Wednesday, October 05, 2011

The Peak Oil Initiation

I sometimes wonder what historians of the far future will think as they pore over what’s left of the records of our own time. It’s unlikely that they’ll have a great deal more to go on than, say, Renaissance scholars had when they started to piece together the story of Rome’s decline and fall; our civilization produces a much greater volume of records than Rome did, to be sure, but most of them are in much more transitory forms; parchment lasts for many centuries if it’s kept dry and not handled much, while a few decades at most—and in the case of the internet, a few seconds of power loss—is enough to silence most of our current information media forever.

It’s all too easy to imagine a historian of the Ecotechnic Renaissance in something like the twenty-ninth century in our calendar as she pores over the surviving records of ancient America, trying to figure out what brought about the decline and fall of that long-vanished civilization. Our historian has collected an admirable collection of sources, not only handprinted volumes from the scholarly presses of her time but manuscripts, some of them centuries old, laboriously copied by hand from ancient originals. By the pale light of a single electric lamp, she opens one of the big leatherbound volumes, and begins to read.

We’ll assume that her time is more fortunate than it may well be, and the texts available to her aren’t limited to tabloid-style biographies, press releases by ancient American politicians, and those wretched ghostwritten volumes that ancient American politicians get their flacks to churn out to boost their chances of a presidential nomination. Our historian, let’s say, has a few books that sketch out the crisis of industrial civilization. Here’s a rare manuscript copy of The Limits to Growth, courtesy of a long line of scribes in an ecostery in Vermont; here’s the scholarly find of the last half-century, an almost-complete text of Overshoot by the ancient sage William Catton, which lay forgotten in an abandoned library in the Nebraska desert until shepherds discovered the building half buried in the sands; here’s a volume of texts written by another ancient sage named Sharon Astyk, whose works are all lost but were quoted at length by half a dozen writers of a later century whose writings do survive.

Our historian has these and a few more like them, let’s assume, and she also has enough in the way of chronicles and histories to trace the curve of decline that brought industrial civilization to its knees—the political crises and economic implosions, the depletion of concentrated energy sources and the abandonment of energy-intensive lifestyles and technologies that followed, the wars and epidemics and famines, and the shifts in climate and sea level as the earth’s biosphere responded in its own good time to three centuries of frankly brainless human tinkering with the natural processes that keep us all alive. So there she sits at her desk, the pool of light cast by her single light bulb setting the leather bindings of her books aglow, with the wop-wop-wop of the wind turbine that powers the lamp faintly audible through the ceiling as the night winds sweep past. What is she thinking as she surveys our fate?

I may be wrong, but I’ve long thought that one question above all would haunt my imagined historian of our future: why did we do it? Given that our entire civilization had plenty of warning, and that ten minutes of unprejudiced thought ought to have been enough to demonstrate to anybody the absurdity of expecting to get away with infinite economic growth on a finite planet, why didn’t we do what must, to the eyes of the future, look like the obviously right decision, and downshift to a less energy- and resource-intensive steady state economy while we had the chance? Why, instead, did we keep on lurching blindly forward on a one-way street headed straight to history’s compost bin, all the while angrily shouting down the few that tried to warn us of where we were going?

It’s a question that a lot of people in the peak oil community ask themselves right now, and for good reason. To those who’ve grasped the hard physical realities that undergird peak oil—the geological and thermodynamic limits to our planet’s fossil fuel supplies, the net energy issues and energy subsidies that make replacement of fossil fuels so challenging, and the rest of it—the arguments generally marshalled against the reality of peak oil look like bizarre exercises in paralogic. Weirdly, too, when those paralogical arguments fail—when the insistence by economists that the supply of oil will always increase with rising prices, for example, collides with the reality that the price of oil has increased drastically since 2004 without any corresponding increase in supply—nobody stops and asks the questions that seem obvious to those of us who are already on the peak oil bus.

One of the better recent examples of this last odd habit can be traced in the media response to Daniel Yergin’s latest broadside against the concept of peak oil, framed in his new book The Quest. I don’t propose to argue with Yergin’s claims here, as that’s already been done elsewhere in the peak oil blogosphere. What’s interesting to me is that Yergin has made a series of highly public predictions about future oil production rates and prices over the last decade or so, and to the best of my knowledge every single one of them has been wrong—not slightly wrong, but wrong on the grand scale. His 2004 prediction that the price of oil would shortly stabilize at a plateau of $38 a barrel was so widely publicized, and so decisively refuted by events, that some peak oil writers took to calling this amount of money “one Yergin” and noting how many Yergins a barrel of oil was bringing on any given day.

As a forecaster, then, Yergin’s not even as reliable as a broken clock, and yet the media continue to take his predictions at face value. As far as I know, not one of the reporters in the mainstream media who breathlessly repeated Yergin’s claims about the impossibility of peak oil took so much as a sentence to refer to any of his past predictions, much less how they turned out. It’s weirdly reminiscent of the acquired amnesia that enables believers in apocalyptic prophecies to forget the last half dozen times they talked themselves into believing that the Rapture or the arrival of the Space Brothers or whatever was imminent, and treat the latest prediction with the same earnest enthusiasm.

There’s a certain amusement value in this, but other manifestations of the same gap in comprehension between those who recognize the reality of peak oil and those that don’t are far from funny. Marriages have broken down and friendships have ended because of it. Many other relationships exist in a state of armed truce, in which nobody brings up peak oil because it’s already become clear that conversation on the subject leads nowhere useful. The division is not a matter of intelligence—some extremely smart people insist that there must be limitless energy somewhere—or politics—those who reject peak oil, like those who understand it, can be found from one end of the political spectrum straight across to the other. When it comes down to it, the most that can be said is that some people get peak oil, and others simply don’t.

My sense—and it’s here that we circle back around to the theme of the last two posts, the interface between magic and peak oil—is that the difference between the minority that get peak oil and the majority that doesn’t is not rational in nature. I’ve spoken at quite a bit of length in past posts about the ways that the modern belief in progress functions as a religion, a mythology, a narrative on which most people in the industrial world found their sense of meaning and their hopes for the future. Still, there’s another way to talk about it, and to do that we need to turn back to Plato’s metaphor of the horses and the charioteer, which I mentioned in last week’s post.

That metaphor fielded some lively responses over the past week, and what I found interesting is that most of them missed a central aspect of it. A number of my readers interpreted it along lines that have been standard in the Western world for some centuries now, and seen the horses as the body and its instinct, and the charioteer as the mind and its reasoning powers. That’s the traditional schism dividing Classicism, which exalts reason, from Romanticism, which exalts instinct; from the end of the Renaissance right up to the present, that split has been a standard trope in our culture, and so it’s not surprising that people assumed that this is what Plato was talking about.

But this was not what Plato was talking about, not by a long shot. In his metaphor there were two horses, not one, and they corresponded to two very different forces in the nonrational side of the self. One horse represents the biological self, guided by what Romantics call the instincts and Platonists have generally called the appetites. The other horse, though, represents what the ancient Greeks called thumos, the spirited or irascible part of the self, the part that responds nonrationally to praise or blame, that responds to insults with unreasoning anger and to the promptings of pack-loyalty with the kind of blind courage that shrugs at the thought of death. To use a phrase Plato didn’t, where the first horse is the biological self, the second horse is the social self.

This second horse embodies the lessons we all learn from our parents, our peers, and our community in the childhood years before the ability to reason clearly emerges. It’s as potent a force as the biological appetites, and tangles up with them in complicated ways—the intricacies of the sex drive, for example, have a good deal more to do with the social self and influences absorbed in childhood than they do with the relatively simple biological drive to mate. In evolutionary terms, the social self—or more precisely, the capacity to develop a social self—is a good deal older than the rational mind; we share it with the whole range of mammals that live in groups, and more especially with social primates such as chimps and baboons; it’s nonrational and nonverbal, and once a pattern is established in the social self, it’s no easier to change it by rational thought than it is to turn the sex drive on and off the same way.

The social self is also one of the main vehicles of magic. I wrote two weeks ago about the extent to which human social interactions are mediated by nonverbal and nonrational communication—body language, gesture, vocal tone, facial expression, and all the other communicative methods we have in common with our mammal relatives. These are the channels of communication through which people fall in love, make friends and enemies, establish their place in social hierarchies, claim a larger or smaller share of whatever resources are to hand: all the things that baboons and beavers and the rest of our nonhuman kin do with comparable signals sent through comparable channels. Baby baboons and beavers pick up facility in this language in their early years, and no doubt absorb all kinds of lessons about their social and physical environment through the same means; so do we.

What makes this natural process a fertile source of problems is that we apply these nonrational cues to words that also denote rational concepts, and then confuse the two. Watch the way people talk about a political concept central to their society’s self-image: for example, the concept of democracy here in America. The social self, that unruly horse, insists that democracy—"real democracy"—ought to live up to standards that no real political system can achieve. What ought to be called "real democracy" is the cumbersome, corrupt, flawed, but functional system that emerges when real human beings have the right to elect officials and vote on issues. Still, that’s not how the horse sees it; to the horse, democracy is an emotionally charged symbol rich with warm feelings, and "real democracy" means that symbol in some impossibly perfect manifestation on the plane of everyday life.

I’d like to suggest that this is what underlies the paralogic that makes peak oil incomprehensible to most people in the industrial world just now. The concept of progress is, if anything, more heavily loaded with positive emotional energy among us than the concept of democracy, and around it gathers a flurry of other concepts equally freighted with warm emotions. Challenge it—and the concept of peak oil, if it’s taken seriously, challenges it to the core—and the social self takes fright and shies away, dragging the chariot and the charioteer with it, and quite possibly spooking the other horse and sending the whole kit and caboodle careening down the nearest blind alley. (Murmuring "drill, baby, drill" to the social horse seems to calm it, which probably explains the popularity of that ritual chant just now. )

This is not a new thing, of course, and it’s something that operative mages—people who practice magic—have had to deal with in themselves and their students for a very long time. Operative magic requires the mage to be able to think about the world in ways that aren’t supported or encouraged by his or her society, and getting the social self and the reasoning mind untangled from each other is an important part of that process. The standard approach to making this happen in traditional Western magic is summed up by the term "initiation."

There’s been plenty of nonsense written about initiation down through the years, but the basic concept is easy enough to grasp. The symbolic and ritual tools of magical practice can be used to set off the same set of reactions that allow a child, or for that matter a baby baboon, to stock its social self with the nonverbal and emotionally charged patterns of its social group. This is done in a careful and controlled way, with patterns that further the process of magical training, and the candidate—the person going through the initiation—is taught nonverbal signals that allow him or her to activate the new patterns when it’s time to use them, and deactivate them when it’s time to deal with the nonmagical world. In the short term, this makes it possible to practice magic without too much psychological strain; in the long term, the experience of shifting from one set of arbitrary social patterns and emotional charges to another teaches the reasoning mind to detach itself from the social self altogether, and think its own thoughts rather than those of its society.

Those of my readers who haven’t been through a magical initiation, or one of the lodge initiations (for example, those of Freemasonry) that use similar methods for the purpose of self-improvement and ethical development, may well think they have no idea what I’m talking about. Still, if you’re reading this blog and consider peak oil a real possibility, you’ve already passed through an initiation. It didn’t happen in a lodge of the Ancient Hubbertian Order of Peak Oil, granted, but there’s another kind of initiation, and that’s self-initiation.

In a regular lodge initiation, the candidate goes through a dramatic ceremony, and is then given a set of meditative and ritual exercises to practice; these are meant to reinforce the pattern communicated in the initiation ritual. The practitioner of self-initiation skips the ceremony, or does an abbreviated form of it on his or her own, and then plunges straight into the meditative and ritual exercises to get the same effect. Some magical schools prefer to use self-initiation, since it quickly weeds out those who aren’t willing to do the hard work that magic requires. Other schools avoid it, but it’s a widely used method, and a great many of you have been through it whether you’re aware of that fact or not.

Think back, dear reader, to the time when you first became aware of peak oil. Odds are that when you first encountered the concept, you found it disquieting or even repellent, but at a certain point—maybe in that first encounter, maybe later on—something suddenly shifted. A moment later you were living in a different world, one in which earlier priorities and beliefs had to make room for the immense and terrifying fact that your civilization was in deep trouble and next to nobody was willing to see that, much less do anything about it. That was your initiation into peak oil, and the feverish reading and thinking that most of you probably did over the weeks and months that followed were the equivalent of the magical student’s daily meditations and rituals, which stabilize the new pattern and begin the hard work of teaching the initiate how to make constructive use of what the initiation has provided.

All this, in turn, provides one answer to the question I posed at the end of last week’s post—whether it’s possible to shake our society out of its collective trance and get it to pay attention to the reality of the crisis looming up before us. Initiation is very much subject to readiness factors; the competent teacher of magic knows that at any given time, some students are ready for a given grade of initiation and others simply aren’t. Fraternal lodges such as Freemasonry cast their net more widely, but every Mason knows that a certain number of candidates for membership, however enthusiastic they think they are, will pass through the rituals unmoved and untouched, and drift out of involvement in the lodge within a few weeks or months.

The wider issue here, to borrow a term from last week’s post, is that theurgy can’t be done for, to, or by anyone else. It’s up to the individual. A good teacher, or a lodge initiation, can provide a certain amount of help in that process, but the important part of the work still has to be done by the individual student or candidate, or it doesn’t get done. All these things are equally true of the initiation of peak oil: if you’re not ready for it, or you aren’t willing to put in the study and hard thinking required, you’re probably going to drift back into the standard patterns in the social self that tell you that progress is inevitable and the universe owes us as much energy as we want to waste.

All this presumes that the magic we’re discussing is theurgy, the kind of magic the Neoplatonists practiced as a preparation for the philosophic life and that modern operative mages practice for their own not dissimilar ends. There is also thaumaturgy, the manipulation of the nonrational that doesn’t attempt to free the reasoning mind from entanglement in the social and biological selves, but simply seeks power over the self and others by way of that entanglement. There’s a long history of operative mages and others who realize that theurgy is only an option for the individual, and attempt to perform thaumaturgy on their society as a whole instead. We’ll discuss that next week.


The Unlikely Mage said...

There is also thaumaturgy, the manipulation of the nonrational that doesn’t attempt to free the reasoning mind from entanglement in the social and biological selves, but simply seeks power over the self and others by way of that entanglement.

Now that's a model of thamaturgy I've never considered and unites a few layers of things that I've been thinking about. I think I'll have to hold them until next week's post though!

Regarding thumos, I thought it just represented the emotional side of an individual. It's been years since I've read "The Republic". Adding pre-rational social lessons makes me want to call this part our baboon side!

Thank you for giving me another perspective on it.

William Hunter Duncan said...

Curious thing, I thought, as I read this, how much easier it becomes to tell one's truth, the closer we come to the end of this Age. Though saying what you have said, dose not make what you speak of that much easier - unless one takes it as a truth.


nuku said...

JMG- Thank you for another thought provoking essay. Though you didn’t mention Desmond Morris, I’m sure he’s been a influence in your meditations on the nature of the second horse. I’ve been re-reading The Naked Ape, The Human Zoo, and Manwatching; books which take a look at the ‘animal” nature of the big-brained primate we call man. Seems to me that part of an explanation for the “magical” thinking around the myth of progress and inability to “get” peak oil is that old disconnect between man the animal, and man as a creature somehow “above” or separate from the natural world. Morris’s descriptions of human non-verbal and socially mediated behavior is one good way to begin the process of self-initiation.

das monde said...

JMG: If the collapse is going to be poorly recorded, does it make sense to make a quiet effort to preserve some of today’s information in durable forms? How much could activists (of one sort or other) tilt the content of surviving knowledge?

For what I remember, sustainability concerns were already default in me since school years. Yep, I caught the progress myth (of a Marxist variety) as well - but I took progress risks seriously. Somehow, without much effort to resist new social-economic experiences, my core interests did not change that dramatically since the Cold War. The horses-and-charioteer metaphor makes sense - and I would add, the strength of both horses and the charioteer differ in people. As can be read from psychological typologies, some people are more obsessed with being at the center of attention, others with order and hierarchy, and so on. And some people are less obsessed with these stereotypical pursuits than universally assumed. In particular, the autistic spectrum might represent more or less ignorant adaptations to social pressures.

At the end of R. A. Wilson’s “Prometheus rising”, a parallel is drawn between yoga mediation techniques and T. Leary’s eight-circuit model of consciousness. Usually, mediation is understood as quieting the rational mind. But the rational circuit comes as number 4 or 3. Before it, you have to quiet the Biosurvival and the Emotional-Territorial (and perhaps the Socio-Sexual) circuits - Plato’s horses, right? Wilson’s guess is that at best about 50% of people habitually think rationally without the noise of the more basic circuits. Thus, solving a math problem, or understanding peak oil, must be sold as a meditative exercise to the other half?!

We may take it as a given that most people would not even consider to calm the horses at any time. On the other hand, the stimulating noise for the horses is especially high amidst the modern media and social-financial imperatives. What I provocatively suspect is that this noisy environment is a tool of calculated social control. I think, the peak oil voices were not particularly exotic in the last decades, but they were very effectively marginalized. We might find concerned politicians and discussions - but without iota of adequate impact. So, we are left with accepting the faster overshot course and other coming surprises.

x2fer said...

I’ve had a question about magicians percolating for the last few weeks that has crystallized a bit with the passing of Apple’s driving force, Steve Jobs.

How do you differentiate operative mages from everyday practitioners of consciousness change, such as politicians, marketers/advertisers, and psychologists? All of those groups of people make their living from attempting to change the consciousness of nations, consumers, and individuals.

Steve Jobs is one of the ultimate practitioners of his brand of magic. He unabashedly promoted the myth of technological progress, but took it further than most, by actively encouraging us to leave the past behind and look only to the future. His special skill was in making the always new seem beautiful & inspiring in a way that encouraged millions to abandon what they had to follow him. All the hyperbole abut his life only seems to reinforce the point that he has been a consummate consciousness molder for many years.

Other examples off the top of my head are Franklin D. Roosevelt, or Ronald Reagan, or a skilled therapist who can help a person overcome some personal roadblock.

I’m guessing, although I don’t know for sure, that most of these people who have had dramatic effects on people’s consciousness weren’t active practitioners of the type of magic you’ve been discussing. I’d appreciate some clarification about why you would or wouldn’t consider those activities magical.

I’m thinking that the end of this week’s post, with the distinction between theurgy and thaumaturgy might be releveant...

tOM said...

In the field of Organizational Development, OD, the "initiation" is called unfreezing and refreezing.

People resist change. Try foisting changes on an organization and its members will usually steadfastly dig in and neutralize your efforts.

You need to involve them in the changes, give them ownership, lead them to see advantages for them, for others, in the changes contemplated, and encourage them to get excited and involved, and to actually have some measure of control over the manner and direction of changes, even if there is an edict from above whose basic thrust they cannot change.

Of course, for the OD practitioner, the trick is to unfreeze just enough and then refreeze as needed to accommodate the edict.

Avery said...

JMG, on a related topic, you mentioned in a previous post that cargo cults are bound to develop in America, and I think I can see their form beginning to take shape not only in America but around the world, as unemployed youth (NEETs) and disaffected countrymen alike search for anything that might fix the broken system.

I wrote up a little sketch here:

I expect by this time next week, with worldwide "occupations" set by a Spanish NEET group for October 15, this movement will have such an impact on the news that it will be difficult not for you to tackle it. It has such a strong connection to what you talk about in this post, too. These groups have the ability to evolve into a true school of ecotechnics, or devolve into superstition, depending on how people try to influence them.


Cherokee Organics said...


Top work. I particularly liked the imagery of the future at the start of the post, you have a lovely way with words.

Societal programming is so strong. It's hard to break away from it and not be viewed as an eccentric. Yet what else do you do? I've had heated conversations with people over the past few years about: the hydrogen economy; peak oil; carbon capture & storage; solar power; even vegetarian dogs! The only thing I learned is to shut up and observe and that we as a society are subject to a mass delusion and as long as no one points out that the emperor really does have no clothes on, everything will be alright. Climate change is focused on in the political sphere because it is a ways off yet. Peak Oil is not spoken about because it would require a shift in society so large as to be unthinkable.

One of my favourites is when people complain about the price of energy, yet they run a second fridge just for beer (mmmm beer), run air conditioning - or consume fuel in vehicles purely for entertainment. With our mix of energy sources, once it is used, it is gone. There is no replacement for Oil.

Has anyone ever noticed that the corporate powers that be love a gamble, whether it's the horses or at the casino? How could anyone think that they'd treat society any differently?

Another thing is that addicts require a sense of purpose and commitment to overcome their addiction. Interventions won't work without that commitment from the addict and you guessed it, we as a society are addicted to concentrated fuel sources. It's my opinion that you can't help people who don't want to be helped.

Incidentally, I used to run a graduate program at a publicly listed company and your words about initiation struck a chord. So true. I'm a reasonably gentle spirit and the program reflected this. Not all initiation processes have this at heart.

I'm interested to see what people have written as a response to your blog.



sofistek said...

I'm kind of over peak oil, now. It's still real and I still know that it will have a devastating effect on the society that surrounds me but I'm more focused on our utter (but predictable) failure as a species to recognise environmental (as well as economic) limits. We've made a fine mess of our only habitat and still don't realise we're doing it. In almost every aspect of our environment, the one that sustains us, we've had a detrimental, sometimes hugely detrimental, impact. I think that should be enough for everyone to try to move to a simpler, less impacting, way of life. Unfortunately, it's like peak oil; you either get it or you don't. That's actually causing me a lot of pain right now and I sometimes wish I didn't get it.

Odin's Raven said...

Here's another couple of little stories about a fictional future.

People will have negative views about this era, but they will be dealing with their own problems rather than ours. They'll be long past oil, and democracy, and progress - but not past magic or social order.

whblondeau said...

I've already been initiated????

Next thing you'll be telling me that I've been speaking prose all along.

It's hard to overstate how true this article rings. I remember my moment at which everything shifted. I had been discovering the story of our resource curves and depletion, and following it with fascination.

And then I came across an article that described the iron dependence of our economic existence on the massive injection of fossil fuels. I can't remember where the article was published, or who wrote it, or even exactly when this happened - but I do remember the sense of appalled dread that came over me as I connected those dots.

Since then, I've been looking at the world through alien eyes. In many ways I am isolated not just from others, but from my previous self. It's sort of a personal singularity: I cannot really reconstruct who I was; it's amazing to me that I understood so little of the implications before then, and I cannot altogether recall who I was back then.

I live my life as simply as I can, trying to work through the best strategies. I have no car, and bike to work; the flood of commuter traffic, when I must encounter it, is unsettling - well, downright creepy. All of those people, one person to a car generally, are alien to me as I am to them. I sometimes think that I have already seen the much-discussed Zombie Apocalypse, and most people don't know that they are dead.

This "initiation" stuff is all about playing for keeps, isn't it?

Óskar said...

What you're saying here has a lot of meaning for me personally - I definitely went through a self-initiation as you describe it.

During at least half a year after discovering peak oil, I was in an odd emotional state which I'd never known before in my life. My whole world view was shifting and for a little while everything felt rather meaningless.

I started reading up on all types of earth sciences and realized how much more the Earth is than the sum of its wholes - it's not just a round ball of rock with plants and animals on it. The "revelation" of the reality of Mother Earth, inside and outside myself, moved me profoundly. I might call that the other side of the river - the point where I found meaning and beauty again.

Up until that point I'd been a "devout" rationalist, fascinated by space travel and technology since childhood, etc. I have no religious background. But I can only describe what I went through as a "religious experience". I no longer feel any indignation towards genuinely religious people.

Yet none of the conclusions I have reached actually contradict the rational knowledge I had before; rather, they complement it and make sense of it. It saddens me to see modern rationalists fight off all types of spirituality as somehow incompatible with rational thought - I now believe that's wrong and feel richer for understanding that those two poles can coexist peacefully.

Twilight said...

I think many of us can relate to those feelings when we accepted some new idea that fundamentally changed the way we see the world around us, especially peak oil. In time, I think people either begin to cultivate such experiences, or they find them too uncomfortable and avoid them. If you've cultivated them you find that there is a particular mindset, a way of approaching ideas that allows one consider things separately from social considerations. Incidentally, this is one of the problems I have with the phrase "conspiracy theory" - it's a direct appeal to the social horse to rear up and run away with the chariot. I prefer to consider the idea, not the feelings the idea provokes or whether it would be socially acceptable to discuss.

In time this becomes more than a singular event, but a process, a series of progressive revelations and a way of considering ideas without the baggage of social acceptability, and you may find you've move quite far from the mainstream. I guess at that point you've become one of those weirdos who don't fit in - but you don't have to act that way, as you still have the social skills you always had. It is just a little bit of a burden to interact with people while being very aware that they do not see what you see.

While I'm not a mage, I suppose that is the essence of changing consciousness in accordance with will. To be able to clearly evaluate the information you have, to see if who you are fits with what you understand - and if not, to change the self to fit the knowledge rather than trying to force the knowledge to fit the self.

Bill Pulliam said...

I'd have to say my own "peak oil initiation" was rather like Paul's experience on the road to Antioch. I was fully aware of the notions of limits to growth, and the ultimate inevitability of the end of the fossil fuel era. But I had also not really gone beyond the standard math of "we have 100 years of oil left, so we've got problems coming in 100 years." Sometime early in this millennium my wife told me about this interesting new idea she had just come across: the problems begin as soon as supply can no longer continue to increase, not when the oil actually "runs out." They were calling this "peak oil," and some people were predicting that it might only be 10 or 20 years in the future. The basic idea just made so much sense that it was a real "Aha!" moment and my "conversion" was pretty much instantaneous.

Of course, it turns out that the peak was a lot less than 10 or 20 years off; indeed the per capita peak had already happened over 20 years previous.

Sixbears said...

Makes perfect sense to me. I "got" Peak Oil right off. My only friends and family who got it have a background in non-standard views of reality.

John Michael Greer said...

Mage, yes, thumos is the emotional side of the self as distinct from the appetitive or instinctual. Emotions are, among other things, how we nonverbally experience our social environment!

William, that's an interesting point.

Nuku, yes, Morris is an influence, though it's been quite a while since I read him. The interface between Neoplatonist philosophy and evolutionary biology has been much on my mind lately; since Neoplatonism is basically a way of talking about the kinds of things human beings experience, what it reports and what evolution implies should be compatible with one another -- and indeed they are.

Das Monde, it does indeed make sense to do that. Some of us are already busy at it, and I'd encourage you to do what you can as well. As for the production of mental noise, I think it's as much that people are using it to numb themselves to the massive cognitive dissonance of our age than it is a matter of attempts at control.

X2fer, funny you should ask that. We'll be talking about it at some length next week.

tOm, that's a useful model as well.

Avery, thanks for the link! I've certainly been watching the situation; anyone who knows their way around the history of revolutions knows that this sort of thing can sometimes spin out of control and lead to wrenching change very fast. (It can also fizzle, mind you.) The cargo cult potential is also large, and could lose any possibility of positive change. We'll see.

Cherokee, most lodges require initiates to keep silent about their lodge experiences among nonmembers, and that's largely a way to foster the "keep silent and watch" attitude you've described. It's an extraordinarily useful tool, and teaches the initiate to detach himself or herself from various kinds of social baboonery. I suspect the unacceptability of peak oil in mixed company will have a similar effect on peak oil initiates!

Sofistek, understood. Yes, it hurts, but that's something that has to be faced.

Raven, duly added.

Thijs Goverde said...

Funny - no self-initiation here.
I remember hearing about peak oil and just thinking: oh, yeah, well... that figures, dunnit?
Same with the Rare Earth Metals Depletion Thingy.

Growing up in a relatively 'green' family (not so green compared to most here but raving eco-loonies compared to the average guy in the street) may have had something to do with it.

AGW was a bit of a shocker: WHAT? Is that happening? HOW on earth does that effect happen? ... oh... well, kind of... figures, dunnit?

Point is: I never seem to have needed much reading or hard thinking to accept these ideas.

Maybe riding bicycles for years and years (after my parents got rid of their car), and chopping a lot of wood (after my parents started to burn wood to supplement/replace the central heating) somehow stood in for that?

Mister Roboto said...

When I read Richard Heinberg's The Party's Over: Oil, War, and the Fate of Industrial Society pretty much exactly eight years ago, its effect on me was pretty much a very stark case of "before" and "after" in terms of my worldview, so I guess you could call that an initiation of sorts. Unfortunately, it also revived my atrophied support of the Democratic Party in the hopes that those blow-dried "say-one-thing-do-another" hacks would somehow mitigate the severity of collapse. Oh well, live and learn....

gregorach said...

"Societal programming is so strong. It's hard to break away from it and not be viewed as an eccentric. "

I'm not at all sure that you can - in fact, I'd say that if you truly break your societal programming, you're liable to be viewed as insane, rather than merely "eccentric". And it's a bridge which, once crossed, can never be uncrossed... One of the dangers of self-initiation is that, without the support of a lodge or teacher, the initiate may find it increasingly difficult to function in the strange new world he finds himself in, which seems to be a fun-house-mirror version of the familiar world, populated by the ghosts of people he once called friends. It can be a lonely road, and some get lost along the way.

Don't ask how I know... ;)

nate said...

Could it not be said that belief in that which cannot be measured or detected and quantified in some way, is the root cause of of all deficits in the wisdom of our species.

Richard Larson said...

Yeah, I have read the Long Descent and Long Emergency, these book themes gives one an idea there will be plenty of time to copy the highlights or condemnations of "America" to parchment paper.

But it won't happen. The media today is nothing more than an extension of this particular society, speaking towards and about this particular moment in time. That is what the viewers want. My best guess the media of tomorrow will be the same.

Whatever a far future historian has to work with may not even matter to the people left trying to survive, I suspect.

In this blog, you have alluded to the amount of time for the information on the internet to disappear. Well, I think America will disappear just as quickly.

A few seconds isn't very Long.

I have floated this Freemasonry idea past my spouse, and she is not agreeable (she hasn't been agreeable on too much, as you have touched on, around and about). But I know a member in town, I am going to strike up a conversation.

Richard Larson said...

Oh, and this modern black magic spell was lifted from me when I read The 30 Thesis by Jason Godesky.

He has dropped out of society, but the Anarchist Library has an electronic copy.

It is hard information.

Chris Balow said...

I first learned of peak oil around 2004, at the age of 17, but I do not recall ever having emotional or conceptual difficulty with it. However, while I was very quick to accept the inevitability of peak oil, my easy acceptance came attached with the "myth of apocalypse." In those early days, I became obsessed with the precise dating of Peak Oil, because I assumed that, after that date, everything would go to Hades. I assumed that I would need to find a way to get my hands on stockpiles of foodstuffs and munitions, and spent hours pouring over maps of remote woodlands.

So, while I found peak oil easy to accept, but it took me some time (and your essays were a big help) to realize that the downside of Hubbert's Peak is a slow and uneven process. My wife is the same story. She accepted peak oil right away, but it has taken several months of my carefully reasoned arguments to convince her that it does not mean we are about to find ourselves in the midst of a zombie apocalypse. However, my parents and hers both cannot grasp the concept, and simply repeat back to us fairy tales of shale gas and tar sands and “they'll think of something.”

Do you think this is a generational thing? Do you think my generation may be more beholden to the myth of apocalypse, while an older generation, like that of my parents or my wife's parents, may be more beholden to the myth of progress?

Yupped said...

The words and ideas you use to describe changes of mind are new to me, but very interesting. The psycho/spiritual tradition I’m used to is different from the Mage’s, but it gets at the same root problems – all those unacknowledged opinions, biases, automatic reactions, hopes and assumptions running around our brains that make it hard for us to see and hear truth. Even if we hear it, we don’t actually hear it.

I agree waking up and being able to hear is something each individual must do. It can’t be done for them. My sense is that everyone’s mental baggage is somewhat different, but common factors underlie them. Fear, mainly, but that could be my own bias. Fear of what? Well, that’s a question that we all need to answer individually as well. But an insistence on material comfort and technological progress is certainly a very popular remedy for fear. It won’t work, of course, for the reasons you have done such a good job of reviewing over the years that I have been reading your blog.

But more people are waking up. I may just be hanging out with a different crowd now, but more and more I meet people who are actively changing their lifestyles. In most cases some sort of crisis or painful realization started to open them up – breakdown of a career or a 401K or health or home or such. And in the rooting around for information that follows they hear about our general energy and economic predicaments and they start to flow with it and stop resisting. We're not at a tipping point yet, but we're well out of the fringe.

Trouble is, even if you really get and start to act on a knowledge of peak oil, if you haven’t gotten to grips with whatever dis-ease or fear made you want to cling to the ideas of consumer culture and progress or whatever, then you can still create a lot of trouble for yourself and everyone. I’m actually more concerned about that – one way or the other more people are going to be getting the message that reality is bringing. But how many can get comfortable with the uncertainty on the other side?

Picador said...


As a first-time commenter, I'd like to say that your writing is some of the most consistently excellent stuff I read on the web: insightful, measured, and thought-provoking. Your recent series of posts on magic is no exception.

That being said, I have a concern about this post, which I feel ought to acknowledge some of the caveats surrounding initiation as you have described it. Specifically, the caveat that the process that you've described provides no guarantee that the worldview into which the initiate is initiated is more true than the consensus cult of progress. The initiation process as you describe it is not any different from the process used by cults devoted to all manner of idiocy, including those who believe in "the Rapture or the arrival of the Space Brothers or whatever".

One might argue that self-initiation, at least, could avoid this sort of malignant brainwashing insofar as the initate only opens up to a worldview that accords with his own sense of reason. This is obviously not true. People are attracted to new ideas and alternative worldviews as much or more for their emotional appeal as for their harmony with reason. A person with strong emotional attraction to certain ideas is just as likely to "self-initiate" into one of the aforementioned apocalyptic cults as someone actively initiated into the cult by its adherents.

Which brings me to the specific case of Peak Oil, and here I need to choose my words carefully. First: I am convinced by the arguments about peak oil, and I think that the evidence at this point is overwhelmingly in favour of at least its major points. However, it cannot be denied that the idea of peak oil is immensely attractive to many people not just because it is supported by the evidence, but also because apocalyptic thinking is and has always been very appealing to the human mind. Indeed, those who believe in "the Rapture or the arrival of the Space Brothers or whatever" have been seduced by apocalyptic fantasies, and this should complicate our own assessment of claims made by the peak oil community. To what extent are we engaging in fantasy or wishful thinking when we embrace the most pessimistic projections made by peak oilers?

I hope that you will be addressing, at some point, the fact that initiation is a double-edged sword that can easily be abused or lead people down very dark paths.

Global Nomad said...

"I may be wrong, but I’ve long thought that one question above all would haunt my imagined historian of our future: why did we do it?"

Doesn't this come back to the basis of the modernist philosophy, that nature needs to be dominated by the mind of man? In turn, undocking mans context in the natural world and his own identity within it.

I don't think this will be a hard question for a future historian to answer. It's just a simple failure of beliefs. Really no different than the fall of earlier civilizations.

It's just hard to look at the savage in the mirror.

Ruben said...

Ah--how do we, or can we, cause societal change? I have been researching behaviour change for the past three years, and the first thing I always suggest people watch is this video byDavid Rock. He shows how the brain areas for rational thought have hard physical limits to how much thinking they can do--about three hours every day. So, as tOM said, our brains resist change. This is not because we are lazy, or because we don't care, or because we just need more education, or because the Tea Party has addled our senses, it is just because there is a limited amount of fuel, and therefore a limited amount of work that can get done.

In order to change individuals' behaviour you must focus attention. Laws and regulations don't change behaviour, they focus attention on desired behaviour. Most of the techniques to change behaviour facilitate focussed attention--and this, of course, is right in line with JMG's discussion of magic.

But, since focussing attention is very resource-intensive, our brains naturally resist, in order to conserve energy. This is where I think Plato's second horse, the social context, does most of the pulling.

Dr. Robert Provine believes, “The starting assumption in behavioral psychology should be that consciousness doesn’t play a role in human behavior” Dr. Sandy Pentland, at MIT, has found the greatest majority of our behaviour is based on environmental cues, not "choice". The book Herd discusses how social context shapes marketing and consumerism.

Enormous amounts of our thinking is done for us, by our social group.

So if you want to change the world, the goal is to cause change in enough people that they become a social influence. It is clearly very hard to guarantee this will be successful.

Mean Mr Mustard said...

All this dangerous talk of peak oil..! Why, we could talk ourselves into a recession, or even a depression!

Best not to scare the horses, eh...?

Falki Volkersson said...

Like others described, I also had my self-initiation in this club during 2008. At that moment I was at the office, during a quiet moment without program bugs to fix. Growing up I had already learned much about enviroment and resources, about the finite nature of fossil fuels, but that knowledge went to sealed storage in my mind for almost a decade.

I was reading an online newspaper in Argentina during that year when I begun to notice the rapid climb in the price of oil. I still don't remember exactly what happened, what little dot of information caused it, but suddenly I found myself reading the "Life aftr the Oil Crash" website. That day was my initiation, and like everybody else who has been through it, and probably until the beginings of this year I have been reading everything I could on the subject. And have been seeing the uninitiated with very different eyes.

For those who know about MBTI (I'm INFP) I have found that Peak Oil it's easier to trully understand and accept for Intraverteds, especially the Rationals (NTs) and Idealists (NFs). There was a thread in Personality Cafe about a month ago in the INFP board where we talked about it, the link is below (I write there under the name Alediran)

John Wheeler said...

In one sense I was probably far more fortunate than most in my initiation: I read Hubbert's work back in 1979. At that point energy shortage was a dominant social theme, and Hubbert's prediction of Peak Oil in 2000 felt like a reprieve. There was plenty of time to make adjustments for peak oil.

The flip side, of course, was several decades of dismay watching society turn increasing further away from the scarce energy meme and becoming more profligate. I have done my best to learn and assemble my own Gaianomicon, but I must admit after Y2K I grew tired of reigning in my social horse. At this point I am materially and physically little better prepared for collapse than the masses.

das monde, in one sense, I think worrying about future historians is pointless: if there are survivors, they will necessarily have the sustainable viewpoint. What we need to concern ourselves with is preserving knowledge that will more immediately keep us alive and hopefully keep society functioning at as high a level as possible.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Good Morning JMG --

Well done. Love the image of the future historian which reminds me a bit of Yeats' poet in his tower late at night, and your analysis of Plato's (or I should say Socrates'?) allegory I find extremely cogent.

Having pulled my dusty Dialogues off the shelf and rechecked the "Phaedrus," an addition would be that Plato himself, as opposed to later Classicists or Romantics, describes the charioteer and horses as the three parts of the soul that has embedded itself in a mortal body (chariot?), and that soul is a little bit/piece/segment of the first principle that moves the universe, which he equates with the divine and the immortal. In light of this morning's rereading of the "Phaedrus," I'm not sure I completely agree with your reading of the horses, but do appreciate your elaboration on their complexity as metaphors or symbols rather than simplifying or positing a strict one-to-one relationship: loci of attraction rather than stop signs, they are.

In addition, the charioteer is not, in my estimation, reason alone: when Plato/Socrates talks about the charioteer being that part of the soul which is closest to philosophy, we must remember that philosophy is "love of wisdom," which includes much that some moderns might consider non- or i- rational--a belief in the divine nature moving the universe, for example. As Socrates says just before discussing the soul, "our proof will prevail with the wise, but not with the learned."

Thus the three parts become a set of complex and shifting elements in a complex and shifting relationship, none wholly distinct from the other: as you intimate!

I think practicing thaumaturgy on groups sounds scary and dangerous for all involved.

Michael said...

JMG, I hope you don't mind me using your comments to let your readers know you'll be appearing in the D.C. area on Saturday, Oct. 8.

This event is free to all, and will take place at Davies Memorial Unitarian Universalist Church, 7400 Temple Hill Rd., Camp Springs, MD.

JimK said...

I have long been fascinated by the relationship between science and magic, starting with the historical links, e.g. the original Royal Society as a sort of Rosicrucian Lodge.

These days especially, science has a dual role. It is the foundation of our technological/industrial culture. But it also works to rip off our habitual blinders to look freshly at the true nature of things.

I had the good fortune to be initiated into the arcana of Peak Oil by the wizard Ken Deffeyes, some 35 years ago. Truly a life transforming experience!

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

To join in the comments by others re peak oil initiation:

Due to an atypical childhood, early readings and experiences in nature, I've lived nearly my entire life with an awareness of our industrial civilization's destructive relationship to the living earth--an early initiation?

So when I got older and began reading the serious Limits to Growth/Peak Oil/Climate Change/Collapse stuff, it was not so much revelation as it was encountering serious minds (through books) that helped me think about, articulate and practice habits of life within that worldview, a process that continues today.

The real revelation--and I mean in a visionary sense--was when it came to me about ten years ago that I could either die of despair over the whole sorry mess, or I could become truly earth-centered and base my spirituality, ethics, and actions around earthcare. So I did--which doesn't always banish the sadness (and fear!) for the passing of our civilization as well as our plundering of the earth, but does engage spirit, emotions, will and intellect in travelling a path of witness.

LewisLucanBooks said...

Our local newspaper is about to go from publishing 6 issues a week, to publishing 3. Judging from a recent editorial, the staff has whipped itself into a technorati frenzy by invoking the spells of "apps," "smart phones" and "tablets." It's what the newspaper is about to metamorphosis into.

But closer to this weeks topic, is the self initiation of one of the regular posters to the newspapers online forums. Except this fellow has taken on the burden of climate change.

He has posted several times about his shift from being a conservative (in the best sense of the word) Republican to someone who has no faith in any kind of political process because the current political systems refuse to take any kind of action on climate change.

Of course, he no longer passes the litmus test as a "true believer" in local conservative circles as he deviates from the party line, be it in only this one area. The scorn and ignorance heaped upon his posts are breathtaking to behold. Luckily, the forum is as well moderated as this one, and I'm sure he doesn't read the worst of it.

What is truly admirable is that he consistently comes back with calm, reasoned responses supported by scientific, peer reviewed studies. I help where I can with supportive posts and links to things he may not have seen. I guess he monitors the scientific press while I monitor the more popular press.

He's pretty cagey with his identity, as well he should be in this neck of the woods. But he has some kind of scientific training and his employment has something to do with some aspect of science. But where his posts get the most interesting is when he posts about his own self initiation.

Yobitake said...

Perhaps my self-initiation was started by accidentally coming across this blog some years ago. This "accident" has started a chain reaction in how I perceive my field of study (environmental economics) as well as reconsidering my skeptical attitudes towards the "spiritual" realm. For all of that I am very grateful and I have one question - is there some connection between coincidence (chance, probability) and magic? I know it's a cliche, but some things (including many pivotal moments in life) seem to happen rather haphazardly, but often change the life trajectory immensely. And I can't help by pondering whether they are meant to happen... In other words, did I stumble across this blog by true accident or did some subconscious horse ride me here? Maybe sometimes the horses know better than the rider.

Robb Davis said...

Two things have come to mind as I have read your recent blogs (which I have very interesting):

1. A recent book "Desiring the Kingdom" by reformed Christian philosopher James K.A. Smith echoes many of your points about "initiation" in his concept of "liturgies". For him "liturgies" are "formative practices" that make us into the people we are. He speaks of the "liturgy of the mall" that forms us to be a certain kind of consumer of good (for example). The key point is that these liturgies--these formative practices--are practiced socially. Smith calls for us to develop new formative practices that will (at least in his case as a Christian writer) form us for the kind of people who are agents of God's reconciling purposes. The key is, he is calling for us to pay attention to our acts of "initiation" and ongoing "formation" as a people. Your ideas thus fit well with what some in other traditions are calling for as well.
2. Fewer and fewer people are outright denying the reality of peak oil in my view. However the overwhelmingly dominant narrative (as you have written) is that advances in "technique" (not just technology--see Jacques Ellul) will save us from the loss of that resource. This, I would argue, is the dominant religion of our time--an unshaken belief in the capacity of human ingenuity to save us. "The Economist" newspaper--probably the most influential English language newspaper in the world--is the main purveyor of this belief system and remains unshaken in its belief that technology will save us. THIS is the controlling narrative of our time and the reason why discussions of the implications of peak oil gain no traction in discussions. Thanks for your writing. I am being challenged in many ways.

Gary said...

JMG, You start off in what seems like a channeling of Walter Miller's "A Canticle for Leibowitz." I recall listening to that story broadcast on the radio, A Chapter a Day, imagining the monks carefully copying blue prints and cursing the ancients for using so much ink.
Then you pose...
"I’ve long thought that one question above all would haunt my imagined historian of our future: why did we do it?"
And my immediate thought is that individually we had no choice. We are living through the Tragedy of the Commons on an unprecedented scale. But perhaps this is because the "initiation" we have all been through in our culture is the one that defines individualism and freedom to be our highest goals rather than our collective well being.

Lynford1933 said...

Thank you JMG for all your work.

I woke up this morning. My eyes were still closed, my body wrapped in blankets and the mind part announced in some indescribable direct knowledge, “You’re Awake”. This was not a dualism, just a fact.

I believe it was about 70 years ago I started to do numbers in earnest. At that time, whether I understood peak oil or not, I realized that if you have a number of something and you use it, you won’t have it any more. I guess it was in college that one problem in calculus or somewhere else was about use of a fixed resource. In that same sort of direct knowledge, “you won’t have it any more“. No trauma, no emotion, just direct knowledge of another fact.

If there are going to be fewer resources (true if we use them), just prepare for that time. How much preparation? It really doesn’t take a whole lot to keep you going so make sure you have a little food and a little shelter. All the rest is sugar.

As long as there is sugar, we will multiply. If that reminds you of something then perhaps you have more direct knowledge of the future than most.

Hal said...

My last message last week got lost, and I was unable to follow up, so I don't know if this detracts from where you're taking us, but I have to make some comments on the chariot metaphor. Hope I'm not beating a dead horse, but the two in question are very alive.

This week you actually made the point I was trying to make last week about the two horses. No, I did not confuse the horses with the body. I did get a bit sloppy when I said I believed it was listening to my "horses" that led me into a different direction than the majority of my generation. To be more precise and borrowing from this week's explanation, I would now say it was that second horse I was talking about.

Where we both got a little sloppy is in talking about whether the charioteer was rational or not. Of course, the charioteer stands for reason, so those charioteers cannot be irrational. I would still say that those people who did not pay attention to resource issues in the latter years of the 20th century were not acting irrationally. They were acting very rational, but for a time frame (and maybe on other self interests) that served them individually.

There is no reason (sorry, I can't find a better word)) that rationality needs to be applied to any particular time frame. Defining the boundaries of the process might have been implicit, but it was still there. Some people even in the peak oil world now believe that Iraqi oil coming online, and the renewal of Libyan supply might be enough to buy BAU a last hurrah, maybe for the rest of this generation.

So, then, what determines whether a longer time frame, generations, say, is more useful than a shorter one? I would say that's manifestly in the domain of that second horse. Then it would be up to families and society in general to make sure that long-term values are part of the horse we pass on.

Cathy McGuire said...

Thanks for lots to think about! I recently had the chance to tell a friend about this site and the greenwizards site and it was so nice to get a receptive result – it’s so rare! Just today another friend commented that she had “less appetite for the paranoia attitude” than I did! What an amazing bit of rationalizing… ;-}

There is much to mull over, but I had a couple of first thoughts on particular sections:

…human social interactions are mediated by nonverbal and nonrational communication—body language, gesture, vocal tone, facial expression, and all the other communicative methods we have in common with our mammal relatives. These are the channels of communication through which people fall in love, make friends and enemies, establish their place in social hierarchies, claim a larger or smaller share of whatever resources are to hand

That would seem to have profound implications for the last couple generations raised on the internet, with very few body language tools at hand…what are they using in order to communicate on that level – or are they even learning how? Are they simply projecting attitudes onto those they email, tweet or blog to? (I muse on that for myself quite often).

I’d like to suggest that this is what underlies the paralogic that makes peak oil incomprehensible to most people in the industrial world just now. The concept of progress is, if anything, more heavily loaded with positive emotional energy among us than the concept of democracy

That definitely has a part, but judging from the reported responses of those who have gotten it, I think the fear and depression is a bigger part. The sheer size of the adjustment to be made is scaring a lot of people.

the experience of shifting from one set of arbitrary social patterns and emotional charges to another teaches the reasoning mind to detach itself from the social self altogether, and think its own thoughts rather than those of its society.

That certainly sounds worth doing!! Not just for this predicament, but for several other areas of my life. :-)

something suddenly shifted. A moment later you were living in a different world, one in which earlier priorities and beliefs had to make room for the immense and terrifying fact that your civilization was in deep trouble and next to nobody was willing to see that, much less do anything about it.

Yes – that is exactly right; it was a breathtaking shift… although sometimes I almost shift back for moments at a time; I believe because I was raised to totally doubt my own perceptions (that’s another story), I have trouble hanging on to what I know… so exposure to the general POV sometimes freaks me into fear that I might be “making it up”.

@whblondeau: In many ways I am isolated not just from others, but from my previous self. It's sort of a personal singularity: I cannot really reconstruct who I was; it's amazing to me that I understood so little of the implications before then, and I cannot altogether recall who I was back then.

I totally resonate with this! I sometimes have a hard time remembering how I viewed the world before I “got it” – I have journals from past decades that I’m tempted to read, but fear it would be too painful. But occasionally I run into old acquaintances and they give me feedback about how much I’ve changed.

Joel said...

Your definition of thaumaturgy speaks directly to what has always bothered me about Anthony Robbins, ever since I first heard him lecture, and about the chanting that goes on in protest politics, since I first became politically active. I think it also speaks to the way that Disney bothers me.

I'm deeply grateful for the conceptual clarity, not least because I'm sure my inchoate negative reaction was washing over into places it didn't belong.

dandelionlady said...

The question you pose is something that has haunted me for years. The illogical responses I've had when pointing out that we live in a finite world with finite resources have been astounding in their creativity and stupidity. Thank you for adding to my understanding of the problem.

I've felt for a while now that one of the reasons that people cannot make that break with the reality that they are entrenched in is that there is no clear vision of a better world without oil. People are caught up in how to get their children to the cider mill field trip and pay for toilet paper.

I believe that those of us who are "initiated" (that totally amuses me. Are there degrees?) need to be able to somehow bridge that gap between the society that is, and the society that we wish it to be. We must simultaneously walk the walk of a green wizard while looking enough like everyone else to not be alienated. Otherwise we can too easily be dismissed and ignored.

I suppose we must learn how to provoke as many moments of self-initiation as possible.

John Michael Greer said...

Whblondeau, very much so. Initiation isn't a game, but if it were, it would be played for the highest of stakes.

Oskar, that's very good to hear -- I find it appalling that so many people who consider themselves rationalists embrace a frankly superstitious fear of the realm of human experience that gets called "spiritual." It doesn't have to be that way.

Twilight, the trick there is not to get caught in the trap of pursuing initiation for the sake of the rush, or in obedience to a set of cultural presuppositions that insist that authority is always wrong and therefore whatever contradicts the official line must be true. (I see a lot of that in some conspiracy-minded circles.) You're right, though, that learning to deal with people who haven't been through the initiatory process is a crucial skill for initiates of every kind.

Bill, that's a fairly typical experience for somebody with a good basic knowledge of ecology, to judge from what I've been told by others. Some people are predisposed to certain initiations!

Sixbears, that's fascinating. I've seen a very mixed response in the pagan and occult scene -- some get it, some don't.

Thijs, I'm guessing that your social self absorbed the basic set of green attitudes from your parents, and so the idea of running out of resources wasn't hard at all to grasp. I wish more people had that advantage.

Mister R, I know a number of people who tried that strategy, and I think it was worth trying -- still, it didn't work, and now it's on to plan B (or C, or Z).

Gregorach, true enough. That stage, when the social world goes gray and unreal, is one that most initiates go through at one time or another -- with or without a teacher or a lodge -- but it does help to have somebody to tell you that it's a common experience, and one you'll get over in good time.

Nate, sure, it could be said, but it would be an inaccurate statement. Perhaps you'd like to show me how to quantify love, wisdom, or (for that matter) the experience of initiation I've been discussing here?

Richard, well, I disagree. I'm familiar with Jason's arguments -- rather too familiar, in fact; I had to ban him from this comments page after he persisted in posting 20-screen diatribes here -- and consider them drastically flawed. For reasons I've covered in quite a bit of detail in past posts, the extreme fast-collapse model (a few seconds?) is an apocalyptic fantasy, not a plausible projection of the shape of the future.

Chris, that's a fascinating point. I've noted before that people who believe in progress tend to be more or less satisfied with society as it is, while those who are seriously dissatisfied with society tend to embrace the apocalyptic myth (our culture's emotional escape hatch for the disaffected), but I hadn't thought to consider the possibility that there might be a generational bias there too.

Patrick said...


thanks as always for the clear and mindful voice you lend to such complex issues. A couple comments:

Regarding self-initiation, the mind shift to a new understanding of "reality" can be extremely jarring, and without someone who has felt the same shift to guide you, one can easily decide that it's not worth the effort. I can speak from experience that learning magic, (or learning the likely long-term fate of our society) can have strange effects on one's personality and mindset. Other people will notice, too, and it takes a while before you come to a new equilibrium with those who don't see as you do. This is especially difficult with loved ones, but patience and good humor goes a long way. This blog does, in some ways, serve as a helpful psychological crutch for the adoption of the idea of the decent of industrial society, but the experience is still jarring.

Second, I am really enjoying this topic, and while I detect your (reasonable) ambivalence to even bringing up the subject of magic, I think this is really important, and I hope you attack the subject from multiple angles, and really go into detail.

Also, I am curious as to your opinion on the use of humor, jokes and absurdity in general as a method of changing consciousness. It is often used in advertising (often underhanded), but in relation to peak-oil, it seems to be a perfect vehicle to emphasize the absurdity of our current social mindset. It's also much more popular than philosophy!

John Zacharakis said...

JMG, the seventh-from-last paragraph (There's been plenty of nonsense written about initiation...) coupled with tOM's "unfreezing" and "refreezing" comment from OD provide me with very succinct and sober-minded phraseology to quickly define initiation, thank you both.

Since you mention Freemasonry, yes, its initiatic forms and processes are precisely meant to equip its members for productive Labor within the time span of the open Lodge. Outside of it, Aude, Vide, Tace; the personal Labor remains internal as a matter of course, because it is non-verbal.

I treat my Peak Oil initiation as the sacred gift that it is. Since I have the prior experience, I was comfortable with silently observing the profane world, but I can understand the new initiates' urge to "warn everybody" once their eyes have been opened; to them I advise patience and circumspection, and to imitate your example in their communications, which is obviously very, very effective. Thank you again.

Will said...

John; a thoughtful column. Personally, i think the failure to deal rationally with peak oil and associated resource issues is understandable on a very straightforward basis: problems that are slow-moving, contradict past experience (after all, the Western Way of prosperity has worked for 200 years), and promise to be expensive and disruptive -- these are problems likely to be avoided as long as possible. and the typical voter, while a decent fellow, is also very very ignorant of facts. and facts, as Orwell wrote, are inconvenient things. bill

Zach said...


So, in your terms, we might explain why I seem to "get it" regarding Peak Oil for the following reasons:

1. My early Christian formation included specific inoculation against the Religion of Progress as a rival and false religion, not as a compatible enthusiasm.

2. My engineering education which included systems control theory acted as an initiation to the concepts of resource limits, complexity, and emergent systems behavior.

3. We could probably include both the formal rituals (baptism, confirmation, liturgical worship) and self-initiation via study, reflection, and prayer of my ongoing Christian practice on this list?

So, based on those two initiations, (a) my social self is not 100% attuned to general society (b) giving my reasoning mind enough distance that Peak Oil can be an "aha!" understanding while the "drill, baby, drill!" incantation just makes me sad?

Am I following along correctly so far?


John Michael Greer said...

Yupped, excellent. You get today's gold star for perspicacity. You're quite correct; to use a slightly different terminology, peak oil can be a realization, or it can be an ideology motivated by the same driving forces that drive other ideological systems; the first requires theurgy, the second can be induced by thaumaturgy. We'll talk about that next week.

Picador, of course you're quite right. Like any technology, initiation can be abused, and it can also become an instrument of, well, self-abuse -- in several senses of that phrase! If we were discussing magical initiation, and you were considering that path, I'd stress how important it is to study the available systems, choose one with which you're comfortable, and if at all possible, find a teacher you trust to walk you through the process.

The response I made a moment ago to Yupped's comment is also relevant here. It's possible for peak oil to become a vehicle for the theurgic work of getting some perspective on one's presuppositions and going from there; it's also possible for peak oil to become an ideology driven by unrecognized social and biological urges. One of the things I'm trying to do with this blog -- and it's been part of the project since my first post -- is to further the former rather than the latter, but it's always going to be a challenge.

Nomad, I think they'll ask the question, because our civilization's odd relationship to history has given it a remarkable feature that's not, as far as I know, present in any past civilization -- a significant number of people nowadays are aware that our civilization can fall, that it is falling, and why. If we'd just blundered our way into the abyss without ever suspecting that that's what we're doing, that would be one thing, but the existence of dialogues like the one around this blog suggests that something else is going on; I suspect that will puzzle future historians a great deal.

Ruben, it is indeed hard, but it can be done. Notice how many of the ideas first circulated on this blog have become part of the standard version of the peak oil dialogue, and how social networks are springing up around the Green Wizards project and the like. That's the thing about magic; if you learn to control your own herd reflexes, you can shift from being a passive factor to an active one.

Mustard, good! And of course the fact that we're already in a depression, despite a few trillion dollars of hallucinatory stimulus, will make such arguments very popular.

Falki, sounds like you've been through the classic initiation, complete with mystic handshake!

John, I know the feeling. I got into all this as a teenager back in the Seventies, and managed not to drink the koolaid when the rest of America launched itself onto its thirty-year vacation from reality in the early 1980s -- but it was a long hard road, all those years when almost everybody I knew was convinced that we'd never have to worry about energy ever again.

Adrian, oh, granted -- if I was writing a book on Plato's metaphor, rather than a few blog posts, I'd take the time to unpack what he was saying and then explain where my neo-Neoplatonism differs from his ideas, Plotinus', and so on. As for thaumaturgy on groups, you're quite correct; more on this next week.

Michael, by all means.

Jim, I'm envious! That must have been a great experience.

Kevin said...

I experienced a discontinuity between understanding peak oil and understanding the impact it will have on our civilization. It's over a decade since I began to grapple with the idea that oil is a finite resource that will run out. What I did not grasp is the extent to which we are dependent on it: that renewables can never replace it, that coal and natural gas are not so far from their production peaks, that nuclear is hopelessly poisonous, that there will be no dilithium crystals or ecotopian societies of technosalvation. All this I've come to understand within the last three years or so, chiefly by reading this blog and following up on the information referenced on it.

I can't say this has made me more cheerful. That we will likely be experiencing severe widespread poverty and that our species will undergo a dieoff may come as a relief to other organisms, but it doesn't exactly make my day.

Couldn't what you're doing here be classified as thaumaturgy that seeks to change society, or at least to influence a sector of it that happens to be amenable to such influence? If so, it seems to be to a good purpose.

beneaththesurface said...

I have noticed that it seems harder for people I know to “get” peak oil than issues like destruction of rainforests and other ecosystems, pollution, or changing the climate. I feel that a good number of my acquaintances are, at least to some degree, aware of environmental destruction that the human species is causing. But a much lesser percentage are really aware of understand peak oil and its implications. Why is this, I ponder? Peak oil is a much simpler concept to explain and prove than say, climate change, so I wonder why it would be this case.

I think what you’ve said once in your writing helps explain part of this difference. It is easier for people in our society to admit that we’re destroying ecosystems and causing the extinction of thousands of species, because this illustrates human power and omnipotence (and of course there are still many people who are even unable to admit the seriousness of that). But peak oil is largely a lesson in the limits of human power, which is much hard for people to wrap their head around, even some environmentalists.

A conversation I had once illustrated a certain bizarreness. I was at a playground with my nephew and I was conversing with a father there. It was apparent that he was critical of American society, the corporatism and excess consumption so rampant in our culture, and as an immigrant, it was especially stark to him. Somehow we got on a discussion about my interests, and I mentioned something about our society and fossil fuels, about how our fossil fuel consumption couldn’t grow indefinitely. What I found very interesting was knee-jerk response to my bringing up peak oil: “No, you’re wrong. Americans are going to keep using up more and more oil, they’re going to keep driving, consuming more and more, and keep continuing on with their greedy lifestyle. Nothing is going to change their behavior.” I tried to respond calmly and said that while that certainly seems what they might do if oil supply was infinite, that oil was a limited resource (what should be an obvious fact, I thought), and it is impossible for this to continue indefinitely regardless of what people want. Somehow he was so fixated on how greedy and fossil-fuel-dependent American society was that he couldn’t grasp that there were limits to this power, and that people in our society will have to change their lifestyle sometime, whether they want to or not.

Falki Volkersson said...

JMG: regarding the generational gap. I've noticed it too. Talk about Peak Oil and AGW and other issues that seem to be "plots of evil elites" with others from my generation rarely causes the same effect than on older people. They usually seem to be more aware, even if its only in a subconscious level. It may be, if you believe, a consequence of Astrology. I've been studying the natal charts of several people around my age and one thing that appears in common on the generational planets is an increased awareness of ecology and our place in nature.

The only ones who have reacted negatively are a few I've met in the IT sector who have already been caught hook, line and sinker by the myth of progress.

And like I mentioned in my previous post, some of MBTI types have an easier understanding of this issue, regarding age. With Intraverteds, who take their time to go deeper into anything new I have seen them at least attempt to trully understand the issues, even if it was hard for them. With INFPs, (we, of that very rare type who are only 1% of population) they seem to naturally grasp these issues without needing to think it much. It's probably our favored P (instead of the more CEO-like J prefference) that gives us the skill to be constantly open to encounter and understand new information even when it seriously contradicts what we think. Some INFPs, who have been investigating what professions we had before modern society, theorize we INFPs were Oracles, Diviners and people who lived the lives of priests, bards and explorers. And I have to agree with them because all my life I've loved to explore. We are natural jacks and jills of all trades, since we jump from one subject to another. Some things I've learned during my life were: Origami, Biology, Ecology, History, Karate, Swimming, Archery, Cooking, Occultism, Philosophy, general crafting (for my viking equipement), Physics, Computers, Swordsmanship, RPGs, astrology, throwing runes, tarot reading. And I think the day I die I will have practised in addition three lists like that.

John Michael Greer said...

Adrian, growing up with these ideas is the other way to internalize them, but in that case they're absorbed as nonrational responses. The work of initiaton then becomes one of assessing them and deciding to affirm and enact them consciously -- a decision you've described in a very moving manner here.

Lewis, that's fascinating. I hope that spreads!

Yobitake, that's a complex question, and one that most operative mages tend to avoid when talking with other people. Still, the effect that Carl Jung and physicist Wolfgang Pauli called "synchronicity" -- an acausal connecting principle that seems to express itself by way of apparent coincidences -- reflects a fairly common experience in magical work.

Robb, Smith's concept of liturgies is not at all far from the magical concept of initiatory ritual -- though I suspect he'd be horrified to hear that! As for your second point, I see the argument that goes, "Sure, peak oil is real, but technology will save us" as very nearly a last ditch defense. Now that the awareness of peak oil is spreading, society as a whole will go through the same five stages of peak oil that we've seen online in the peak oil blogosphere, and faith in a technological savior is part of those stages. (For those who don't remember, they're denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and getting off your rump and doing something.)

Gary, I'm arguing that individually we do have choices. It's precisely the illusion that we don't that keeps so many people pursuing a SUV lifestyle that doesn't even satisfy them any more, when they could be retooling and downshifting their lives to a simpler, less stressful, and more secure ecotechnic lifestyle. The more people make that choice, the more impact that will have. What could be more straightforward?

Lynford, good. Yes, I catch the reference!

Hal, yes, that makes sense. It's usually the job of the second horse to provide us with our values, and that's part of the raw material that reason, when it functions at all, works with.

Cathy, you're doubtless right that fear has a lot to do with it. One of the major issues here is that we've all been raised to believe in the fantasy of a better world to come, and letting go of that fantasy is a very difficult thing -- it spooks both horses, the instinctive as well as the social.

ganv said...

It is great the way your writing stimulates your readers to make useful connections to so many different ideas. For me the connections from this article are about how the two horses and the charioteer can be thought of as different mechanisms for developing a coherent approach to living. There is a biological coherence that tries to bring food, shelter, etc together into a whole way to live. There is a social coherence that tries to bring love, social identity, etc together into a way to live. And there is a rational coherence that tried to bring logic, evidence, and understanding together into a way to live. I can't help interpreting these as all poor approximations that humans have evolved to use as the best available means of dealing with a universe that is much too complex for our minds to fully grasp. Rituals can help break us out of certain approximations that we become too tightly attached to. But I would note, that breaking away from certain social approximations (like seeing through the limits of the progress myth) often only means becoming attached to other approximations. Whatever your narrative tells you will come in the future, it is wise to keep a good bit of skepticism about it.

John Michael Greer said...

Joel, there's a lot of profoundly corrupt and manipulative thaumaturgy in the world these days. I don't know a lot about Anthony Robbins -- I had to look him up on Wikipedia just now -- but a lot of motivational, self-help, and New Age teachers these days are teaching the cheapest sort of sorcery. I'd put a lot of Disney product in the same category, too.

Dandelion, yes, there are degrees, and a secret handshake for each one! As for your deeper comment, though, take a moment to ask yourself who or what has promised us a better future, with or without peak oil. That's a very common bit of social programming -- that the future must be better than the present, and therefore we're supposed to put up with the dubious aspects of the present and wait for the better future.

The hard reality I see here is that the future is going to be a great deal worse for most people; the question is simply how much worse, and the more people get working now, or soon, the less bad it will be. Yes, that's an enormously challenging idea to communicate to those who think they've been promised a bright shiny new future, but the effort has to be made.

Patrick, true enough. Initiation is a rough road; it helps to have guides and companions, even though a good bit of the way has to be walked by each traveler alone. I'll be talking about that a bit more down the road, though in a few more weeks this blog is going to have to cycle back toward the more mundane side of the peak oil phenomenon again, at least for a while.

John, good to see a brother here. I'd been thinking for some time about parallels between the initiatory process in the Craft and the experience of "getting" peak oil; glad to see my thoughts finding at least some confirmation.

Will, and of course that's also an important factor. Still, facts are less potent as a motivating force than values, and it's the latter that I'm discussing here.

Zach, yes, you're following quite precisely. An awareness that belief in progress is an anthropolatrous religious cult, and the definite theurgic dimension of the Christian sacraments -- you're familiar, I trust, with the writings of Ps.-Dionysius and the influence of theurgic Neoplatonism on the thought of the early and medieval church? -- seem to me likely to be the major factors here, though a background in systems theory can't have hurt.

Kevin, not quite. What I'm trying to do here is theurgic -- I'm trying to encourage and help as many people as possible either to initiate themselves, or to develop and ripen their initiations. We'll get further into the difference next week.

John Michael Greer said...

Beneath, that's a fascinating story -- and a very telling one. The guy you talked to was far from the only person who hasn't grasped that there are hard natural limits on human action!

Falki, astrology's one of those hot button issues that produce more heat than light in a discussion of the sort we're having, so I try to avoid it here. As for skill lists, extreme specialization is a luxury we won't be able to afford in the not too distant future -- so you're well ahead of the game.

Ganv, there's a useful balance between too little skepticism and too much. The gravitational attraction of our society's collective imagination of the future is strong enough that positing an alternative, and doing it with some degree of commitment to it, is a useful counterspell.

Ashley Girardi said...

I like the explanation of thumos, but so much more than sex drive is so completely tied up in both "horses" that I wonder if they are indeed separate. In the Hawaiian system of Huna (at least the version originally researched and popularized by Max Freedom Long) the functions of both are wrapped into the "ku" or body mind. It does seem that many of the social, emotional reactions have strong roots in deeper, more instinctual drives.

On the other hand, as a conceptual model, I suppose either way of looking at it has advantages and uses.

As far as the initiation goes, what about those of us that didn't really find the idea repellant or struggle with it? I certainly read a lot, and briefly entertained the idea of abiotic oil and other nonsense, but in some sense it actually felt more like a crucial piece of the puzzle had been found. I believe I, and a lot of other people, had some sort of liminal awareness of something a bit off with the trajectory or our society.

Can the horses sometimes sense danger that the charioteers' cruder senses are as yet unaware of? I believe a lot of the bluster and fury present today is precisely because, even if not directly spooked by peak oil, many horses are skittish, and the charioteers have no idea why.

JP said...

My entire life is pretty much self-initiation. I'm going to be going alone. That's just how my life seems to be.

I've focused most of my energies on the Financial Sphere. Trying to get my navigational charts operational so I can do adequate forward planning. There's nothing I like less than being Blind. I went off the reservation with the Secular Bear Market thesis years ago. Served me we so far. You just have to know that the future casts shadows on the present.

The next few years will be dominated by Peak Credit and the Sovereign Debt Crisis.

Peak oil (what I really call Peak Cheap Energy) is just showing up as significant risk on my navigational charts. Not enough to be certain of the outcome, but there enough that it's a Real Risk. I really need to sit down and do the energy calculations with assumptions. Shouldn't be too hard.

A bigger, and much more immediate Real Risk that I see is the War Cycle and the possibility of Global War (China). Problem being this time everybody has nukes.

The current problem I have with magic is that I'll be going there, somehow. Just got nailed with a twinner, which means that it's time to jimmy the lock on that door. Not looking forward to that, but looks like I have a Job To Do. Better than being bored, I suppose.

When wandering down the highways and the byways, I'm generally careful.

Joel said...

Cherokee Organics: I think you have things inside-out with respect to gambling. In my opinion, our way of life gives outsize rewards to certain types of risky behavior, which both empowers and selects for has favored people with certain attitudes toward calculated risk. Casinos have found a profitable niche within these favored behavior patterns, much the same way the herpes virus exploits nerve tissue's relative exemption from the scrutiny of the immune system. At least, that's my understanding of what's going on.

Matt and Jess said...

Most of this week's post has me confused, and I do have a bad head cold making things worse, but the sense of the "initiation" as being a complete, like, paradigm shift, that just *hits* you, makes sense to me. I've had that happen a couple of times. I remember the day that my old religion no longer made sense to me. I think I was looking at a slideshow depicting various stages of human development and something happened inside and what I'd believed no longer made sense to me. In the same way, my peak oil "initiation" happened while, actually, reading the Long Descent. I'd actually read a couple other peak oil books prior...Heinberg I believe?...but for some reason they didn't produce that internal change of beliefs that your book did. I think it was the very rational explanation of the effects and whys/hows of each of those effects that made sense to me. Of course, now my life is much different on the inside. Anyway, it just makes total sense to me how this is something that you can't really impose on someone else, because I made my mind up a long time ago that you can't really "do" religion to other people and you can't "do" learning to someone else.

Falki Volkersson said...

JMG: It's enough if you know about what I discovered. But to close it, yes, this new generation is different somehow.

Strange that it is considered a hot button, probably because I grew up in Argentina, where the biggest hot button is what happened on the '70s that I find the idea of this subject as taboo somehow unusual, since pretty much everything is discussed here as if it was what you ate last night, even the very hot buttons sometimes.

That jack-of-all-trades tendency I have, is reflected even on RPGs I play, I really hate having to specialize my character. Even if I play a D&D Wizard (which as you know, it's focused in magic spells) I always make them Generalists, because you never know when a spell of your prohibited school could've saved you or the group.

Larry said...

At 6PM Wednesday evening, while you may have been putting the finishing touches on this week's blog, I was, of all things, attending a speech by Daniel Yergin at the Chicago Public Library on his new book.

I wish I had had paragraph seven of this week's blog in hand to read in the Q&A session after the talk; it would have been interesting to see how he would have responded!

In the Q&A someone in the crowd, gently asked him a question about the concept of "peak oil" which is the only time he departed from his measured professorial demeanor into a quite a bit more energized denouncement that it was impossible to run out of oil in that "they've said we're running out of oil five times before and we haven't." In general Mr. Yergin was very encouraging as to the possibilities of technological breakthroughs of all kinds.

I wanted to ask him something, although I didn't want to pick a fight, because he otherwise looks and talks like an elderly learned professor unless riled by the topic of peak oil.

I asked him whether we should worry that the nuclear plants (such as the eleven we have in Illinois) are getting old and have lots of parts that are wearing out and could break down. He said, no, not for the next ten years, which made me feel better.

The audience at the library was about 150 people, mostly elderly. About a block from the library there was a much noisier crowd of generally younger people marching, chanting and carrying signs, although not about peak oil.

Again thanks for the excellent blog. And by the way I did purchase your recent book, and don't plan to purchase his (although I plan on reading it just to see what he has to say).

nate said...

I propose a unit of love which will be called a HOT for Helen of Troy. This unit will be defined as the amount of love necessary to launch 1000 ships

John Michael Greer said...

Ashley, they're all aspects of one and the same self, so it's not surprising that everything's at least a little tangled up with everything else. If people are sensing that something's not right, that's a very good thing -- we'll see where it goes from here.

JP, the financial and political-military dimensions are certainly there, and I'll be discussing them in an upcoming series of posts. I like to focus on peak oil, though, because that's the thing that's different in this phase of history -- wars and depressions come and go, but the exhaustion of the resource base that supports an entire mode of human civilization is a change on a bigger scale.

Jess, sorry to hear of your cold! Take it easy; the rest of the post can be read and absorbed in due time.

Falki, one of the great problems here in America is that it's been so long since we've been through a really rough period of history that nobody quite believes it can happen. There's going to be a very steep learning curve that people in other countries, who have experienced hard times within living memory, will not have to face.

Larry, that's fascinating. I'd noted that Yergin's writing seems to get suddenly rather heated, as well as less accurate, when he talks about peak oil, and it's worth knowing that that happens in person as well.

Nate, Poul Anderson was there decades ago; in one of his SF novels he defined a millihelen as the amount of facial beauty necessary to launch one ship. Still, I'll bite: do you have an amorimeter, by which the number of HOT units of love in any given case can be objectively measured?

ladyimbrium said...

I'll take this opportunity to come out of the shadows where I've been lurking on this most excellent blog.
I found this site about a month ago and have been trying to work my way through some of the older posts as well as keep up on the new ones. Not easy, I have to admit. I like the responses about personal experiences with this initiation process you mention. I don't have a memory of any specific event. I had the luxury- although I did not view it as such at the time- of growing up on a real honest-to-goodness family farm. I know exactly how much physical effort goes into the food on my plate, and I know what happens when fields are used too hard for too long. Perhaps this is why it didn't shock me to hear about things like Peak Oil or our dependency on certain minerals. Instead, it distressed me. It is fairly easy for me to take the kind of desolation that comes from overworking a field and apply those images on a global scale across multiple resources.
Maybe my initiation, then, was a gradual process over my most formative years.
As for the recurring theme of the chariot pulled by two horses, each representing different aspects of the human being, I have to chuckle a bit. I always preferred to climb on a horse and ride than to have all the extra trappings of a cart involved. ;)

JohnGoes said...

I just returned from a trip to Germany to visit my wife's relatives and friends. With my Peak Oil knowledge in hand I keep asking myself, "will this be the last trip?" When I've attempted to discuss peak oil with my wife, I found the response disappointing to say the least. "Yes, dear," in a tone like patting a child on the head, "when are you going to stop reading those doom and gloom blogs?" So though I feel initiated, not everyone, when informed, desires to enter the same initiation.

(if) you aren’t willing to put in the study and hard thinking required, you’re probably going to drift back into the standard patterns

I find myself in a choice not listed here to as a response to peak oil. I put in the study and thought to what potential outcomes may be, and take some small measures that don't give my wife too much discomfort (food storage, insulation, etc) but otherwise feel trapped in a lifestyle that still is energy dense because I feel compelled to provide that which I've promised my wife implicitly over 31 years of marriage and career advancement.

The funny thing is, what I really love to do is woodworking - I make beautiful things with my hands out of wood. But any time I bring up changing from computer engineering to woodworking I catch hell from my wife. "We have a good life now, why would you want to throw it away?!?" So I keep muddling through our energy dense life and in some ways kind of hope for a long descent stage where I can switch without causing her pain.

Tully Reill said...

Ah, yes, I can recall my initiation into the concept (and reality) of peak oil quite well...the 1970's oil crisis. I remember sitting in our business service truck with my dad on the "odd days" (according to rationing and our license plate) waiting to put in as much as we were allowed to in the tank. Perhaps it was because he'd already seen so much in his life (having been born in 1910) but he was a firm believer that "all things must pass" and knew that we were experiencing the beginnings of peak oil...although there was not such a public name for it at that time.

JMG, I like the direction that this is going, and anxiously wait for more.

John Michael Greer said...

Lady Imbrium, you had the advantage of growing up in contact with the realities of nature, so taking those seriously wasn't a great stretch. Good karma, I guess!

John, that's a very familiar story these days. I'd encourage you to pursue woodworking as a hobby for the time being, and get as good at it as you can; a lot of the old home workshop books are full of projects that are explicitly intended to keep your spouse happy with your hobby, and some of those might be worth doing for exactly that reason. Later on, when the bottom falls out of the computer geek market, you'll be ready to make the switch.

Tully, I didn't realize that the two of us went through our initiations at the same time! In my case, it was in a junior high school social studies classroom; the teacher had pinned up a copy of Isaac Asimov's essay "The Nightmare World Without Oil," and I read it and suddenly thought, "I'm going to be alive when this happens." From that moment to this, well, it's not exactly a straight line, but close.

John Michael Greer said...

...and I just fielded yet another attempted post by a cornucopian peddling vaporware technologies and insisting that the universe owes us all the energy we happen to want. From now on, I'm not even going to put those through; it's always the same sort of twaddle, and I've discussed the gaping logical flaws in that sort of thinking so many times that it's not even amusing any more.

Richard Larson said...

Well, there are not many that wants to agree with The 30 Thesis. I was just commenting reading such was my tipping point in moving away from the myth of progress.

He is long winded and very uncompromising. I wonder how his little tribe is doing...

Now I hang around reading a moderate like you. :-)

whblondeau said...

An anthem for this week's post. :-)

The title (or a close cousin) has found mention a few times in the discussion so far. Musically, I think it suits... and of course, the song's about at least one of the metaphorical chariot's metaphorical team.

To cap it off, Fred Eaglesmith is the kind of writer who is always a couple of steps ahead of you - and makes you like it. Not unlike a certain Archdruid.


Jeffrey said...

You mentioned that those that get peak oil are self initiated which implies that they are free of the influences of the irrational "social" horse that heads those who don't believe in peak oil over the cliff.

I think this is a bit simplistic and in fact a dangerous assumption. Dividing those that get it and those that don't in this way is a kind of dualism.

Maybe those that understand the concept of peak oil are not just individuals who have transcended the impulses of the irrational "social" horse but also made up of many individuals whose irrational "social" horse has them aligned with what is often referred to as a "doomer" personality. I have been involved in the peak oil community for over 8 years and I can confirm that a large percentage of "believers" are not exactly individuals that are going to be laying the mortar and bricks of a steady state economy.

It is not only "doomers" I am referring to. There are many very sensitive folks that are inclined to renounce the material world and who reject the status quo. I would say these individuals are blessed on one hand with an insight into the aspect of the irrational "social" horse that leads society into overshoot but these same individuals may very well have other irrational "social" horse attributes which are not pro active toward moving into transition. Humans are so nuanced and complex.

What magic do we need to weave that harnesses the optimism, hard work and innovation that are hallmarks of what has been great about the last century but applies this to a post peak oil world that honors the environment and sustainability in the same way our current dysfunctional society honors materialism.

I have always believed that consequences will be our greatest teacher.

There is a huge percentage of the population that will never engage in the philosophical questions we raise here. In this blog, which I enjoy so much reading every week by the way, I fear really is only ever going to serve this small subset of folks that have the sensibilities to engage in these philosophical inquiries.

Brutal consequences are the teachers that will force the break down of these irrational "horse" social constructs that are moving the masses over the cliff.

In fact there may even be something counter intuitive about this irrational horse. It may be leading us exactly in the only direction where change will really happen on a mass scale; directly toward the physical consequences.

When that happens the philosophers and sages and wizards will be there to put it all into context just as they always have throughout history.

Houyhnhnm said...

More horse/chariot metaphors?! Oi.

One of the best bits of advice I ever received on using metaphors was succinct: “Don’t.”

The horse/chariot metaphors of the last weeks certainly illustrate the dangers of ignoring such warnings.

Considering the general lack of knowledge of horses and horsemanship today, I suppose I should have expected this, but, considering the sophistication of most of the people posting on this site, I wasn’t expecting such a plethora of metaphors that are, to use an old Army acronym, FUBAR.

Question: How many people here even know what sort of bit the Greeks used? If you don’t, you might want to look here:

dltrammel said...

Now I know what a student of Plato, felt like when listening to the Master speak.

While so many in the peak oil blogsphere have a way of starting with the individual and progressing their thoughts to encompass the many, you seems to do the exact opposite, start with the many and distill your teaching to the one.

You've managed to take my own vague feelings, half formed wonderings, partially learned truths, and then swept aside the cloudy fog of confusion to enlighten me with understanding of the World as it is, and my place in it now and as it will soon be.

Thank you.

If you can do that with just these few past posts, I'm a bit scared of what may

Justin said...

I can't even imagine what you must have gone through in the 1980s and 1990s. I am 32, and I have long since gone through the initiation of peak oil, and more recently a total shift in my world view, but even now I sometimes face a strange doubt of wondering if I am not eccentric among the people I know, but insane. And that is with knowing that a lot of people share my understanding, can't imagine being the only one.

It took some lag from my initiation of understanding peak oil and our civilization collapse and shifting my world views and values. It happened slowly and then all at once. My biggest nightmare now is that we find an energy source to continue things as they are, which will in turn the near certain likelihood that we will drive ourselves to extinction by turning this planet into a desert into an absolute certainty. Many people who understand peak oil completely entirely look at me like I am nuts when I express this sentiment. And its not a sentiment rooted entirely in normative values of promoting nature, but just the pragmatic understanding that extinction events can only go on for so long until we disrupt the global ecologies so thoroughly that we will die too. That is the next observation that has yet to penetrate our society's collective conciousness. Industrial civilization prospers by destroying the world.

Twilight said...

JMG - Yes, I can see that those could be traps and problematic. I also try to avoid binary reactions and absolutes, although I think a general skepticism of authority and those who strive to wield it is healthy.

As far as dealing with non-initiates, I often try to gently engage them. Many of the ideas discussed here have broad general applicability in other areas of life. One can introduce the concepts, and terminology, in ways that are safe and non-threatening. For example, at work I have introduced the relationship between efficiency and resiliency (really about the dangers of over-specialization). People have become familiar with the phrasing and the concept - perhaps someday they may encounter it again and it will not be as alien as it might have been. In other situations I may simply test the waters with a phrase or statement, just to see if there is any connection there.

On the generational issue, older people have a lot more invested in the society, and the narratives that go along with it, than do younger people. Especially if they feel they've been successful. It's going to be harder to get them to see that perhaps what was really happening was different that it seemed, to recognize the damage they did along the way, and to see that the knowledge they gained about how do things in that world might not be applicable anymore. They've spent their lives fighting other battles.

But one should never make assumptions - one of the delights of the "initiation" process is that one can never know when one will run into another who "gets it". Often it's in the most unexpected situations and with people one would never have anticipated.

John Michael Greer said...

Richard, well, if it helped you get out of the Church of Progress, then it did some good.

Whblondeau, good! Thanks for the song.

Jeffrey, no, that's not what it implies. It implies that those who go through the peak oil initiation I've mentioned have the chance, if they work at it, to get to the point where they aren't going to fall for a particular set of popular delusions centered around the notion of inevitable progress. It says nothing about what other delusions they might fall into; getting past that risk involves a lot more theurgy, and a good deal of the philosophy for which theurgy is a preparation.

Houyhnhnm, if you want to go argue with Plato, by all means go to Athens and shout at the rocks. It's his metaphor, after all, and it's quite traditional -- and for most people, highly communicative -- in this context. As for your comment on ancient Greek bits, er, have you considered the possibility that you're missing the forest, not for the trees, but for the pores on a single leaf?

Dltrammel, Plato was a lot better at this game than I am, which is why I've been borrowing his metaphors so freely. More generally, the reason I decided to go ahead and spend a few posts talking about magic is that it provides a language to discuss human experience that makes a lot of sense about a lot of things that more popular modes of speaking don't address at all.

Justin, it was a long bleak time. I'm very glad that it finally came to an end.

Twilight, good! And of course you're quite right about not making assumptions. One of the advantages of being fairly well known in peak oil circles is that people who get it tend to seek me out, and it's a remarkably diverse crowd.

Jeffrey said...

JMG, I had a second read through this essay and all the thoughtful comments.

An insight came to mind in reference to my last post that perhaps counter intuitively the irrational horse is actually leading us toward the solution of confronting consequences.

I think the future historian looking back at the 21st century may very well take the consequences of environmental destruction and the "biblical" suffering that this will cause as the very foundation of a future's society around environmental ethics and morals.

Will not the devastating consequences be required to set in stone the required memes and morals of an enlightened and sustainable future society.

It will be very mistakes of our current culture which will define the sustainable principals of a future society.

Though shalt not breed and consume beyond the carrying capacity of your environment will be a commandment of this future society and how else can this be cemented as a taboo in the future if not looking upon the ruins of our current techno-consumer culture.

The future historian may well conclude that 21st century humans was the first clumsy attempt of a sentient species on the planet attempting to manage and control the technological powers they unleashed.

That is why I see the irrational horse heading us exactly in the right direction. The consequences must be apocalyptic in order for a future sustainable society to anchor their sustainable memes firmly into place.

Ozark Chinquapin said...

I became aware of peak oil when I was 15 or so, and the concept itself pretty much seemed like common sense. I had my own sort of awakening to the realities of what we were doing to the planet before that. It was really all the sudden, I had been aware of certain environmental issues even before that but still believed they would be solved by progress, I had my awakening and started seeing everywhere how the planet is being abused, literally one week noticing so much that was not in my awareness the week before. This was also right when the internet was getting popular, and I did a lot of searching online because few people around me would discuss such things in the sort of depth I was after.

I found out about peak oil around 2001 when it was completely on the fringe, but it made total sense to me, and my first reaction was actually relief that our wasteful and destructive society would soon meet its limits and be forsced to change. Of course I hadn't thought through all that peak oil would really mean at that time.

What has been much harder to come to terms with for me than peak oil itself (which I always thought pretty straightforward) is the human dynamics around it. Like Chris Balow, I eventually turned to apocalyptic thinking, I hadn't started that way, but once Mike Ruppert made it onto the scene I was swept up by his brand of conspiritorial thinking for a number of years. Once you realize things are bad, it's a lot easier to believe it's mostly because of a few evil characters on top then to see how it's at the core of our culture. It's just been in the last few years, with the Archdruid Report playing a major part in my transformation, that I've gotten myself out of the view that it's all the fault of those on top.

I bring up peak oil and related issues a lot, and I find apocalyptic and conspiratorial thinking more common than simple myth of progress, but also I'm talking about these things mostly with people in alternative circles so aren't seeing a sample of the American population. Few want to come to the terms with the fact that we as a society got into the predicament ourselves and everyone has responsibility for it, not just the government, media, corporations etc.

However, porbably the most common and to me the most unsettling attitude I come across is avoidance of the issue altogether. I get a lot of responses of just changing the subject or having something else to do all the sudden and walking away. Worse yet, people change the discussion to one of my personality, chiding me for being too intense, too negative, that I need to chill out. First of all, I'm far from always negative, I just have the attitude of confronting the issues head-on rather than sidestepping them. I usually just say at that point that while my personality may be something worth discussing at some time, it doesn't have anything to do with the realities of peak oil or whatever else I'm discussing.

I'd rather have a good debate with someone who I disagree with anyday than all this avoidance, but I think many people either are not mentally capable or are just unwilling to think about the issues most pressing in these times. That's one of the things I'll miss most when the internet goes down, I'm not a fan of the majority of modern technology, but the internet can connect those that would otherwise be only needles in the vast haystack of society.

barath said...

I have a question for everyone here regarding the step after peak oil awareness. Specifically, does anyone know a plausible timeline that lays out what the next 10-20 years or so might look like, in detail, across the various facets of American life using up-to-date knowledge? I know that such predictions will always be wrong, but I think a sketch is possible. If I remember correctly, JMG had a 2-3 paragraph sketch of our near future towards the beginning of The Long Descent; I'm wondering if there's something a little more detailed that I can pass on to others who are peak oil aware but don't see problems as imminent or affecting them. There are classic articles (and stories like Asimov's) but I haven't found any that are dry and straightforward and also up-to-date.

(Here's my sketch, but it isn't detailed enough to paint a clear enough picture for others: we're looking at roughly 3 years between recessions each of which will spike unemployment by a couple of percent; each partial recovery will fail to exceed pre-recession GDP and fail to make up for the job losses. Purchasing power will decline correspondingly. GDP has been on an oscillating plateau since 2005 just like oil production; both are set to begin an oscillating descent in 1-4 years. Each recession will probably see the failure of one major industry, though in what order I have no idea. Along with one of these futures recessions the banking system will fail in a way that cannot be bailed out, though whether that's next year or 3 years from now or 12 years from now is unclear.)

Apple Jack Creek said...

My initiation was blogged by none other than Sharon Astyk. (I am the Frazzlehead who asked the question.)

I’d started reading Sharon’s posts on the Homesteading Today forum, when she was talking about the Riot for Austerity. Her descriptions of being frugal seemed really clever but I hadn’t grasped the larger picture. Following the links, I started reading about the Riot, and Peak Oil … found the Oil Drum, started noticing things. It all started to really hang together. Solidly reliable references were saying this was real, and way sooner than I’d ever thought it would happen. The logic all worked. Eek.

Then I was reading some books from the 70s that I picked up in the thrift store (I think the specific trigger was “Security from Five Acres” by John Tobe, published in ‘71) and it all sounded so much like what people were saying now. What made it different? Hadn’t we had this scare once before?

Sharon answered me, with data and references. And I knew she was right.

Interestingly enough, about three years before I asked this question, I had been struck by what Quakers call a Leading (capital L) – I just *knew* I needed to move to the country. I was, at the time, a single parent with a grade four kid so this was a non-trivial change. I was city born and bred, what was I thinking?? Still, the idea would not leave me alone, and the more I sat with the thought, the more I looked at it, and the more I ‘tested the Leading’ with others, the more certain I became. I took the risk, moved out here, married the man who helped me through the transition (and who helped build the house we now live in), and set up a small mixed farm (at the moment it’s more of a sorta-farm due to the one-foot-in-each-world thing).

Three years after the move, two years after getting sheep and chickens and a garden, a year after getting a cow … all that time later, I “got” Peak Oil. I am one of the people who is going to need to be ‘country folk’ come The Change. I feel vulnerable and crowded in the city now that I know the utilities won’t be on (or affordable) forever. My city won’t work in a resource-constrained world. Out here, while we are still vulnerable in many ways, we at least have options. We can supplement the gas heat with wood (and switch to it completely if we have to), we have solar power in addition to the grid (though not enough for the luxury we are accustomed to), we have a well (with a pump powered by the aforementioned solar), we have a creek (in case we can’t get well water), we have animals, we have a garden. We have good neighbours and a community we are starting to feel at home in.

It feels like a miracle, to be quite honest, a completely unasked for grace given to me and mine. The ‘early warning’ meant that my land cost about 1/3 of what it would’ve cost later on, thus making the whole venture financially possible. Our ‘other world’ incomes have paid for fence posts and livestock and feed while we learn our way around the farm. My education in biology finally serves a practical purpose. I do realize how very blessed I am and I am doing my best to be a good steward of the little chunk of land I was called to. When the very different future I know is coming settles in to stay, it is my hope that this place will be a productive safe haven for whoever lives here … perhaps my descendants, perhaps someone else, but whoever they will be, I do keep them in mind as I plan and dig and compost and run fences.

Apple Jack Creek said...

And if I may presume upon a few more pixels, I have an aside for Patrick, who asked about the use of humour to deal with peak oil.

When I first brought up the idea of Peak Oil, my husband thought I was plain nuts (though he at least partially ‘gets it’ now). One day in mild frustration he said, “you think the world’s gonna end next Friday!” A few minutes later he mumbled “hmph, with my luck, it WILL all end on a Friday and you’ll be there saying I told you so!” Ever since that day, in this house, the shorthand for “when everything is a lot different, resources are constrained, and life doesn’t look like it does now” is “when Friday comes”. He joked about it for a very long time … but he helps me get ready “for Friday”. I still don’t think he has quite the same perspective as me, but he’s out there chopping firewood, making sure the well pump will work if there’s no power, and nodding approvingly at the canned & dehydrated stuff in the pantry. So yeah, humour can work!

Tully Reill said...

JMG, wow, I'd completely forgotten about Asimov's essay for Time Magazine! Although his timeframe is a tad off, some of the things he was predicting at the time are certainly coming about. Time still has it in their website archives.,9171,918862,00.html

Oddly enough, the word verification so I can post this is "quersoph"...query and sophos perhaps?

Red Neck Girl said...

I hate to sound like a greasy grind but I never had an initiation moment. I grew up in a lumber camp and saw clear cutting along with the explanation that it made for more salable trees when replanted per block. Then there was the excuse for fire fighting, a major fire would damage the wood of mature trees.

As a little girl starting grade school there was a major fire for which my dad was basically press ganged into fighting, he was gone ten days before he got to come home and have a full meal, the first since he left the mill, a shower and a solid 24 hours of sleep in a warm bed. The fire happened in the early fall.

We went back to Goods Mtn. to pick elder berries for juicing and canning when I was in high school. The mountain was a paradise in spite of its steep sides. There were wild strawberries, raspberries, black berries and hazel nut bushes all bearing heavily.

As I grew older I picked up other information about such burns, a fresh burn was the best place to hunt since all kinds of animals would roll in the fresh ash to kill lice and ticks, the following year there would be tender new growth and if burns had been occurring naturally there would be more openness, killing off over growth and getting fresh browsing for deer while putting nutrients into the soil for the use of the larger and healthier trees. Fires are catastrophic only when kept from burning regularly.

I loved the natural forest and I realized early I didn't like cities. The miles and miles of suburbs around cities left an uneasiness in my mind as a child. Too many people, too many strangers, too blind to see what a marvel the natural world was. I was horrified at the animal life killed on it's freeways and causally crushed into pulp.

When I first learned about peak oil, I think it was in the Mother Earth News and I felt a sense of relief salted with a mild apprehension that this insanity called modern civilization was going to come to an end.

After that time I began collecting books, (two things I do love about civilization is books and music) one on blacksmithing, a set on melting and casting metals, creating a machine shop, books on wood working, a good college level book on horse shoeing. I made an effort to get books on old skills and simple living. All of which I lost about eighteen years ago to family spite. Now I have to collect them again.

If I can swing the stable, my house will have an old fashioned library with books about as many different arts and crafts as I can find. I even have a real treasure, a seven book set by Issac Assimov, long out of print on science and math. Even though they are all paper backs, the book on Algebra alone was worth thirty five dollars on line. They were left at the last shop I worked at as a give away and I took them!

I believe they'll be handy for youngsters learning their letters to reprint on home made paper or vellum! A little light reading for the coming dark age.

It does kind of sadden me that I won't live long enough to see the resurgence of the natural world. I don't believe I'll live long enough to see the last automobile dismantled for its immediately useful metals. But if I can get the stable and house built, it will be a place for generations to live, work and wonder at the natural beauty of the world as it heals from this civilizations careless abuse. And who knows, perhaps I'll be back again to see some of it 'myself.'

Wadulisi Tasalagi

Ozark Chinquapin said...

On Jason Godesky, from what I gathered when I read some of his stuff a while back, he hadn't studied much of any actual primitive skills, even while preaching that everyone should go primitive. I can only hope he's decided to live more of his principles now. I have respect for the type of primitivists who are busy learning skills, even if I don't agree with many of their positions.

For those serious about going primitive, they'd be better off dropping the whole apocalyptic scenario of instant collapse followed by the few survivors all living as hunter-gatherers. A better idea would be to relocate to those marginal lands that will most likely be abandoned by civilizations as fossil fuels get scarce. The whole world need not go primitive for it to be viable again in certain areas. However I think only a small minority of the primitivists are really serious about changing their own lives.

One of the strangest things I've seen in certain circles of primitivists is the attempt to portray many indigenous tribes as pure materialists, that their spirituality is just a different terminology for the material world, and all conflicting information is just because of influence from Christianity or other civilized religions. Yes, despite its silliness I've heard that argument from a number of people, who want to hold the beliefs of both primitivism amd scientific materialism without giving credit to any modern thought. Those I know who are actually learning primitive skills tend to be more spiritually leaning, it's just among some of the intellectuals of primitivism that I've seen the bizarre combination with modern scientific materialism.

JW Spray said...

I'm 38. I was a junior at UCLA in 1993. I had liberal tendancies. The movie, Dances with Wolves, had been out for a year or two. I rented it. I started it on the late side. At 3:00 in the morning I found myself standing outside my father's suburban home awkwardly gapping at the street; Yes, the street: this thick, wide transient thing made of petroleum and gravel. Various thoughts (these things mar the surface of much of the planet, they're toxic, they don't even last that long, and we just keep building more and more...) were thrashing about in my mind. Obviously you can't separate profligate consumption, waste, over population, deforestation, pollution, ground water depletion, top soil depletion (ad naseum...) and peak oil. All of the monsters of industrial civilization walk hand in hand. I've been reading your blog for at least 4 years, maybe more; and I haven't missed a single posting in at least the last twelve months. You articulate, and often in a very sagacious way, the constant lurking thoughts I routinely find myself entertaining. I'm a hybrid of sorts: survivalblog, the oil drum, jim sinclair's mindset, financial armageddon... are just a mix of the websites I browse on a regular basis. My library and periodicals are a similar mix. Unlike many folks on the "green" liberal end of things, you seem to have a much wider grasp of what we as a species are up against, and I appreciate that broad based wisdom... very much. Here's what I really have to say about this weeks post and it goes back to my epiphany about our world shortly after watching Dances with Wolves, alone, late at night, as a much younger man. I think there is a deep underlying sense of anxiety, primordial fear, angst, desperation... call it what you will. I think so many of the average folks around us feel uneasy about our species' trajectory. In other words I think most of them know deep down something is terribly awry and that disaster is around the corner; moreover, the brighter people, most of them, see our socieities' limitations all too clearly, and they have to actively deny our truths, when they are confronted with them. I do agree that there is a pervasive, almost zealot like, faith in science, progress, technology; but I also see so many people who reall do know and understand, but don't have the personal courage and fortitude to face it... like so manyh other things about our existence. And as far as the rest goes: oddly enough I think their animal instincts sense the lateness of the hour...

James W. Spray

PS: and I think you touched upon this in your last posting, you can't have an ephiphany like that and not walk a totally different road, see life, on a regular basis, in a much different way than the rest of the heard; 10 tabs of acid and a near death experience and communion with a cockatele, also made me a vegetarian and different soul too. I think many of us find these experiences on purpose and whether it's our own active guidance or fate, we are meant to be enlightened.

I was a public school teacher for 15 years and now I'm getting my BSN in nursing and would like to become a NP eventually and do a family practice that's more holistic and osteopathic... based here in my little rural, off the beat n' track community

May the world's life force especially bless you for being a beckon to us all to live more in accordance with life.

DeAnander said...

Just flying by, and was struck by the semi-synchronicity between this piece and EB's recent

The Quest for Vision

in which the author talks about the run-up to Peak Everything :

QUOTE it makes sense (and it resonates with us) to view our collective situation - our present predicament, our long emergency, our powerdown, our doomsday, our danger/opportunity, our end of suburbia, our life after the oil crash, our nuclear holocaust, our great turning, our die-off, our financial Armageddon, our eleventh hour, our petrocollapse, our overshoot, our endgame, our final crash, our mass extinction underway, our six degrees, our final empire, our ascent of humanity, our revenge of Gaia, our end of the world as we know it - as an initiation into cultural maturity at a grand and terrible scale, as some sort of a vision quest for the collective heart, mind, and soul. If that is so, it may help us to remember that the initiate does not go into the vision quest with a vision already in mind. That’s what makes it a quest. Initiates go first into the sweat house or death lodge, or embark on some similar process, or simply find themselves in a “dark night of the soul.” During this time the elders urge them to shed what needs to be shed, to symbolically “die.” /QUOTE

Interesting that this concept of "initiation" (as by a vision quest) is resonating amongst us right now. I too have felt that the paradigm shift we experience when we realise that Growth is neither inevitable nor positive, is a cultural alienation and reorientation as profound as "coming out" as gay, or "getting religion," or other experiences which permanently alter one's worldview... I too tend to see Peak Everything as a challenge or test: are we smarter than yeast? can we "grow up" as a species? are we capable of practising wisdom rather than petty pecking-order short-termism?

Sure feels like we are stuck in the dark in the death lodge right now...

Sweetbeee said...

Tonight when reading the part about us knowing what's coming ahead and not heeding the warning or making any changes. I always wondered how people could be in forclosure on a home, stop paying the note, not save that money to buy an RV or some roof over their head for the future or put their belongings in storage. They sometimes wait until the Sheriff is at the door and all their belongings end up on the curb. This is a commentary about the behavior, not the situation as all are different, and it seems like that is a metaphor for our future. People will be financially strapped due to the high price of fossil fuels but they'll hang on to their non-peak beliefs until they get the proverbial "note on the door" where they HAVE to admit that oil is in decline. I guess it's that same type thinking by the homeowner and disbelievers in peak oil, a kind of magical thinking, that makes them believe it won't really happen....until it does.
The "can't be bothered" folks I know all say "they'll come up with something when they need to.." confusing technology with energy, it's incredible how they watch and follow the next Ipad's debut but don't seem at all interested in what's really ahead...thank you JMG for your insight (even though I don't understand a lot of it unfortunately) and thought provoking blogs, we look forward to them each week.

Joel said...

NLP has been mentioned a few times on this thread: my understanding is that Tony Robbins' techniques are adapted from NLP, which I think may trace to Scientology.

It isn't quite the cheapest stuff: "Personal Power" is no "Mystery Method". There's some real expertise, which was obviously won by a lot of hard work: my problem is that it's so eerily hollow in terms of values. Deciding what one wants is un-interesting and should be gotten out of the way quickly, so as to begin the hard work of choosing and applying a suite of techniques that will make that desire real.

My high school vice principal (opposite of a virtue principal, it would seem) pushed all of us in the student council to listen to Robbins' tapes. I was the only one that expressed any discomfort about this. Rumor has it, the same guy was caught embezzling herbicide from the school, at which time he shredded all the documents in his office, including half that year's exit exams...which added to my sense that something was wrong with that system.

Joel said...

Interesting link about the bits. If I take Houyhnhnm's meaning, the entailment we're carrying over in this metaphor is that, like a Greek horseman putting a spiked bit in the mouth of a horse, Plato was saying that we inflict pain on our appetites and socialization in order to direct them with rational thought.

I think that adds more to the discussion, even if it means drilling down to a tiny detail.

I think you're wrong about metaphor, though: my understanding is that metaphor is a fundamental aspect of human cognition, let alone language, and a necessary component of any abstraction at all.

Let's take the sentence "One of the best bits of advice I ever received...", for example: advice is understood in terms of a physical substance, a small and high-quality clump of which was passed from one person to another. This metaphor works very well, across languages even, because we habitually understand interpersonal interactions in terms of a physical exchange of objects.

I agree it can be presumptuous to build a new metaphor, when so many good ones are already available. I think it's important to understand how they work, even if you are only trying to understand metaphors that others have used.

Cherokee Organics said...


I've been surprised that commenters are not disappointed that thaumaturgy (as I think I understand it from your post - and I could be wrong) can't be applied to society as a whole. So many people nowadays look to others to sort out the mess that we are in. There must be some appeal to it? Beats me.

My experience with businesses is that they have to reach some sort of tipping point where they can no longer proceed with BAU before changing their patterns to less self-destructive, more positive patterns. I can't see why society would be any different.

As a producer of some of my own food, I saw the limits of natural systems intuitively. You can't pretend they're not there. It always surprises me that we have access to the resources today to transition across, but we lack the incentive to do so. I feel for those that do not have partners / family who support their endeavours. The only thing I could add to this is that the ties that hold us are of our own making.

Things don't always need to look like people think that they should. For fertiliser, I have several kangaroos outside in the orchard this very minute converting the herbage into fertiliser and mowing it at the same time. The native birds are in there all day too scratching around. Nice work, and you won't see that in a text book.

Hi Gregorach - Blend in. Because of my friends and acquaintances domestic situations, I've ended up being one of the most social people in my circle. Sad but true.

Ruben - I dispute the upper limit of 3 hours a day. The brain can be trained to exert itself for far longer than this.

JP - Relax about China. A great proportion of the world has outsourced its manufacturing to this great country. To them, their wealth and status is perceived to be a return to BAU. Yeah, you may be jealous of their status, but it is rare to bite the hand that feeds.

Joel - I'm not sure I understood your comment, can you elaborate on it a bit further? What I'm trying to get at is that the powers that be are all too happy to gamble. It's not just money they are gambling with either. I don't gamble - having study statistics - you can't win. I respect the law of diminishing returns and would be happy to explain it upon request.



tubaplayer said...

JMG - thank you once again for an eye-opening/mind-opening piece.

Many of this week's comments so much echo my own thoughts, and the trail of what I am at least attempting to do since my discovery of Peak Oil.

Our biology teacher in high school, some years before 'Limits To Growth' was undetaken, taught us about the exponential function and that world population was sooner or later headed for huge problems.

Only last evening I had a huge (but good hearted) discussion (read argument) with a very good friend in the village pub here. I have a fairly substantial piece of work to do breaking up a huge old tree that died for firewood. I confess that I brought in a couple of local experts to get the tree down using chainsaws. There was no way that at my time of life and in my slight infirmity that I could have contemplated doing it myself. I already wrote on my own blog that a gasolene driven chainsaw is equivalent to having 250 slaves - I did the calculation. I pointed out to my friend the rise in price of gas here from 330 forints to about 400 forints in just a year. I asked him what he will do when gas is 1000 forints a liter. He just shrugged. He is typical of the vast majority of the population that just do not 'get it'.

I am trying here to put into practice your 'green wizardry'. Much of my land was out of control with weeds and grass. The locals' answer was "Get a bulldozer in". My answer was get some goats. I think I chose wisely. Not only have they kept the area where they are allowed under control all year but they also provide me with dairy requirements and much amusement at their antics and characters.

Thank you again for the piece JMG and thanks also to the many commenters that I read that also help my insight.

ando said...


Another superb essay. Your treatment of magic is consistent with the non-dual (advaita) pointers which, in my case, brought awareness (and a change in consciousness)of the insanity of unlimited growth (capitalism)and
using fossils as if they also were unlimited. Thanks for your efforts.


Jennifer D Riley said...

A partial answer to your question, why did we do it? comes from wagon, horse, and automobile. Your ecotechnic researcher should research and discover that yes, people rode in wagons. However, some of the most intimate moments I remember with my parents was riding in our Buick, all four of us cozy in a small, metallic, womb. That intimacy and emotion--on summer nights with windows rolled down, on holiday nights with windows rolled up and the view snow and holiday decorations--provided families with intimacy of the type Alvin Toffler touched on by identifying The Third Place. Recieved your book The Long Descent yesterday by mail; I look forward to reading.

ganv said...

"there's a useful balance between too little skepticism and too much. The gravitational attraction of our society's collective imagination of the future is strong enough that positing an alternative, and doing it with some degree of commitment to it, is a useful counterspell."

That is a brilliant response... to realize the limits of our knowledge of the future and also the necessity of acting with some degree of commitment in order to have any impact.

Cathy McGuire said...

@Ruben: this video byDavid Rock. He shows how the brain areas for rational thought have hard physical limits to how much thinking they can do--about three hours every day
That’s interesting, because when I was a tech writer, it always felt like I could do about 4-5 hours of real thinking/writing and then the rest of the day had to be organizing and nit-picking… and the programmers said the same thing… it’s likely that we as a society have pushed the mind to over-work by adding so much stimulus and change. I know that now I’m living simple and have more physical tasks that take focus but not heavy creativity, I don’t feel as maxed.

@Falki: I have found that Peak Oil it's easier to trully understand and accept for Intraverteds, especially the Rationals (NTs) and Idealists (NFs).

Hey, fascinating… I’m NT and now I’m gonna go survey my Jungian friends and see if I can get some data… I’m gonna check out the link, too. Thanks! However:

With INFPs, (we, of that very rare type who are only 1% of population) they seem to naturally grasp these issues without needing to think it much.
Would that it were so… but I have a couple very close friends who are INFPs and they are both deep in denial – more a “I refuse to think about that, I’m already overwhelmed” than “it’s not true”, but still it’s a denial by default. They are both over 60, so perhaps it is generational.

@JMG: one of the great problems here in America is that it's been so long since we've been through a really rough period of history that nobody quite believes it can happen.
That’s the conclusion that I and the few friends who will talk about the current recession/depression have come to – our generation (Boomers) are still adolescents in that we blithely think that “someone” will feed and clothe and shelter us if things get too bad (in the same sense that today’s 20’s go back home and live w/parents)… we have never experienced difficulties so bad that there’s a risk of starving, or of extended homelessness – so we don’t believe it’s possible (well, I do, but I mean the general population of Boomers). When I hear folks talking like poverty is “being without cable”, I know they are in for a shock! My years of gardening and preserving food gives me the opportunity to see how much effort is needed to eat, and how unlikely it is that “someone” will just dole out food once a certain percentage of us are without it.

@Jeffrey: I would say these individuals are blessed on one hand with an insight into the aspect of the irrational "social" horse that leads society into overshoot but these same individuals may very well have other irrational "social" horse attributes which are not pro active toward moving into transition. Humans are so nuanced and complex.

Agreed – I’ve often wondered if those of us being “pro-active” on the gardening and homebuilding skills are also those who just like it, and if we who can readily accept the disaster news are naturally attuned to it… but that’s not necessarily bad. It might just mean our personality types are well suited to the situation we’ll be in more and more.
:-} But as to the “sensitive types” - yes, I’ve met many and they seem to be another kind of adolescent; rejecting a world they don’t like while assuming “someone” will give them a different one if they are unhappy enough. Too often, when I am hoeing weeds, I have a huge yearning to be that rich lady in the castle, waited on hand and foot and nothing to do but read and ponder and be creative! :-D Luckily, I know it ain’t gonna happen.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Re Yupped, Dandelion Lady's, and Twilight's comments:

What you're saying about more people changing habits and initiates needing to help makes sense to me and corresponds with my experience. I've just been offered and have accepted a job (for which I didn't apply), that will involve helping create a sustainability center which will educate people and groups about how they can live more sustainable lives. The job didn't exist until now. It was created by other people who "get it," some of whom you'd never expect would. It requires me to use a little more energy, personally: there is some travel involved--but the money earned will go towards making my own house more "green wizardy," something I wasn't able to afford before.

The question is, how to continue living a life of voluntary simplicity--and keep gardening!-- while working in a more mainstream sector. I suppose it is another form of witness. Yet I feel those of us who get it do have an obligation to help those who are still learning.

Don Plummer said...

I've been sort on sabbatical over last few months and (amazingly) have not read the last two postings on this blog. But I thought perhaps I should describe my initiation to the reality of peak oil and all that it bodes.

Unlike Adrian, I did not grow up with an instinctive understanding of industrial civilization's destructive relationship to the biosphere, but I did read Tolkien during my high school years and did become somewhat involved in the budding environmental movement at that time (which was the late 1960s and early '70s). I think I understood Tolkien's criticism of industrialism more or less instinctively (or perhaps non-rationally).

I first became aware of the consequences of peak oil when an excerpt of Kunstler's The Long Emergency was anthologized in one of our composition class' readers. I had students read about the possibility of an end to automotive transportation and the revival of a primarily agricultural economy. At first, of course, I didn't want to believe it, but as I became more exposed to the ideas behind peak oil and its consequences (e.g., Roberts' The End of Oil, Heimberg, the budding Transition movement), I became more and more convinced.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

And JMG, you said,

"Adrian, growing up with these ideas is the other way to internalize them, but in that case they're absorbed as nonrational responses. The work of initiation then becomes one of assessing them and deciding to affirm and enact them consciously…"

My children, on the cusp of adulthood, having been raised in a green household, with large helpings of The Magic Flute (full of masonic ideas), Lord of the Rings, and Quakerism--have the expected values and habits of mind--yet they are now, as they get out in the world, undergoing a form of realization and initiation themselves, which I am trying to help them with so they don't have to go it alone: not that I have any secret handshakes to teach them. ;)

They are just realizing the enormity of what we face, at a time when they are establishing themselves as functioning adults in the world, which is quite a different thing from being safe within the small family culture--and they are realizing how different their internal values and our family culture is from the mainstream, so they are having to come to grips with that, as well. Luckily, that dissonance is not causing them to reject the family or their values; rather they seem to be reintegrating on a new level, choosing their friends carefully, and staying close to home.

I think many of their generation truly understand that the future is not what the myth of progress says it will be, an odd companion to the normal optimism of youth, and bound to result in some of the demonstrations we are seeing.

DeAnander said...

I'm resonating (and somewhat comforted by the affinity) with other posters' comments on the juvenility of my (Boomer) generation -- a long-tail social effect that touches the generation after us as well. Gen Peter Pan! We in the affluent N Hemi (and those of us who were lucky enough to be in the comprador elites of the "lesser" nations while the industrial N Hemi ransacked them for resources) have never been in touch with reality, in the sense of the real tasks and strategies of human survival. It is hard for us even to consider those tasks and a subsistence lifeway without either romanticising it foolishly, or recoiling in exaggerated horror.

I was an early Cassandra wrt Peak Everything and often tangled with cornucopians and technomanagers in various fora. Often their immediate response to "downsize, relocalise" was a howl of outrage and despair at the notion that they -- educated, sophisticated, intelligent they -- could possibly be expected to grub in the dirt like peasants. Anything rather than that! ("Anything" apparently includes eco-suicide.) We all are, indeed, accustomed to being the lady in the castle, waited on hand and foot, ignorant of any truly useful art. And despite all my efforts at reskilling and re-educating myself, I know I am still -- in human-historical terms -- a spoilt brat, not really able to grasp the magnitude and seriousness of the human enterprise of survival, food production, social organisation etc.

It's ironic that the process we call Progress has been such a Regress, a retreat from maturity and adult responsibility into a perpetual childhood of toys, games, and frivols. Not that I despise games and frivols, but they have taken centre stage in our lives, usurped the attention span that should be devoted to more urgent matters. That seems like it's going to change, radically and sooner than I expected. In a way it's invigorating: much that I loathe may finally perish (the H2 for example); but honestly, I'm also very frightened. I don't know whether I have what it takes to be a successful peasant or productive artisan, even though I know that this is what most of us will have to (re)learn to be if we wish to have any security or comfort...

Zach said...

... you're familiar, I trust, with the writings of Ps.-Dionysius and the influence of theurgic Neoplatonism on the thought of the early and medieval church?

Only by rumor and echo, I'm afraid. I've at least heard of Pseudo-Dionysius, and picked up a translation in a bookstore to look longingly at, sigh, and say "not yet - someday." :)

... one quick Internet search later...

Well, then. Interesting indeed how one thing leads to another. I did not know there was such a connection between Pseudo-Dionysius and St. Thomas. I see I will have to get up to speed more on that link between Neoplatonism and medieval theology.

Thank you.


hapibeli said...

Thanks John. Brilliant. Hopefully that future scholar of history will have "The Long Descent" et al to study.

LewisLucanBooks said...

I can't remember any particular "moment of clarity" when it comes to peak oil. But...

I distinctly remember my first car and that gas was $.25 a gallon.

Then, I lived in S. California for three years in the early 70s. I was there for the first big gas shortage. Odd / even days when you could or could not get gas. Limits on how much gas you could get. Scrambling to find a station that had gas ("I heard a rumor that a station in Fountain Valley has gas...")

I saw terrible things in those gas lines. What I do remember clearly is thinking that I had to get out of California and back home to the Pacific Northwest before something REALLY bad happened.

Houyhnhnm said...

JMG, why would I shout at Plato? His metaphor stems from a horse training technique already ancient in his day and still in use today: a schooled horse paired with a greenie. Plato’s metaphor works fine within its limitations, as do all good metaphors. Unfortunately, most people today, lacking even a rudimentary understanding of horsemanship, gallop horse metaphors until they collapse in mangled heaps.

Last week, both you and Vicky K began with workable horse metaphors. Then Vicky K sent her horses off on their own. Horses will indeed take one home. In fact, “barn sour” horses will take you home whether you want to go or not.

Similarly, JMG, you were navigating obstacles like a world class driver, right up until you hooked a wheel on a verb: “[I]f you ride a chariot, your horses are always going to appreciate their feed!” I would have understood “deserve,” but the anthropomorphizing “appreciate” severed your metaphor. Horses do not make that sort of connection.

Then, JMG, this week you responded to my comment on Greek bits by asking if I have “considered the possibility that [I’m] missing the forest, not for the trees, but for the pores on a single leaf?” No, I hadn't. To the finest horsemen, bits are smoldering embers in a campfire beneath a tinder dry tree. Handle with care!

If nothing else, you, Vicky K, and the person who had horses galloping “pell mell in a circle”--something I’ve seen only in cliff-free round pens—have given me a new reason to contemplate one of Blake’s Proverbs of Hell: “The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.”

Still I remain a horse of instruction.

sealander said...

I heard an interview on the radio this morning with an author (academic psychologist) of a new book which may be relevant to the discussion "Psychology for a better world: Strategies to inspire sustainability". It can be downloaded for free from

Kieran O'Neill said...

Just read that Asimov essay. Apparently it's called "The Nightmare Life Without Fuel", not "The Nightmare World without Oil" (minor distinction, but it affects the web search).

It's a little off in terms of time frame (like the Roman Empire, I think the collapse will be slow and subtle), but it raises many of the important issues. I can see its value as a tool of initiation.

Petro said...

What an utterly illuminating invocation you have accomplished here!

In an earlier thread, I had slammed Plato because of the use of his cave allegory by the neoconservative movement and you cautioned me... and here your theurgy vs. thaumaturgy closing paragraph deftly finishes the thought.


In another blog, I was responding to a (very thoughtful) writer who I believed was a bit overly cynical in dismissing the viability of this latest #OccupyWallStreet phenomenon. I responded with a bit of prose poetry that acknowledged my own historically-fueled trepidation at optimism - that fear walked with my optimism. Defending my tentative optimism, I closed with "I am more afraid of killing the flower with my fear."

One response I received was that "'The Secret' is a load of bollocks.' (A wasted admonition, its load of BS having even been discussed in this forum.)

So - here is an individual who, in lumping the simple act of mutual encouragement and support with a silly mystical belief in "The Secret," clearly is not aware of the social "horse."


Regarding the #OccupyWallStreet phenomenon - with no judgment being made here as to its efficacy or evolution - I would characterize it as a bit of manifest "self-initiation" on a rather mass scale. The articulated comprehension of current economic woes by these folks is a bit astonishing... dare I say un-American (in the sense of what is understood to be a pervasive miseducation of our population.)


Finally (and this is a whimsical point) - there's going to be an awful lot of hard drives in the ruins of the future, I imagine. I also imagine that *somebody* is going to move heaven and earth to try to read them, somehow. :)

artinnature said...

Thank you again JMG and all for another thrilling read...chills up and down my spine.

I figured this post would elicit many initiation stories. As others have mentioned, since the number of people who "get it" is so minute, and most of us have almost nobody in our everyday lives that are "in the club", having these stories related here is tremendously helpful.

This is how I arrived in the initiation chamber:

I came out of the womb with a reverence for nature. Don't know how that happened but it did. Always felt cognitive dissonance regarding what I felt in my "soul" and the way industrial society treated the biosphere. However I didn't really grasp how critical the situation was (just a kid during the first go round in the 70's) and just kind of drifted through childhood and the teen years until my freshman year in college and my first ever Environmental Science class. Mind mind was blown, I instantly got it. Before getting it, I considered majoring in environmental science...after, it was just too painful to think about, fighting a losing battle...I chose a different career path.

Now the interesting part: for the next 20 years it was really too hard to seriously entertain our predicament. I think Morning-in-America had something to do with it as well as wanting to fit in with the "winners", but the cognitive dissonance was always there. My "team" had galloped off...I guess.

After this long period of thinking I could have my planet and eat it too (thanks for that JMG) I finally started feeling truly sick about the path I took and started making some small changes in my life, and a cascade began.

Fast forward to 2010: after viewing Mike Ruppert's film, reading Jeff Rubin, Michael Pollan and Barbara Kingsolver I finally stumbled into and from there The Archdruid Report. I went back to the beginning of TAR and read every word. Now I barely know that person that occupied my body until 2010.

This discussion of magic brings it all together, explains a lot of that cognitive dissonance in myself and the rest of industrial society. There is indeed "something else going on".

Off Topic: I'm 3/4 through 'The Great Crash 1929' by John Kenneth Galbraith. For those of you who haven't read it, you must-must-must! Here are a couple of teasers: "regulatory bodies, like the people who comprise them, have a marked life cycle. In youth they are vigorous, aggressive, evangelistic, and even intolerant. Later they mellow, and in old age-after a matter of ten or fifteen years, they become, with some exceptions, either an arm of the industry they are regulating, or senile" and "the economy was dependent on a high level of investment or a high level of luxury consumer spending or both. The rich cannot buy great quantities of bread"

And here we are gain.

Kevin said...

@ Joel, on the topic of Tony Robbins and NLP:

" problem is that it's so eerily hollow in terms of values."

You've nailed it. I'm familiar with Tony Robbins' stuff, and that's how I feel about it. I'm not out to engage in character assassination, but he seems to be primarily interested in the further enrichment of Tony Robbins over all other objectives or values. Whereas the Neoplatonism that evidently underlies theurgy as discussed here has the feel of a sound, fully developed and ethical philosophical system. Also, I think it well to acknowledge explicitly that magic is involved, not just "positive thinking" and Horatio Algerism.

John Michael Greer said...

Jeffrey, well, the fate of the Roman Empire didn't stop a lot of nations from trying to do exactly the same thing in later centuries. We'll see. Or, more precisely, we won't -- all that will be settled centuries after we're dead.

Ozark, I've seen a lot of the same sort of avoidance, and it's one of the things that makes me think that a lot of people are aware, on some level, of just how thoroughly we messed up at the end of the Seventies, and are trying not to deal with that.

Barath, I'll consider that as a possible subject for a future post!

Apple Jack, Sharon's a capable initiator, so you were in good hands. As for the Leading, good for you for paying attention to that -- I know far too many people who get such promptings, and ignore them.

Tully, I'd forgotten most of the details, but the experience of reading it is still a vivid memory for me.

Girl, you may see more than you expect. It takes surprisingly little time for nature to come surging back up through the cracks, and though you won't see the last car stripped for metal scrap, I bet you see quite a few.

Ozark, I have immense respect for the neoprimitivists who are learning how to get by with stone tools and the like, and spend their weekends and vacations out in the wilderness staying fed with longbows and digging sticks. They're putting their beliefs into practice, and I honor that. It's the ones whose neoprimitivism consists of sitting in front of a computer spinning fantasies about a lifestyle they're completely unfit to practice who make me roll my eyes. As far as I could tell, Jason was one of the latter.

JW, thank you for the narrative of your initiation! I never watched the movie in question -- I don't do a lot of visual media -- but if it sparked that realization for you, good.

DeAnander, that's certainly one way to look at it, but I confess that it makes me a bit uncomfortable, because it's yet another way by which modern people define themselves as unique, special, and privileged above all the rest of human history -- we're the ones who are part of this great initiation! I prefer to look at it as simply one more repeat of the normal life cycle of civilizations, on a larger scale than others, to be sure, but not distinguished in any other way. It seems to me that shedding the belief in our own privileged status is a crucial part of the lesson we need to learn just now.

Sweetbeee, I've watched that too, and just shake my head. It makes no sense at all.

John Michael Greer said...

Joel, you get tonight's gold star for defining a vice principal in the only way that's ever made sense to me! The sort of "success formula" people who completely neglect values are, to my mind, an important part of what Barbara Ehrenreich talked about in her useful book Brightsided; by neglecting ethics (which are to magic what cleanliness is to surgery) and the relationship between the individual will and the universe, they foster a highly self-destructive sort of delusional thinking.

Cherokee, I think a lot of people are desperately hoping that someone or something else will change so that they don't have to. Of course it doesn't work that way; you have to plant and tend the orchard, and only then will the kangaroos show up to fertilize the soil!

Tubaplayer, I envy you your goats! These days I have to travel too much to have livestock, but back in my hippie farm days, goats were far and away my favorite animals, for their personalities as much as for fresh milk and homemade cheese.

Ando, a good thorough Advaita Vedanta-based analysis of the consumer society and peak oil would be a delight to read!

Jennifer, I have to admit that baffles me. Even as a child I hated car trips -- stale air, forced inaction, and scenery seen through a glass window that might as well have been a tv screen.

Ganv, thank you, but it's absolutely standard Druid logic. Wnenever anyone tries to hand you a forced choice between two options, always, always look for a third alternative.

Cathy, I suspect a lot of people are going to find out the hard way that their sense of entitlement won't protect them from reality.

Don, that sort of gradual initiation is a good way to go about it, if you can; the sudden approach can lead overboard, into apocalypticism and the like, though it's good to hear from people who've come through that and come out the other side.

Adrian, The Magic Flute is great stuff for children -- I wish I'd encountered it before my thirties! Glad to hear that your children are dealing with the world constructively. They're coming of age in a dangerous time, when the illusion of progress is still in place but the bottom has fallen out of the reality, and a good deal of wariness is needed.

DeAnander, just as Socrates was considered the wisest of the Greeks because he was the only one who realized how little he knew, being aware that you're part of the most privileged and pampered generation in the history of the planet is a good place to start finding a less vulnerable way to live. So much of what has to be done is simply a matter of getting rid of certain preconceptions that get in the way of a sensible response to the crisis of our time!

John Michael Greer said...

Zach, you're welcome! A great many of the post-Nicene fathers were Neoplatonists of one degree or another, and so were most of the Franciscan theologians -- St. Bonaventure in particular may be worth a look, when you get the time.

Hapibeli, I'd be happier still if nobody keeps a copy because everything in it seems so obvious...

Lewis, that's another of those Leadings, and a good one. Glad to hear that you followed it.

Houyhnhnm, if you're going to object to my habit of using metaphor, you might as well go shout at Plato; he used them constantly, you know, and would likely have responded to your objection in the last comment you posted with the same sort of shrug you got from me.

Sealander, thanks for the link.

Kieran, thanks for the correction -- it's been more than three decades, you know!

Petro, hang on for next week's post. I'll have a few things to say about Plato that will go a bit more deeply into the mistakes the neoconservatives (or, more properly, pseudoconservatives) made, and that too many people on the left seem equally willing to make in their turn.

Artinnature, thanks for your initiatory narrative! The cognitive dissonance, and the immense social pressure to conform and consume, in the years after 1980 were massive forces, and difficult to resist. My hope at this point is that we can see what happened and get to work; even though a lot of opportunities have gone by the boards since then, there's still a lot that can be done. Glad that you're enjoying the Galbraith book -- it's the one guaranteed immunization against speculative bubble fever!

Cherokee Organics said...


Exactly! That's what I meant when I commented about having the resources to transition, but not the will power. Organic agriculture requires organic matter to be either brought in or slowly and laboriously accumulated on site which can take years.

In good years, the kangaroos only graze the best paddocks. In bad years, the females can shut down their reproductive systems and survive on a diet consisting of 85% spinifex grass. They are one of nature’s great survivors.

I hoping I'm not scaring people off! No one took the bait about China, I was hoping that someone would engage me on this topic because it rears its ugly head every now and then. Oh well. There was a point to it and JP jolted my memory with their sabre rattling talk.

What's being reported in the media here about the deal that extended the debt ceiling above $14.3 trillion for the US government is that a reckoning is looming. The Defence Department must find savings of $350 billion in the next decade, but if the bipartisan committee misses its November deadline then the outcome could potentially be closer to $1 trillion.

Now JP mentioned nukes. Kind of rolls of the tongue, doesn't it? Well, they are machines and they require maintenance and replacement or they eventually fail (I'm assuming launch capability here). This doesn't come for free.

Your annual budget is around $3.8 trillion of which 60% is spent on items mandated by law - (social security and medicare). Of the remaining amount, 60% is spent on defence (including the department of homeland security). The defence budget will be cut, of this there is no doubt.

Where you are at as a country is that the cost of empire is now exceeding the returns generated.

Now, I'm assuming that most of your defence budget that is spent on procuring manufactured goods is preferentially spent on products manufactured in the US. Reducing spending on these items will further depress manufacturing in the US and the flow on effects to the population will be quite large.

The really strange thing about it is that your national conversation seems to be dominated by small government and low taxes. If the powers that be push towards reduced taxes out of self-interest then funds must be borrowed or on your current trajectory you will eventually default.

If spending is reduced then the reach and influence of your military is reduced. If you borrow then your ability to service that debt becomes greater each year and the outcome is still the same but pushed down the road a bit. The only safe course of action is to either reduce your empires reach or increase taxes for the wealthy. A most unpalatable set of choices.

One of the big lenders in the world now is China with its massive foreign exchange surplus, even Europe has been requesting their help in recent weeks.

The thing is though: whomever controls the debt, controls the asset.

Sometimes I wonder whether we get a more frank and honest assessment of things in our media here.



Cherokee Organics said...

Hey Red Neck Girl,



phil harris said...

I am glad you are thinking of a future post to cover the points raised by Barath - the way PO and finanace will interact with the US (and I would add global) economic picture, with unemployment and political stresses and strains. Barath makes it clear that prediction is mostly wrong, but offers a not unlikely sketch. Seeing 'we' reached some kind of 'zenith' in 'our' type of economy around 2007 some kind of 'success', (and I include the UK where I live) it is useful to have an economist like Stiglitz telling us that the troubles are structural and a long time coming. He includes oil in his analysis " By the same token, soaring energy prices shifted purchasing power from the United States and Europe to oil exporters, who, recognizing the volatility of energy prices, rightly saved much of this income."
My guess is that 'our' struggles to return to 'normal' will only tighten the enmeshing web round us. [Metaphor intended]. That which 'paid for itself' and worked in the past will only lead us further in to the next phase?

John Michael Greer said...

Cherokee, I sometimes wonder if when the Soviet Union collapsed, all the flacks who used to work for Pravda and Izvestia got hired by the US media. The quality of the information circulated by media here very strongly suggests that -- all propaganda, all the time. That is to say, I'd be amazed if Australian media didn't give a better picture of events over here than US media do; they could hardly do worse.

Other than that, well, you've understated the picture a bit -- the US is effectively bankrupt, and has been paying its bills by surreptitiously spinning the presses for a couple of decades now -- but your description otherwise is pretty much spot on. More on this in a future post.

Phil, the only zenith that was reached around 2007 was the zenith of bubble economics; in terms of the real economy of goods and services, most of the western world has been contracting since the early 1970s. Down the road a bit, after we finish talking about magic and cycle back to finish up the last of the green wizardry posts -- all this recent stuff is by way of setting the stage for a few more points along those lines -- I want to do an extended series of posts on the twilight of America's global hegemony, and that's going to involve a lot of discussion of relatively near-term phenomena.

A note to all: I'll have somewhat limited internet access this weekend, so it may be a bit before your comments get posted. By all means keep commenting, though -- I'll get to 'em as soon as time and circumstances permit!

Lance Michael Foster said...

BTW, in an overcrowded pagan and magic book market, here's an idea: " 'The Road' and Magic: Uses of Magic in the Apocalypse." You'll make a bundle.

LOL! My word verification is "trooll" ROFLMAO!

Jason said...

All make sense... although what you're talking about next week is what I thought you'd address this. My own post of today addresses leaving behind the groupmind, so we're in sync. Amongst other examples I'd give what happened to Osman Rasul Mohammed a long look -- 'tests show' that bigger crowds are more likely to taunt suicides to jump. Part of initiation is dealing with the many and varied groupmind shadows.

"Self-actualizing individuals have more “free will” and are less “determined” than average people are," says Maslow. Every psychologist with human freedom on his mind agrees with JMG when it comes to initiation. At hypno school with Terence Watts, general anti-mind-control advice is routinely given. Jung stresses individuaition since social thinking 'puts a premium on mediocrity'. Much of Albert Ellis' work was undoing 'arbitary and foolish' social conditioning. Ironically, society can't otherwise prosper.

X2fer's question -- whether Reagan wasn't a magician -- I thought was interesting. With JMG, I'm "old-fashioned enough" to say perceptions of otherworlds have a basis in an objective reality, and I've always thought the difference lay there. There are more things etc.

Houyhnhnm said...

JMG said, “Houyhnhnm, if you're going to object to my habit of using metaphor, you might as well go shout at Plato; he used them constantly, you know, and would likely have responded to your objection in the last comment you posted with the same sort of shrug you got from me.”

I do not object to your “habit of using metaphor.” I admire your writing and your observations. In fact, Wealth of Nature just arrived from Amazon. Since I agree with you on most points, I expected more than hubris and what smacks of PoMo dismissal of historical context in this response.

I’ve worked with metaphor longer than I have with horses. Once again, I do NOT object to your habit of metaphor. I object to inappropriate use of metaphor.


Spartiate said...

John, MoJo had an article the other day about things not being as bad as it seems. Some of the commenters kept insisting that we'll find a suitable replacement for fossil fuels.

To me, the only sane response was this:

What if we do find it? Do we keep consuming as we have been? How long before everything collapses on top of itself due to utter degradation of our environment? When does it all end? How much useless crap do we have to accumulate before we're happy? How many species do we have to cause the extinction of? It is insanity.

I'm re-reading Walden right now, and it's amazing how much more sense it makes to me now than it did 8 years ago when I was 21. I remember reading it then, finding it interesting at times but a bit slow and boring overall. I am now enthralled by it. I am absolutely amazed at how little has changed in the last 150 years or so. And his words have never rang truer.

I hope you and the rest of the magicians of the world have some nifty tricks up your sleeve. And I certainly (foolishly) hope that those who say 2012 will be a mass awakening are correct. I know in my heart that this isn't true, but I hope with all of my being that it is.

Global Nomad said...

Apologies for double dipping.

Waking up to peak oil has certainly been a painful ordeal for me. In a way the process is standing up and be accountable to the life you live. I found myself trying to cling to this life as much as possible. Maybe if we grow our own food, ride bikes instead of drive cars, only heat part of our house, etc…then we would be all right. I spent the last couple years trying to develop an open source velomobile in my spare time. For those of you not aware of velomobiles look here for a good description:

Basically they are a car replacement. The process of developing the velomobile has made me acutely aware of how tenuous our situation is. I was faced with the fact of how much material/modern infrastructure it actually takes to make a somewhat simple product. Granted a velomobile isn’t the answer to everything. Most likely its not the answer to anything. But the emotional process that I went through while creating it was intense. At first I was elated that I could do something that might help future generations. Then I started to realize that this is going to be next to impossible for future generations to build with limited resources. Then I started to question if there will be adequate infrastructure to support a road style bicycle…probably not. I was left in an uncertain limbo. Paralyzed by the gravity of what we are facing.

Then I started to think about the distant future when our sun turns into a red giant. Our oceans will boil and the atmosphere will burn away. Granted this an epic scale of time. Billions of years. BUT it raised an enormous question for me. Say we do learn to live within the hard ecological limits after a few thousand generations. In the end everything on earth will be baked to death. Given that. What is the significance of extending the lineage of one species when life itself is fleeting?

I bring this up not to cause a nihilistic spiral but because it adds another dimension to the philosophical discussion of hard limits.

67e86b8c-f1fc-11e0-8675-000bcdcb5194 said...

(Deborah Bender)

Cherokee Organics wrote,

"If spending is reduced then the reach and influence of your military is reduced. If you borrow then your ability to service that debt becomes greater each year and the outcome is still the same but pushed down the road a bit. The only safe course of action is to either reduce your empires reach or increase taxes for the wealthy. A most unpalatable set of choices."

Both of these actions (reduction of the military budget and raising taxes on the rich) were done several times during the twentieth century. There is considerable popular support for taxing the rich and even some of the wealthy are beginning to advocate for it. Reducing the size and expense of the military/industrial/intelligence complex is a much knottier problem; the only effective step that's been taken has been closure of a lot of domestic military bases.

Even if more of both were done soon, the United States would still be in deep trouble. Between our sheer size and the amount of influence that large corporations have on our political process, I think my country is losing the capacity for effective democratic government.

SLClaire said...

A fine column, JMG, with much to chew on.

During the last half of the 1990s, I started facilitating study groups on the Your Money or Your Life program, the Eco Team program, and voluntary simplicity and other aspects of sustainable living offered by the Northwest Earth Institute. I began facilitating the groups because my husband and I had had our initiation event into simplicity and sustainable living through the Your Money or Your life program. I wanted to help other people break through social programming to consume too much and make their lives more sustainable. I think the idea behind these groups is to set up conditions that can allow for an initiation event to occur if the group members haven’t already experienced one, and then offer support to group members who now find themselves at odds with social patterns that go against the new patterns that they are learning. As you noted in your post, in these groups people had to do the work of initiation themselves. Not everyone was willing to do that work. Eventually I wasn’t convinced the groups were doing enough good to warrant the time and gasoline they required, and I stopped facilitating them, instead concentrating on making my and my husband’s life less wasteful. We moved to a different house in 2002, renovating it to reduce energy use while I began much more extensive food-growing activities on the much-larger lot.

In 2004, when a review led me to Richard Heinberg’s The Party’s Over, I got my full initiation into peak oil. It wasn’t too much of a shock to me because I was already convinced that oil was a finite resources by the events of the 1970s and because of our 1990s efforts toward simple and sustainable living, but it did make a large impression on me because of Heinberg’s succinct explanations that cut off all the ways people try to evade peak oil and because so much of what we were doing already was just what we needed to be doing to respond to peak oil. It also gave us a gentle kick in the rear to take on the next level of needed work, things like sealing air leaks and adding insulation, which I’d let slide a bit as I expanded the gardens. And it also spurred me to look for more information, which eventually led me to Sharon Astyk and then this blog, and both in turn have given me another gentle kick to do work we’d planned but not yet moved forward on. More work is to come in the next year or two.

I’m inferring from your last paragraph that advertisers are major practitioners of thaumaturgy these days. That doesn’t incline me favorably toward the idea of peak oil thaumaturgy. It’ll be quite interesting to read your take on it.

Joel said...

"can you elaborate on it a bit further? What I'm trying to get at is that the powers that be are all too happy to gamble."

I think many inveterate gamblers have studied statistics (in fact, many of the important developments of the field were crafted by gamblers as an offshoot of their habits).

What I was trying to say is that our current customs for choosing people in whom to invest systemic power tend to reward a certain sort of double-think: a behavior pattern of carefully figuring the odds and obsessing over cost-benefit numbers, but then behaving as though one's own success is a foreordained certainty. I'm not certain this is a happy condition, especially among the countless heirs to great fortunes who have gambled it all away. I think gambling as we now know it is a means of exploiting the poor souls who have taken on this pattern of behavior, and drawing off some of the wealth that our system funnels to them.

@Kevin, I think Tony Robbins might have his own values in relative order. He's definitely interested in his own health and interpersonal status, and I also get the sense that he genuinely enjoys helping people to get what they really want. What baffles me is the absence of any apparent interest in the process of determining values, or asking interesting or appropriate questions.

And even here, I can't be certain: maybe he recognizes the importance of theurgy, but knows there is no market for it, and so trusts his average customer to be a good person and figures he can do the most good by teaching thaumaturgy to the just and the unjust. Or maybe he has despaired of ever making progress in debates over values, and avoids such subjects in public to the extent that the persona I'm exposed to is deliberately and meticulously void of such content.

But enough about him.

@Houyhnhnm: "To the finest horsemen, bits are smoldering embers in a campfire beneath a tinder dry tree."

What a great metaphor! I think it might also work if you replaced "horsement" with "rhetoricians," and "bits" with "metaphors." Such danger, but also such power.

@JMG, Cleanliness : surgery :: ethics : magic is such a rich analogy. I've read that surgeons used to be proud of a blood-spattered coat, and some of the best would hold the knife in their teeth at times in order to get through the procedure more quickly. People thought pus was as inseparable from surgery as blood.

I'm tempted to be charitable to those who have never seen magic practiced along with ethics, if they associate a common but preventable negative effects ("a highly self-destructive sort of delusional thinking") very deeply with the only sort they're aware of, and ignorantly call it "magical thinking." It's as misguided as the thought that pus is a sign of a wound healing well, but it's consistent with the limited experiences they've had.

Paleo Gardener said...

Thank you very much for keeping up such an enlightening blog, Archdruid. I have been reading your blog for some time, but this is my first time commenting.

I imagine I am one of your blog's younger readers. The other day in AP World History Class, we were assigned to make a periodized timeline of our life (to help us understand how history is cut into periods). The most common response was to divide the life based on schooling. I started to do this, then remembered an event of greater significance: my self-initiation into the world of peak oil, genetic engineering, soil destruction, and various other problems of our world. I then divided my paper into two sections, "BEFORE" and "AFTER".

I said before that I had a self-initiation, but this is only partially true. In the 6th grade, I was in a rather special school program highly focused on exploring science in interesting, thorough, and relevant ways. We did all sorts of things, from growing pumpkins to designing model watersheds to testing for air pollution during wildfire season. Once this mental stimulation was withdrawn (over the summer and during the next year when I transferred to an inferior school), I proceeded to research on my own, and had an initiation moment (or rather, it began at a certain moment, and continued for some time) as I discovered all sorts of things. It took me quite some time to settle down. Three and a half years later, I am firmly established as the most eccentric person at school :).

Mark Angelini said...

Seriously fantastic post (and series of post the past few weeks). I would surmise that this way of describing the peak oil "initiation" as spot on in my own experience.

I have had family members become sincerely offended or enraged when I speak about peak oil -- insisting that nature will provide all the energy we want, we just have to be more creative. "Haven't you read the Secret?" Some even call a bluff on me because I use a car from time to time, as if to say "You say oil is limited, yet you drive a car -- I don't believe you!" I find it amazing that ecological truth has come to be equated with blasphemy in so many minds. The religion of progress must be one of the most grand thought stoppers just now.

Onward with the theurgy... Looking forward to the thaumaturgy exploration.

And don't forget -- your books will likely be read as well by our distant historians.

SophieGale said...

I'm currently reading The Dyslexic Advantage: Unlocking the Hidden Potential of the Dyslexic Brain by learning disabilities specialists Fernette and Brock Eide. (M.D. and M.D.,M.A. respectively)

The authors discuss the differences in brain structure and information processing between dyslexic and non-dyslexic people (with a few passing comments about differences between dyslexic and autistic processing). They claim that dyslexic brains are often strong at Material Reasoning (particularly 3-D spacial manipulation), Interconnected Reasoning, Narrative Reasoning, and Dynamic Reasoning. The last is described:

D-strengths create the ability to accurately predict past or future states using episodic simulation. D-strengths are especially valuable for thinking about past or future states whose components are variable, incompletely known, or ambiguous, and for making practical, or "best-fit," predictions or working hypotheses im settings where precise answers aren't possible.

The acronym is MIND

Out of wild curiosity how many "initiated" wizards here would call themselves dyslexic?

phil harris said...

Thanks for your reply to my comment where I linked to an article by the economist Joseph Stiglitz. I had been interested that Stiglitz had agreed with you, and me, [ ;) ] that the 'zenith' of 2007 had been the top of a bubble that had been building for decades, despite, for example, wage rates for men in USA declining through that period. (I was defining ‘zenith’ as 'success' only in the system's own terms.) So far an agreement between the three of us [ ;) ]. I guess also you would agree with him (and me) about the disaster created by the rapid growth in inequality of income and wealth in both the US, and in my own country UK and elsewhere. However, I suggest that you and I probably realise where Stiglitz does not quite ‘get it’, that the continuing apparent ‘success’ relying on ‘pumped-up’ finances, alongside the still-famed US 'labor productivity', has all been built on cheap oil, much as current Chinese 'success' relies on cheap coal?

What has amazed me though in the UK in the last 20 years has been the visible aspects of the 'success' of bubble economics resulting in my being surrounded by retirees, even from very modest professions, who have afforded multi-trips to Australia, weekends in Prague, or hobbies like yachting based on recently 'done-up' and profitable marinas where a short time before there had been fishing harbours. All the while helping finish burning UK's North Sea oil and NG (and importing ‘cheap coal’ from Russia to keep the lights on).
Where this lot is going to end up, we, even I and some of my fellow retirees, shall see, perhaps very soon.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Greetings, Friend AppleJack Creek--

Oh yes, Leadings: I second JMG in saying how wonderful that you followed yours. A Leading is why I joined others in messing about with our hedgerows and other wildlife-friendly, landscape-restoring efforts. Do you belong to a meeting? Are you familiar with QEW?

Jennifer D Riley said...

@JMG: some of my best family experiences came during a car ride. For example, first discovered hush puppies visiting a drive-in restaurant in my g-mother's small town. That said, parent's contentious marriage became more obvious at home, spread out in a larger, not cozier, space.

Friday at local B&N the 10th anniversary edition of Monsters: An Investigator's Guide was on a H'ween display table. Took a look at it. The Guide is extremely well organized, kudos.

RainbowShadow said...

To answer the historian's question, "Why did we do it?"

That's actually very simple. It's because we demonized THINKING.

That's what did us in. We demonized reading, because it made people think too much, and don't you know that thinking is so passe, don't DEPRESS me with peak oil (even if the depressing peak oil is reality), why don't people just take their heads out of their books and actually talk to people, never mind if those people are talking about nothing but television?

We demonized actually reading history, in favor of whatever church-of-progress-oriented claptrap the powers that be decided to give us. Then why guys like John Michael Greer DARED to go outside that intellectual box by thinking for himself, why, he's just depressive! He's just a malcontent! He's either a socialist (if his critic right-wing), or just the opposite and carries water for some shadowy evil corporate overlords (if his critic is left-wing)!

One of my co-workers at a previous job told me that I was being an "elitist." What was my crime, you ask? I apparently used the word "incredulous" in a conversation. That's right, apparently we're too lazy in this country to look in the dictionary. That would, after all, would require too much VOLITION, which is ALSO something we've demonized in this country.

John Michael Greer complained in a previous post about people who accuse the right wing of lacking higher order thought, since that's not much different from accusing the left wing of being avatars of Satan made flesh.

I, however, would argue that in reality, in comparison to people in other countries like Israel and Costa Rica that I've visited when I've traveled abroad, Americans IN GENERAL (and not simply this political wing or that wing) lack certain higher critical thinking processes, like the ability to make distinctions between superficially similar ideas, the ability to comprehend books that aren't written in sound bites (like our very own Constitution for example), or the ability to actually "think through an argument" before you criticize it without resorting to insults and ad hominem attacks.

So here is what I would write to that historian:

"Our civilization fell because we demonized reading, we demonized ideas, we demonized taking responsibility for the opinions you hold to make sure they conform to truth, and we favored packaged thought and ideas in every microcosm of human life. The fashion industry dictated our clothes for us, we did not choose our clothes. Our parents dictated our political beliefs for us, we did not carefully ensure that our beliefs accurately matched reality. We trusted the propaganda media in this country for our opinions on foreign and domestic affairs, we didn't trust more rational people like John Michael Greer. We never thought for ourselves because that required reading...and heck, we didn't want to be NERDS, did we?! Because of course having ideas because they were true wasn't as important to us as gaining the approval of our peers. We loved popularity more than we loved the truth."

How's THAT for an answer to the historian?

Anyway, thanks for another brilliant post, John Michael Greer! We don't always agree, but I always have a little more hope for the future sanity of the country when I read your blog.

Bob said...

JMG, another thought-provoking post. I expect you will address this next week, but to get back to the question posed by your imaginary future historian (really? no Greer books at all? It's your blog, John, but humility has its limits...). Anyway, what first struck me was that there might be a qualitative difference to the amount and nature of denial occurring now, and I would attribute its cause as the rapid changes in media technology of the 20th century. While I assume that those with wealth and power always tended to have control over the means of information distribution (not to mention the time to create what is now so strangely referred to as "content"), the ability to disseminate misinformation so rapidly and effectively (in order to preserve said wealth and power) has shifted to levels unimaginable even 50 years ago, let alone 150. So, while your readership cannot hope to match that of, say, you still have readers who not only disagree with you occasionally or on small details, but that a limit to growth even exists. Even those who have been fortunate enough to discover the peak oil blogosphere can still be duped or manipulated or distracted by the mainstream myth(s). The irony here is that one of the sources of this resistance to clear evidence is that it means I would have to GIVE UP the very means of receiving this information in the first place. No internet? No tablets? No streaming movies on my phone? No thanks, I will take Option B, which seems to have many shapes and sizes, but ultimately embraces the Progress myth in one form or another. People have always been capable of being fooled by the rulers of society, but I genuinely believe that we are not really wired to effectively filter out the kind of bombardment most of us receive through our various screens, without considerable effort and, dare I say it, sacrifice.

ixpieth said...

JMG - Thank you for this article, and the understanding you disseminate within. I have a feeling that when an understanding of other intangible circumstances which guide events are realised, no matter what the event, then this understanding is applied to all events.
I think this can be called an open mind, or, as you say, an initiation. It cannot be denied, sometimes unfortunately, because often it runs contrary to what would be an easier or more materially beneficial life.
One of the major benefits is that it allows acceptance, and the realisation, as you said, that this is an entirely individual transformation of attitude and habits and has "limited appeal" to anyone else, who has to come to their own initiation - willingly.
This method of "one by one" initiation poses a problem of time, and the time left, window of opportunity if you like, which would allow adequate changes to be enacted to save what is left of the Earth, is now far gone. This I feel, makes us all (me anyway)lonely, albeit right thinking, with only our life example as testament to what should have been so thank you for your example which makes things a little easier for many.

Kevin said...


I was wondering what your advice might be to someone who is completely new to peak oil and hasn't been following your blog. That is to say, what would be the best use of the time we have remaining before the time for preparation is over and the time for active coping comes upon us?

hadashi said...

@ Global Nomad
I wasn't going to comment this week. I was sure that there would be enough peak oil initiation stories from others to read, and I didn't simply want to add to the pile. But your mention about velomobiles jogs my memory, and prompts me to say that it was while engaged in a study about that type of vehicle that I discovered P.O. Like many others of us here, I took it on board instantly (though I have to confess that it was a couple of years before I calmed down).

I too took the longer view similar to yours, and Peak Oil resulted in my examining deeper philosophical issues (what is self, what is life, what is time?). It was an awakening that I appreciate and value. Wonder how many others here would consider that overall P.O. has been positive for them?

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Phil,

You don't have to worry about your fellow retirees trips to Australia anymore! It's a nice place to travel though. Your government is about to solve your concerns by, resuming its quantitive easing program and putting 75 billion pounds of newly created money into the UK economy to stave off a new credit crisis and recession in Britian. Well done!

Apparently pensioners are upset about having to raid their savings to keep up with the cost of living. Inflation is anticipated to hit 5% this month. I can quote Sir Mervyn King in relation to concerned retirees too as they received a special mention (whom he described as savers) that it was more important to support the wider economy than to support them. Apparently in 2009, already 200 billion pounds were injected into the economy via quantitive easing. I wasn't previously aware of that fact.

Stupidity is sometimes defined as undertaking the same action as in the past and expecting a different result.

PS: I took the numbers from an article I read over the weekend titled: "World on brink of disaster: Bank of England boss". Says enough really.



Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Deborah,

I can't argue with you on your analysis.

Hi Joel,

Fair enough. I've often felt that as you stated "behaving as though one's own success is a foreordained certainty" is a major weakness in US culture. I could be wrong?

Hi Bob,

Good post. Over here, the national broadcaster produced a series called "The Gruen Transfer" and I highly recommend it. The series is a discussion panel by a series of media insiders looking at the reach of advertising and PR. It is most enlightening on this industry and I highly recommend it. You'd be surpised how easily we are all manipulated and the tools that they have to do so.



ando said...


Saw this headline, this morning:

"American growth theorists top contenders for Nobel"

Guess it will be awhile before there is an unlimited growth initiation. The very fact that there is a Nobel for economics is somnambulent.

(working on an advaitan analysis of peak oil and consumer society, as per your suggestion.)



Jason said...


Out of wild curiosity how many "initiated" wizards here would call themselves dyslexic?

Not me, but this will interest you. Those who go through the particular experiences of the training I do often pass through a period where their ability to spell or read takes a temporary dive. Seems that faculty needs to be hooked up differently in order to proceed with the actualisation. Immediately after heavy internal rewiring, reading can be exhausting and confusing. It comes back later.

Certainly inner communication happens pictorially and that ability is ramped up by most spiritual training systems. The Hebrew letters are still pictographic and read right-to-left. There seems a technological progression from the hieroglyph or Chinese character set, through to the modern alphabets, with their definite left-to-right progression. Some eg. Leonard Shlain have speculated a lot about the effect on our thinking.

wvjohn said...


Once you’ve become a pickle, you can never be a cucumber again.

Initiation is irrevocable. It leads to a period of liminality where you are betwixt and between, which can be very difficult. I will share my own experiences with initiation in the hope they might be useful to others.

In the past several years I have been initiated into both a spiritual/magical tradition
(Druidry) and peak oil. The first came as the result of a conscious decision to seek, formal study, and a desire to understand the world in a different way. It is a path with some historical tradition, active peer interaction and mentoring, and for me as a relative beginner, a somewhat predictable path for the immediate future. While it is certainly not “mainstream,” my experience is that following this path is not particularly controversial, or of particular interest, to most people. From time to time, one does predictably get caught “between the worlds,” but one learns to adjust and adapt. In return for my studies, I have received a profoundly different and generally positive perspective.

My initiation into peak oil, on the other hand, was about as expected and desired as being hit in the head by a piece of debris from outer space while standing in line to buy a funnel cake at the county fair. It happened when I decided to attend a lecture at Four Quarters Farm during their annual 4th of July festival. It honestly took quite a while for me to understand exactly what that community represented. I began reading about and studying peak oil and all the possible consequences. It was not a comfortable time by any means.

I am of the generation that collected Analog Magazine, hid under my desk at grade school from the Soviet missiles, and fully experienced and participated in the unprecedented opening of communication and information via computers and the internet. As a long time worker in public service, I have experienced the contraction of the economy over the past 20 years. I wasn’t sure if it would be fusion, dilithium crystals, or the “space brothers,” but I always figured a solution to the energy problem would appear on time, and we would muddle through.

To paraphrase Heinlein, peak oil is a harsh mistress. Once you have accepted it, you cannot live comfortably in the old belief system. The question of course, becomes what to do next on a personal level when most of the “civilized” world is proceeding in the opposite direction, focusing instead on providing streaming music videos on every cell phone at an unknowable energy cost. A suggestion that the “die off” has already begun in the third world due to the substitution of food for oil does not generate much enthusiasm in casual conversation.

In this regard I am most grateful for those like yourself, who insist that we must look peak oil in the eye and acknowledge it, and then begin draw upon our vast accumulated history and knowledge to look for possibilities. Frank and open debate is one of the most powerful tools we possess. As you and others have noted, Mad Max and disaster scenarios are simple to write and imagine. Incremental adjustment and continued progress towards survival are not. Most of us aren’t in a position to make radical lifestyle changes, but we can begin to both make incremental changes - more conservation and more mindfulness in how we use energy, especially cars. I personally believe that the most important thing that can be done now is to buy more running room and increase awareness, which will keep the most possibilities open.

Of course, I still reserve the right to be one of the Princes of Amber.

AA said...

JMG: Your last three posts could form the basis of a book -- one which I would buy with enthusiasm. There isn't that much around (that I'm aware of at least) which deals with the central ideas behind magic.

Eric said...

Discussion at a cocktail party with self declared "Tea Party Member" basically followed along what you have been saying.

Basically he was saying all the tea party stuff. I led off with, if you are a Tea Party member then you must support DC Statehood because, obviously and self-evidently, Tea Party members must first and foremost advocate for No Taxation Without Representation. Of course, this didn't go over well and he said that I didn't understand the Tea Party....

I ended up trying to talk to him about Peak Oil. What really amazed me was that he couldn't even acknowledged that there is a finite amount of oil on earth. He wwas in the "Drill, Baby, Drill" crowd. After about 30 minutes of discussion, including a sidetrack into a long discussion about new discoveries, etc. I finally got him to agree that there is really a finite amount of oil on earth, but we don't know exactly how much there is. Of course all the while he was demanding PROOF of what I was saying, but, predictably, if I mentioned any of the regular government (DOE, etc) or international sources he responded by saying, "You can't trust the government. Those sources aren't any good." Sigh....

But, after a long discussion where I thought I was making some progress and he acknowledged the finite amount of oil on earth he then comes back with, "But we don't have to worry about that because the 'free market' will take care of it for us!"


Jason Heppenstall said...

I had never thought of 'getting' peak oil as some kind of initiation - but how right you are. Like others, I have always been aware of the extreme cognitive dissonance of our times, and understood intuitiely what we are doing to the planet and how this sitaution couldn't last for long.

But then everything changed when I came across your 'Long Descent' and - yes - the scales fell from my eyes. I devoured several other peak oil books before the month was out. Everything began to come into sharper focus and peak oil was no longer a concept as such, but a key to understanding all the blank places on our cultural maps that nobody wants to talk about.

Since then, peak oil has led me (and I suspect many of your other regular readers) into areas we'd never dreamed of being consumed by: systems theory, thermodynamics, ecology, psychology, the history of empire, religion and now magic. I now think in terms of material and enrgy flows, instead of stuff 'magically' appearing and then being consigned to 'away'.

But what I still fail to grasp, however, is why other people cannot seem to relate to peak oil. I explained PO in pretty simple terms to my 6-year-old daughter and she now has now has at least a basic grasp of the concepts involved to the point where she chastises people for driving uneconomical cars and will only draw on scrap paper. If a 6 year old can understand it, why can't our learned leaders?

Maybe it really is 'faith in progress' that ensures most share a collective blind spot big enough to obscure the oncoming juggernaut. Only time will tell if enough of us can break free from it in time.

Joel said...

@Cherokee Organics: Exactly! I think it might also (more eloquently) be described as "a highly self-destructive sort of delusional thinking."

There's occasionally some benefit from it in a system that expands very rapidly: Europe recovering from the plague, say, or a colony expanding into a continent which has been emptied by smallpox, or an economy spending tremendous mineral resources as though they were income rather than capital. Some exceptional circumstances have favored that sort of anti-wisdom, and I see places like Monte Carlo and Las Vegas as eddy currents derived from that flow.

John Michael Greer said...

Lance, funny. I'll get to that just as soon as I finish my upcoming British fantasy mashup, The Lord of the Willows, in which Mole and Ratty destroy the great Ring of Power and Toad is revealed as the rightful ruler of Toad Hall. Or something.

Jason, true enough. The mage is always an outsider.

Houyhnhnm, whatever. Your initial response to last week's post rather strongly suggested otherwise.

Spartiate, I'd stick with the attitudes of your historical namesakes, and just go ahead and do the right thing regardless. It makes a lot more sense than waiting for the Space Brothers or somebody!

Nomad, our species is not going to survive for billions of years, so I wouldn't worry about that. It's very much like the inevitability of death; each of us is going to die in a certain number of decades -- a fact that does not make life any less worth living. Your insight about the long-term viability of velomobile, though, is very good -- that's a kind of understanding very few people grasp these days.

SLClaire, excellent. The kind of thaumaturgy advertisers practice will be an important theme in our upcoming discussion.

Joel, true enough. There's been a lot of very unsanitary magic down through the years, to be sure; the hole and corner existence that professional mages generally have to lead doesn't conduce to good sterile technique.

Paleo, wear your eccentricity proudly!

Mark, when I did talks on peak oil a while back, someone would inevitably put up a hand during the question and answer session and ask, "Well, how did you get to this event?" The expectation was that I'd driven a car, which would allow them to dismiss everything I was saying. They tended to be very much taken aback by my answers, and I suspect word got around -- which may be why nobody asks me that any more.

Sophie, that's fascinating. I'm whatever the opposite of dyslexic is -- I learned to read before my third birthday, and don't use a spellchecker because I make fewer mistakes than it does -- but it would be interesting to know whether others have a different experience.

Phil, a lot of middle class retirees have done very well as a side effect of the transfer of wealth to the rentier class, a move that has boosted the value of investments of all kinds -- including the kind that support the lifestyle of middle class retirees. When that bubble bursts, things may get very ugly indeed.

Jennifer, I'm amused to note that even now, that's my most popular book. When it came out in 2001, I think every 14 year old boy in America must have bought a copy.

Scot Mackinnon said...

I just reread an old favorite of mine, "The Right Stuff", in which author Tom Wolfe described the magic inherent in The Mercury Seven space program. Very interesting in light of your recent posts. Wolfe reviewed the ancient practice of single combat comparing David vs. Goliath to the individual Mercury Seven astronauts vs. Sputnik and the Russians. He summarized the various possible outcomes of the ancient contests. When David won, the Israelites and Philistines quit the field. More often both armies would fight anyway. But the modern magic, as Wolfe understood it, was the stark change in public opinion after sputnik was launched and all common sense was abandoned. The U.S. already had a successful space program in the form of the X series rocket planes, launched from Edwards AFB, that were then tested on the edge of space in preparation for orbital flight with a manned vessel that would take off from and land at an airfield for much less than what NASA was spending with more experienced pilots. As Wolfe put it, panic allowed American leadership to hurry "rookie" pod passengers into space in a less versatile craft in the belief that if we vanquished the Russians in this abstraction of single combat then the enemy would demur from dropping nuclear bombs on us from space and all would be better.
I do not know if this sort of phenomenom would qualify as magic but it certainly has a kind of cargo cult feel to it in light of current events in the U.S. and World economy.

John Michael Greer said...

Rainbow, I'm sorry to say you're probably right. Certainly I've noticed with growing dismay the extent to which people in this country -- including a fair number of those who talk about logic and reason all the time! -- settle for a level of thinking that a ten year old grammar school student in the Middle Ages would have been able to tear to shreds using the logical tools he'd already been taught.

Bob, thank you for speaking the word that nobody, but nobody, wants to hear: sacrifice. One of the major blind spots in the way of any meaningful response to the crisis of our time is precisely the fact that all of us are going to have to give up some things we want to have.

Ixpieth, thank you. Still, one person at a time can pick up quite a bit of momentum when it's not just one mild-mannered archdruid doing the work!

Kevin, the time of active coping is already here. Peak oil happened in 2005, and the shape of things since that time -- economic troubles, political crises, here a regime collapsing, there an economic sector imploding -- that's going to be happening for the rest of your life, getting steadily worse a bit at a time. That's what peak oil is like. As for what to do about it, a post of mine from 2009 still counts as my best sense of where to start.

Ando, I always compared the Nobel Prize for economics with the one for literature -- the economists come up with far more imaginative fictions, though they're not as interesting to read. I'll look forward to your analysis!

Wvjohn, if you can manage the trick of manipulating Shadows, I'll be impressed. ;-)

AA, I'm exploring the possibility of doing a short book on magic and peak oil, which will incorporate the last few posts, as well as several others I've done before now, and a few more I plan to write. I'll keep everyone posted.

Eric, that's the sort of thing I meant when I mentioned the medieval ten-year-old above. Thoughtstoppers and wishful thinking in place of reason! Still, I admire you for making the effort.

Jason, your daughter is young enough that she hasn't yet been taught not to think. Give her a grounding in informal logic as she grows up, and she'll very likely keep that openness to reason. I really ought to do a post on reviving the medieval education system one of these days!

John Michael Greer said...

Scott, excellent! Cargo cult thinking is failed magic -- more precisely, it's the attempt to apply magic to situations where it won't and can't work. The people who insist that capital creates petroleum are engaging in exactly the same sort of thing.

idiotgrrl said...

"But", I yelp, "what I can do - have chosen to do - is so *trivial*!!

The one thing I am learning is crocheting useful articles. Suzette Haden Elgin gave me the idea a long, long time ago when she said it was the one skill she'd spread everywhere because it was cheap, easily portable, and very versatile.

The one thing I've given up is -- I know, pitifully trivial -- soda pop. In cans or bottles. And have substituted mint tea, because mint is an invasive ground cover plant here in New Mexico.

The one thing I'd save is the printed book. I foresee the entire world digitizing everything as in Vernor Vinge's "Rainbow's End" --- just before the crash. Yet, short of collecting books in hardcover and my ghost watching as my heirs sell them off or dump them in the recycling bin, what can one do?

Just my $0.02, adjusted for deflation.

P.S. I was at an afternoon tea in the back yard of a woman who spins and weaves - and she praised my crocheting. It is something she never learned. So perhaps there is hope.

Spartiate said...

John, certainly, I have no other intentions. It is simply whimsical desires on my part. I know that nothing of the sort will occur, I guess it's just a way of dealing with my own guilt over what the race I belong to is doing to the planet. I have made changes, and I plan to continue to make changes, but I feel a certain hopelessness, and I have for many years. I know that my meditation practice will eventually help me deal with these issues, but patience is a virtue I am still learning.

Les said...

JMG: I'm whatever the opposite of dyslexic is -- I learned to read before my third birthday, and don't use a spellchecker because I make fewer mistakes than it does -- but it would be interesting to know whether others have a different experience.
I’ve found your descriptions of your way of seeing the world, entirely through words, fascinating. And utterly alien. I generally have to read your posts slowly and repeat parts several times to get to the nub of what you are saying.
I think this is because my own view of the world is visual and auditory. Whenever I am asked a question (usually about some kind of process, ecosystem, machine or other visualisable thing), I can only answer after calling up a fairly lifelike, four-dimensional image of the system in question and running it forwards and backwards a few times to focus on the problem that the question was about. Then I can look at options for remedying the problem, run the model a few more times to make sure I know what I’m about to say is on the money and then I can make like an Oracle.
Needless to say, I never use a mobile phone while driving. Superimposing a model of a network security system over the Pacific Highway in peak hour is a potentially lethal combination…

Don Plummer said...

The Magic Flute? Although I love the music (I especially like Papageno's birdcatcher song, Ein Vogelfänger bin ich ja), I've never understood the plot all that well. I get the fact that there's a lot of Masonic symbolism in it, but even though my father is a Mason, I still don't really get it. However, some kind of initiation seems to be portrayed near the end.

But what does The Magic Flute have to do with the plight of industrial society?

Richard said...

In your Oct 5, 2011 blog you ask the following question:
"Given that our entire civilization had plenty of warning, and that ten minutes of unprejudiced thought ought to have been enough to demonstrate to anybody the absurdity of expecting to get away with infinite economic growth on a finite planet, why didn’t we do what must, to the eyes of the future, look like the obviously right decision, and downshift to a less energy- and resource-intensive steady state economy while we had the chance? Why, instead, did we keep on lurching blindly forward on a one-way street headed straight to history’s compost bin, all the while angrily shouting down the few that tried to warn us of where we were going?"

Given what you have written in your book The Ecotechnic Future, I find your question confusing. In your book you stated--"It's popular to think that social change is driven primarily by human choice, but this is simply another form of the illusion of independence...Industrial civilization had its day in the sun because, in a world where fossil fuel could be had for the digging or drilling, the industrial mode of production was more efficient than its rivals, and enabled the communities that embraced it to prosper at the expense of those that did not." P. 33 "Only when coal and oil are rare curiosities, and the remaining legacies of the industrial age no longer play a significant economic role, will ecotechnic societies come into their own." p. 35.

It seems to me that you have answered your own question in these statements. And your analogy in your book between mice and industrial society, about the mice whose population explodes because of the sudden availability of grain from a grain spill, makes the same argument I think.

In the section in your book entitled "the illusion of independence" you argue that we are dependent on nature and ignore this fact at our peril. But though you may not intend to make this argument, your analysis could also be used to support an argument for "ecological determinism". In other words, once the mice had the grain spill available, would it be reasonable to expect them to ignore this available resource?

If ecological forces indeed work this way, i.e. are determinative, even for humans, the notion that humans have a choice to resist the use of fossil fuels when they are available may indeed be an illusion. Did you mean to make this argument in your book?

Zach said...


Well, since one of my ideas of a good time is curling up for the winter with a nice fire and the complete set of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, I do appreciate the suggestions. So many books, so little time!

I really ought to do a post on reviving the medieval education system one of these days!

Please do!

I noticed last week that you made a sharp distinction between religion and magic. It seems obvious by now that many things that I would categorize as religious or spiritual practices you would qualify as "magic." Which now begs the question, what is the Archdruid's definition of "religion"? Is that something you'll be getting to as part of this series?


LewisLucanBooks said...

For those of you (us) having problems coping with the psychological and social aspects of your initiation into the concept of peak oil, you might want to check out...

Ashley Girardi said...

@ Houyhnhnm - Your critique of JMG's choice of metaphor seems incredibly strange to an outsider. You do realize that most people aren't experts in horsemanship, and small inaccuracies in the portrayal of horses have absolutely no effect on the ability of the metaphor to convey meaning to a layperson. What on Earth does the type of bit have to do with, well, anything JMG was saying?

@ Rainbow & JMG -

While I wholeheartedly agree that critical thinking and objective analysis are not common skills in contemporary America, I have a hard time believing they are much more developed abroad. This is a common belief to encounter, but I believe a great deal of it has to do with selection bias. The foreigners who travel to the USA, and likewise the foreigners an American tourist interacts with when abroad likely far more capable of careful reasoning then average.

From what I've seen, the "canned polemic" form of argument seems to be basically a world standard, far from specific to American media.

Perhaps my perspective is a bit tainted because of the large number of East Asians I interact with, especially mainland Chinese. If you think critical thinking is lacking in American education, you should try having a balanced dialogue with a product of the Chinese education system.

On a brighter note, I was looking for one of your books on magic at my local library, and noticed that two libraries in the area had received copies of "The Wealth of Nature." While most local libraries had copies of your books related to magic and monsters, this is the first book of your related to the descent of civilization to be stocked.

I'm guessing I'm not the only one who was placing purchase requests either, as both copies were checked out the day they arrived.

Ruben said...


The three hour work capacity of the pre-frontal cortex was backed up by a citation of David Rock, who wrote a book called Your Brain at Work. It is also filled with citations. Disputing the statement would be more interesting if you brought some citations of your own. Otherwise it is just what you think, and for all I know, you think pigs fly.

Nonetheless, I agree with you. I think many people could develop larger work capacity in the pre-frontal cortex. I suspect those who have a larger capacity become "managers". I am curious if it is something as simple as having slightly larger diameter blood vessels in the brain, which can then deliver more food to the PFC.

All of this is irrelevant though, because the topic was of societal change, not individual change. We both know that all sorts of things are possible that will never happen. I suspect that an entire society exercising their brains to develop larger capacity is one of those things.

@Cathy McGuire
That is what it looked like in my workplace as well. Fortunately, habitual or low-energy work is still important--things like filing, or responding to routine emails. For better and for worse, most of what we do in life requires no thinking.

Ruben said...


I just inherited a tablecloth crocheted by my great grandmother sometime between 1920 and 60 (not really sure). It is very large, an intricate and lovely pattern and made of a fine thread.

The dissonance with the story we tell ourselves is making my head spin. This woman had none of the labour saving devices like a dishwasher, dryer, wrinkle-free clothing, electric stoves or grocery store foods. And yet she had time to spend a year crocheting a tablecloth.

Michael said...


I have to attend a work-related conference about 200 miles from home in a couple of weeks. Thanks to your influence on my habits, I'll be getting there by train rather than driving.

A small step.

John Michael Greer said...

Grrl, trivial is good. Start small, incorporate the small changes into your life, and once you're comfortable with them, make more small changes. The goal is to make your way to the exit calmly and casually, without attracting undue attention...

Spartiate, understood. Epictetus is a good resource in that context.

Les, I can just very dimly grasp your description of your thinking process, since I had to learn how to visualize as part of my magical training -- one of the very hardest things I've ever done. Still, the sort of four-dimensional spacetime analysis you describe is totally beyond me!

Don, it wouldn't be hard at all to work up an interpretation of The Magic Flute as a parable about the crisis of industrial society; the Queen of the Night could well be the image of industrial society, which Tamino thinks he has to save but who turns out to be the villain of the piece, while Sarastro represents the "superstitious" wisdom traditions that Tamino thinks are his enemy and turns out to be the source of the initiation that helps him fulfil his dreams. Still, the point was simply that that's a piece of very rich cultural heritage that would be worth passing on to children for a great many reasons.

Richard, not at all. Ecological forces determine some aspects of human society but not all. The end of industrial civilization, for example, is determined by ecological forces, but how we respond to the end of industrial civilization is a much more complex and contingent thing. It's as though we were talking about your death. That you will die is certain, and not subject to your control; how you will die, on the other hand, is much less fixed, and you can have a lot of influence over it in one direction or the other.

Zach, you're definitely a kindred spirit! I'd pick a different set of tomes, but they'd be just as weighty. As for the distinction between religion and magic, the definition of religion that makes sense to me (and structures my writings on the philosophy of religion) is a somewhat unpopular one these days: religion is the set of human activities and understandings that we use to relate to and respond to gods. (We could get into a long discussion about what that last word means; for the moment, an ostensive definition -- "whatever it is that people have encountered when they have the fairly common human experience usually described as contact with a god" -- will do.) I've already defined magic as the art and science of causing change in consciousness in accordance with will. The two are thus distinct, though there are activities that partake of both.

Lewis, thanks for the link!

Ashley, you may well be right. I've simply encountered way too many people educated in Europe who can think their way out of a wet paper bag, and way too many people educated in America who've been taught not to. Glad to hear, though, that The Wealth of Nature is getting some attention!

Michael, excellent. Enjoy the trip; train travel is one of the very few civilized ways to travel that's left these days.

hadashi said...

"I heard an interview on the radio this morning with an author (academic psychologist) of a new book which may be relevant to the discussion "Psychology for a better world: Strategies to inspire sustainability". It can be downloaded for free from"
I followed your link and passed it on to my wife, as it is in her field of interest. Turns out that the author was one of the examiners of her (my wife's) PhD thesis last year. Small world ;-)

DeAnander said...

I suddenly remembered (reading other people's epiphany stories) with startling clarity when it was that PO came into sharp focus for me. It was, unsurprisingly, when I read Deffeyes' book on Hubbert's Peak. Dry, wry, utterly convincing. Must have been 2001.

I can't even remember if it was much of a shock (having been one of those green/red subversives already for some time). It was just "another brick in the wall."

BTW, stupid quote of the week: Chris Christie endorses Mitt Romney for POTUS:

QUOTE Christie said President Obama is trying to divide America and to tell people “that the pie of America is only so big, that if you want more we have to take it from others.”

“I know Mitt Romney believes the American pie can be grown bigger,” Christie said. “That it can be an infinite size because of the infinite nature of American ingenuity and effort and character.”/QUOTE

Yup, that pie's infinite. We can all have More More More (TM) without having to "take from others". All we have to do is think positively, and industrial capitalism will multiply the loaves and iPods. When, I ask plaintively, did political platforms start to be based on The Secret? Or was it always thus?

andrewbwatt said...

Archdruid —

I wrote a post about "Recalling the Medieval Seven" to modern-day education on my blog a while ago . It was... well... not well-received. Not particularly noticed, and the one commenter was pretty dead-set against it.

I still feel pretty strongly that the concepts of grammar, rhetoric and logic, as well as mathematics, geometry (in the sense of spatial relationships), astronomy and music could make the basis of a really strong curriculum in the modern-day world. I mean, the grammar course could be about not only English but also programming languages — which would have overlaps with the logic class. There's something here, and I may noodle about with it myself, long before you get to it. It kind of fits with what I've done with Art of Memory stuff recently, so maybe I can get some new interest in it...

I have to say to your readers, there's really nothing quite so startling as picking up a ruler and compass, and finding the shapes of nature in curves and straight lines... it's almost as empowering as being able to go outside on a clear night and find stars easily. Hmm. I wonder if 'weather reading' could technically be considered part of medieval "astronomy"? I'll have to think on that, for my curriculum considerations.

John Michael Greer said...

DeAnander, the secret of The Secret is that it panders shamelessly to the part of us that never got past age 2 or so, and has not yet grasped the fact that whining at Mom does not make one cookie become a dozen. Piaget would be worth reading in this context. Was it ever thus? Sure, but there was at least a gesture in the direction of adult thinking. These days, that's "elitist;" we're all supposed to be puling brats.

Andrew, I'll be able to get away with it for the same reason I've been able to talk about peak oil -- nobody has to take me seriously, since an archdruid is obviously some kind of wackjob. The ideas still get into circulation, and have their effect. As for astronomy, no, what makes astronomy part of the quadrivium is that it's quantitative -- it's the application of number and geometrical form to macrocosmic time. Studying clouds is physics, and it's a worthy project in medieval terms once you understand how number and form work.

SophieGale said...

Those who go through the particular experiences of the training I do often pass through a period where their ability to spell or read takes a temporary dive...Immediately after heavy internal rewiring, reading can be exhausting and confusing. It comes back later.

I know that feeling. When I'm mentally and physically exhausted, I can read some pretty weird things--like a newspaper headline "Six Lesbians on Trial for Murder" instead of "Six Serbians on Trial for Murder." And don't go all artsy with the placement of words in an advertisement...

I must be borderline, though. I distinctly remember that learning to read in first grade was frustrating and very stressful. My mother and the local librarian were considered because I wouldn't give up picture books for beginning readers. I do have very strong narrative skills, and I remember telling stories about letters and numbers. 1 was arrogant, 2 standoffish, 5 was bossy and in everybody's face...

While I am mildly creative at material reasoning, and so-so at dynamic reasoning, I do tend to shock people and amaze myself when it comes to narrative and interconnected reasoning. When I did vertical software support, my Mensa coworker said I could pull answers out of my posterior.

I do see a lot of myself in The Dyslexic Advantage. There's a section talking about Semantic/Impersonal Memory versus Episodic/Personal Memory and how the hippocampus can code for pattern separation or pattern completion and I'm geeking out on the interconnectedness, "Oh, that's how you create a Memory Palace! Cool!"

(It's so nice when I can admit I'm not normal...)

Joel said...


"When, I ask plaintively, did political platforms start to be based on The Secret..?"

W. mangled it, but was clearly attempting to recite this talking point when he famously said "Make the pie higher." Or maybe it was a Freudian slip, and he hoped we would become more intoxicated so as to believe more fully.

@ JMG:

" the secret of The Secret is that it panders shamelessly to the part of us that never got past age 2 "

This also seems to be the secret of Star Wars: Luke gestures as though he wants something, and if he looks frustrated enough, some adult (invisible to him, as he doesn't yet recognize other people as entities like himself) picks it up and hands it to him.

We all remember doing this, so the fiction rings true.

Unknown said...


Nikola Tesla's mental processes have been described as being similar to Les's.

peacegarden said...

I’ve been thinking on this post all week; my initiation was very much as JMG stated in his post. It took me the better part of a year to “come to terms” with peak oil…the initial exposure to many different points of view, the leaning toward the apocalyptic, the stages of grief for what couldn’t be, and finally a choice: wallow in despair or find some way to mitigate, heal or be there when others were ready to grasp the dilemma.

My husband was not on board; I was afraid to dump any of it on him. He grew up in a time and place where the rules seemed clear. He followed all of them as a matter of honor; Eagle Scout, valedictorian of his HS class, acceptance in the Naval Academy, a stellar performance as an officer, and employment after active duty in the job he still holds today. He bought into the paradigm not as a conscious choice, but by absorption.

I was never very comfortable with the status quo; I remember realizing in second grade that there was a game and what “they” were looking for was conformity and obedience. I choose to participate; I was smart, a great reader, and my little racecar cutout was always in the lead (based on number of books read). I knew on a very deep level that the game was wrong; it was hard to watch myself conforming…a true inner conflict. On top of that, I was a Roman Catholic and had to make my first confession at the age of 7, after memorizing the Baltimore Catechism, being able to spit out the canned answers verbatim. Here was my chance to redeem myself! I made sure to confess large numbers of any sin confessed, just to cover the bases (what would happen if you didn’t get the number high enough?) I didn’t even think about the fact that I was lying to the priest!

We met after both our first marriages broke up, and it was amazing; I had found my soul mate! But the peak oil issue stayed off the table until the financial meltdown of 2008. All of a sudden, the carefully planned life started to crumble, the 401K took a big hit, and the picture started to appear as it does when developing film. It only added to the unease experienced when the WMDs turned out not to have existed. (I almost left him over that one…I still thought that politics could save the day, if only….)

I was so grateful to be able to be there for him as he went through the process of learning and grieving. He is on the other side of that now, and we are living a very different life than either of us could have imagined.

I want to offer that hope to others whose partners are “not there” yet. When he or she “get it”, they will have the great good fortune to have you there to support and comfort them.



Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

JMG and Don Plummer--

(and hello to Jason H. and all readers with young children)

JMG, I like your parable explanation of The Magic Flute--and completely agree that it (and the rest of Mozart) belongs on the list of rich cultural artifacts worth passing on to children and keeping alive in our culture.

When I mentioned MF, I also meant that it is an expression and embodiment of the kind of thought and values that, once sunk into a child's being by way of (glorious!) music and then talked about with and reinforced by parents and relatives, help inoculate that child against much of what is toxic about modern materialist culture-- even helping against the thaumaturgical efforts of modern marketing.

In addition, like other classical music, MF is a work of art that required no fossil fuel in its creation and, strictly speaking, requires none in its interpretation and performance. Thus, experiencing live performances at a young age and later learning to sing or play the music, helps one develop a world view not completely dominated by the requirements and values of mainstream industrialist culture. The child has a different frame of reference, grows up valuing cultural conservation and is better able to cope with realities like peak oil--in my experience, anyway.

The vehicle for these lessons and ways of seeing doesn't have to be opera or classical music, of course.

And the value system expressed in MF is very similar to that of LotR. Plus, there is magic involved in the plot that accords with JMG's definition.

So, Don, I was kind of using MF as shorthand for a way of life and thought, I guess.

BTW, JMG, your definition of "religion," including the caveat about the meaning of the word "god" fits in well with some offline conversations I've been having lately.

katsmama said...

@Andrew- in my neck of the woods, "classical" charter schools are beginning to get funding...msybe put together a proposal for a medieval school, see if you can get parents involved?
@ Grrrl- can I suggest learning to crochet socks, if you haven't already? I knit, and while I make sweaters and scarves and whatnot, the most popular thing I make is socks- even relative strangers ask if I'll make them some. And finally, @JMG- thank you for the perfect definition of religion. I am not literally rolling on the floor, you know, but I did LOL.

idiotgrrl said...

P.S. Why shouldn't your historian be copying tabloid-style biographies? That's why we still have, and read, Seutonius today. Secrets of the Roman Emperors!

P.S. Today's verification word was unkanst. A marvelous word for an "I dunno!" comment. Cognate, of course, to "unbeknownst."

idiotgrrl said...

katsmama said...

@ Grrrl- can I suggest learning to crochet socks, if you haven't already? I knit, and while I make sweaters and scarves and whatnot, the most popular thing I make is socks- even relative strangers ask if I'll make them some.

That's next on the list. Right now I'm perfecting the technique of making hats and mittens. The mittens were a real struggle, since I was working with two patterns: one with a clumsy technique and a good shape, the other with an excellent technique and a dreadful shape. But, yes, I do intend to try socks, and am heartened to find they're in demand.

I emailed my nephew's wife Monday and asked her to measure their little daughter's head - if she was into wearing hand-crafted things. The answer I got back was "She loves hats! She's still wearing the pumpkin hat Hilde [my late sister] made for her." So ---and thanks!

Spartiate said...

John, thanks for Epictetus, I appreciate that. He sounds right up my alley.

I was wondering if you also have any recommendations for astrology? I have been delving into that a bit and I am finding some interesting things that explain many aspects of my personality. For instance, I have an unaspected venus in the 5th house, which seems to explain my creative and romantic longings, but having a complete inability to channel them.

I also have my sun in gemini and I'm a Sagittarius rising, but my moon is in capricorn. These seem to be rather challenging personality traits to balance.

Anyway, if you have any helpful book or resource recommendations for helping me understand astrology better, and maybe myself, I'd very much appreciate it.

Thanks once again for the Epictetus recommendation.

Sophia said...

I just read this. Thinking back to when I first paid attention to the notion of peak oil (given that we are so saturated with informational noise this took a long time) I had already decided I hated modern society.

I started out as a classical liberal deeply admiring the "enlightenment" when I was 11, moved quickly to Marxism, moved from Marxism into Stalinism (Hoxhaism to be precise - I still admire Hoxha in some ways) and from there I had a sort of collapse of faith because I saw the impossibility of ever bringing about the things I thought needed to be.

A few years later I dilly dallied with Fascism and anarcho-nationalism (or ...perhaps just authoritarian hierarchical tribalism) and traditional religions.

And then after finding my own levels of cognitive dissonance and hypocrisy that I couldn't bear I went back to a degree of uncertainty.

The only real commonality in all my thought throughout my life has been a struggle against the present. A genuine deep-seated discontent. Sometimes I say there is something wrong with society that it so consistently produced that feeling, that when I did take peak oil seriously I HOPED it meant the end of progress. That is it's appeal, progress disgusts me. The medieval days look better to me even though I admit I say that from a position of privilege and don't really KNOW.

More people than just me feel this way I am sure. There is a large proportion for whom the end of progress is cause for celebration, something attractive not something repulsive.

Sometimes I admit it could be me who is sick because I am psychologically incapable of adapting to modernity.