Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Post-Peak Politics

The recent downward lurch in the price of oil, among its other effects, has provided a good look at the downward arc of a cycle of public discourse about energy that will likely become all too familiar during the months and years ahead of us. As oil prices rose to new records a few weeks back, the media bristled with pundits warning about an imminent energy crisis in language ranging from sober to apocalyptic. Now that prices are cycling down again, another round of pundits has surfaced in the media, insisting that the first lot were wrong and we really can burn as much energy as we want.

These same frenetic swings in popular media and public opinion showed up in the 1970s, of course, and this is not the first such cycle we’ve seen since energy prices began climbing out of the basement in 2003 or so. I suspect a comparison of the rate of pro- and anti-peak oil pieces in the media with upward and downward movements in the price of oil would find a solid positive correlation, though my college statistics classes are far enough in my past that I’ll let someone else apply for the grant.

Such short-term gyrations deserve attention. As I’ve suggested in several posts here, much of the impact of peak oil – and indeed of the wider crisis of industrial society, of which peak oil forms only one aspect – takes the form of increased volatility rather than linear change. This in itself is a source of serious economic and social disruption; if governments, businesses, and families have no way of knowing whether gasoline, or diesel fuel, or home heating oil will be $3 a gallon or $6 a gallon six months from now, planning for the future becomes an exercise in high-stakes gambling, especially as the same uncertainty percolates through the rest of the economy in the form of unstable energy and raw material costs.

Still, these short-term effects are only half the story. Behind them, and more than half hidden by them, is the long-term trend that has lifted energy prices from the all-time lows of the 1980s and 1990s to today’s troubling levels. If that trend continues into the future, as seems most likely, not many of the economic arrangements of the last thirty years are well equipped to survive the experience. The resulting transformations will play out on many levels, but one of the most important – and the one I want to talk about today – is the political sphere.

The politics of peak oil form one of the most explosive and least often understood dimensions of the emerging crisis of industrial civilization. Too often, when questions of politics enter the peak oil discourse, they focus on the belief that the problem of peak oil can be solved by throwing one set of scoundrels out of power so that another set of scoundrels can take their place. This seems hopelessly misguided to me.

To start with, peak oil is not a problem that can be solved. It’s a predicament – a phenomenon hardwired into our species’ most fundamental relationships with physical and ecological reality – and like any other predicament, it cannot be solved; it can only be accepted. It differs in detail, but not in kind, from the collisions with ecological limits that punctuate the historical record as far back as you care to look.

Like every other species, humanity now and then overshoots the limits of its ecological support system. It’s our misfortune to live at a time when this has happened on a much larger scale than usual, due to our species’ recent discovery and reckless exploitation of the Earth’s once-abundant fossil fuel reserves. Expecting a change of leaders, or even of systems, to make that reality go away is a little like trying to pass a bill in Congress to repeal the law of supply and demand.

Still, leaders and governmental systems make great scapegoats, and just now scapegoats are very much in fashion. Consider the rogue’s gallery of villains blamed in the media for recent surges in the price of oil: speculators, oil companies, environmentalists, Arab sheiks, Nigerian rebels, and the US government, which – succumbing to a rare fit of common sense – refused to drain the nation’s strategic oil reserve so that vacationers could have cheap gas for their holiday driving. Veer away from the mainstream media, in turn, and you’ll find that the list of culprits for soaring oil prices has expanded far beyond an archdruid’s capacity to catalogue.

Missing from nearly all these lists, however, is the simple geological reality that there’s only so much oil in the Earth’s rocks, we’ve pumped out most of the really large and easily accessible deposits, and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to maintain current production levels – much less increase them – by drawing down the smaller and less accessible deposits that remain. It’s not hard to show that this is a major factor in the current energy crisis; when a commodity’s price doubles in a year, but the production of the same commodity fails to budge outside of a narrow range, it’s a reliable bet that physical limits on the supply of the commodity are to blame.

The difficulties with this otherwise sensible observation, of course, are twofold. It offers no easy answers; if we’ve reached the physical limits of petroleum production, that’s a fact we have to learn to live with, no matter how inconvenient or uncomfortable it may be. At the same time, it offends against a common assumption of modern thought, the belief that human beings – and only human beings – play an active role in history. Older civilizations understood that nonhuman forces shared in the making of history, and there’s a fine irony in the way that our civilization, having rejected the nonhuman world as a historical agent, now finds its own history being shaped by a nonhuman reality with which it steadfastly refuses to come to terms.

Bring historical irony into the political sphere, though, and as often as not it turns explosive. The example of Germany in the aftermath of the First World War is instructive. Faced with the collision between an imperial ideology of world domination and the hard fact of military defeat, a great many Germans after 1918 searched feverishly for an explanation for that defeat that did not require them to recognize the geopolitical limits to German power in the dawning age of oil.

As the economic troubles of the postwar period mounted, so did the quest for scapegoats, until finally a fringe politician named Adolf Hitler came up with an answer that most Germans found acceptable. Germany’s second attempt at world conquest proved, even more conclusively than the first, that in an age of oil, a small country with no oil reserves and no defensible borders has no business dreaming of global empire. Still, it took the most destructive war in human history and the horrors of the Holocaust to bring that simple fact to the attention of the German people.

One factor that made the political situation in Weimar Germany so vulnerable to this sort of self-destructive evasion of crucial realities was the intellectual bankruptcy of the mainstream political parties at the time. The late 19th century saw the emergence of a political consensus across the then-industrial world that united all mainstream parties behind the principles of free trade, governmental noninterference in economic affairs, and imperial expansion into the Third World. Finding substantive differences between Liberals and Conservatives in Britain, Democrats and Republicans in America, and equivalent parties in other countries around the turn of the last century was a task best pursued with a magnifying glass. It took decades of crisis, culminating in the economic debacle of the Great Depression, to break the grip of that consensus on the political imagination of the industrial world.

We are in a similar situation in America today. If anything, contemporary political thought is far more impoverished than it was in 1908, when the radical fringes of society swarmed with alternative theories of political economy. Since the collapse of classical conservatism in the 1960s, and the implosion of the New Left in the 1970s, political debate in the American mainstream has focused on finding the best means to achieve a set of ends that few voices question at all, while a great deal of debate outside the mainstream has abandoned political theory for a secular demonology in which everything wrong with the world – including the effects of the Earth’s ecological limits, of course – is the fault of some malevolent elite or other.

The current presidential race in America is a case in point. Neither candidate has addressed what, to my mind at least, are the crucial issues of our time: for example, whether America’s interests are best served by maintaining a sprawling military-economic empire with military bases in more than a hundred nations around the world; what is to be done about the collapse of America’s economic infrastructure and the hollowing out of its once-prosperous heartland; and, of course, how America’s economy and society can best deal with the end of the age of cheap abundant energy and the transition to an age of scarcity for which we are woefully unprepared.

Instead, the candidates argue about whether American troops should be fighting in Iraq or in Afghanistan, and whether or not we ought to produce more energy by drilling for oil in the nation’s wildlife refuges. Meanwhile, the partisans of each of these career politicians strive to portray the other as Satan’s own body double, while a growing number of those who are disillusioned with the entire political process hold that both men are pawns of whatever reptilian conspiracy happens to be fashionable on the fringes these days.

Maybe it’s just me, but this sort of evasion of the obvious seems utterly counterproductive. If Weimar America is to have a less disastrous future than its 20th century counterpart, we need to move toward serious debate over the shape that future is going to have, and our economically ruinous empire, our disintegrating national economy, and our extravagant lifestyles need to be among the things up for discussion. The radical right have already begun to scent a major opportunity; Nick Griffin, head of the neofascist British National Party, has already commented that his party is precisely one major crisis away from power, and he may well be right.

More generally, the first political movement to come up with a plausible response to peak oil will likely define the political discourse around energy and society for decades to come. Griffin and his peers are eager to take on that role; their response may not look plausible to most people now, but then neither did Hitler’s, before the Great Depression lowered the bar on plausibility to the point that he could goose-step over it. Unless some other movement comes up with a meaningful politics for the post-peak world, Griffin’s ideas may yet win out by default.

That would be a tragedy, and for more than the obvious reasons. One advantage of crisis is that it becomes possible to make constructive changes that are much harder in less troubled times. While I am no fan of utopian fantasies, and the possibility always exists that well-intentioned changes could make things worse, it’s hard to argue against the idea that the dysfunctional mess that is modern American politics could stand some improvement. That might involve learning a few things from other democracies; it might also involve returning to something a little more like the constitutional system on which this country was founded, which after all worked well in a pre-fossil fuel age. One way or another, though, it’s time to take a hard look at some of our most basic assumptions, and replace scapegoat logic with a reasoned discussion about where we are headed and what other options our society might want to consider.


Loveandlight said...

while a growing number of those who are disillusioned with the entire political process hold that both men are pawns of whatever reptilian conspiracy happens to be fashionable on the fringes these days.

One must admit that they both represent the interests of the corporate plutocratic class. Obama's caving on the FISA bill made it pretty clear that he's no friend of the average working grunt or progressive activist whose votes he seeks.

Thomas said...

It is not just the politics and their discussion that have to change. The economics have to change as well. That won´t happen with entities like the World Bank, The IMF and the Federal Reserve at the wheel. I asked a friend of mine why are these banking entities adding to the pain of peak oil. His answer was simple and to the point. They are harvesting. The question then becomes will there be any world left to plant and what exactly will they plant when the time comes.

Danby said...

There is no salvation, spiritual or temporal, in politics. The US Congress is right now voting to loan up to $800B of public credit to the same banks that are driving this country into another Depression with fraudulent and unpayable loans.

The one political course which I think could make a real difference in the coming depression is the one that is least likely to occur. The base problem with the US is that it's too darn big. Too much unaccountable power accumulates in the center, attracting every sort of corruption imaginable. The bizarre desire for uniformity of law, custom and culture has already destroyed most of the many indigenous American regional cultures and is hard at work on the few remaining. The fear of losing control that grips the Imperial Court in DC has already cost us the 4th, 9th, and 10th amendments in the Bill of Rights, as well as Article 1 Section 9 of the Constitution.

What would I propose? Secession and dissolution. Let each of the States or regions find it's own solutions, instead of implementing a central policy, bought and paid for by multi-national corporations, imposed from DC or Brussels.

There is some cause for hope though. That centerpiece of European centralization, Belgium, has yet to successfully form a stable government since the June 2007 general elections. And a survey sponsored by the Middlebury Institute (advocates of the 2nd Vermont Republic) found that 40% of those 18-25 years of age agreed with the concept that States and regions should be allowed to leave the Union under some circumstances.

John Michael Greer said...

Loveandlight, both men represent the interests of different factions of the American middle class as well -- and progressive activists are so small a fraction of the voting public that Obama can afford to ignore them.

Thomas, this is exactly the sort of scapegoat logic I critiqued in my post.

Dan, I suspect that a fair amount of devolution is in the cards for most of the big continental powers -- the US very much included. Still, I'm not sure localization is the cure-all so many people in the peak oil scene think it is. If the South had retained local autonomy in the 1950s and 1960s, after all, the civil rights movement might well have been met with prison camps and mass executions.

Bill Pulliam said...

When thinking about change in society and the "cures for what is wrong with the world," people pay FAR too much attention to the political process, and especially electoral politics. To a large extent politicians are chasing society, not leading it. Social change is made of the millions of decisions and actions made and taken by every individual, not by the actions of a select few. The main reason the corporate world has so much control at all levels of American society is because we as individuals have gladly and eagerly given it to them. Whether or not you buy an SUV, shop at Mal*Wart, or build a new house in the suburbs has a vastly greater impact on society and economics than how you vote. I'm not saying voting is unimportant; but it is not the major thing you as an individual do that affects the overall structure and direction of society, culture, and government. That is a function of how you live your life every moment of every day. I expounded about this a bit more in a blog posting from October of 2004:

Jason Camp said...

I can't help but think that the political process is governed far too much by how much money can be raised and how much money will be generated. As a result, those elected will never look too different from each other as they need to bow to those who would give them money to run. As a result, there will never be electable politicians who express views outside the mainstream as they will be unable to generate the money to bring their views to the masses.

Anthony said...


You are missing the obvious. Both parties seem hell bent on policies that will continue global warming. Now, what species of animals prefers warmer weather? That's right - the "reptile". There you have it - proof positive that both political parties are being led by the reptiles!

Sir Bedevere: There are ways of telling whether she is a witch.
Peasant 1: Are there? Oh well, tell us.
Sir Bedevere: Tell me. What do you do with witches?
Peasant 1: Burn them.
Sir Bedevere: And what do you burn, apart from witches?
Peasant 1: More witches.
Peasant 2: Wood.
Sir Bedevere: Good. Now, why do witches burn?
Peasant 3: ...because they're made of... wood?
Sir Bedevere: Good. So how do you tell whether she is made of wood?
Peasant 1: Build a bridge out of her.
Sir Bedevere: But can you not also build bridges out of stone?
Peasant 1: Oh yeah.
Sir Bedevere: Does wood sink in water?
Peasant 1: No, no, it floats!... It floats! Throw her into the pond!
Sir Bedevere: No, no. What else floats in water?
Peasant 1: Bread.
Peasant 2: Apples.
Peasant 3: Very small rocks.
Peasant 1: Cider.
Peasant 2: Gravy.
Peasant 3: Cherries.
Peasant 1: Mud.
Peasant 2: Churches.
Peasant 3: Lead! Lead!
King Arthur: A Duck.
Sir Bedevere: ...Exactly. So, logically...
Peasant 1: If she weighed the same as a duck... she's made of wood.
Sir Bedevere: And therefore...
Peasant 2: ...A witch!

Thomas said...

(A different thomas from the one above)

Post peak politics will need to reflect post peak economics. An economy that is decentralized and localized will need a politics that is decentralized and localized. A large central government will become increasingly irrelevant if not impossible.

I think that we will see the end of the present political system (bourgeois liberalism--usually in the form of representative "democracy" and the nation state) as the present economic system (state monopoly capitalism) comes to an end. This ending process will be messy and dangerous and probably take a generation if not several generations.

As this ending process becomes manifest we will begin to see the cracks and interstices in the present system where a new politics can form. It is my hope that we will see a politics that is more conducive to human life and happiness than is the present system. My own ideal is something along the lines of the ideas developed by Murray Bookchin--social ecology and libertarian municipalism--perhaps modified for the American mind and character by some of the ideas of the 19th century individualist anarchists such as Benjamin Tucker and Lysander Spooner.

73, ab0di

Sir Noxe said...

America hasn't faced reality since the dawn of radio. Since then, reality has faced America.

And now the internet seems to be turning us all sideways in between what seems to be a rock (reality) and a hard place (mainstream media).

I must admit that I feel more powerless every single day because it seems there are too many voices speaking without anyone listening.

~ Kevin Vandriel

porterbill said...


Your lucid and pragmatic analysis is a pleasure to read and appreciate.

Some observations and questions:

The current unraveling and unsustainability may apply to the whole but may not apply to smaller groups - or it may impact different groups at different times to differing degrees. I do not believe the Decline will be a one size fits all simultaneously occurring across the planet.

Example: Third World Lifestyles The vast majorities in the Third World are today experiencing scarcity and poverty at levels unimagined in the USA. Crime is rampant and order constrained more by a lack of opportunity than by enforcement from centralized authority. BUT there is still a small elite that live relatively well; a few can drive by the poverty of their fellow citizens in Cadillac Escalades.

Politics in the Third World is less about governing for the Greater Good and more about enhancing ones own good, aka corruption. Third World Politics is more of a Gang style, more like the urban inner city, in advanced stages of Decline.

In the Long Emergency ahead, I suspect America and the Industrialized World will travel down the paths already blazed by the Third World.

Population must decline as must per capita resource utilization, but my questions are:

By adopting a lower tech, lower energy lifestyle today pre-peak, doesn’t that put one at a competitive disadvantage versus others that will seek to maximize their competitive advantage?

Are there not some new higher technologies that can be part of a post peak sustainable society - hydroponics for one? Low head hydro-electric systems? Gunsmithing another?

Could those eschewing Guns, Grub and Gold, those that voluntarily adopt a Powered Down low tech lifestyle be putting themselves at a competitive disadvantage versus those that do not eschew violence? Can a Powered Down society avoid conflict and violence when it collides with remnants of the current Industrial paradigm in Collapse?

Thanks in advance for your insights.

markincolo said...

I see nothing wrong with invisioning a utopian future, how do you get any where if you don't have a baseline or destination to get to no matter how far out it may be. It is in fanticy and fath that get us in truble, its only wishing things diffrent, and that dosn't have much energy and movment to it to DO anything.
There is a danger in that in the process of invisioning one can get caught up in the fanticy and lose tack of the realitys at hand and make the fantacy a drug.
real work to the goal of the vision is where its at. Personaly I do invision a better world, and am working on community. However I do see the durision, sepratness and selfishness that surround our post modern world. No one said it would be easy.
Change= oppertunity

Stephen Heyer said...

Hi John,
I like the historical references – “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” (George Santayana, 1863-1952). They are well chosen and relevant to the current problem.

I’m especially impressed by your realization that there are important resemblances between the political and economic situations in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and the situation today. I started to become aware of and write about that about 1995, first in politics, then science, then economics.

I thought I was the only one who had noticed.

What I did not realize however, was the role that consensus played then, and is playing now, in impoverishing the choices the main players see as available to them. Reminds me of the lead up to the WWI: If I remember correctly, even the Kaiser realized (dimly and too late) that they were being herded into tragedy beyond comprehension by systems that left them (so they thought) no other choice.


I think we have to be careful to draw a distinction between scapegoats and those who really are part of the problem. There are those now who benefit enormously from the corruptions and inefficiencies of the current system, have used their wealth and power to corrupt the system to their advantage in the past, and will use it in the future to defend and extend their privileges.

They are not going to be dealt with by forgiveness and the future will be very bleak unless they are dealt with.

You know, having only read the English side of the French Revolution I could never understand the murderous zeal of the revolutionaries and the common people. Lately, I’ve read accounts of it from the French side, especially the economics, and sort of understand without approving how the French people came to believe that their only long term hope lay in the expiration of a whole class.

dragonfly said...

I find it ironic, that in the near future, my inability to passively and obediently go to "a job" will be less important than the things I learned during my episodes of homelessness.

RAS said...

JMG, you wrote: "If the South had retained local autonomy in the 1950s and 1960s, after all, the civil rights movement might well have been met with prison camps and mass executions."
Most people, even here, don't know that it DID result in at least one prison camp. That was in Birmingham, during the Children's March. Kids as young as 7 (and most all under 15) were rounded up and put in jail for days on end. When the jails filled up they converted a stadium to a holding facility. This was all done by Bull O'Connor, he of the infamous firehose and dog pictures. They were only let go after the public outcry rouse so much even he couldn't ignore it any longer.

As for localization today, if Alabama were to become a separate republic tomorrow, they would immediately declare Christianity the state religion, make not attending church illegal, outlaw other religions, and declare open season on gays and Muslims. I've lived in the south all my life, and I'm 99.9% that's what would happen. Now, if localization would occur more slowly we might have a better chance -the younger generation coming up (mine and those slightly older than us) is much more tolerant than our elders.

Nnonnth said...

'Secular Demonology'... 'Weimar America'... seems like every post you make now turns up a phrase I like rolling around on my tongue.

No of course it's not just you. It's so very true and so very sad. In the end after all is said and done, it's going to be the lack of ability of the vast majority of people to see anything approaching *reason* that represents the biggest danger to everyone.

So the world stage has reached denial and bargaining then... I gotta say I'm almost looking forward to depression, at least there might be a little peace. But then we all know how many people are still stuck at anger. The phases will interleave and weave back and forth.

John Michael Greer said...

Bill, no argument there. I'd take it even a little further; the reason that business interests have so much power in America today, and face so few restraints, is that they've been so adept at providing what most Americans want.

Jason, my comment to Bill is just as true of politicians. The core problem that progressive (or, for that matter, authentically conservative) activists face in America today is that most Americans don't want systemic change. They benefit from the system, and their political desires focus mostly on getting a bigger share of the benefits of the system. Galbraith's The Culture of Contentment is worth reading in this context.

Anthony, I think a farcical aquatic ceremony is probably in order at this point.

AB0DI, good to hear. I'm not a great fan of Bookchin (or for that matter Spooner) myself, but even at their least impressive they're better than the vast majority of what passes for political thought these days. Of course I share your sense that what's ahead of us is a long and messy historical process.

Kevin, powerlessness is the most pervasive of the illusions created by modern popular culture. Look past the chatter of the media, and there are opportunities for creative action everywhere.

Porterbill, that depends on the kind of low-tech lifestyle you have in mind. In some cases I think you'll likely be correct; powering down in the wrong way can certainly involve a competitive disadvantage. Still, thatt's not true across the board. If you can thrive on less energy, for example, your likelihood of doing well in a period of shortages is much higher than someone dependent on high energy inputs. If you retool your career to something that people will need, and be willing to pay or barter for, in a deindustrializing world, you'll prosper while others struggle -- and you may be in a position to help them in their struggle, too.

Mark, exactly -- it's the modern habit of projecting wish-fulfillment fantasies onto the future that makes practical plans so hard to reach.

Stephen, have you read Barbara Tuchman's The Proud Tower? An excellent social history of the pre-World War I industrial world, with some very useful lessons for today. As for those who have profited from the existing situation, though, most of us can spot at least one of those by looking in the mirror. The middle classes of the modern industrial world have lifestyles that medieval emperors would have envied, and a great deal of that comes from radically unequal patterns of exchange that impoverish the rest of the world for our benefit. That's one of the reasons I hammer so often on the futility of hunting scapegoats -- among the purposes of that popular habit is that it helps people avoid looking at their own complicity in a system they claim to oppose.

Dragonfly, ironic or not, it's quite true.

Ras, thanks for the feedback. This is something I've been trying to point out to people in the peak oil community for a long time, but the abstract notion of localization as a kind of suburban autonomy seems to be too hard to shake.

Nnonnth, everyone goes through the five stages at their own pace. Look at the recent explosion of denial -- Al Gore insisting we can stop using fossil fuels with no trouble at all in a decade or so, while the Republican party machine churns out disingenuous claims that all will be well if we just allow drilling for oil in the national parks. When they get to anger, it's going to get colorful.

Bill Pulliam said...

RAS --

Nuthin' wrong with Southern culture and politics that a bunch of heart attacks wouldn't fix...

Seriously, though, it is hard to know what might happen to politics, religion, and culture down here or anywhere else during an era of growing poverty and declining central authority. Remember that the Bull Conner's of this world are propped up by industrial affluence and power -- without that he is just another mean-spirited angry old man yelling insults. Christian fundamentalism might lead to oppression; on the other hand, Christian charity (which in my experience small-town fundies do in fact sincerely possess quite a lot of) might lead to a lot of local community growth and support to fill the voids left by the former structures. I do think it is quite likely that during a time of dirt-poor subsistence people will for the most part decide they have more immediate issues to concern themselves with than church attendance and prayer in (probably non-existent) public schools. On the other hand, there will likely be the minority who form angry mobs of scapegoaters. Oppression takes resources and infrastructure; only time will tell how it all plays out.

Although, from European history, it seems the rise of the great medieval oppressive structures happened well after the decline had bottomed, during the resurgence of wealth and military order, not in the immediate aftermath of the fading of Rome. In general, totalitarianism seems to correlate with times of excess resources that the central authorities can sequester and concentrate.

Bill Pulliam said...

Another thing to keep in mind about State-established religion...

If Evangelical Establishmentarianists got their way in Alabama (or anywhere else), and King-James-Version Evangelical Fundamentalist Protestantism became a government institution, it immediately loses its passion, its mysticism, and its appeal to the next generation. It becomes the Pharisees that the new breed of religious activists will battle against, just as the Evangelofundies now view themselves as battling what they define as the Establishment religion of Secular Humanism. And the wheels of history go round and round...

Elizabeth said...

Hello, JMG

I don’t think Griffin is that much of a threat, unsavory as he could be. I frankly don’t see the British elite accepting it the way the German elite accepted Hitler. If he rises, they will do what it takes to stop him, the way the French did with the National Front. They may, for instance, change the voting rules so that you can’t be elected without making alliances with other parties. That is what they did in France and it was quite efficient.

Of course there might not be a British elite any longer, especially after yesterday by-election (SNP basically trashed the Labour in a supposedly safe constituency).

Now, I would expect something more exotic, without any reference to far right ideology and therefore reasonably acceptable to the powers that be, that is until it is too late. I remember a series from the eighties called “The Knights of God”, which pictured a collapsed Britain taken over by a weird but nasty military-religious order while guerrillas roamed Snowdonia and the Archbishop of Canterbury ruled his own autonomous city-state. Of course at the end the rightful heir of the last king is returned to his throne but on the whole it was a good picture of what could be a post-peak dictatorship : very unsavory but unable to control the country.

And, by the way, it is as likely to come from the left as from the right. In Europe the far left is considered more acceptable than the far right and the governmental parties may ally with it, so it will be easier for it to get the political beachhead it need to make it to the top, even if they put so much nationalism in their ideology that the only thing which distinguishes it from fascism is the color of the flag.

As for the other side of the desindustrial age, I've read a book called The Maerlande Chronicle, by Elisabeth Vonarburg, which could make for a decent utopia, even if of course it is not a political work, just a novel. It picture a post-dark age matriarchal society, not perfect but working in its own way. Vonarburg never says what caused the collapse but resource depletion and global warming are strongly hinted at. The main character's motto is “imperfect responses in an imperfect world”, which doesn't keep her from questioning the values of her society and to oppose local bigots. We coud get some inspiration from it.

freeman said...

Ab0di may appreciate the ideas of Kevin Carson, whom you could call the modern updated equivalent to Benjamin Tucker. His primary blog is called Mutualist Blog, but he also recently wrote an entry about peak oil elsewhere:

Isis said...

JMG, you said:

"As for those who have profited from the existing situation, though, most of us can spot at least one of those by looking in the mirror. The middle classes of the modern industrial world have lifestyles that medieval emperors would have envied, and a great deal of that comes from radically unequal patterns of exchange that impoverish the rest of the world for our benefit. That's one of the reasons I hammer so often on the futility of hunting scapegoats -- among the purposes of that popular habit is that it helps people avoid looking at their own complicity in a system they claim to oppose."

Please correct me if I'm wrong, but what I'm hearing you say here is that, because I use electricity, I have no right to point fingers at the multi-billionaires of this world. And that, until I have turned myself into a green saint, I have no right to demand that heads of state and military leaders be held accountable for the atrocities that they have committed around the globe; for instance, for the atrocity of littering my part of the world (the Balkans) with depleted uranium.

JMG, are you serious?

John Michael Greer said...

Bill, over the longer term, I suspect you're right. It's the short term that worries me -- that, and the tendency of people in the peak oil scene to assume that any replacement for the existing order will be an improvement.

Elizabeth, thanks for the references -- I'll check them out. I certainly hope that Griffin's people go nowhere, and of course you're quite right that totalitarian schemes are as likely to come from the left as the right.

Freeman, thanks for the link.

Isis, please remember that I speak from an American perspective -- I'd be dishonest if I tried to do anything else, since I've never lived elsewhere -- and much of what I say here is primarily relevant to the American experience. Americans in general -- setting aside for the moment the minorities living in urban slums, native reservations, migrant worker camps, and the like -- are arguably the most pampered group of people in the history of the planet, using a third of the planet's energy and raw materials at what are still rock-bottom prices subsidized by the unequal patterns of exchange that are the privilege of empire.

It's very popular just now for middle-class political activists over here to denounce the US government while insisting on the continuation of the perks and privileges that come to middle class Americans only because of current US government policies. Thus my point is not that people shouldn't be held accountable; it's that many of the people who are doing the most fingerpointing are themselves deeply complicit in the abuses they claim to be against, and might employ their time more productively in changing their own relationship to the system than in looking for someone else to blame.

Hypatia said...

Thanks for another thoughtful, and timely, post in this crazy election year.

Another thing about scapegoating (this year, "illegal" immigrants seem to top the list, as evidenced by the newest round of chain emails in my inbox) that they deflect time and energy that could be used to work on solutions to the larger issues you've mentioned. Instead, most folks seem to be spinning their wheels while the truck runs off the cliff.

endofempire79 said...

I always enjoy your analysis - especially your ability to look at recent events and tie them in with the big picture. I've noticed too how the last few months has seen a flurry of "SUV's are going down!" apocalypticism, even in FOX news, and then a slight reprieve in gas prices follows with a attitude of "well, i'm glad that's over - now back to work, boys!"

We forget so very much.

RAS said...

Bill wrote: "Nuthin' wrong with Southern culture and politics that a bunch of heart attacks wouldn't fix..."
LOL. As JMG pointed out, its the short term that worries me too. I don't think such a situation would last, probably not much more than a year and certainly not more than a generation, but the damage done in that time could be immense. I don't know what things are like in Tennessee, but here in Alabama we have Supreme Court Justices who lecture people on the Ten Commandments from the bench and include references to the Bible in their rulings.

I was also talking about immediate secssion, not the long-term decline we face. Hopefully, all bets will be off as this unfolds. I certainly hope so. As a multiracial, lesbian pagan I am one of the perfect targets for scapegoating!

JMG, I wonder if the inability for most in the peak-oil community (with the exception of the doomer crowd) might stem from the fact that the overwhelming majority of them come from comfortable, middle class backgrounds? I say that because I've noticed that, in general, most people of such backgrounds have a hard time envisioning bad scenarios or accepting that they will happen. Even the very real possibility of cancer or a car accident is hard for many to grasp if they haven't been there. The assumption is that "I'll always have a house, a job, etc, and always be okay."
If you take someone from my background (poverty, homelessness, streetsmart), on the other hand, we don't just assume a worst case scenario is going to happen someday, we know it is -because it always has. It might not hold true everywhere, but as someone who's lived in both worlds, that's what I've observed.

dharmagaian said...


Thanks so much for this post! You say it so well. Among the many quotable quotes in this essay, this one especially struck me: "Older civilizations understood that nonhuman forces shared in the making of history, and there’s a fine irony in the way that our civilization, having rejected the nonhuman world as a historical agent, now finds its own history being shaped by a nonhuman reality with which it steadfastly refuses to come to terms."

I agree with you that the historical agency of this nonhuman reality creates an explosive political situation. I suspect that is because it contradicts more than one of our civilization's most cherished core delusions. The cognitive dissonance is so great that the paradigm police cannot come to terms with it. It's shattering to the core of our civilization. Thus the deep denial: "This can't be happening!"

I also appreciate the comparison with Weimar Germany and your observation that "contemporary political thought [in Weimar America] is far more impoverished than it was in 1908." Yes, scapegoating has begun. And yes, we'd all better look in the mirror, or it will get worse. This is my greatest fear for the coming long decline.

Do you see any signs of a "political movement [likely] to come up with a plausible response to peak oil"? It seems to me that the country is so fractured with denial, ignorance, distraction, and delusion that nobody will be able to move people in a direction that deals with geological and biological reality.


Murph & Freeacre said...


One of the perspectives I don't see anywhere is the love hate relationship between the elite and everyone else. When the general population begins to view the elite as something unsavory rather than enviable, we will have substantial change, in what direction is open to debate.

Personally, I advocate breaking up into much smaller groups instead of huge nation states, each group being autonomous. Then, a person would have a much wider choice of lifestyle or group affinity. Me, I'm into the anarchistic social organization, and no, not chaos. Rather no more 51% democratic majority decisions that oppress the minority.

The principle problem in this respect, that I see, is that populations have subscribed to a centralized authority, acceding to a more wise, more benevolent leadership that inevitably is run by elites who also inevitably have a whole different agenda than benevolence. As long as the general population covets the perks, entitlements and luxury living that characterizes the elite, they will rule and manipulate the population by promises they have no intention to keep.

Remember, Jevons paradox applies to social dynamics as well.

It sure seems obvious to me that we have population overshoot, and if true, the elites recognize this also. Their method of dealing with this is not going to be pleasant, taking for granted that they are not preempted by nature itself.

Our politics are based on expediency of the moment, not long range planning for the benefit of all. And since politics are run by elites, it will follow their agenda. No wonder we see no debate or long range plans to mitigate the whopping train wreck coming at us.

Todd Boyle said...

John - Thanks for your writings. One fundamental point to consider, is that the political economy is a system of action. It is intrinsically unable to produce that which is most needed now: non-production. The human political economy emerged, evolved through wars and famine, as a system of marshalling physical energy and action. THAT, it does well enough, and will continue to do by wind, solar, and whatever---for 1000 years. Countless millions of people will perhaps, be plowed under or left behind.

Even the crisis of capitalism will be overcome, I think. Capitalism of course, is based on the notion that there is some social benefit by rewarding "entrepreneurs" with returns in excess of their costs. (profits, interest and dividends) This is preposterous in modern circumstances of course; we are left with a vast rentier class sustained by monopoly, unjust law and regulatory regimes.

But my basic point is, the ecological crisis will not be overcome. It can only be overcome when people relax and adapt themselves to nature. Sadly--only a mystic or a monk takes that course today-- and even if 95% of humanity takes that course, the remaining 5% will continue ravaging the planet, and killing every person and culture that opposes them. So. Humanity's future is clear, I think. It will utterly destroy its biosphere, decimate itself in wars, and the remaining tribes will be wiser. But they will be gradually decimated by the accumulation of toxic metals and compounds and radioisotopes in the environment, and pathogens both natural and manmade. It will lead to elevated rates of genetic mutation, among a post-technological society unable to carry forward the medical or technological circumstances to deal with the problems it created.

Stephen said...

Scapegoating is the normal responce because humans are naturaly tribal. And it is actualy dare I say a useful responce because it decreases population presure on resources. Increasing the ingroup reproductive fitness at the expence of the outgroups. As the worlds resources deminish and the game of life becomes increasingly zero sum, increased scapegoating and tribalism are inevitable.

guamanian said...

At a personal level, I believe there is something those of us who are aware that we have political ideologies can do to help.

We can abandon them.

It seems to me that we are passing though a kind of gateway that is too narrow for us to bring our 20th century ideologies with us. If we attempt to bring them, they won't fit through.

They are baggage that we have to leave behind. We must unpack them, take only what is most humane and valuable from them, and leave the rest beside the road.

My own ideology had as its project 'building a new society within the shell of the old', and unpacking it reveals a smattering of organizing tactics, and of songs. Both are light, and easy to carry forward, thoughtfully, into the future.

Going forward will be a lot harder for those whose ideologies are heavier, either because they 'won' in the old era, like liberal capitalism, or neo-conservatism, or because they 'lost only because we were betrayed' as fascism styles itself.

They will go through the gateway carrying their version of the utopian fantasy, and will try mightily to apply it to the new conditions. It won't work, but it could lead to a couple of really brutal decades of vigorous failure.

I think that is what JMG is warning of here. That transition period when centralized rule is still possible, and will be applied almost reflexively, as the old nation states attempt to maintain control in energy descent. Authoritarian, scapegoating, and neo-fascist or corporatist rule is the default mode for industrial states under threat, and it is almost certain to arise.

Maybe I'm innately optimistic, but I believe that we can each contribute to preventing and mitigating this fascist tendency, by bringing forward values of mercy, cooperation, humility, and a sense of limits and balance. (I omit 'Justice' and 'Freedom', from the list. Those words will be brought forward by the ideologues, and bent to serve their purposes.)

Aja Oishi said...

John Michael Greer, thanks for yet another thoughtful post on our "predicament." I live in New Mexico, and honestly I don't know many people who are up in arms about reptilian conspiracies... guess Oregon is as weird as they say?

Many people here are very active in knitting together a (more) sustainable community and figuring out ways to survive in a water scarce, ethnically diverse, militarized zone. There are some head-in-the-clouds suburbanites, but it's really not accurate to characterize the entire left wing as ineffective or rabidly looking for scapegoats on the political scene.

In our city a lot of folks take the reality of peak oil and climate change very seriously and are not busy soaking up the privileges of the white middle class while blaming the Republicans for high gas prices or what have you. Instead we build from scrap our solar ovens and rainwater catchment systems. We trade seeds and fruits and knowledge, we ride the bikes we fix ourselves. Maybe it's because we are a damn poor state already, but folks here- at least in my (20something) generation- are banding together and radically DIY.

Eventual dissolution of the United States does not seem far fetched to me or many folks that I talk to... it seems the most likely course of events. While I agree with you and several people who posted here that secession could boost the power of fundamentalist Christianity or other crypto-fascist movements in breakaway regions, I think it may still be our best option- apologies to Ras- because it would also give other movements the chance to gain leverage and power in their local economies and politics.

One more aside:

Porterbill, my friend, what "third world" are you referring to in your post? Have you spent much time there? In my experience in Latin America and Southeast Asia- not to mention the South Valley of Albuquerque- I have found there is no place called The Third World, and certainly not one that is as monolithically bleak as you envision.

In fact, though the global south faces challenges at every level, it also harbors some of the most innovative and fresh ideas for combating those problems. We would all do well to look into the grass roots movements of our southern neighbors who've been dealing with scarcity a lot longer than we have. Some that immediately spring to mind... the kenyan greenbelt movement, the sem terra movement of brazil, educational reforms in the indian state of kerala, urban planning in curitiba, brazil, the grios program of brazil, ecological restoration in northern laos, etc.

the resistance, the renaissance, the revolution is large my friend. Much larger than our pig-headed continent. sorry to go on and on, but you touched on one of my pet peeves. The global south is not full of poor barbarians to be pitied or feared. It is full of people, with struggles and communities, with problems and creativity, with complex lives and minds and politics just like we have.

Please don't be so quick to fear the Other.

Ponter said...

This is completely off-topic, but must be communicated to Mr. Greer: Much as I find The Archdruid Report to be one of the must-read sights on the internet, the light-print-on-dark-background is exceedingly difficult, to the point of painful, on the old eyes. Indeed many people are bothered by this, it's a common phenomenon, which seems to afflict older readers more than younger (and you don't seem all that young yourself, Mr. Greer). Please, return to a more conventional dark text on light background. My eyes will thank you.

hapibeli said...

As gasoline at the pump declines a bit, here is a story of the future as well as the past.

Isis said...


I would definitely appreciate it if you explained the difference between 'holding people accountable' and 'scapegoating'; because reading you, I get the impression that they mean the same thing.

In any case, I've been living in the US for a number of years now (as a foreign student, first undergraduate and then graduate), and what I see (at least among the students and recent grads, and to the extent that I have had a chance to get to know them, their families) is that Americans are not particularly pampered, but merely extremely wasteful. A person who works ridiculous hours, gets maybe a couple of weeks of vacation a year, has inadequate or non-existent health insurance, has a large debt burden, I could go on, does not sound particularly 'pampered' to me. 'Goodies' such as an SUV, a flat-screen TV, or that epitome of wastefulness, the clothes dryer, hardly make up for the above. Such consumer products do nothing to increase the quality of life; they do, however, cause major environmental damage, as well as a good deal of misery around the globe. I do, of course, understand that many industrial products that we will quite likely have to part with do actually make life easier (I am not at all looking forward to washing my clothes by hand), but the point that I'm trying to make is that the difference in the resource use among the Americans and the West Europeans (as well as the middle classes elsewhere) should not, I think, be seen as disproportionate 'pampering', but rather as disproportionate 'wastefulness', pure and simple.

And what does this wastefulness have to do with billionaires? I actually don't think that a little bit of 'scapegoating' of such people is necessarily a bad thing. I am scared by the number of people I know whose main goal in life appears to be to make a ton of money. (Though perhaps I should say that I see this among foreign students and recent grads in the US - some of them from relatively wealthy families, other attending or having attended college in the US on very generous financial aid - even more often than I see it among native born Americans.) Billionaires with private golf courses are these people's heros. So insisting, both in public and in private, that these people (the billionaires) are social parasites and not 'our most deserving citizens', might actually do something to reduce the said billionaires' prestige, and as a consequence, it might reduce the acceptability of money-making and unrestrained consumption as a socially acceptable goal for everyone else. A reduction in consumption itself would hopefully follow. (I'm saying this especially in view of the previous paragraph: many, many consumer products that Americans 'enjoy' do little to nothing to increase people's quality of life; hence, unrestrained consumption has, I think, less to do with a desire for wealth as such, and more with a desire for status and respect, which is in America - and not only in America - currently best obtained with a large paycheck, large house, large car, large etc. So if you can divorce status and consumption, you're likely to get a lower level of consumption.) So I'm not sure that finger pointing is quite as useless as that (although it is at its most effective when accompanied by a genuine effort at curtailing one's own level of consumption and wastefulness).