too shy to post much here, I do read pretty well every word,
both from your own workstation and the workstations of your
co-bloggers. I think I have learned a lot from such reading, as
I now argue by citing just two examples:

(a) A few months ago, I noticed Danby writing about distributism
(or distributivism), and was prompted by his words to do a
Wikipedia investigation, and thereby learned that the
distributivist programme really WAS the programme I had myself
been groping toward through Catholic Worker and Schumacher and
similar peace-and-justice lines of Catholic theologizing. So
your blog has helped make my vague political ideas more
concrete. Our family is anchored in Estonia, and since even
Estonians here in the North American diaspora need to attend to
the political evolution of our young Estonian state, I see the
eventual need to think about, perhaps even to write about,
distributivism in specifically Estonian-Catholic terms.

(b) Tonight I learned from you and your readers about and its related site, and I found from a quick check
of the second of these two sites that there is some writing from
Rob Hopkins that I could add to the small donation of
permaculture books I set up this spring at the Nova Scotia
Agricultural College, near Truro (

Truro is the town of my family's post-1944 exile - admittedly, a
period that is coming to an end, with Estonia again
independent, and with our family life anchored more in Estonia
than in Nova Scotia or Ontario. One question that now arises is
this: Can Truro in Nova Scotia, or, alternatively, can some such
town as Tartu in Estonia or Haapsalu in Estonia, learn something
from Rob Hopkins's work at Totnes in Devon?

(B) I turn now to a rather concrete request. As I review your
blog, I think also about your book project. It is important that
your forthcoming book attract a broad and influential
readership, as the philosophy-of-city-life books from Jane
Jacobs did a generation ago. You might now find it useful to
consult me a little, from time to time, perhaps by phone rather
than by e-mail, on book-related points. Like Danby on this blog,
and indeed also like Caryl Johnston on this blog, I would prove
a zealous, and where necessary comical, respondent to questions
about Catholic this and Catholic that. Also, I could help link
you up with appropriate technical people in wind power and ham
radio, working as I presently do in the busy and
cross-fertilized setting of southern Ontario.

Finally, I might be able to supply some ideas, perhaps relevant
to your book, about the preservation of scientific knowledge in
the impending decline.

I should finish by amplifying this last point a bit, with
reference to day-to-day work here in Ontario.

An oral, interpersonal, Old-Boy-and-Girl-Network informal
culture is crucial to the day-to-day work of science.
Morgan-Keenan spectral classification of stars - basically the
Wikipedia-familiar OBFGKM for temperatures and the
Wikipedia-familiar V, IV, III, II, I for luminosities - raises
points of detail that one does not really get, or does not get
adequately, in textbooks. So Morgan taught Garrison, orally, and
Garrison taught Corbally and Gray, orally, and I have tried
kicking around a little likewise helping Garrison, orally, and
Garrison is some years into retirement, and if the Lords of
Dimness in our impending cultural decline, in our impending
Kunstlerian "Long Emergency", inadvertently silence or isolate
or in some other way inadvertently pauperize Corbally and Gray
some of the orally transmitted knowledge will be LOST, and if
you say well what about the International Astronomical Union
people then the answer is that Garrison with Gray and/or
Corbally have themselves been or themselves are the key officers
in the relevant International Astronomical Union commission on
spectral classification, some crucial discussions in which
proceed orally at face-to-face IAU meetings!

The moral: even in astronomy, knowledge hangs by a pretty thin
thread, essentially by a thin filament of what the
anthropologists who trained you in your own university might
call a culture.

I'm sure the oral-culture situation I have just sketched in my
own field of astronomy holds also in other scientific fields -
for instance, in a field I worship from far, far away, pure
maths. My 1990s prof for sophomore multivariate real analysis,
the formidable Z___, was himself good enough to find mistakes in
a standard textbook, Spivak's "Calculus on Manifolds". I know
that Z___, even though quite young, spent post-doctoral time
(including summer-vacation time) in places like the Sorbonne,
and I believe he is one of just a few hundred "analysts" in the
world pure-maths community who fully understand the results that
everyone else in the maths world at best half-understands.
(Possible example of such a result: Fubini's theorem, saying
that is in many scenarios okay to permute the x, y, z in a
multiple integral, as when you are calculating the mass of a
solid bounded by some well-defined surface upon being given its
point-density function rho(x,y,z).)

Spivak's book, brilliant as it is, was, I repeat, found by Z___
to contain lapses in rigour, which Z___ tried to communicate
orally to us in his lectures. No doubt the buddies Z___ has
taken summer coffee with at the Sorbonne know all about the
lapses, and no doubt if our impending Kunstlerian "Long
Emergency" pauperizes the Sorbonne and its surrounding network
of cafes it will become hard for anyone to work out what Spivak
did wrong. This isn't stuff you can look up in the leading
textbooks: it's a matter of correcting, I emphasize, of ORALLY
correcting, the leading textbooks!

If some of this present rant, perhaps especially these ranting
ruminations on oral culture, strikes a chord with you, perhaps
you could send me a quiet private e-mail with your up-to-date
e-mail address, and with any other contact particulars that may
be useful? Book authors need contacts the way diplomats and
spies need contacts. Contacts, that is to say, prove for them to
be mission-critical.

The best contact short of a face-to-face cafe chat is, of
course, contact through telephone.

hoping this rather ranting
and personal blog post
is okay,

Tom = Toomas (Tom) Karmo

(at a Canadian astronomy facility)

John Michael Greer said...

Jon, well, everybody's got their opinion. I've also heard from people who consider the narrative fiction the most useful thing I'm doing here. I'll be finishing out "Adam's Story" as time permits, with other projects as well. There are a lot of people discussing the immediate future in a world of peak oil; one of my points is that a look further down the road is also valuable now and then.

MBE, my take is that you can't make people wake up; all you can do is hand a cup of coffee to the ones who have already dragged themselves out of bed and are stumbling into the kitchen. You're right, though, that fear isn't an effective source of motivation; people have had so many people trying to scare them for political advantage for so long that they're pretty much immune to it at this point. Nor can you do the job with the sort of vapid Utopian hope that is the other side of the equation of fear.

A documentary that really tackled the predicament of industrial society, it seems to me, would be a very different thing from the sort of scapegoat-chasing catastrophe porn we've seen recently. It could be a conversation about the lessons of the past and the way our choices in the present could shape the future, for good or ill. If that sort of thing seems relevant, maybe we should talk; I can be reached via

Farfetched, good -- that's basically the same thing I would have said.

Joe, well, of course from a sufficiently abstract level it's just change; some people will benefit from it, and some will just muddle through. Many others, though, will be destroyed by it, and a lot of priceless cultural heritage will be lost. Roman culture had a vast amount of music, vocal and instrumental -- probably more than any culture before our own. Do you know how much survives? One fragment of one song that takes about 25 seconds to play. Map that onto today's culture and you might be able to see some reason for my concern.

I think you massively underestimate the role that cheap abundant energy from fossil fuels have played in making every aspect of the modern world, but that's something that will become clear only in retrospect; equally, peak oil is only one aspect of the predicament of industrial society, as I've suggested many times. I'd also point out that one of the central themes of this blog is that choices we make now can affect the flow of change for good or ill; that's likely to be the case no matter what the changes are we're facing.

But your comment about a cognitive and spiritual dimension to the fall of civilizations echoes something that's been on my mind for some time now. The theory of catabolic collapse does seem to model the economic dimensions of the fall of civilizations very well, but there are other dimensions it leaves out, notably the way in which falling civilizations seem to fall apart culturally and lose the ability for concerted action. I'm beginning to grope toward some notions here, and they'll be discussed in future posts.

Tom, thank you for the offer! The manuscript is already in the hands of the publisher for a first reading, but I'll see what I can do. I've changed email computers since we last corresponded, and lost most of my address book in the process -- a note to with your current email will reach me.

As for your question -- can what worked for Totnes work for Tartu? -- I suspect it's going to be more of a cut-and-fit process. I've recently been consulted informally by a local government official about setting up a sustainability program for a town in Oregon, and we're looking at the same slow process, finding the things that will work in the specific situation there.

interdisciplinary John said...

I wonder if there's not too much emphasis on, and expectation of, the emergence of a unified cultural vision that will communicate the perceptions of Peak Oil cognoscienti to the unconverted.
A cultural exploration of these issues would be diverse, surprising and even contain mutually contradictory strands, if it were live and ground-up. After all, we're not talking about marketing.
Forget telegrams, think mould.

On another issue, I worry about how much brain space is left to consider post peak oil social crisis after climate change has wearied the collective antenna. I assume these separate hydrocarbon fallouts have been teased apart with clarity and well placed commas elsewhere on your blog John; apologies for raising what must be a tiring faq. The reason for doing so though, is that I'm aware of cultural work that explores ecological crisis (eg here:
where the balance of attention is weighted rather more towards climate change than the shady slope of hubberts curve. Perhaps this is appropriate given the urgency needed in a response to climate change, but it does illustrate the difficulty of sharing awareness.

Harry Wykman said...

Thanks for the thought John. I have used some of your comments on Toynbee to develop ideas on 'sects' as imitable communities.