Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Facing Decline, Facing Ourselves

Of all the fallacies that surround the contemporary crisis of industrial civilization, and have done so much to bring that crisis down on us, the most seductive is the assumption that it’s a technical problem that can be solved by technical means. That’s an easy assumption to make, for a variety of reasons, but it puts us in the situation of the drunkard in the old joke who looks for his keys under the streetlight half a block from the dark sidewalk where he dropped them, since under the streetlight he can at least see what he’s doing.

The technical aspects of our predicament, though challenging, are the least of our worries; it’s the other aspects that have proven intractable. Consider the project of cutting US per capita energy consumption to a third of its present level. Given that the average European uses a third as much energy each year as the average American, and in many ways gets a better standard of living out of it, this is far from impossible; a great deal of the technology is sitting on the shelf only one continent away, in effect, and simply needs to be put to work.

Now of course such a project would require a great deal of investment in railways, mass transit, urban redevelopment, and the like, but what’s been spent on recent military adventures in the Middle East would cover much of it – and let’s not even talk about what could be done with the funds being wasted right now to prop up Wall Street banks looted by their own executives in the final blowoff of an epoch of corporate kleptocracy. The return on the investment needed to cut our energy use to European levels, in turn, would be immense. Since the US still produces more than a third of the oil it uses, to name only one result, we would no longer be sending billions of dollars a year to line the pockets of Middle Eastern despots; we’d be a net exporter of oil – even, quite conceivably, a member of OPEC.

So why isn’t so sensible a project being debated right now in the halls of Congress? Why, more broadly, has energy conservation through lifestyle change – arguably the single easiest and most cost effective option we have on hand in dealing with the end of the age of cheap oil – been entirely off the political and cultural radar screens since the end of the 1970s, so much so that most of those who have noticed that we’re running out of cheap abundant energy have framed the issue entirely in terms of finding some technical gimmick that will let us keep on living the way we live now?

This is where the technical dimension of our predicament gives way to a region where the forces that matter are not the cut-and-dried facts of physics and engineering, but murkier factors – political, cultural, psychological, and (let’s whisper the word) spiritual – and what’s theoretically possible matters a great deal less than what’s culturally and emotionally acceptable. Most writers on peak oil, though not all, have tended to shy away from this unsettled and unsettling territory. This is quite understandable; industrial culture privileges technical knowledge and rewards those who can (or say they can) make the machinery of our daily life purr more smoothly and profitably, and shuts its ears against those who ask questions about the purposes the machines serve and the emotional drives that make those purposes seem to make sense. Still, this leaves us scrabbling around with the drunkard under the streetlight, searching for keys that are lying in the dark half a block away.

It’s for this reason, among others, that I was pleased to get a copy of Carolyn Baker’s new book, Sacred Demise: Walking the Spiritual Path of Industrial Civilization’s Collapse. Those of my readers who are familiar with Baker’s blog and mine will probably be able to imagine, if they don’t happen to have followed, some of the lively disagreements we’ve had, and it will doubtless come as no surprise that some of the arguments made in Sacred Demise seem problematic to me. Still, those issues of detail are less important than what Baker has tried, with quite some success, to accomplish with this book. What Sacred Demise represents is the first really sustained effort to pull the debate over the future of industrial civilization out of the comfortable realm of technical questions, and force it to confront the deeper and fundamentally nonrational factors that have done so much to keep effective solutions out of reach.

The title of the book may need some explanation, because Sacred Demise deals at least as much with psychology as with religion. Admittedly the line between these two has become blurred in recent years; as the modern West has redefined religion wholly in terms of personal relationships with the transcendent, and made its collective aspects increasingly hard to sustain, psychology has come to play the role in modern religious movements that theology still plays in their more traditional sisters. While this shift has had its share of dubious results, it has allowed some crucial religious themes – the imminence of death, the quest for meaning in human existence, and the challenge both these level at individuals and societies alike, among others – to remain live issues in a passionately secular age.

These themes, in turn, frame Baker’s approach. She argues that we are long past the point at which the unraveling of the industrial age can be prevented, and our options at this point are limited to facing the difficult future ahead of us, on the one hand, or pretending it isn’t there until it overwhelms us, on the other. She dissects the logic of those who only want to hear about solutions, tracing it back into its deep roots in the fear of death and the attempt to cling to familiar patterns of meaning even when those no longer make sense of our experience, and she tackles the awkward but necessary issues all of us have to confront as decline and fall sets in: the need to mourn, to confront the reality of death, to find new narratives to make sense of a rapidly changing world. .

For Baker, then, the core task of our time is not how to prevent collapse; decades of mishandled opportunities have put that hope out of reach. Nor does she embrace the futile strategy of trying to hide out in survivalist enclaves until the rubble stops bouncing. Instead, she calls us to face collapse squarely and personally, as a reality that is already shaping our lives, and will do so ever more forcefully in the years to come. Facing collapse, in turn, requires us to deal with the whole realm of personal baggage we each bring to the experience of decline and fall. That’s a crucial issue, for the unstated psychological and religious subtexts of the crisis of industrial civilization have played a huge role in confusing the already complex issues facing the world just now.

Thus it’s vital to realize, when somebody insists that technological progress will inevitably lead our species to immortality among the stars, or when somebody else insists that contemporary civilization has become the ultimate incarnation of everything evil and will shortly be destroyed so that the righteous remnant can inhabit a perfect world, that what they’re saying has very little to do with the facts on the ground. Rather, these are statements of religious belief that coat mythic themes millennia old in a single coat of secular spraypaint. If, dear reader, one or the other of these is your religion, that’s fine – you have as much right to your faith as I have to mine – but please, for the love of Darwin, could you at least admit that it’s a religious belief, an act of faith in a particular constellation of numinous experience, rather than a self-evident truth that any sane and moral person must automatically accept?

This last point, I have to admit, goes a little beyond what Baker has to say, and in fact my central criticism of Sacred Demise is precisely that it doesn’t quite manage to apply its sharpest insights to Baker’s own point of view. That view is perilously close to the latter of the religious viewpoints mentioned above; for Baker, the diverse and morally complex reality of the industrial world is flattened into a single vast and terrible abstraction labeled by turns Civilization and Empire, the exact equivalent of Babylon and the kingdom of Satan in her historical mythology. Psychologically, this might best be described in Jungian terms as a bad case of projecting the shadow; in religious terms, it represents a drastic confusion between the realms of being, mistakenly mapping one of the great themes of myth and religious vision onto the messy and prosaic realities of everyday existence.

For all that, Sacred Demise is a crucially important book. It is not the last word on the subject, nor do I think Baker would want it to be; rather, it’s the first word in a conversation that we desperately need to start, as the high notes of economic crisis mingle with the basso-profundo of declining energy reserves, pushing us further and further away from the world of business-as-usual fantasy we have tried to inhabit for the last quarter century. We need to start talking about how we can hold onto our humanity in bitter times; about how we can find reasons for hope and sources of necessary joy as so many of our former certainties crumble to dust; about what stories we can use to bring meaning to the world when so many of our familiar meanings no longer make sense of anything. In order to face the realities of decline, in other words, we have to face ourselves, and Baker’s book is a significant contribution to that vital task.

32 comments:

RDatta said...

Thank you for yet another pertinent post.

A source of the difficulties is the idea that there is something distinct in oneself that is in some way independent of the rest of the universe. That something is conceptually defiend as a "soul".

In the older traditions, Judaism, Hinduism (two of the six philosophical schools)and Buddhism, this distinction is not maintained.

In Judaism there is one reference (as far as I know) to "The One without a second": the Sefer Yetzirah, Chapter I verse 7. There are many references to it in Hinduism. This leads to the negation of a separate entity that one can call "I" which might claim to believe in G_d.

The prohibition in the Ten Commandments is not against making a "graven image" but against making an incomplete representation, a "fesel". Any object within the compass or human cognition is an incomplete representation of "G_d"; Judaism does not give its Deity a name, so as to avoid establishing a "fesel" of cognition.

The Hindu tradition (in those two schools) acknowledges only an illusory appearance of duality, while Buddhism dispenses altogether with soul and "G_d", acknowledging the interconnectedness of everything.

The spirituality of the dualism is akin to the intoxicating spirituality of adult beverages, which in fact is rather puerile. Clearheadedness demands otherwise.

Robin

Nnonnth said...

The inability to 'face ourselves' is something our current society often encourages, as part of the way it runs.

A mythology switch requires seeing a new way being born rather than just an old one dying. Real vision is always pragmatic.

Personally, I think any discipline which encourages you to look at what you think and change it in line with what is sensible will be helpful here -- eg. cognitive therapy methods, or take up Stoicism. None of that is really so hard; people just have to discern where their thoughts are out of line with reality.

I understand Baker's millienialist approach but I don't see where it's productive. Blowing things up out of proportion is a big part of how our society used to function, but no need to continue it. That kind of gotterdammerungism infects a good deal of otherwise sensible discourse.

wylde otse said...

It is indeed gratifying to see with what grace and constructive insight you review a book you don't entirely agree with.

One problem I see with the entirely spiritual approach is that it does not reflect the "on the ground" reality of what appears to have been the (at least) historic brute-force competition, not only as 'the surviving strategy' in human terms; but genetically for animals also - to the victor go the spoils; whether it be territory, or a nifty herd of female undulates.

In the reality of my experience, usually " nice guys [really do] finish last."

This means that those that lay waste to the land and resources, even to the point of destroying the life support systems do better than those who are thoughtful, kind and considerate. (and they "get the women" too)

Even in large religions, which are supposed to be spiritual, the surviving strategy, even today is to openly, blatantly and systematically abuse women. The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights is an international 'bad joke'. In this world at least, evil gets rewarded.
(and if there is a Goddess of all Time and Space, She is either willingly in league with the Devil, or enslaved by him - obviously humans can rot in hell :o)

Then, there might be one other possibility; good and evil are evenly matched in our world. In that case, it may be that the battle between good and evil is fought by each and every one of us in each and every heart, mind, and soul - so if we do seek salvation for the world and humankind we must learn; and prevail on a higher, more lofty plane of living.

" Toleration " of destructive acts and attitudes is mere cowardice.

re: 1/3 oil level possibility.
That a 'sustainable energy' policy was not implemented years ago is a genuine economic high crime.

Stephen Heyer said...

Weird! I thought I understood the areas were John Greer and I disagreed, but then he writes: “The technical aspects of our predicament, though challenging, are the least of our worries; it’s the other aspects that have proven intractable.” That’s exactly what I would have written and further, covering exactly the area where I thought I believed almost the opposite to him.

Worse, he goes on to write: “Consider the project of cutting US per capita energy consumption to a third of its present level. Given that the average European uses a third as much energy each year as the average American, and in many ways gets a better standard of living out of it, this is far from impossible; a great deal of the technology is sitting on the shelf only one continent away, in effect, and simply needs to be put to work.”

Again, exactly as I see it, right down to the ‘better standard of living” thing, something which all debate in the USA (and Australia and Britain) desperately ignores. Weird!

Then he goes on to explore some of the reasons why all the wrong choices are being made. I guess again I would generally agree, though I’d be somewhat less charitable.

Carolyn Baker, however, I think is a bit too much into fatalism and death.

That business about her dissecting the logic of those who only want to hear about solutions, tracing it back into its deep roots in the fear of death and the attempt to cling to familiar patterns of meaning seems strange to me. I mean, solutions, proper solutions which in this case are probably a combination of the technical, cultural/social and spiritual are our only hope and solutions there are going to be.

The only question is what they will be and how good or bad they will be. And yes, total, worst case collapse with only a fraction of the near 7 billion people now alive surviving is a solution too, perhaps one Gaia would prefer.

I’d also say Carolyn Baker isn’t giving good advice when she indicates (going from what John writes) that it is futile to try to avoid or ride out collapse. When, for instance, Rome collapsed, quite a few folk dodged that one way or another, in fact whole areas didn’t collapse.

Folks who just sat there in despair waiting to die of course didn’t survive, neither did they help anyone else to survive.

By the way, I love John’s reference to “corporate kleptocracy”. Ok, I know the idea isn’t new, kleptocracies are often discussed as contributing factors in the collapse of societies, but I still like the term “corporate kleptocracy”.

Besides, the whole Western establishment and media is still frantically trying to avoid mention of the leading role corporate kleptocracy played in what is unfolding. Time more people made a point of telling it like it is.

Finally, a question for our gracious host. John, I get the point you make about people who believe that “technological progress will inevitably lead our species to immortality among the stars” really being expressing religious belief. What, however, about those of us who think the whole technological progress and immortality among the stars thing is a good long term goal and probably jolly good fun as well, but are well aware that it is anything but inevitable?

Zach said...

"... the first really sustained effort to pull the debate over the future of industrial civilization out of the comfortable realm of technical questions, and force it to confront the deeper and fundamentally nonrational factors that have done so much to keep effective solutions out of reach."

What about E. F. Schumacher? It seems to me this is precisely what he attempted. (I am nearly through his A Guide for the Perplexed -- which for some reason I expected would be a call to actual or "solutions for survival" manual, but I find instead to be a primer on philosophy.)

peace,
Zach

nutty professor said...

This post was exciting, but hard to follow, for me. It is not clear whether you believe that myth and religion can actually have to do with "facts on the ground." Isn't it that our sacred and secular myths, our heroes, and our visions help us to look at and perhaps understand the facts on the ground in more illuminating (and perhaps, useful) ways? If that is the case, why is it wrong, as you suggest, for Baker to map myth onto everyday experience? Is the problem that we do not acknowledge this as such, that we do not recognize this as religious thinking/religious action? Or is it that you feel that some myths are better than others, more meaningful, more "sane"? Without myths and visions of the sacred how do humans find the sources for maintaining our humanity that we so desperately need?

Seaweed Shark said...

Thanks for another eloquent and insightful essay.
.
However, I'm not entirely sure who the "we" is, who is supposed to have the conversation about recognition and acceptance that you recommend, or (to assume that "we" means everybody) what actual good might come of such a general conversation.
.
Assuming that industrial civilation's collapse will as you say be a very complex, protracted affair, affecting nearly everybody in different ways depending on individual or local group circumstances, I'm not sure what the point of such a global conversation could be. Some people are likely to make out great in times of collapse, just as Charles V and his soldiers made out great during the sack of Rome in 1527.
.
It seems to me that if what you say is true, the best resort would be to forget about vast national or international conversations and focus on identifying--and becoming a valuable participant in--whatever group activity looks likely to weather whatever storm seems to be actually coming upon us in real time.

John Michael Greer said...

Robin, I don't know that the soul-concept as such is to blame; there are plenty of people who don't believe in a soul, but who still act as though they're independent of the cosmos. Still, you're right that this sense of radical separation between the self (however conceived) and the world has much to answer for. As for Judaism not having a name for its deity -- er, the third word of Berashith argues against you -- and what about ha-Shem?

Nnonth, I sometimes think that the single most challenging task we face these days is learning to think of ourselves in something other than megalomaniacally grandiose terms.

Otse, I've seen quite a few not-nice guys crash and burn, so I'm not at all sure they have any better formula for success than the nice guys.

Stephen, good heavens -- it's not as though I haven't made a point all along of stressing the dominant role that cultural narratives and submerged myths play in keeping us stuck on the trajectory of decline. If everybody in the industrial world was willing to accept a Third World lifestyle, we could very likely pull through. Is that going to happen? Hardly.

As for your final question, yes, it's still a religion -- it's just that you're not a zealot about it, which is refreshing.

Zach, you're quite right -- I should have written "the current debate about the future of industrial society." Thanks for the correction.

Professor, those are valid questions. As I see it, first, there's a crucial difference between using mythic narratives as a way of interpreting reality on the ground, on the one hand, and confusing the myth and the reality on the other. The myth is a map, not the territory, and if you confuse the two you're likely to get very thoroughly lost.

Second, not all mythic narratives are equally useful in any given situation. When you impose a myth of radical moral dualism onto the messy and human realities of politics, for example, you get nonsense pretty consistently. Thus my suggestion that it's time to take a hard look at this habit of demonizing what we don't like.

Shark, I don't expect to be able to launch a general conversation; the vast majority of people aren't listening, and if they knew what was being talked about here, they'd be even more certain not to listen! By "we" I mean simply those people who are involved in the collective discussion about the end of the industrial age, and the conversation can happen on any scale; the important thing is that people start talking about it.

julien said...

Dear John Michael Greer,

I love reading your blog because it is so Neptunian & enchanting. Afterwards, however, I frequently feel frustrated and depressed, because no matter how much I think and spin my wheels. the glimmering ideal cannot find a practical expression. What about people like me who want to live a more savage and natural life, but no matter how much they figure, still can't figure out how?

What about people like me who live in cities and don't have televisions & cars, who do carry string bags & plant strawberries on the balcony & recycle & make their own toothpaste, etc. What is your ideal of how a person lives in an urban or suburban environment? Should we wear our homemade clothes and shoes to work and risk getting fired? Should we buy $200 jeans made from recycled bottles and drive across town to buy rainforest crunch cookies from WholeFoods? Or do we just need to move out to the country to become farmers?

There are really so many people who want to change, for emotional if not idealogical reasons, who spin their wheels just like me without being able to grasp a solution. I realize it's not your job to think for us & every situation is different, etc, etc, but do you have any advice for the poor souls who want a more sustainable lifestyle but don't know how?

Sincerely, Julien Aklei

John Michael Greer said...

Julien, an answer to that will need a post to itself -- if not a book. I'll see what I can offer over the next few weeks.

John Michael Greer said...

A note to all -- I'll be on the road for the next couple of days, and so it may be a bit before your comments get put through.

in_the_light said...

Michael,

Your posts have an uncanny ability to coincide with matters in my life week after week. Amazing.

There is so much that can be said about this topic that its almost difficult to say anything at all (perhaps there in lies our perdicament). Though difficult, I would like to say one thing.

The challenge to industrial collapse is that it isn't clear cut, black and white. It isn't a situation in which we can apply typical problem/solution methodology. And you've hit it on the head in pulling in the less physical aspects of collapse.

A real paradigm shift (to bring in a couple weeks old discussion) will come when the public dialogues about matters such as industry, economy, and health (among others) regularly incorporate nonphysical aspects into the discussion. We would certainly know the global consciousness has shifted if Bernanke were to say something like this: "We must begin to question our purposes in seeking to prop up an infinite growth model."

HA! That makes me laugh just typing that...

Thank you for another fantastic post.
Mat

yooper said...

Great article John! "Facing Decline, Facing Ourselves"? I'm still confused when many bright, intelligent people seem to face decline alright but in the next breath claim, "I'm Christian".

It's especially irritating when they happen to be peak oil writer/speaker, like your pal Baker.

To this kind of people I ask, "Now which is it?" How can people call themselves a Christian and not believe in the in the "Book of Revelation" or " Apocalypse of John"?

I can just imagine many of your readers, nodding ok, ok, I believe this or that, yup, that's the way, it'll likely be... However, the picture your painting, the scenario you're portraying that might be most likely in the future, is a far stretch (of my imagination anyway) of what the Holy Bible or the Word of God, would have us believe...

For the life of me, I cannot see how one can be both. It's either you believe one scenario or the other. Kind of like being a little bit pregnant..., it's either you are or you are not...

Now which is it? It's something everyone of your readers might ask themselves...

"Facing Decline, Facing Ourselves", indeed...

Thanks, yooper

anagnosto said...

I am just reading Odum, with his detached and rational slow introduction to the predicament. And I wonder if it works, I mean if people drops the non-stop growth mode after reading it. If they do not it is really a religion!

xhmko said...

Hi,

Thoroughly enjoy your writing as it’s in tune with my own line of questions about our current predicament.

I’m guessing you must get recommended books by random strangers on a fairly regular basis, but I will venture to join that list of randoms and recommend you the following.

"The Fifth Sacred Thing" by Starhawk is a work of fiction which embraces some of the things mentioned in this article about a psychological/spiritual approach during the decline of American Industrial life. It’s a good read and I'm not sure if you've heard of it, or read it already, but I think you would enjoy it from the perspective of sci-fi and also from its input on this timely topic.

Another book which you may be interested in is "The Land of the Flowers" by Irene Cunningham. This is more about the impact of social ignorance, arrogance and the stories we tell ourselves on the fragile ecosystems we do it all upon. It's a beautiful but cutting historical view of South Western Australia.

I hope one day you will get a chance to read them in between geeking out or indeed it may be included in said geeking session.

Look forward to more of your engaging thoughts.

das monde said...

Reductions of religion to fervent beliefs look sad to me. When everything - communism, libertarism, atheism - is called a religion, the religious or spiritual people are depreciating their own experience a lot.

Having experiences some Asian cultures, I suspect that faith is not a crucial characteristic of religion. For example, Buddhist scripts acknowledge soon that God is an illusion. The stress of Abrahamic religions on faith (and "true" belief) might be more exceptional than a rule among the totality of religions.

A religion is more a practice, or a way of fulfilled living. That includes not just a set of rigid practices and tabus, but emotional and spiritual life. It is not so much about knowing (or believing) what, but about knowing how.

Technological optimists might be "rationally" believing that the civilization will be improving just as it always does, but they have no clue of how the living would go on even if they are right. Loosing the picture of living might be already dangerous.

Those concerned with one or other planet-wide collapse might be proposing some technological or social solutions, but they indeed ignore emotional or spiritual dimensions. They are imagining or believing too little as well.

By the way, I noticed an article at Oil Drum where they discuss how much religion is there in their suppositions.

One indispensable thing that a belief gives is confidence. On a personal level, people really do things only when they are confident - this is the basis of personal coaching. Collectively, we also get what we believe, or what we are confident at. Public pensions funds, health care systems and governments "for the people" break down soon once confidence is gone. On the other hand, foolish confidence may run economic bubble speculation ridiculously long.

To my taste, JMG's technological skepticism is a tad nihilistic. I agree that the global technological-industrial network will crumble before long. But that doesn't mean that we must be left only with infrastructure scavenging and age-proved tools and tricks. We still have a decade or two to enjoy this industry, and if some people would put their mind and hands to it, they would come up with a lot of durable and helpful new technology designed for declining ages. Wouldn't it be helpful to have some durable and easily assemblable new (though not necessarily "highest performing") toys for communication, cooking or whatever, to compensate the technological breakdown a little? Would it be nice to have some confidence that the new "dark ages" will be brighter as much as we can make them?

I do not mean here saving the civilization or the world in a "best" possible shape. Just development and preservation of durable technological peculiarities locally could make the ensuing world much more interesting. It would also be good to have last functional technology available not only to able elites but to (at least some) badly deprived folks as well.

A single global government solution is indeed dangerous, at it would impose some disastrous decisions most likely. But attempts to self-organize and self-govern on various smaller scales should not be frown upon. The thing is, governments were working well for ages... for some small elite rings. Now a neo-feudal system is coming back, with similar patterns. But for a few decades in the 20th century governments were indeed a problem for wannabe elites - and they were doing actually something for regular folks. Eventually, the big difference between haves and have-nots in today's world is cooperation: the elites meet and help each other, while the folks see only a "rat race".

In particular, the main reason why the US would not cut energy consumption to European levels is the type of political-economical "leadership". Nothing else.

Nnonnth said...

JMG: I sometimes think that the single most challenging task we face these days is learning to think of ourselves in something other than megalomaniacally grandiose terms.

Quite, and so many modern psychologists would agree with you. Not alot has changed since Lao Tzu pointed out how people madden themselves for no reason.

We're getting good at dealing with this actually -- we've had to, because there is alot of derangement around already, even before (consciously) factoring in the post-peak situation. Our society destroys sanity as a basic requirement.

As far as changing the stories -- you were looking at what mundane-sf might do. Seems to me it's fading as an idea. It's tempting to say sf was always too adolescent to countenance the mundane, but that's probably too harsh.

These days there is so much of interest going on in terms of psychology alone, it's enough to geek out on for quite a while. Human ingenuity is still very much going strong there. People's progress-love has got to get excited about different stuff, that's all. (You mentioned composting as an example!)

Medicine goes alongside this, and what with the interplay between psychology and, say, Heilkunst or acupressure, to be well adjusted to anything is within the reach of anyone who wants to put in the work. That's the kind of stuff my Larry Nivenish self geeks out on these days. But the Stoic in me regards euphoria and depression as equal mistakes in a way.

Funny how Niven (the poster boy for all hard-sf wunderwow) also wrote one of the all-time best disappearing-resource stories in 'The Magic Goes Away'. A good title for the next chapter in many people's lives.

Real human divinity, as opposed to adolescent fantasies of superhumanness, is probably much more likely to appear amidst decline than in 'the good times' (to call them that).

Jerry's Blog said...

Wow this is some really good stuff. Thank you for posting it.

John Michael Greer said...

Mat, if Bernanke said that, I'd be a very happy man. Mind you, it's about as likely as seeing him drop his pants at a press conference and moon the audience...

Yooper, not all Christians are Biblical literalists who think the Book of Revelations is a press release. There's a lot of richness and complexity in that faith, as in pretty much all others -- granted, that's very poorly represented by a lot of the professional media Christians these days, but it's there.

Anagnosto, it's a religion. A lot of people have read Odum and gone on to pursue lucrative careers in an economy founded on the fantasy of perpetual growth.

Xhmko, thanks for the suggestions! I don't object to that at all -- nobody these days can keep up with all the books that are potentially relevant to their field, and word of mouth (or its online equivalent) is always important in taking up the slack.

Das Monde, I think you're missing my point. I'm suggesting that today's faiths in progress and/or apocalypse have stopped being mere fervent beliefs, and have taken on the mythic dimensions and numinous force that typify the religions of other cultures. BTW, I'm quite familiar with Asian religions, having been raised in a multicultural household (my stepmother is Japanese) where Shinto and Shingon Buddhist practices were part of the daily texture of life.

Nnonnth, you're quite right about the Niven novel! It's been years since I looked at that -- might be worth a reread.

Jerry, many thanks.

John Michael Greer said...

LonerPhrique (offline), please reread the notice above the comment box. Gratuitous insults directed at anyone get deleted here.

Kevin said...

Your prose is a delight to read. I just discovered your blog via Reality Sandwich. I second Otse's comment on the reasonableness of your review, and hope you don't mind if I post belated responses to some of your previous entries which seem to me to call for, nay to cry aloud for pertinent replies.

John Michael Greer said...

Kevin, by all means comment away, but I probably won't have time to respond -- keeping up with responses to the current week's post is as much as I have time for.

Nnonnth said...

JMG: I'm suggesting that today's faiths in progress and/or apocalypse have stopped being mere fervent beliefs, and have taken on the mythic dimensions and numinous force that typify the religions of other cultures.

Exactly. Stories are what make human beings comfortable with events, what makes life make sense -- these stories were used for that purpose in what would otherwise have been completely incomprehensible times for us, as we moved into uncharted territory for our race, and basically, didn't fare too well.

Now, when the stories no longer match the events... how quickly can we see this period as a blip rather than the beginning of a new age? Our sanity and survival depend on it.

It's fascinating how close Tolkien came to writing a perfect fit for the situation, if indeed 'thinking of ourselves in something other than megalomaniacally grandiose terms' is the real issue. That's exactly what destroying the One Ring really represented.

I'm re-reading 'Magic Goes Away' as well! There's a whole slew of other stories in the same world now which I don't know whether I'll bother with -- maybe the one by Zelazny.

Some of the story is actually very affecting. It was written in 1976-8, just when the reality of the oil crisis was biting, and represents a good first creative response.

If I wrote on this idea, I would choose to see magic more as what is returning than what is going away... but how about you? Are you thinking of returning to fiction again?

kathy harrison said...

The task for me was to invest spirit into every task in my quest to do more with less. That means I have to be prayerful, not just when I plant a corrot seed but when facing a more irksome chore like carrying laundry upstairs to dry in the attic when a clothes dryer is sitting right next to me. Only then can I project the joy necessary to encourage others to follow along. You mentioned survivalists. Carolyn Baker actually gave my book, Just In Case: how to self sufficient when the unexpectd happens, an excellent review for which I was grateful beyond words. I think of preparedness as another element of spirituality. I hope to be one of the Remnant, those who will be around to help build a more just and sane world. When I lost my old faith a new one based in community and strength.

Conchscooter said...

The constant search for meaning and religion and spirituality keeps obscuring the reality that for thousands of years the oligarchs have ruled and at the first sign of trouble they pull up the drawbridge and leave us in the wasteland.
Why is it the rich don't give a toss about religion and the rest of us keep floundering about trying to make sense of the daylight robbery, by looking for God? Because God is a myth designed to make sense of something we feel powerless to affect. Reduce oil consumption by two thirds and religious attendance drops in proportion and that's not what the oligarchs want. So here we are, millions are hurting, hundrfeds are massively enriched and we look for God instead of looking for a transfer of wealth. And I'm not even a Communist!

hapibeli said...

"We need to start talking about how we can hold onto our humanity in bitter times; about how we can find reasons for hope and sources of necessary joy as so many of our former certainties crumble to dust; about what stories we can use to bring meaning to the world when so many of our familiar meanings no longer make sense of anything. In order to face the realities of decline, in other words, we have to face ourselves, and Baker’s book is a significant contribution to that vital task."


Where, in your view, is a good starting point in reaching towards consensus with all of the willing participants who seek to further our humanity in view of the roadblocks that are present due to human frailties [ secularity, individualism, survival fears, and our subjective natures] .

hapibeli said...

Well Johnny, once again you've slapped the issue right is th' kisser...... but for a guy who detests funding questions which require prying into people's "Pandora's Boxes" posing a question of such force will serve to bring a plethora of opinions tumbling out of the 'mouths of babes', pardon the pun,and you'll be inundated with every variable of philosophy from the "halls of the Akashic Records" to the "shores of Pragmatism". Of course this is all underpinned by your understanding of our subjective-anthropocentric visionary capacity, eh? Good luck my friend

Spottedwolf....from Hapi's computer.

RDatta said...

Ha-Shem means "The Name". A name as such is not given to the Deity, it is referred to as "The Name", or "Lord", "Master", "King" or by a pronoun.

Robin.

Edde said...

Greetings JMG and all,

JMG: The technical aspects of our predicament, though challenging, are the least of our worries; it’s the other aspects that have proven intractable. Consider the project of cutting US per capita energy consumption to a third of its present level. Given that the average European uses a third as much energy each year as the average American, and in many ways gets a better standard of living out of it, this is far from impossible; a great deal of the technology is sitting on the shelf only one continent away, in effect, and simply needs to be put to work.

Just a niggle here - why not go for "fair share" of energy used? USA represents 4-5% of world population and uses 25-30% of energy resources. USA's "fair share" is then in the 20% of current use range. While this is a smaller share than your proposal it is easily understood, can be explained with few ambiguities and still do-able.

JMG: So why isn’t so sensible a project being debated right now in the halls of Congress? Why, more broadly, has energy conservation through lifestyle change – arguably the single easiest and most cost effective option we have on hand in dealing with the end of the age of cheap oil – been entirely off the political and cultural radar screens since the end of the 1970s, so much so that most of those who have noticed that we’re running out of cheap abundant energy have framed the issue entirely in terms of finding some technical gimmick that will let us keep on living the way we live now?


The draft Markey-Waxman climate bill (ACES 2009)is available, now, for discussion and represents just the response you write about. It might be helpful, however, for those of us who agree that a conservation lifestyle is THE important first step to reducing energy use to weigh in on this bill. While we don't have the political clout of status quo business and those who will financially benefit from national legislation, it may be possible to get at least a few concessions in our favor.

To paraphrase the old call to action - for technological "solutions" to prevail, all people who think conservation is primary need do is nothing...

While I prefer working politically at the local level (one of our county commissioners lives in our neighborhood, etc), the internet can help mobilize sufficient momentum to slightly alter (hopefully in a positive direction)national conversations. Give it a try.

It is also useful to stay engaged in politics at the local level, which is where the "steel wheel hits the track" or whatever. Getting prepared, personally, can be aided immeasurably by joining together with neighbors, which is what local politics is about at its core.

I live in little a blue gem in a red state - largely created by local political activity and local universities & colleges. There is still ample work to do...

edde

Nnonnth said...

A previous JMG concept which recurred to me was 'muddling'.

Thinking of human activity as 'muddling with settings'... When we muddle with indigenous religion settings we get shamanism; with greek philosophical settings, logic. With post-industrial revolution settings, we get -- all this. :) With more modern parameters -- organic farming. We need people to reset the parameters. Then we will get useful stuff again.

I do see modern psychology as super-important. Essentially Freud turned up just as the old story tanked, and he started this wave, whose job was to adjust us to that particular 'death'. The 'stories' he introduced, about ego and id and so on, were a good first muddle on those settings.

I think we've muddled to better stuff since then; yes even better than Jung, and I speak as an Hermetic!

Specifically the philosophically-based common sense of Cognitive Therapy. Which says, the way you deal with your stories is almost more imporant than what they are. And that's why I mentioned the idea that Baker should try to leave alone Jungian rhetoric in favour of pragmatism. When stories that don't correspond to the truth have to be propped up, it's with rhetoric that it's done.


A plain statement like Al Gore's movie has had a lot more impact than that big 'The Day After Tomorrow' flick. (Why can't Heinberg make a similar movie to Gore's?)

And if we want fiction, what we need again is rationality and that does still kind of mean mundane sf to me. We rejig the tools to hand, we scavenge sf from its original goal of adolescent masturbation!

Personally I think that has a chance, better than a self-consciously religious approach. I don't think accusing people of animating death-archetypes gets us anywhere. Those explanations are in themselves just more stories to me.

ezab said...

Julien, I have a couple of suggestions in response to your questions.

** JMG always emphasizes learning skills, and since you’re in a city, you have access to many new skills. You could find an experienced organic gardener and volunteer your time... they’d be glad to have the help, and you would learn a lot. Look for interesting workshops. I just attended a free-one hour demonstration on how to sharpen knives and gardening tools ... that’s a valuable skill that you can take anywhere.

** You seem to pose your questions in an “either or” sort of way. You could also look at the general direction your life is going. While living in the city, you could still build resources for a future in some other location (rather than investing in your current situation.) You could think about, and research, where you’d want to live over the next 20 or 30 years.

You ask, “or do we just need to move out to the country to become farmers?” There are many alternatives in between the big city and farming a large farm. Consider a small town, where you could grow food in the backyard.

** If your current way of earning a living means you have to live in a large city, perhaps you could consider training for a different field. I suggest looking at the health professions. Consider becoming a nurse or a physician’s assistant or a laboratory technician... shortages in these professions are predicted over the next two decades. Once you’re trained, you could move anywhere you like .. nurses and laboratory technician are needed everywhere. And if we do find ourselves in a chaotic situation where a person’s skills are their best protection, then a solid grounding in healthcare would be a valuable asset.

** Since you’re currently living in a city, you probably have access to training in many of the world’s spiritual traditions. You may find that developing skill in meditation, which is taught in many traditions, will help you physically and emotionally over the coming years, and will also help you connect intuitively to the wisest decisions on your future choices.

Best wishes!!

Matthijs said...

John, you should publish your best posts in a book. For the sake of the preservation of crucial information ;-)

Your notion that the internet is the biggest consumer of electricity is spot on. I have read a Dutch report on this topic which concludes that 15% to 25% of all electricity is consumed by the internet (not including the production of new processors etc.). Unfortunately it is not available in English.

It may not classify as a 'hidden' technology but is it certainly one of the most important technologies that powers our economy/world.