Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Twilight of Protest

Over the last four months or so, as this blog has sketched out the trajectory of empires in general, and then traced the intricate history of America’s empire in particular, I’ve been avoiding a specific issue.  That avoidance hasn’t come from any lack of awareness on my part, and if it had been, comments and emails from readers asking when I was going to get around to discussing the issue would have taken care of that in short order.  No, it’s simply a natural reluctance to bring up a subject that has to be discussed sooner or later, but is guaranteed to generate far more heat than light.

The subject?  The role of protest movements in the decline and fall of the American empire.

That’s an issue sufficiently burdened with tangled emotions and unstated agendas that even finding a good starting place for the discussion is a challenge. Fortunately I have some assistance, courtesy of Owen Lloyd, who is involved with an organization called Deep Green Resistance and recently wrote a  review of my book The Blood of the Earth. It’s by no means a bad review. Quite the contrary, Lloyd made a serious effort to grapple with the issues that book tried to raise, and by and large succeeded; where he failed, the misunderstandings were all but inevitable, given the differences between his views and mine.  Thus it’s all the more striking that his review points up so precisely the reasons why protest movements have by and large been spinning their wheels in empty air for thirty years, and will almost certainly continue to do so while America’s empire crashes and burns around them.

The point that matters here is the review’s denunciation of one of the central points of the book, which is that those who want to change the world need to start by changing their own lives.  According to Lloyd, we don’t have time for that, since the biosphere is in dire peril; what’s needed instead are the standard tools of contemporary activism—"direct action, community building, and outreach," in his convenient summary. His reasoning is logical enough, as far as it goes; if your house is on fire, after all, it’s a little late to install sprinklers and smoke alarms.  If the situation is as urgent as Lloyd claims, all other considerations have to take a back seat to an all-out effort to deal with the immediate crisis with the most effective means available.

It’s a common enough claim in the contemporary activist community; Derrick Jensen had an article in Orion Magazine a few years back making essentially the same argument.  Still, there’s a problem with that argument, because the responses Lloyd, Jensen, and other activists are promoting here have been standard across the spectrum of activist groups for more than three decades now, and that’s more than enough time to see how well they work. The answer?  Well, let’s be charitable and say "not very well."

For years now, leading environmentalists have been bemoaning how much ground is being lost year after year, and how little the environmental movement has been able to do even to slow that down.  They are quite correct in that assessment, of course.  It’s standard these days to insist that this simply shows the power differential between the corporate interests that profit from environmental destruction and the citizen groups that are trying to fight them.  That argument seems convincing, too, so long as you do what most people these days are taught to do, and ignore the lessons of history.

Glance back to a slightly earlier period and at least one of those lessons stands out in bold relief. In the 1970s, environmental activists facing equally powerful and well-funded corporate interests built a mass movement and forced through landmark legislation.  In the United States, the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, and a bevy of less famous but equally important environmental bills crashed through a wall of corporate opposition and became the law of the land. That sort of success is something that today’s environmental activists can only daydream about, and it was accomplished using the same tools that activists use today—with one important addition: the environmental activists of that time recognized that the most effective way to advocate any given change was to make that change in their own lives first. That awareness was not limited to the environmental movement; it was pioneered by the feminists of the 1960s and 1970s, in fact, who turned it into a core principle of their movement—"the personal is political"—and leveraged it efficiently to bring about dramatic if still incomplete gains in women’s rights. They recognized, as did many other activists in those years, that if your lifestyle supports a system, and depends on that system, any efforts you may think you’re making to force significant change on that system will be wasted breath.

It will be wasted breath because most people, reasonably enough, want to see that there’s a life worth living on the other side of the changes your activist movement wants to make, and the best way to give them a glimpse of that life is to enact it yourself. It will also be wasted breath because most people have a tolerably good nose for hypocrisy, and are highly familiar with the kind of demagogy that calls on everybody else to make sacrifices and get by with less so the demagogue doesn’t have to do so. Talk to Americans who didn’t support either the climate change movement or its corporate opposition, and you’ll find that for a good many of them, it was when word of Al Gore’s air-conditioned mansion and frequent-flyer miles got around that they decided that global warming was yet another manufactured threat, meant to stampede people into acquiescing with somebody’s political agenda.

Finally, it will be wasted breath because if the system you think you want to change is also the system that supplies you with a comfortable middle class lifestyle, with all the comforts and conveniences that such a lifestyle supplies, the changes you will push the system to make will pretty reliably be limited to  those that will not affect your continued access to the lifestyle, comforts and conveniences in question. The Breton peak oil blogger Damien Perrotin has commented amusingly on the influence of what, in France, are called bobos—that is, bourgeois bohemians (the acronym works equally well in both languages), members of the liberal upper middle classes. Bobos are terribly eager to see themselves as the saviors of the world—that’s the bohemian side—and will do absolutely anything to fulfill this role, so long as it doesn’t require them to give up any of the benefits of their privileged status—that’s the bourgeois side.

I hope the term catches on in this country, because we have a lot of bobos over here, too. Last week’s discussion of captive constituencies has a special relevance in any discussion of the species Bobo americanus, because being active in the captive constituency of some otherwise mainstream political faction is a very popular way to play the role of saving the world without risking disruption to the system that gives bobos their privileged status. There are also substantial personal rewards available for those who take leadership positions in captive constituencies, and help keep them captive. It’s a role bobos are well qualified to fill, especially those who come from the upper end of the class hierarchy and so have the connections and skills for the job.  That’s where you get the executives of mainstream environmental groups who draw six-figure salaries, maintain cordial relationships with corporate sponsors, and show an obvious willingness to settle for whatever scraps may fall from the tables of wealth and power onto their corner of America’s unwashed kitchen floor.

Still, the bobo-ization of American radicalism is not limited to such obvious cases.  When you hear activists loudly insisting that it’s possible to save the world without being an ascetic—and I’m sorry to say that, yes, that well-worn trope turned up in the Owen Lloyd book review cited above—you’re hearing the echoes of bobo influence, in the form of the popular but profoundly wrong notion that it must somehow be possible to maintain today’s unsustainable lifestyles on a sustainable basis.  That’s not going to happen, for reasons that reach right down into the laws of thermodynamics; no amount of handwaving is going to make it happen; and the sooner we get used to living with a lot less, the less damage we will do to ourselves, each other, and the Earth as the industrial economy sputters to a halt.

Now of course that suggestion is anathema to the existing order of things, in America and elsewhere. It’s usually anathema in a declining imperial society. James Francis’ useful study Subversive Virtue: Asceticism and Authority in the Second-Century Pagan World chronicles how the imperial Roman government came to treat the asceticism of Stoic and Neoplatonic philosophers as an unendurable threat to its authority. They were quite correct to do so; a system that maintains itself in power by bribing the lower classes with panem et circenses and the middle and upper classes with the more lavish entertainments chronicled in Petronius’ Satyricon has no convenient lever with which to control those who have no interest in these things.

Thus it’s probably safe to assume that there will be no effective opposition to the status quo in this country until some movement arises that in practice—not just in theory—embraces an essentially ascetic approach.  My guess, for what it’s worth, is that the first movement to do so will be a revived Marxism. I’m no fan of Karl Marx, and even less a fan of the various ideologues who filled out the framework of his system, but Marxism has features that will give it powerful appeal in the decades ahead.  It gives the poor someone to blame for their misfortunes, and does so in a far more detailed manner than (say) the vague rhetoric of the Occupy movement; it is among the few ideologies that manage to fuse a rigorous intellectual tradition with a utopian future vision of religious intensity; and it has a strong ascetic element—the figure of the Marxist revolutionary, lean, passionate, doctrinaire, and contemptuous of material goods except insofar as they might help further the cause, was a common social type in Europe for close to a century.

Marxism also has an advantage just now that no amount of money could buy it: the extraordinary campaign of unintended propaganda that the Republican party is currently carrying out on its behalf.  Right now, even the most moderate and revenue-neutral attempts to use the powers of government for the benefit of American citizens are being lambasted by the GOP as communism.  It’s an embarrassing admission of intellectual poverty—one gathers that the American right spent so long belaboring the Red Peril that it really has no idea what to say now that communism isn’t around any more—but it also guarantees a familiar kind of backlash. Fundamentalist churches that spend too much time denouncing Satanism, complete with lurid descriptions of Satanic living replete with wild parties and orgiastic sex, get that kind of backlash; that’s why they so often find that they’ve merely succeeded in making devil worship popular among local teens.

In the same way, if the Republicans succeed in rebranding, say, public assistance and food safety laws as Marxist, the most likely result of that campaign will be to convince a great many Americans of otherwise moderate political views that Marx might have had something going for him after all. As suggested above, I don’t consider this a good thing; in theory, Marxist revolution leads to the glorious worker’s paradise of the future via the inevitable workings of the historical dialectic, but in practice the dictatorship of the proletariat reliably turns into just another dictatorship, with the usual quota of gulags and unmarked mass graves.  Still, in a country where most people are frighteningly ignorant of history, and are being driven to the wall by a corrupt and spectacularly mismanaged imperial economy in headlong decline, it’s unpleasantly unlikely that this point will be remembered.

Still, other forces are pushing American society toward a crisis that its existing political and economic arrangements are unlikely to survive, and the rehabilitation of Marxism is unlikely to proceed fast enough to reach any sort of critical mass before that crisis hits in earnest.  It’s probably a safe bet that the more mainstream groups will increasingly side with the established order of things—I’ve long suspected that before all this is over with, the Sierra Club will come out in favor of strip mining the national park system so long as it’s done in, ahem, an environmentally sensitive way. Outside the bobosphere, things are much less clear, for the twilight years of a disintegrating political system tolerably often create a fiercely Darwinian environment for ideologies and political movements, in which the only thing that matters is which set of beliefs and personalities can build the strongest coalition at the right time, absorb or marginalize the largest fraction of opposing groups, and make the most successful bid for power.  As that bubbling cauldron of competing belief systems boils over in violence and systemic disruption, it’s anyone’s guess who or what will come out on top.

Whoever ends up more or less in charge of what’s left of the United States of America when the flames die down and the rubble stops bouncing, though, will have to face a predicament far more difficult than the ones encountered by the winners in 1932, or 1860, or for that matter 1776. All three of these past crises happened when the United States was still a rising power, with vast and largely untapped natural resources, and social and economic systems not yet burdened with the aftermath of a failed empire; the winning side could safely assume that once the immediate crisis was resolved, the nation would return to relative prosperity, pay off its debts, and proceed from there.

That won’t be happening this time around. When the crisis is over, whatever form it takes, the United States—or whatever assortment of successor nations end up dividing its territory between them—will be a shattered, bankrupt, resource-poor Third World failed state (or collection of failed states) that will likely have to struggle hard even to regain basic levels of political and economic stability. That struggle will be pursued in a world in which energy and other resources are getting scarcer each year, energy- and resource-intensive technologies are being abandoned by all but a very few rich and powerful nations, and unpredictable swings in temperature, rainfall, and other climatic and ecological factors make life a good deal more difficult for everyone.  In that not-so-far-future America, the comforts and conveniences most of us now take for granted will be available only to the rich and powerful, if they can be had by anyone at all.

That’s the world our choices over the last three decades or so have been preparing for us, and for our grandchildren’s grandchildren. In such a world, the people who will have the most to offer their communities, their societies, and the biosphere that supports all our lives will be those who have the courage, now, to walk away from the consumer economy and its smorgasbord of dubious pleasures, and learn, now, how to get by with less, use their own capacities of body and mind, and work with the patterns and processes of nature.  For the time being—specifically, until we get close enough to the crisis period that even the most nonviolent challenge to the existing order calls down massive violence in response—protest can still accomplish goals worth pursuing, especially if activists wake up once again to the power of personal example; over the longer run, though, it’s the change on the individual, family, and community level that so many of today’s activists reject as pointless that have the most to offer the world.

End of the World of the Week #22

Comets are fascinating things, and they have an ancient reputation as omens of trouble. Still, you might expect the industrial world in 1973 to have responded with a little less frenzy to the appearance of the much-ballyhooed Comet Kohoutek. It was discovered by Czech astronomer LuboŇ° Kohoutek on March 7 of that year, while it was still a very long way from the sun, and back-of-the-envelope calculations suggested that it might put on a spectacular show.  The mass media proceeded to lose the word "might" and fill headlines with claims that Kohoutek would be "the comet of the century."

That was all it took to catch the attention of the apocalyptically minded. David Berg aka Moses David, leader of the Children of God sect, did the most to publicize a Kohoutek apocalypse; his proclamation  that the comet would destroy the world in January of 1974, printed on bright orange flyers, was handed out by his followers to people all over North America. (I think I may still have one in a file box in the basement.) All through the last months of 1973, the comet had something of the same cachet that the supposed end of the Mayan calendar has today.

As it turned out, though, the prophets were wrong, and so was the media. Far from being "the comet of the century," Comet Kohoutek turned out to be a very modest spectacle indeed, barely visible in the night sky above my backyard—I think we were too close to the streetlights or something. Fans of apocalyptic prophecies quickly found some new prediction of doom to discuss, and the phrase "Comet Kohoutek" had a brief moment of fame as a synonym for "dud."

—for more failed end time prophecies, see my book Apocalypse Not


Ares Olympus said...

Predating Marx is Dostoyevsky and his great work "The Brothers Karamazov", fiction but more of a psychological study of human character. My church has a reading group with this book, so I recall a quote I copied from my first reading 20 years ago. It's about long suffering and seeing a path that sets us free from bondage to our own fears. How do you draw others out of their solitude? Just an idea but I think when you look in the right way, the chances to act, against apparent self-interest, encourages others as well, and our collective delusions can be slowly exposed and collectively reworked....

John D. Wheeler said...

One thing to consider: the Occupiers have already shown an ascetic streak, being willing to sleep in tents and eschew bathing.

However, I don't think asceticism per se is the answer. I think the future truly belongs to radical self-sufficiency. When people grow their own food, build their own houses, collect their own fuel, make their own tools, teach their own children, concoct their own medicine, amuse themselves -- they won't have any need for a complex society. And since the powers that be haven't figured a way to tax the household economy, the only revenue stream to the government will be from property taxes, which, where I live at least, only go to local government. That will make national and even many state politicians irrelevant.

The revolution begins at home.

Ares Olympus said...

"The Brothers Karamazov" by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1880) Part Two Book VI: The Russian Monk. 1. Father Zossima and His Visitors. (d) The Mysterious Visitor Paragraph 12

"That life is heaven," he said to me suddenly, "that I have long been thinking about." And all at once he added, "In fact, I think of nothing else." He looked at me and smiled. "I am more convinced of it that you are, I will tell you why later on."

I listened to him and thought that he had something that he wanted to tell me.

"Heaven," he went on, "lies hidden within all of us - it lies hidden in me now, and if I will it, it will be revealed to me tomorrow and for all time. … And we are all responsible to all for all, apart from our own sins. You were quite right in thinking that. And it is wonderful how you could comprehend it in all its significance at once. And in truth, so soon as men understand that, the Kingdom of Heaven will be for them not a dream, but a living reality."

"And when?" I cried out to him bitterly, "When will that come to pass? Will it ever come to pass? It is not simply a dream?"

"Then you don't believe it." He said, "You preach it and don't believe it yourself. Believe me, this dream, as you call it, will come to pass without doubt. It will come, but not now, for every process has its law. It's a spiritual, psychological process. To transform the world, to recreate it afresh, men must turn into another path psychologically. Until you have become really, in actual fact, a brother to everyone, brotherhood will not come to pass. No sort of scientific teaching, no kind of common interest, will ever teach men to share property and privileges with equal consideration for all. Everyone will think his share too small and they will be always envying, complaining and attacking one another. You ask when it will come to pass; it will come to pass, but first we have to go through a period of isolation."

"What do you mean by isolation?" I asked him.

"Why, the isolation that prevails everywhere, above all in our age - it has not fully developed, it has not reached its limit yet. For everyone strives to keep his individuality, everyone wants to secure the greatest possible fullness of life for himself. But meanwhile all his efforts result not in attaining fullness of life but self-destruction, for instead of self-realization he ends by arriving at complete solitude. All mankind in our age is split up into units. Man keeps apart, each in his own groove; each one hold aloof, hides himself and hides what he has, from the rest. He ends by being repelled by others and repelling them. He heaps up riches by himself and thinks, 'How strong I am now and how secure.' And in his madness he does not understand that the more he heaps up, the more he sinks into self-destructive impotence. For he is accustomed to rely upon himself alone and to cut himself off from the whole; he has trained himself not to believe in the help of others, in men and in humanity, and only trembles for fear he should lose his money and the privileges that he has won for himself. Everywhere in these days men have ceased to understand that the true security is to be found in social solidarity rather than in isolated individual effort. But this terrible individualism must inevitably have an end, and all will suddenly understand how unnaturally they are separated from one another. It will be the spirit of the time and people will marvel that they sat so long in the darkness without seeing the light. And the sign of the Son of Man will be seen in the heavens. ... But, until then, we must keep the banner flying. Sometimes even if he has to do it alone, and his conduct seems crazy, a man must set an example, and so draw men's souls out of their solitude, and spur them to some act of brotherly love, that the great idea may not die."

papabear said...

Hello Mr. Greer, I don't think you've discussed the 4GW theorists yet; is that coming up still?

hardhead said...

I haven't commented here in a while, partly because I've had my hands full practicing precisely what is being preached in this post, and partly because I've come to see how generally fruitless, even counter-productive, blogging and commenting on blogs or in "chat rooms" or similar venues really is. But I'm here again, this time to remark that nothing you have said or written about thus far, or will say or write in the future, is more important or more true than the subject matter of this post, and that it needs to be said as loudly and as often and in as many places as one can manage.

That we are living a disastrous lifestyle can no longer be denied by anyone with even one eye open. And the only way out is to stop living that way, in your own life, every day. It will be the hardest thing you've ever done; you will have to make drastic and fearful sacrifices; and you may well be the only person you know doing such things. But if you don't, then not only will the excrement impact your ventilator, but YOU will be directly responsible.

The substance of this (dare I say it?) courageous post is one of the very few things worth investing time and effort to disseminate in fora such as this one. People don't want to hear it; nevertheless, it's the only way to ameliorate to any extent what's coming.

That's all. I'll go back to my practice now, and wish you the very best luck in promulgating this message.

galacticsurfer said...

In Europe protest is not working until the mainstream parties lose the elections. In Greece we see what happened similar to the series of elections leading to Hitler's takeover. No stable govt. until several elections and the population is exhausted and accepts a radical who promises the moon. In this case it is called Syriza which rejects Troika policy to austerity Greece to save to death for the banks pocketbooks. When this happens to Spain in some couple of years and then like a domino effect everywhere else as the economies collapse protest will be superfluous as they will have succeeded. We see what protest brought to Syria, civil war. Protests in the 1960s brought 1970s RAF, etc. We will have fundamental national interests expressed first at the ballot box when the economies collapse and then in wars like a chess game in say ten years perhaps. Of course as you say we are on the downslope of industrial civilizations so that whoever wins will have control over less resources and maybe have to leave people to their own designs like Russians and their potato patches or Post-Roman people in similar situation. Minimalist govt. with every so often fights for the resources from the political centers but which most people will ignore, due to no electricity and news and internet perhaps in their neck of the woods, literally.

William Hunter Duncan said...

I love it!

Sure to inflame the closet Marxists among us, and the activist set, but dead on. The trouble I see is, so many Americans are so sure they know what's what, they wouldn't recognize a well-modeled post-petroleum lifestyle if it lived next door, and certainly wouldn't emulate it. Not too many models yet, either, for us to emulate.

Thanks for helping to provide the intellectual backdrop for that model.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi John,

No fear of activism here! I spent the entire day from dawn until almost dusk, dropping trees and cutting up for future years firewood and I am zonked out.

Don't stress people about the trees as the forest is so poorly managed hereabouts that I'm actually also doing some good and if anyone is really interested drop a comment and I can talk more about this and provide a link to an interesting paper on the ecology here.

As a confession I used to live in a bobo suburb and attend bobo events like "confest", until my travels took me through Nimbin one day and a chance visit to an old hippy museum. I found it to be a really sad experience because I couldn't pretend that the idealism wasn't completely subverted. Then with fresh eyes I looked at the world I lived in and saw the truth that it was no more than skin deep - an image so to speak.

The people around me in the bobo suburb were doing quite well, in fact they did far better than the average. There was some extreme conspicuous consumption going on if you just poked below the surface, so I moved to get some air and truly be the change that I used to bang on so much about.

I read Owens critique and he doesn't have much to worry about with the bright green technologies as they are really expensive so won't make much of an impact at all. Also his supposition about resistance is kind of off the mark because change will happen regardless of his personal beliefs or actions. It is inevitable, and the people demanding change on others would be far better to get their own houses in order. Yes, I can say this with some level of credibility.

Speaking of which, I've been tweaking my solar power system recently so that I haven't had to use the petrol (gas) generator to top up the batteries over winter. So far, so good as I haven’t so much as pretended to start it up, but the winter solstice is coming up on June 21 here.

Also a bit of feedback about the solar hot water here, which after much messing around with now seems to operate as you'd sort of expect. Even in mid-May (ie. late autumn) some useful solar gain was to be made today and the water was toasty hot tonight.

Oh well, chop wood, fetch water. But definitely no activism! What a waste of time. I can't even convince the neighbours to get more involved in growing their own produce - even to not accepting freebie vegetables and fruit trees which are now self-seeding and adapted to local conditions here. Chop wood, fetch water!

I look forward to your regular essays and all of the comments.



Robo said...

Karl Marx was raised in privilege, educated at two prestigious universities and enjoyed most of the cultural and economic benefits of the dawning Industrial Age into which he was born. In many ways he could be seen as a proto Bobo.

His theories were formulated at a time when there were no generally perceived limits to economic expansion and the exploitation of natural resources. Marxism, Communism and Socialism therefore naturally assume an eternal abundance of wealth to share amongst the masses.

What if there is no infinitely expanding economic system? What if the available wealth is strictly limited? What if the population of workers exceeds the available industrial work?

The post-Industrial world will need a few new "isms" because the old ones probably won't work very well.

Odin's Raven said...

Matt. 6:3 'Seek ye first the Kingdom of God, and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you.'

Luke 17:21 'the Kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation, nor will people say 'here it is', because the Kingdom of God is within you.'

It's an old story.

Odin's Raven said...

How long is the cycle from 'hobo' to 'bobo' and back? The second part may be quite amusing.

lessertruth said...

Curiously, "bobo" is in Brazilian Portuguese a slightly informal way to say "silly".

Source_Dweller said...

That's a great new term, bobo, and succinctly sums up your point, oft repeated over the years, of personal accountability, of walking the walk. I'm presently wading through Monbiot's HEAT to see what he had to say, and was struck by the last line on page 63 (Doubleday Canada edition)"I stumbled across own house was an ecological disaster." Monbiot had set himself the task of demonstrating that the UK could achieve an across-the-board 90% reduction in carbon emissions and still maintain a modern economy.
He cuts a himself quite a bit of slack right off by setting aside the issue of the use of energy by the military, claiming that a separate book would be needed for that alone, and anyway the military should just devolve to national defense, sans foreign adventures. He bemoans the lack of building standards and enforcement as he views his heating bill.
I expect you have a pointed opinion here, given this example of (literally)getting one's own house in order before preaching to the world!
I hope to have an opportunity to chat for a moment or two at the centennial.

Joan said...

A friend of a friend took an early version of Starhawk's Earth Activist Training and was shocked when the first lessons turned out to be, not lobbying or tree-sitting, but gardening. The instructors patiently explained that you can't act effectively against a system if you depend on that system to feed you, so the first thing activists needs to know is how to get their food directly from the Earth.

mistah charley, ph.d. said...

Wikipedia attributes "bobo" to NY Times columnist David Brooks and his 2000 book Bobos in Paradise - the article fails to reference any use in French

barath said...

JMG - I'm curious what timeframe you're expecting for the crisis and aftermath you describe in the paragraph that begins "That won’t be happening this time around..."

If previous crises that you analogize are any guide, we should be expecting this round of catabolism to take no more than 20 years to turn the U.S. into a "shattered, bankrupt, resource-poor Third World failed state" (circa 2030). For some time now I've expected that the changes we'll experience will feel "normal" due to creeping normalcy, but I wonder whether it's possible to mentally adjust fast enough to such sweeping and rapid catabolism.

Part of what might be required for truly effective movements to get off the ground is for that sense of normalcy to be shattered.

Odin's Raven said...

America's transition from 'bobo' to 'hobo' as it finds it's new place in the third world, is likely to be facilitated by changes such as the collapse of publicly funded pensions and medicare, which this astute observer anticipates will happen over the next decade:

Moon Lynx said...

Catherine Moon Lynx
Hello. I have been a reader for a while and have had many moments of illumination. As a graduate of the Women's Movement I'd like to expand on "The Personal is Political" This meant more than walking your talk. It was a way of helping women understand that the circumstances of their life were not completely or even largely a matter of personal choice but a political arrangement (a power distribution). Women were pigeonholed and limited and then internalized their frustration as self-blame and inadequacy. To know that the details of laundry cooking and childcare were society's way of distributing unpaid labour was a tremendous relief. It was consciousness raising at it's most empowering. Today the consciousness raising is not about personal empowerment as much as it's about survival. This is a much harder sell!

Larry said...

Your point about "living the life" rather than proposing "others do so" is always worth being reminded about.

Though the U.S. government is floundering, abetted by the cultural acceptance of deficit spending (made possible by Reagan?)and the printing press at the Fed, there's indications that lower levels of government are addressing problems, which does provide a whiff of hope. Here in Chicago the Water Department recently doubled water rates to address the aging water/sewer infrastructure issues. (Much of Chicago's "piping" was laid in the 1910s and 1920s.) The public schools (400,000 students, fewer scholars) are next, with a contract expiration in September and the set up of a major clash between a teacher's Union supporting the status quo and an administration that's making noises that it wants comprehensive reform, and with less money to boot; there's a chance of a lot more of a show than with Comet Kohoutek!

LynnHarding said...

I wonder whether the success of the environmental movement in the 70s was partly due to the fact that industry was already getting ready to move offshore to pollute other cheaper parts of the world. I was part of the movement and it was not populated by poor people. I do remember that some of the founders of land trusts and watershed associations (people in their 70's and 80's in the 1970's and 1980's) were horrified as we began to accept grants and sponsorship from large polluting corporations. I see now that they were right and I apologize.

Don Plummer said...


This is a comment on this week's "end of the world" column, not the main theme of this week's post, so you don't have to put it through if you don't wish to. Your comment that you may still have a copy of the Kouhoutek apocalypse prediction flyer reminded me that I still have somewhere a copy of a book titled something like, "88 Reasons why Jesus Christ will Return in 1988." I can't remember the name of the author, but I do remember that his prediction caused a stir at the time. The book itself is a typographical piece of work, set as it was in all capitals. To use the cliche about email messages written in all caps, it was as if the author were shouting at us.

escapefromwisconsin said...

Dead on with the comments about movements. I find the possibility of Marxism a bit head-scratching, though, considering your familiarity with the irrational side of human nature. Mention Marx as even just another economist who described the workings of capitalism (increasingly accurately, as it turns out), and you might as well invoke old scratch himself. Americans are a stubbornly anti-intellectual lot, and Marxism’s intellectual rigor has all but assured that it never had much of a chance here. Can you imagine the average suburban church-going American making it through chapter one of Capital, or mentioning words like bourgeoisie in casual conversation? Maybe on college campuses, which does not a revolution make. That Communism has failed is as true to the average American as water flows downhill or the earth is 6,000 years old. The well has been poisoned for socialism in America essentially forever – during the last depression my city was governed by socialist mayors, yet even the most liberal leftist will run away screaming in the other direction from such an appellation today.

No, Americans want simple answers that will allow them to hold on the their privileges and not make sacrifices, and the Republicans have an endless supply of easy answers. The only functioning social institutions in most of America, for better or worse, are the churches. They are deeply committed to the reactionary ideology of modern day Republican party, and will follow it to the bitter end. Every failure of that ideology to date has not caused a retreat from it, but rather a doubling down, and I see no end in sight. And the money and resources backing up this movement is pretty close to infinite. This is why I think resistance is futile. They will do literally anything to prevent another Roosevelt, even if that means pushing us toward another Hitler. As Halford E. Luccock said, often misattributed to Sinclair Lewis, “When and if fascism comes to America it will not be labeled ‘made in Germany’; it will not be marked with a swastika; it will not even be called fascism; it will be called, of course, ‘Americanism’.”

escapefromwisconsin said...

(sorry for 2 posts)
No, I think the inverse Marxism of the Republicans will continue marching on unabated, condemning those without jobs as lazy parasites milking the system, showing ever more largesse on the “Job Creators” in the hopes they will somehow save us, firing government workers and shrinking budgets to restore the “confidence” of the investor class (who will happily invest overseas), and blaming a lack of traditional moral values for our downfall. The U.S. will become Mexico North, ruled by a small hereditary oligarchy, with corrupt institutions backed by bribery, legal and otherwise, and with most people barely surviving from day to day. Eventually Americans will realize they will almost all have to live like the Mexican immigrants in my neighborhood – living in multigenerational households to save on rent, saving money for emergencies, walking to the corner grocery store, cooking beans and rice at home, buying used goods at rummage sales, and getting their services and jobs provided through the informal network of people who know people while paying and getting paid under the table in the informal network economy. Green not by choice, but by necessity, precipitated by their own political ignorance. Thus, to your point, we need not do too much for this reality to emerge.

Eventually, capitalism will fall as it becomes increasingly unworkable due to a confluence of factors now reaching critical. It won’t be overthrown by any sort of revolution as Marx predicted; workable structures will be bootstrapped into place, and we’ll muddle through, which is much less dramatic or romantic for the budding revolutionary. Through a process of (de)evolution we will arrive at what the next economy looks like. Parts of it are already here –co-ops, CSA’s, farmers markers, 501c(3) corporations, Americorps, time-banking, collaborative consumption, etc. etc.

At the risk of self-promotion, I wrote about the similarities between today’s Republicans and Marxists here.

P.S. The term ‘bobo’ was actually coined by New York Times columnist David Brooks, who wrote a book about them, Bobos In Paradise, in 2000.

Steve said...

The comments about Marxism are well-taken, given the propaganda campaign by the leftover cold-warriors to use socialism as a cudgel against ideas they dislike. It's especially appropriate in light of the popular rejection of what's been dubbed "austerity" by the political class - which basically means the poor get poorer and the rich stay rich. It reminds me of the Columbia Law survey of US citizens from a decade ago, which found that a supermajority of people thought that "From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs" was in the US constitution.

I am really enjoying this series of posts, and it's been great fodder for reflection and discussion. Thanks for continuing to impress with clear thinking and entertaining prose.

p.s. Have you seen the latest about the hydrate gun? Looks like someone is putting their finger on the trigger.

Unknown said...

Mr. Greer -

I discovered your blog a little over a year ago, and have since gone back and read each entry from the beginning. I now await each week's post eagerly. As usual, this one was educational and enlightening.

I have been considering the ascetic lifestyle you discussed pretty much since I started reading your blog, but I've always felt like it's just not something I can undertake immediately; my circumstances leave me feeling like I have little control over my life. Of course, if I look at things logically, the lifestyle you espouse is probably the best way to take control of one's life. I am now in a situation where I may be forced into it whether or not I think I am ready. Despite working 60 hours a week for the last year, I am facing homelessness by the end of the month if I don't make some drastic changes. I probably have no choice but to dispose of about 90% of my material possessions and downscale my life dramatically.

Unfortunately, I will be no closer to creating a more sustainable lifestyle for myself and family but I suppose I can look at it as an opportunity to start over and build that lifestyle from scratch. It will be complicated by the fact that I am a single father with a teenage daughter, as well as two young adult daughters who are in nearly as dire circumstances as I am right now. At least one of them has some inclination towards sustainable living, but all of them may be forced into it more quickly than they realize. I only hope that I can lead by example, and convince them that although the American Dream they've been taught to pursue is only an illusion, a better, more satisfying life can be created on the fringes of this decaying empire.

Kevin Lee
Port Townsend, WA

Kieran O'Neill said...

Heh -- bobo is a great term. The one I as more familiar with was "yippie" (as a portmanteau of "yuppie" and "hippie"), describing pretty much the same class of people.

Your comments last week (and before) about "so many" of the supporters of the Occupy movement being members of the global 1%, led me to thinking a little about the definition of the middle class. If it's "members of the global 1", then relatively few individuals in the US qualify. In fact, as I understand it, median personal income is around $26,000, while the threshold to belong to the global 1% is close to $50,000 (in 2012 dollars -- the $42,000 threshold was worked out in 2005 currency). My guess is that somewhere around 10% of Americans qualify. And for what it's worth, I don't think very many of those were out on the streets during the Occupy protests.

Anyway, what this brought me to was the thought that it might be worth trying to come up with a working definition of "middle class" for the purposes of these discussions. If for instance, "middle class" means having an individual income of over $50K, then very few Americans, and even fewer people in most other countries, qualify.
It seems that there really is no clear understanding of what the term means, and given the coming readjustments in living standards, it might be good to have some common language to talk about that.

Maybe a definition based on the trappings of the middle class would work? Something like a combination of home ownership, car ownership, taking overseas holidays, buying new electronics, etc?

But I'm not sure yet.

pentronicus said...

Another reason that protest groups have not been as effective during the last 30 years is the nature of what they are protesting.

During the golden age of protest, the issues were less tangled and more personal. You could step out your door in the morning to get your newspaper and your eyes would burn from the air pollution. Then you open up the paper to read about the Cuyahoga River catching on fire. Nobody wanted to live in a place like that. The role of the protest organization was to channel public sentiment into law.

The civil rights movement was similar. Prejudice against people of color was everywhere, yet most of us white people realized that we were hypocritical. Here we were, fighting a never-ending war for freedom and democracy, yet we had disenfranchised our country’s main minority to the point that they were rioting and burning down large sections of cities. Things had to change, and everyone knew it. I don’t mean to deny the courage and hard work and sacrifice of those in these movements, I just wish to point out that a message has to be popular to make a change.

Today’s messages are much harder to sell:

“We can stop anthropogenic climate change, but you'll have to ride a bike ten miles to work everyday and become a democrat.”

“We can reform the banking system, just be prepared to lose everything in a financial panic.”

Unlike the causes of times past, these choices entail personal sacrifices, risks and huge lifestyle changes. It’s no wonder they aren’t popular enough to get traction.

Igneous said...

This may be the best post I've read on this blog yet (and I've read most them). I doubt I'm the only reader who felt an uncomfortable shudder of recognition when I came across the line about the United States headed towards the status of a Third World failed state. Anyone on board with you this far would agree we're well on the way, but put in such blunt terms it's sobering.

That brings to mind American cities. A lot of people here have probably heard of Wendell Berry, but not Grace Lee Boggs. She's a 97-year-old Chinese-American woman who spent about fifty years in Detroit, participating in the old Marxist left, the Civil Rights movement, and the Black Power movement. Starting in the 1970s, and more and more since then, she's become one of the foremost voices in community activist circles promoting sustainable living, community gardening, getting rid of cars (an especially powerful statement in Detroit).

She has forcefully argued, including in her recent book The Next American Revolution, that the old struggle of the Marxist left to take over the state, or win expanded access to the middle-class American consumer lifestyle, is bad for the planet and inseparable from state repression and empire. One of her favorite phrases is "be the change you wish to see in the world." She has mostly done work in inner-city black communities, but really her message dovetails with that of JMG, Wendell Berry, and a lot of other people in different kinds of communities who are calling for sanity.

What I find striking is that such a message is coming from the American city which, arguably, most resembles the conditions JMG describes in this post. We would all do very well to heed the voice of someone with such experience.

Great job on a stellar article. I hope the book reaches a very large readership.

LynnHarding said...

@ Robo
You are right. Marx assumed abundance and felt that all scarcity was artificial. Also, Marx's wife had a maid! (Just finished cleaning my kitchen all alone so I am feeling especially cranky)

The Heirloom Troubadour said...

Wow, you really hit the nail squarely on the head this week. Outstanding job as always. I love the comments about the bobos as I think the idea really captures a portion of the electorate, throughout the world I might add, that has altruistic aims, but just goes about it in a way that accomplished nothing short of failure. It reminds me of the “environmentalists” in the U.S. that think driving a Prius, spending exorbitant amounts of money at Whole Foods for items that are out of season and shipped halfway around the world, and sending a tax-deductible $25 donation check to the Sierra Club every year solidifies their status as Champions of Gaia.

The intent is certainly there, but even the most committed activist by and large refuses to do the heavy lifting that would truly result in change. In this example, planting a vegetable garden or giving up the car could prove much more effective, but that requires time that could take away from the panem et circenses of the modern era, such as Desperate Housewives reruns.

In essence, it is easier to be a charlatan for a cause, or a stooge to a political faction, as opposed to an actual practitioner of the arts that one subscribes to, especially if the subscriber’s actions have a chance at actually upsetting the status quo.

This reminds me of the Cathars whose very existence, like that of other ascetic groups that you mentioned including the Stoics and neoplatonists, threatened to upset the existing balance of power. In the 12th and 13th centuries, the Cathars presented the Catholic Church with perhaps one of its largest doctrinal threats in its history. The members of the group were followers of Christ, but they believed that he was mortal rather than a divine being. As such, they sought to emulate him in as many ways possible to show the greater path to salvation through good deeds. The priesthood of this group was open to both sexes, and the group practiced herbalism, celibacy, and pacifism among other things.

By adopting these edicts, and shunning material wealth, they represented a clear break with the Catholic Church, which was seen as a monolithic and fraudulent organization that did not represent the true will of God. The ideas of this group gained traction in significant portions of medieval France and Italy, and while the church viewed them as a mere nuisance at first, the strong foothold gained by the Cathars over time increasingly persuaded the church to respond with violence. An inquisition followed and by the 14th century, the church wiped the Cathars off the map, often quite literally, by raising entire villages to the ground.
Yet while the Cathars were destroyed, their ideas survived perhaps even to the point of serving as the the intellectual catalyst for the Reformation which would come two centuries later.

The point is, the group shook up the power structure tremendously not by directly engaging the Catholic Church, but by showing people how their lives could go on, and perhaps even be fuller, without it. It was a powerful sentiment, and there are examples of “showing by doing” serving as a model for change throughout history if one knows where to look.

Activism and marching on the street with a sign in support of a cause are easy and require little self-sacrifice or self-investment. They also generally fail to upset any of the power structures that are deemed threatening. On the other hand, living the change you wish to see is an entirely different matter; it is more difficult, but it is one that has proven to be the most revolutionary time and again throughout history. To quote Elvis, it is time for “A little less conversation and a little more action.”

lamentforthetirnanog said...

It is probably inevitable that suggestions toward asceticism would fell on deaf ears in the activists world. Nearly every single religion on earth (though you'll have to inform me whether this is so in Paganism) has a strong ascetic element. The sad fact is, most of the environmental movement is tied to the Progressive Left, which views any religion that is not mostly concern with "social justice" as a reactionary bastion of greed, racism, sexism, and war-mongering.
Having grown up Eastern Orthodox, where asceticism has a very strong place, learning to "live with less" seems natural and proper to me. A famous Russian saint once said, "Acquire the spirit of peace and thousands around you will be saved", and this inward struggle bearing fruit in the world around us applies not just to our spiritual condition, but to our physical condition as well.
I think it is symptomatic of the ills of modern life, and thus one of the reason that so much that passes for activism is outwardly focused, is that looking in ourselves and having a true change of heart is difficult and painful. It is much easier to convince ourselves that we are entirely on the side of right, and we must then march forward to "save" the rest of the world. Solzhenitsyn once famously said that the dividing line between good and evil runs not through parties, nations, or groups, but through every human heart, and who wants to rip out a piece of their own heart?

Steve in Colorado said...

Anarchism combines a "prefigurative" politics, with emphasis on lifestyle, asceticism, and organization; with an appealing set of promises; with an obscure history whose occasional descents into totalitarianism are little known, even within the movement. I'd suggest that Anarchism is more likely to become the resurgent radical ideology than Marxism.

But then, I could be wrong. Unlike most folks here, I don't reject activism or radical movements entirely. Activist movements, often based around a politics of identity and fueled by a radical, pseudo-religious ideology have won every important right we've enjoyed over the last hundred years. And while large-scale activism no longer seems able to accomplish anything (in part because of the activist community itself and its complete failure to appeal to the general public) I've seen activist campaigns win important victories at the local level.

At the same time, as someone who's been around radical movements for the last decade, I really appreciate reading criticism of activism. I've found authoritarian and totalitarian strains in every radical movement I've been around. Anarchists police each others' language and lifestyles. "Deep Green Resistance" is little better than a cult. And don't even get me started on the International Socialist Organization...

Still: I don't think that activism or a large movement is incompatible with creating change at the level of "individuals, families, and communities." I think the promise of this century is the prospect of movements based around horizontal, networked ties of mutual support between just such individuals and groups-- which is exactly the sort of social and economic structure that most socialists have been promising for the last century and a half.

escapefromwisconsin said...

Whoops, my link got a bit screwed up. For the curious, it's

And just today I see a story in the Times very relevant:
Spaniards Go Underground to Fight Slump

And apropos to the theme of these series of post on the American Empire's decline and fall, the Republican Party is attemting to scrap the Navy's biofuels program:

On Monday, the U.S. Navy will officially announce the ships for its demonstration of the “Great Green Fleet” — an entire aircraft carrier strike group powered by biofuels and other eco-friendly energy sources. If a powerful congressional panel has its way, it could be the last time the Navy ever uses biofuels to run its ships and jets.

In its report on next year’s Pentagon budget, the House Armed Services Committee banned the Defense Department from making or buying an alternative fuel that costs more than a “traditional fossil fuel.” It’s a standard that may be almost impossible to meet, energy experts believe; there’s almost no way the tiny, experimental biofuel industry can hope to compete on price with the massive, century-old fossil fuels business.

Committee Republicans, like Rep. Randy Forbes, insist this isn’t an attempt to kill off military biofuels before they have a chance to start. “Now, look, I love green energy,” he said in February. “It’s a matter of priorities.”

But if the measure becomes law, it would make it all-but-inconceivable for the Pentagon to buy the renewable fuels. It would likely scuttle one of the top priorities of Navy Secretary Ray Mabus. And it might very well suffocate the gasping biofuel industry, which was looking to the Pentagon to help it survive.

And I'd like to revise my earlier post; I think communism has a good change if they adopt this swingin' theme song: ;-)

Owen said...

Thank you for this response John, but I find you’ve misrepresented me here. You suggest that I believe it “possible to maintain today’s unsustainable lifestyles on a sustainable basis”. But it isn’t that I believe unsustainable lifestyles are sustainable, it’s that I don’t believe that it is possible to maintain any lifestyle on a sustainable basis in the context of an unsustainable culture. For instance, studies have found that even the homeless in the United States have a carbon footprint twice the world average ( In your book you say that you live in an Appalachian town without a car, and thus will be better situated for a time when oil becomes prohibitively expensive. But of course when oil becomes prohibitively expensive, food in the local grocery will become expensive too, regardless of whether you are walking to the store or driving there. You are benefiting, like the rest of us, from the numerous subsidies of a cheap oil economy now beginning to unravel. Even when you hear about a lone person or two living without money entirely, it quickly becomes clear that they wouldn’t be able to maintain that lifestyle without utilizing the privilege of cheap oil. There’s no escaping that.

Okay, perhaps it is possible that a few individuals, relocating deep in the woods, could perform something like a total escape from the oil economy. But I don’t see it as something that could happen on any serious basis. Even if everyone voluntarily reduced themselves to homelessness, which seems an unlikely proposition, we would still have an aggregate carbon footprint something like twice that of the typical country. So what I am suggesting is that instead of working on reducing our own consumption, we need to be stopping that consumption at the root. We need to ensure that unsustainable lifestyles will not be sustained any longer. I agree that we are better off changing our lifestyles voluntarily, because it will make the changes down the road– which are inevitable for anyone, no matter how purportedly sustainable they claim their lifestyles to be– easier to bear. But just as you can’t end rape by not raping anyone, and you can’t end genocide by not killing anyone, you can’t stop global capitalism by simply ending (or more likely, reducing) your participation in it. I find that just another example of magical thinking.

Justin Patrick Moore said...

There are many points here I could elaborate on, but I'll limit myself to just two:

1. I'm a big fan of beatnik literature, and one of the books I'm reading now is "Fug You" by Ed Sanders about his press, bookstore and band The Fugs...also a lot of history about the counterculture and protest movements of the '60s in New York's Lower East Side. It's interesting to contrast the beats involvements in such things as the Civil Rights movement, Feminism, and Sexual Liberation, areas where they lived by their own example, to what is now the "protest" movement. Which to me, in my early 30s, seems to be mostly people whining that they aren't able to live like a bobo so easily. (I heard this bobo term before... thanks for reminding me again of it!)

2. Derick Jensen. In my own magical praxis dreamwork play a central role. I'd read bits and pieces of Jensen's work, and while I can understand the sorrow he feels for the state of the world, his books are rather difficult to read. However I thought I'd give his newest title "Dreams" a go... I haven't made it all the way through this hefty tome yet, but what I like it about is how he addresses the nonrational aspect of our nature, and how industrial society has tried to ditch this nonrational aspect, but how the nonrational can actually empower us. He also talks about Otherworlds and his encounters with animals, spirits of the dead, etc. All things I can relate to from a shamanic point of view. And I am happy he is bringing his own views on dreams and dreamwork to the activist and environmentalist audiences who will read his book. However what irritates me about Jensen is his insistence that all forms of civilization are bad. I don't agree with this. I happen to like many aspects of culture and civilization. I think some of it would be very useful to salvage before the neo-luddite-marxist-barbarian-punk-rockers descend on the bobos in their already-decrepit and not-worth-fixing suburban homes. So I think Jensen is worth reading. But like anyone else you might read, there is stuff to filter out. It will also be interesting to see if the more secular sides of the environmental movement will take up his ideas on dreams, otherworlds, and the nonrational.

As for me, my own connection to nature will always be tied to my spiritual views.

herb said...

Less is more?

The rule of conquest, the basic operating system of this world for the last five thousand years or so, states that more is the result of taking from others. It is the rule of radical individualism promoted by sociopathic thinking, which, in turn, is promoted by actual sociopaths, who’s brains are wired without a conscience, who prosper and take control of the machinery of competition the better to prey on the weak who actually have our brains wired to allow for a conscience. For those for whom this is a new idea, please read The Sociopath Next Door.

No sustainable culture can successfully tolerate the elevation of these mental defectives to positions of power. The remarkable thing of our time is that the destruction and collapse routinely caused by the assumption of power by this segment of the population is now affecting the entire world rather than isolated cultures. Rome reduced much of the world under its control to a state of collapse, socially and environmentally. But this is true of all expansionist cultures which are all ruled by sociopathic individuals who transfer their diseased attitudes to the general culture and precipitate collapse. Only bottom up, complex and evolving systems of governance, sans ruthless competition, have any track record of sustainability. Marx and the early anarchist understood this fact of nature but remained under the spell of a fundamentally sociopathic world view. All institutions that include competition between individuals for positions of power and authority are sociopathic at their core. That most assuredly includes the academic world that is blinded by its own ambitions.

At this point in my standard rant the libertarians begin to think that I am one of them. I am not. If anything my thinking is much more radical. I am a radical communitarian. Sorry.

This article, good as far as it goes, ignores biology, human and otherwise, and therefore is lost in the weeds of naval gazing. There is plenty of scientifically founded information to support a communitarian viewpoint, but it is uniformly distasteful to the radical individualist mode of thought that dominates currently and is studiously ignored by the overeducated.

Out of the rubble of our sociopathic institutions will come those who return to biologically healthy modes of thought. Science is the worship of testable hypotheses. Sociopathic thinkers use scientific results when it suits them and ignore science when it doesn’t and always want to twist scientific thinking to do their biding. Misunderstanding Darwin is a good sign of sociopathic thinking. Evolution is a series of answers to problems presented by our environment. For the solitary species one might say that radical individualism is that answer. For social species like ourselves radical individualism is a disease.


JP said...

Didn't Spengler say that Dostoyesvsky was Russia's future or something to that effect?

Anyhow, JMG notes:

"ver the longer run, though, it’s the change on the individual, family, and community level that so many of today’s activists reject as pointless that have the most to offer the world."

I think the problem is that it's not so much that it's rejected as pointless as it is recognized as boring and lacking in ambition.

You go to university and the city to escape the suffocation of the family and community in search of a life that seems worth living. It's hard to be interested in acting at the local level when the only thing the local level offered was tedium, ennui, and intellectual death.

Also, wasn't bobo addressed a long time ago in the book Bobos in Paradise?

Also, isn't the problem with asceticism/puritansim that it suppresses the experience of pleasure and increases the experience of violence, either to self or community?

Monasticm would be fine if it was more human and less austere.

JP said...


"Hello Mr. Greer, I don't think you've discussed the 4GW theorists yet; is that coming up still?"

4GW seems to me to be one of the human modes of war.

Lots of things will work against our current Full Spectrum Dominance as long as they take advantage of its weakness.

However, I'm also not convinced that the U.S. will lose the next World Leader confrontation. The British won twice and had two empires.

JP said...

The point I am trying to make is that I agree with JMG that the U.S. empire is in decline and could decay in the way in which he's presenting here.

However, I expect that due to the contingent nature of history, there is the other outcome where the U.S. goes from strength to strength instead of decline. I'm not saying that this is the *probable* outcome, merely that it's at least a significant possibility.

I have absolutely no idea what a U.S. victory would look like.

JMG, do you think that the "victory" outcome is impossible due to the systemic constraints or merely improbable?

Owen said...

And as for the suggestion that I am some sort of upper class bourgeois: I was raised in a deteriorating 19th century house amongst sheep, cows, ducks, and chickens on a few acres of land surrounded by grass fields, a few miles outside a somewhat-depressed town of around 600 people. My dad has no college degree, and supported us by working first in canneries, and later in a pulp mill. My mom looked after us at home full-time. I have never driven a car in my life, do not own a television, do not have air conditioning, rarely use heat in the winter, and live in a small one room apartment, living with my wife on an income in the 4 digits. Perhaps this is not so different from Greer’s own circumstances, but I do not choose to flaunt my poverty as a sustainable or holier-than-thou lifestyle. I live this way for pragmatic, and not for political reasons, and don’t take it as a prerequisite for getting good work done.

Wistful said...

Kieran, "yippie" was actually the term used by people like Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman in the sixties. What they were about is too far off the topic to get into, but Wikipedia has a predictably good overview of the topic. The term "yippie" (and, of course "hippie") far predate "yuppie," which came to describe the bobos of the 1980s (some of whom were ex-yippies and hippies).

Don Plummer said...

I did a tiny amount of research about that "88 Reasons" book and found that the title is "88 reasons Why The Rapture Will Be in 1988" and the author was Edgar C. Whisenant. Apparently it has become somewhat of a collector's item; Amazon is offering used copies through their bookseller's network for between $35.00 and $49.99. Yikes! I'll have to try and find my copy. :)

Harry J. Lerwill said...

Damn it, JMG. Bobo is a label I could apply to myself. I do enjoy the comforts of modern, western life and I do not want to give them up.

That's what we're doing, though. Barbra will no longer be working full-time in the traditional economy and instead working in the household economy. It's going to mean a lot of belt-tightening, but the benefits are worth it.

Struggling governments at every level are looking to raise revenues. Food and other essentials are going up in price. Peak oil will push up the cost of delivery and that cost is passed on to everyone.

Every month, the number of hours a person needs to work in the mainstream economy to get by is going up.

There's no delivery charge hidden in the cost of growing your own food. No taxes on food canned from the garden. Having a person at home with time to hang laundry on the line saves the ever more expensive and unnecessary drying costs.

When you calculate the cost of food, the taxes on the purchase, the taxes on earning that money in the first place, travel costs to get to and from work, and the hundreds of other expenses tied to 'business as usual', then the ROI on having a household member move into the household economy is pretty inviting.

We're willing to give up access to the latest and greatest toys and gadgets of modern life in order to eat home-grown, home-cooked, healthy food.

Last week I got to bottle-feed orphan baby lambs and do other minor tasks around a working farm in the UK. It was a wonderful break and gave me a glimpse of where we want to ride out the Long Descent.

Working with the very elderly lady owner of the farm, who is often bent double from her decades of milking cows, but still cheerful and happy to be out tending the animals four times a day, was a wonderful glimpse of what we lost when we outsourced our lifestyles to the supermarket.

Jason Heppenstall said...

A timely reminder to us all, this post.

I was onto this some time ago and moved to Spain circa 2003 to 'be the change'. For a while I actually *was*, living the good life on my small organic farm, learning new skills and basically being much more in keeping with the Earth's systems.

My Achilles heel came in the form of a close relative who used bad thaumaturgy to convince my other half that what we were doing was, basically, insane. I was offered the choice of losing my family or trotting back into Plato's cave and re-shackling myself to the wall.

I chose the latter and have spent the last four years rebuilding what was broken during that painful time.

The good news is, I've paid off the debts, I'm fitter than ever and am now raring for round two. Eight months and we are out of here. Said relative has just been informed and is doing the funky chicken - but this time it will have no effect.

In a way, what happened, has been a useful learning experience. There are certain mistakes that you will never make twice.

In the meantime I keep myself amused writing my blog - which was inspired by this one (thanks!). I enjoy writing it, and it's just passed 10,000 pageviews this year - but I doubt I'll have much time for it when the real work starts. I'll second Hardhead's comments on that ... although it's stimulating to be part of a peak oil aware online community, the term 'preaching to the choir' comes to mind.

Interesting note - I read today that a third of UK adults are now growing at least some of their own food. Probably the only encouraging thing I read in the news all day.

Capcha words: saintly interno

John Michael Greer said...

Ares, good. You draw others out of their solitude by taking the risk yourself, first. Many thanks for the highly relevant quote.

John, asceticism isn't "the" answer, and neither is anything else; still, I think you're underrating its power.

Papabear, no, we haven't gotten to the military side of the twilight of American empire yet. All in good time...

Hardhead, thank you!

Surfer, that's one likely trajectory for Europe -- more on this in a bit.

William, thank you!

Cherokee, I got to see much the same sort of thing when I lived in Ashland, OR -- a lot of loudly ballyhooed green tokenism over a solid foundation of privilege and conspicuous consumption. I didn't know the word "bobo" yet or I'd have used it; certainly, though, my irritation with the phenomenon played a role in the decision my wife and I made to move to a gritty old mill town in the rust belt, well out of the bobosphere.

Robo, excellent. I've gotten a great deal of amusement in recent attempts to give Marx a coat of green spraypaint; his system also flatly denies that natural goods can have any value at all, which doesn't exactly help make sense of our predicament.

Raven, I admit I'm a bit surprised to hear you quoting Jesus! Still, the guy had some very good points. As for "hobo to bobo," okay, that wins you today's gold star, for cute but effective wordplay.

Lessertruth, I always knew the Brazilians had a good share of common sense... ;-)

Dweller, if Monbiot is catching onto the importance of changing his own life, that's very good news.

Joan, that's also very good news. I hadn't heard that before.

John Michael Greer said...

Mistah C., interesting. I got the term, as mentioned in the post, from Damien Perrotin, who referenced current French slang.

Barath, I'm not going to risk a guess as to how soon the crisis stage will hit -- that's always a very uncertain thing -- but a break with normalcy is a very common feature of this sort of crisis. Think of the experiences of a family living in Atlanta in 1855-1870, or a family living in Oklahoma City in 1925-40; there's a period of creeping drift, then the status quo ruptures, there's a ragged period of descent into crisis, and then everything goes haywire (Sherman marches through, or the dust storms begin) and the entire structure of ordinary life goes away in a hurry. I suspect a lot of people now living will have that sort of experience.

Raven, that's pretty much a given.

Catherine, thanks for the details! From an outsider's perspective, one of the most powerful things that came out of that process was the recognition that women needed to make change in their own lives -- to refuse the disempowering and pigeonholing -- in order to make real change. I'd like to see more of that happening now.

Larry, it's going to be a colorful show straight across the board. I'll be interested to see how the Chicago situation works out.

Lynn, yes, they were right. The Grange to this day has a rule that prohibits bank employees from joining the organization -- that's one of those necessary steps to avoid cooptation. I hope that can be remembered this time around.

Don, you're ahead of me -- that book will be featured in a future End of the World of the Week!

Escape, don't overestimate the durability of unthinking prejudices. A century ago, fundamentalist Christianity was a radical left-wing movement, and it was the Republican party that supported environmental causes. Yes, people will double down, and double down, and double down...and then something gives, and a sizable portion of the populace snaps into a different view of things. I think we're very near such a snapping point, and the GOP is unintentionally doing everything in its power to see to it that Marxism benefits from that.

Steve, thanks for the link -- it's a source of much hilarity to me, at least, to note how many times in the last decade some highly experimental research into an unproven and risky energy source has been ballyhooed as the solution to all our problems. A society that actually had solutions to its problems wouldn't have to flail like that.

Kevin, that's a harsh path to walk, and I'm sure it doesn't help to know that hundreds of thousands of Americans are facing it with you. I hope all goes well for you and your daughters!

Kieran O'Neill said...

Well, I've now read Owen Lloyd's review (and his recent response to your post). It's rather good, at least until the last few paragraphs, where I can see exactly the problem you've mentioned. In fact, it's something which you would think a good reading of Blood of the Earth (or the posts it's based on) would rectify. He presents a false dichotomy. Act now, in this very specific and radical way, or the world will end.

I think Paul Kingsnorth pointed out a little while ago that the problem with this thinking is in defining what is meant by the end of the world. Is it the end of the modern lifestyle? Of industrial civilisation altogether? Of 9/10 of the human race? All of the human race? All life on the earth's surface? Each of these has two properties -- likelihood of happening, and the severity of its consequences. What many activists do is to mix up the likelihood of the end of the modern lifestyle with the severity of the wiping out of all life on earth. That's dangerous black magic.

Paul Kingsnorth also wrote an article in Orion magazine echoing much of what you said in this post, about walking away from environmental activism. If you haven't seen it, I'd recommend taking twenty or thirty minutes to do so. It's very eloquently written and makes some important points. It also stirred up a ton of discussion all over the place.

Yupped said...

Well, clearly we all have to step away from the stuff. That’s the only way to make any meaningful change. And that change is coming anyway, and nipping at more and more heels.

After I read your post I started to think noble thoughts about leading by example, and all that. One’s example will communicate something to others. But while a few will think you are an inspiration, most will think you’re a Nutter. I’m guessing if Al Gore had cycled off to his new Yurt right after an Inconvenient Truth was released that most people would have put him into the Nutter category, and we would still all be where we are.

The trouble is, that no one who has the stuff really wants to give it up. Or at least very few. I’m backing away from mine, but mainly because I think I’m going to have to anyway and I think I’ll be better off in the long-run by controlling my own descent. So there is a self-interested aspect to my motives. But it is bringing many advantages: it simplifies life, and it also opens you up, if you let it, to finding a lot of happiness in that simplicity.

wall0159 said...

I'm reading Graeber's "Debt: the first 5000 years". One of the (to me) salient points has been the historical "need" for a debt jubilee. This is because, over time, small landholders find themselves with debts they can't repay.

This concerns me greatly.

If we have a return-to-the-land movement, there will be many people inexperienced at self-sufficiency trying to make-a-go of it. It makes me think of the baby turtles heading for the ocean while the seagulls have a feast...

Not saying this to be negative, but it's perhaps something that people should consider.

Rashakor said...

The concept of Bourgeois-Boheme exists in french since the 19th century. The earliest is from Guy de Montpassant in Bel Ami circa 1883. The abreviation into "bobo" is from "Bobos is paradise". So I guess JMG is actually not incorrect to mention that it originally comes from french.
One thing is that in french, the terms "bobo" was immediatly accepted and understood because the linguistic concept was alreary well anchored in the zeitgeist. In English only a selected group of people even know what bobo means!

Steve W. said...

Hello, Mr. Greer! First time commenter, and have been reading your blog for several years now. Yes, there are many of us lurkers out there! Just wanted to let you know how I appreciate your voice of sanity in a society where those who don't have powerful connections to politicians or the MSM are routinely ignored. I myself am in the process of trying to scale down my material possessions -- trying to figure out what I truly need and brings me happiness, and throwing out, recycling, and donating the rest. I'm always amazed when other people in the world have less materially than those of here in the USA, but still appear to be happier! I imagine they have what so many of us in this nation lack: good, strong friendships with others.

Keep up the excellent work, as always!

xhmko said...

Part I

Activism, I learnt earlier on in my travels, includes a larger group of active individuals than many who consider themselves activists realise. Some of the greatest activists I have known personally have been community health workers offering free doctor’s services to homeless or struggling kids. I also knew a homeless, visa-less activist who spent day and night working, (and for all I know still does), on helping refugees behind bars to receive fair hearings in the face of the largest race based scare campaign this side of the yellow peril. And there are still fellow activists who on a regular basis organise long walks throughout Australia and the world that seek to maintain the dialogue about the effects of uranium mining, nuclear energy and nuclear weaponry and while doing so allowing ears to hear and voices to be heard in remote places where much of the action actually takes place. Some even travelled the USA in attempt to get every capital city to individually outlaw nuclear energy to try and prevent the need for us to dig it up. If this is direct action, outreach and community empowerment then I’m all for it. And many activists do go through stages of asceticism in their campaigns, often taking it on cold turkey in the midst of major cultural conflicts only to burn out within a very short time, become cynical and revert back to a “simpler” life within the dominant paradigm.
I myself have been an activist for many causes in Australia and Hong Kong and will openly admit and discuss the flaws inherent in the processes and attempts we made. But jaded as I may be, I do not look back with disdain. It’s partly through those connections that I am the organic gardening, rubbish interventionist, workshop facilitating person I am today. It’s through reflection on raw experience that I can learn such valuable lessons. The false notions of consensus that are reached through valid attempts to attain it are everywhere within these groups for many reasons. There are powerful personalities, passions, body language and the caution/awe of newcomers and the confidence/arrogance of veterans. Not to mention the need for expediency and the gargantuan task of devising methods for campaigns against mind bogglingly powerful corporate/government bodies, backed by police and very often cultural habit. It’s clear that hypocrisy runs rife through the activist community. It’s as prevalent as depression and chauvinism. It is so because it is rife in society at large.

xhmko said...

Part II

To the credit of many activists, again that I have personally known and worked with, they’ve tried to bring these issues to the attention of the broader community of activists they’re a part of so that we may progress, learn and not get caught up in dull Mc’Slogans and dying tactics. Deep ecology, Gandhian personal example, Christi-anarchist philosophy, theatre of the oppressed techniques and even military discipline have been explored in order to enhance our understanding and by virtue our actions. Yes we could all stand to do better in setting personal examples, not just setting up facades of unity, integrity and perfection, but lets not get caught in a binary headlock either. The fact that NGO CEO’s are on six figure salaries and hawkers on the street try to sell EZY—PLUS save-everything-with-a-monthly-donation packages doesn’t mean that us living off dumpster diving and spreading the rewards amongst our friends and strangers need be tarred with the same brush. There are many definitions of activism and I guarantee this blog falls into one of them (though I’m not so sure about the CEOs). Your blog is an active part of a community of people making choices and acting in ways that aim to better humanity and themselves and is especially powerful in nurturing awareness of how the personal is political. When it boils down though, we make personal choices and define ourselves and actions in complicated ways; being influenced and attracted and repulsed in an ongoing process I’ve dubbed the cosmolectic. All this is part of the reality of living with dissensus (thanks for the term), which I see as an unavoidable fact of life, not to be encouraged as much as accepted.
We are all somewhere on a curve known as learning. And it has to be said that people only a little younger than myself and living in the modern west have grown up being handed a techno fantasy lifestyle that’s difficult to see alternatives to. To counter this we need to cultivate compassion and understanding as well as our gardens. We need to preserve the DIY traditions and wild spaces that surround us and revert more than a few tamed ones back. And we need to admit and learn from our mistakes.

@ John D Wheeler, I think one way they tax the household economy is through fines as penalties for “criminal behaviour”.

@LynnHarding, the other day I met an old guy who has been in bio-dynamics for what seems like forever to someone my age, and who was a member of the early movement to outlaw DDT having personally seen and photographed its effects on insects and then birds. He did the most remarkable thing at this workshop where I met him. He apologized for having been partly responsible for why bio-dynamics was not more widely accepted. He felt they were being too exclusive and not allowing for people to find their own ways of approaching this extraordinary method of earth connection and soil enhancement. He felt terrible that they had set the movement back thirty years or so here in Australia and his apology was so sincere. So I really appreciate what you’ve said and feel that there’s a hell of a lot of apologizing that still needs to come from people far less caring than old John Priestley.

John Michael Greer said...

Kieran, the traditional distinction in the US is a function of the kind of work done, not the income earned -- blue collar (working class) jobs involve physical labor of one kind or another, white collar (middle class) jobs are paperwork. Not sure how well that'll work for the present case, though.

Pentronicus, a lot of white people had to give up very definite privileges when Jim Crow died, and a lot of people of all colors would have a lot to gain from a return to honest banking, so I'm not sure how well your distinction works.

Igneous, well, I wasn't familiar with Grace Lee Boggs, and clearly I need to read her. Thanks for the heads up!

Troubador, true enough, though the example of the Cathars also shows how catastrophically protest can implode if it isn't prepared for the potential backlash from the centers of power. We'll need to be a lot more careful this time.

Lament, exactly. I'm not saying that protest is inappropriate -- that's something Owen Lloyd missed (see below) -- but it has to be rooted in, and combined with, the harder work of changing your own life, or it goes nowhere.

Steve, I don't think activism is inappropriate, or incompatible with the other changes I've been discussing, either! My point, again, is that it's not a substitute for changing your own life.

Escape, you'd think the GOP, for all its flag-waving, would have more sense than to cripple the ability of the US military to survive a serious interruption to oil imports. Sheesh.

Owen, thanks for your response as well, but I think you need to reread my post! I'm not saying that personal change is necessarily a replacement for social change -- I'm saying that the methods being used for social change for the last thirty years, including those you discussed in your review, have flopped so dismally because they don't address the personal dimension. It's all very well to insist that we ought to stop consumption at the root, but the means you've proposed for doing that have failed, and one more round (or a hundred more rounds) of direct action, community building, and networking, the standard toolkit of contemporary activism, aren't going to accomplish any more than they've done over the last thirty years. The environmental movement won victories when it addressed the personal dimension, and its members were willing to make changes in their own lives; once it abandoned that strategy, it started losing, and hasn't stopped yet. That being the case, maybe it's time -- or past time -- to revisit the methods that worked.

Justin, I'll have to read the Sanders book! I'm less thrilled about the prospect of reading Jensen -- his previous books have left me distinctly unimpressed. Still, that he's exploring the inner dimensions of the crisis of our time is probably a good thing.

Herb, yes, I know it's popular these days to come up with claims that the people whose policies one doesn't like are mentally abnormal, psychotic, etc., etc., ad nauseam. That's simply another amplifier of the polarization that's tearing this country apart; I don't think it's helpful at all.

John Michael Greer said...

JP, if monasticism is "more human and less austere," it doesn't work. Monasticism functions because it takes the material aspect of life down to the bare minimum, and so permits time to be redirected to more important things. As for asceticism feeding violence, er, maybe you ought to discuss that with some Jain monks...

Owen, for heaven's sake, I didn't claim that you were a bobo! Your review was only one of several things I discussed in my post. Some of your ideas seem to have been bobo-ized, but that's true of much of the environmental movement these days. The claim that direct action, community building, and networking can be equated with asymmetric warfare, for example, got a lot of play in glossy avant-garde publications a few years back; it's simply another repackaging of the current ineffective methods of protest, but I don't think many people realized that or pointed it out.

That aside, the fact that you do without a lot of the goodies of the consumer economy -- you mentioned in your review that you don't use a car or a TV, which is an excellent start -- makes you a more effective proponent of change; you'll find that if you talk about those things, and address the need to change from that background, a lot of people will take you more seriously than they would take somebody who'd just driven up in an SUV. You might consider using that effect.

Don, by all means! I read it back in the day, though I didn't save a copy.

Harry, it's not quite fair to misquote Fire Sign Theater and say "We're all bobos on this bus," but there are a lot of recovering bobos here. Good to hear that you're making sensible changes.

Jason, it's not just a matter of preaching to the choir -- every day new people go looking for the insights they're not getting either from the mainstream media or the established protest movements, and some of them end up in the peak oil blogosphere. Keep with it if you can.

Kieran, I read Paul's piece when it first came out -- a very powerful and moving essay, and one of the reasons I follow the Dark Mountain phenomenon. (A shared fondness for the poetry of Robinson Jeffers accounts for a fair fraction of the rest.)

Yupped, if Al Gore had announced that he was replacing his old mansion with a passive solar house made of recycled materials, with solar water heating and other green technologies, and done it, he would be a massive political presence now. If he'd also announced that he was giving up air travel, and traveling by train from here on, and done a few other changes like that, he'd have become a stunningly effective figure, and the climate change movement might not have collapsed the way it did. It's not necessary to live in a yurt -- though that's certainly an option, and can be a good one for some people -- what's needed is a willingness to change in a green direction, visibly and publicly, and stick with that.

Wall, a back to the land movement is not a good idea at this point, for reasons I've explained about fifty dozen times so far. What's needed is a "reinhabit right where you are" movement, but nobody wants to hear that -- the daydream of going back to the land, being conveniently unavailable to most people, is far more cozy.

Rashakor, thanks for the history!

John Michael Greer said...

Steve, thank you!

Xhmko, er, once again, I'm not saying that activism is wrong or inappropriate. I'm saying that if you don't combine it with personal change, it doesn't work. Give the post another read and I bet you notice the half dozen times I say that!

DaShui said...

Hey A.D.!

There is one ascetic movement that is more and more popular. I bump into people all the time living Paleo/Primal. For those of you that don't now, this lifestyle tries to emulate, as much as possible, the hunter/gather lifestyle for "gene activation. Avoid sugar, processed foods and grains.Eat only leafy vegetables and meat. Wear barefoot shoes around. Lots of slow movement, punctuated with sprints and lifting heavy things. Fasts, cold baths, ETC....
The next step could be no AC/Heating, no car, uh loincloths, (maybe not)very suitable training for our low carbon future.

phil harris said...

JMG et al
Your post and other’s comments on asceticism popped into my head as I fell asleep last night, curiously in the form of apparently ‘non-sequitur’ thoughts about aesthetics. These thoughts might just have some bearing on the attractiveness of life changes.

Something of the ‘effete’ clings to the English view of the aesthete - the student of the beautiful - but I am thinking of something else! More than any school or study of art forms; more like a way of being in the world. Some people see the world differently, and their memories relive the world differently because they accurately recover the beautiful across the range of sensory experience. This is no clinging to art objects. This is more like a sense of being in touch. They would not wish for substitutes. Such a sufficiency for themselves and for their love could look decidedly ascetic as it typically needs minimal material expression, although there can be great grief in the loss of small things and of individual companions.

I think there is more of this stuff in us than we realise.
Steve W said; “I'm always amazed when other people in the world have less materially than those of here in the USA, but still appear to be happier!”

Maria said...

It all comes back to magic, doesn't it, JMG? The kind of changes you're talking about start with changes in consciousness in accordance with will, which then manifest in our daily lives via our choices and hopefully into the society around us via example.

Kieran O'Neill said...

On the topic, though, of politicians practising what they preach, I should mention Ian Pearson. I met him briefly while I was an intern at the European Bioinformatics Institute (outside Cambridge in the UK), when he came to officially open the new wing at the research centre.

The previous year, prior to a parliamentary reshuffle, he had been the Minister of State for Climate Change and Environment. And, as I learned when he came to the opening, he took that position quite seriously. He came by train from London, and from what I understood insisted on using public transit to get around whenever possible.

It's a great pity that this was basically ignored by the press. But it was fairly inspiring at least to me, and the people immediately around him.

Kieran O'Neill said...

And as for my life, well, the vegetable garden is coming along, as is my first batch of home brewed gluten free beer. This Sunday I will be answering cycling questions and tuning up bikes for free at the farmers market (bringing myself and all the gear there by bike, if course).

And the people around me are setting positive examples through all manner of projects, like home-brewed beer rolling bike parties to raise funds for a tool library, or kerbside mini-libraries.

As one of these people put it (and I think this sums up your post about as succinctly as it can be), "People without dirty hands are wrong. Doing something makes you right."

planningdown said...

Great, thought-provoking post, ArchDruid.

I'd like to post some thoughts on some of the earlier comments made.

petronicus wrote:
"Unlike the causes of times past, these choices entail personal sacrifices, risks and huge lifestyle changes. It’s no wonder they aren’t popular enough to get traction."
Heirloom Troubadour wrote:
"Activism and marching on the street with a sign in support of a cause are easy and require little self-sacrifice or self-investment. They also generally fail to upset any of the power structures that are deemed threatening. On the other hand, living the change you wish to see is an entirely different matter; it is more difficult, but it is one that has proven to be the most revolutionary time and again throughout history."

Exactly. That's why bright green environmentalism (aka growth-based environmentalism) is so popular just now - it promises that we can have our economic growth 'cake' and our environment too. The awkward reality is that economic growth and ecological health are mutually-exclusive goals.

Owen wrote:
"I don’t believe that it is possible to maintain any lifestyle on a sustainable basis in the context of an unsustainable culture.
...we need to be stopping that consumption at the root."
I find this argument very convincing. Perhaps that's since I still find myself indebted to the system. In other words, I can't afford to walk the walk yet - not until I've paid off student loans, anyway. I don't see any other way than to keep playing musical chairs until the music stops. And, if the boiling frog analogy is apt (it's called The Long Descent for a reason), the music could be playing potentially for a long time to come. Once I'm square with prior choices I've made, I can leave the current life behind and do "what's next." But until then I have to live with a foot in either world: the present and the future.


John Michael Greer said...

DaShui, interesting. They've got their prehistory wrong -- human beings were harvesting and eating grass seeds long before agriculture, and most hunter-gatherer peoples eat a lot of roots, tubers, and other vegetable starch sources if there's anything suitable in the ecosystem -- but if it works for them, by all means.

Phil, that's one of those issues that you can't even discuss meaningfully except with those who've already started down that road. Most people in the industrial world are possessed by their possessions, and I mean that in the Exorcist sense of the word; try to show them that they're projecting emotional states onto material objects, and you get a heck of a pushback.

Maria, exactly. Once you grasp the magical perspective, everything comes down to magic; there's a reason it's been called the Great Art.

Kieran, excellent! Among other things, if somebody's going to be weaving down the road after two too many beers, I'd much rather they were doing it on a bicycle.

Planningdown, at the end of the day, all the rhetoric about "bright green environmentalism" amounts to the same thing as the rhetoric about changing the system at the root -- that is, it's an evasion of the need to get to work in one's own life. I wish it were less simple than that.

John Michael Greer said...

Er, folks, I let a couple of posts through with mild profanities, because they were otherwise good posts, and I didn't want to go through the hassle of deleting them, contacting their authors, and asking for a revised version. The upshot was a flurry of posts -- some from regular posters -- speckled with various forms of gutter language. Since your granny isn't around to wash your mouths out with soap, I've simply gone back to my former policy: if your post contains profanity, I'm just going to delete it, no matter how good it is, and leave it to you to notice that fact. There are plenty of other words in the language, and nearly all of them are more expressive than the handful of weary obscenities that get so much excess use these days!

beardo said...

Here's my reading of this debate:

JMG sees only two possible options for environmentalists who want to prepare for the post-peak future. First, he thinks activists can continue their futile political efforts of the past 30 years. Or, he says, they can take Gandhi's advice and prioritize leading by example, adopting simpler living arrangements to reduce their individual ecological footprints.

Why no other options? Is it possible that the environmental movement's 30 years of repeated failures did not actually exhaust all of the possible alternatives for resistance? The movement's brief early period of legislative successes is supposed to be convincing evidence that "being the change" (personified by Appropriate Technology practitioners at that time), and thereby encouraging others to follow, is activists' best and only bet for stopping environmental destruction.

It is my impression that Owen, fully recognizing the failure of mainstream environmentalism, rejects the claim that Gandhian asceticism is the only alternative. I think he is just as interested in avoiding those failures as JMG. Indeed, that seems to be the central purpose of DGR. While Owen is not explicit about the alternatives, the DGR mission is essentially to identify the strategic flaws of the mainstream movement in order to act more effectively. JMG deems this pursuit a priori doomed to failure and his own chosen pursuit the only worthy one.

Brother Kornhoer said...

Mr. Greer,

I'm a bit surprised that you thought this week's topic would be controversial; it seems pretty commonsensical to me. As others have noticed, by changing your own life, you're not only providing a positive example, you're eliminating the power that destructive orgnaizations hold over you.

Again, it seems commonsensical to me, but I've certainly seen some glaringly hypocritical behavior. Most recently, someone I know who's involved with local environmental groups, very active, running for local office, and completely peak oil and climate change aware, announced on a popular social media site that's she's off to India for a Bhuddist retreat / guru meetup. And no, she's not taking a sailboat. So much for her carbon footprint. Maybe she'll find enlightenment and take a sailboat back.

On another subject, I'm skeptical of your Marxist comeback idea. However, I have had an idea for some time that at some point the evangelicals will fully split from their alliance with the monied class and try to implement a theocracy which might very well have some socialist characteristics, at least for members in good standing.

JP said...

JMG: I'm well aware of the Jain monastics (and Jainism in general) with respect to non-violence. I'm thinking more of the self-flagellation of the Catholic orders and the wild punishments of the pleasure-denying puritans.

I suppose my thinking is something along the lines of open semi-monastic orders such as the Knights Templar, except oriented toward something other than military excursions (and banking).

Richard Larson said...

Lately I have been thinking that most Americans will have optimistic thoughts no matter what besets them.

Interesting idea of the republicans setting the stage for marxism in such a fashion. I'll be sure to repeat that one, and with as much as I've read that accusation lately, I'll use it often thanks.

Although I have cut back on a great many things - my, a little higher than normal income has allowed - it is difficult to give up on some of the habits one has acquired through-out 50+ years of a generously fossil-fuel energized life.

You've typed, "you are what you comteplate", is coming true, but there are limits to what the mind and body is willing to do, I am learning.

I don't know how the heck you manage, cutting back is one thing, but not having a vehicle seems to be akin to living in a cage.

commongroundgarden said...

Wow! Bobos, it’s perfect!

I was accidentally left in charge of a community garden a year ago, with the proviso that a lot of people were apparently going to help me, most of whom turned out to be full of hot air, as these so-called helpers were just out to preach about growing organic food but never around to actually practise it. I’ve been struggling to find an apt but un-profane way to describe them, and Bobos is just right!

They blabber on about organic perma-culture, but are never around to actually do any work in the garden. They protest against ‘un-cool’ products such as sweat-shop sneakers and jeans, but would never dream of protesting against their beloved MP3 players and fancy laptops. They protest against people getting fat in fast-food chains yet still buy over-priced coffee from popular coffee-chains.

I don’t question their honest motives, but all too often they don’t practise what they preach. They seem to think that it’s up to the rest of the world to change, while they can just carry on with their old habits.

I am so going to use that term in future conversations! Thank you!

skintnick said...

I think you probably realise you hit gold with this one JMG. It's a long time since I spent an entire evening flitting from one website to another (largely EnergyBulletin where I was a bit late in reading your post this week) and Owen's piece on DGR and back here reading all the posts and thinking... yes, there really is engagement and enthusiasm out there (e.g. herb) in all corners of the world to make something workable out of the rubble which is to come.

Thank-you for sparking that.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi John,

Oh my, what a can of worms!

There is an unspoken issue in society about risk. People have genuine fear when their choices stray from the tried and true path (ie. the Dream TM). The fear drives the community to conformity.

Sometimes I think that's why outspoken talking heads are always banging on in the media about minor issues whilst they ignore the very real and major issues going on.

Even the activists are infected by the fear of doing something different.

However, it is also worth noting that both the personal and collective choices of the Industrial worlds population are such that the remainder of the worlds population live in abject poverty.

One of the lessons that I have learned here is that it takes a long time (at least a decade) to sort out all of your systems that produce food, shelter and energy. It would be virtually impossible to turn up at a location like this and try and make a go of it. I make mistakes here and learn from them, but I still have the backup support of the Industrial economy.



John Michael Greer said...

Beardo, er, if that's your reading, I think you need to take some remedial reading classes. What you've said has essentially nothing in common with what I said, and I suspect you're aware of that fact.

Brother K., well, it may seem like common sense to you, but a glance over the responses here from Owen Lloyd and Beardo might clarify that a lot of other people don't see it that way at all.

JP, have you ever read the monastic rule of the Knights Templar? It was quite strict -- as you'd expect for a rule composed by Bernard of Clairvaux.

Richard, having a car seems to me like living in a cage. I wouldn't have been able to make it as a full time writer if I'd had to pay for a car, gas, insurance, etc., etc., etc.

Common, oh man. Yes, I know the type. When you get a certain critical mass of them in a project, you get what probably ought to be called bobonic plague -- an epidemic disease that causes so much talking and so little action that nothing ever gets done.

Skintnick, you're welcome!

Cherokee, and of course that's another crucial point. It's all very well to talk about cutting off the industrial culture of consumption at the root, but how are you going to survive after you've done so if you haven't picked up any of the skills that will be necessary?

jollyreaper said...

What passes for gutter language? Didn't think I used any but my post never showed up.

Matt and Jess said...

Hi Common and JMG,

Bobonic plague, I love it! I think that the hard part for some of us (me) is learning to think incrementally. It's very easy to dream of an organic garden paradise in the backyard of your straw bale home that you'll one day own but difficult to live up to the fact that you have to start working with what you have at the moment even though it may not match your dreams of what things will be like someday. I don't have a backyard now, and won't for a while but learning to grow herbs and some basic veggies in pots ought to be a reachable goal this year.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Hello to JMG and all!

Still reading with great interest, but haven't had time to comment--working too hard on spreading green wizardry, er, "sustainability" ideas and practices!

I do agree that one must change one's own life as far as possible before one can have the authenticity to suggest changes to others. We can call it magic, and we can also call it what the Quakers have called it for 350 years, 'living the testimonies.' (Which doesn't refer to the Bible, either). Somewhat synonymous phrases by my lights.

JMG, I particularly like your statement:

What's needed is a "reinhabit right where you are" movement, but nobody wants to hear that -- the daydream of going back to the land, being conveniently unavailable to most people, is far more cozy.

Thanks for saying that, since my own life is centered around that, and around helping others do the same. It doesn't get talked about, or touted, enough, but it's truly what needs to be done on a large scale. And it is happening, if not fast enough--look at the explosion of community gardening in urban areas. I wish more people would embrace the idea.

I believe that those who are walking the low-fossil-fuel path have something of a responsibility to help others so that more people will have the skills necessary in our sustainable-by-necessity future. That's a very useful form of activism, in my book.

Ozark Chinquapin said...

Owen wrote "But just as you can’t end rape by not raping anyone, and you can’t end genocide by not killing anyone, you can’t stop global capitalism by simply ending (or more likely, reducing) your participation in it."

Lets take this comparison a little further. Yes, it's true that simply not raping anyone won't end all rape, but surely it's a prerequisite to any sort of activism. Imagine an organization that claims to take a radical stance on ending rape and sexual abuse, claiming to be getting to the root of the cultural patterns of violence and domination behind the individual incidents. What if this same organization took the stance publicly that it didn't matter if its members were rapists and beat their wives, as a few personal outbursts are nothing compared to the huge amount of sexual abuse taking place in this country due to cultural issues.

That would be rightfully pointed out as ridiculously hypocritical, yet it's the equivalent of what Derrick Jensen and his strain of so-called radical environmentalists say.

Owen's statement "I don’t believe that it is possible to maintain any lifestyle on a sustainable basis in the context of an unsustainable culture" and the paragraph that follows really misses the point. Yes, nobody can live up to the impossibly high standard you've set in this day and age. Saying that it's not worth making any changes because of that it like saying getting into physical shape is worthless because you will never be able to runs mile in two minutes. That ignores the tremendous gains that you can make, it's not all or nothing. My lifestyle is certainly not perfect, but I do consume far less than an average American, and keep on making strides in that direction. Seriously cutting consumption is both pragmatic for ourselves and lightens the burden on the planet. Yes, that's a modest compared to all the environmental destruction going on, but it's a necessary first step. For all the radical talk, what positive environmental changes have Derrick Jensen and the Deep Green Resistance people actually achieved. I haven't seen any yet.

Greg Reynolds @ Riverbend said...

well done John, well done. You know, there is no glamour or fame in staying home and planting cabbages and corn.

You may have been too close to the street lights, but Kohouteck was a very visible comet with a modest telescope.


Brad K. said...


A phrase you use, "There are also substantial personal rewards available for those who take leadership positions in captive constituencies, and help keep them captive" hits at the most potent weakness of multiculturalism, specifically, leaving various immigrant-related communities speaking a non-English language in America (or whatever language the national government uses in whichever land you observe).

That is, you strand a community, isolate it from direct communication and observance of government. You wall the non-English speakers away from important communications, making them dependent on translators and non-elected (and unconstrained) "leaders". And translators and "leaders" with an agenda are given the power to corrupt communications between their community and the rest of the world.

I think this also applies to many other popular figures, that may use their stature to corrupt the flow of information to and from the community of those that look to them.

dandelionlady said...

Thanks for a great post. I protested against the Iraq war and saw how utterly useless it was. Once I understood the ramifications of peak oil, I understood why it was useless. At that point I felt like I had two choices. I could become an activist and go to meetings and marches or whatever, or I could stay home and learn how to live locally and sustainably.

I chose the latter and never looked back. I understand why those activists burn out, they've got two full time jobs! I'm still not living completely sustainably. There are various challenges, we're slowly moving toward it. Just bought some good bikes so we're all outfitted and hoping to do a lot more biking in the future. I totally agree that we can only lead where we are willing to go. One thing I would say is that living a lower energy more local life can have surprising benefits. Watching my children pick veggies from the yard and bring in eggs in my small urban lot brings me a lot of joy.

Igneous: Thank you! I grew up in Detroit, and I'm so excited to learn about Grace Lee Boggs.

xhmko said...


I have re-read your post. One of the feature threads of this article and much of your writing is Gandhi’s famous epithet of being the change you want to see in the world and that idea, or your adherence to it, is not in dispute, least not by me. It is an overstated and under applied principle and asking others to change without out changing your own ways is a futile form of caring for the planet.I did feel that the references to direct action, outreach and community building and activists were very broad and needed some clarification and so took it upon myself to add to the discussion. I understand that you were referencing your experiences and the role of activism in American life, of which I have little practical experience. If I misunderstood you in my response, or was guilty of the tangled emotions entwined in this issue, then I hope it is understandable considering what I have invested in such activities. I do for my part see how unproductive, or even counterproductive many of those efforts were and hope that what I wrote gave off some light, and not just heat. I see this blog particularly as a form of outreach, direct action and community building funnily enough. Perhaps that may seem to be stretching those definitions to some but after all, it’s about doing what works in accordance with your conscience and after all my time spent following your blog, I’d have to say that it is working and I would endorse your blog to any activist I know, and do: kudos. My response was a rant but what I was hoping to achieve was to at least mention in this forum the work that goes into developing activist’s minds and tactics by activists themselves and the self criticism sessions that we have been through and the failings and mental health issues that many end up with due to their efforts. You are on the money with many of your criticisms and I can vouch for that from personal experience. It’s worth mentioning the disrepute that the big-business end of activism can have at the grass roots end also. Activist organizations are branches of civil society that keep alive many important tools, social discourses and local forms of knowledge that are unavailable within mainstream settings. There are a large variety of groups, and tactics employed at the community level would never pass the scrutiny of the board of members of some of the big NGOs. My aim was to add another voice to this discussion, a voice with experience in the area in question and not to point the finger. I can only hope I’ve widened peoples views of what taking part in grass roots activism entails.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi John,

Ha! Ashland, Oregon reads on wikipedia a bit like a city of contrasts.

My ex-boboville was Fitzroy, Victoria:

Fitzroy, Victoria

Over the time that I inhabited that area, gentrification took place and the demographics changed around me markedly. Towards the end of my time there, I no longer recognised or identified with the people who dwelt there.

One thing that I liked about the area though was that the housing stock being mostly from the Victorian and Edwardian era was actually quite beautiful. The streets were also lined with very mature oaks, elms and plane trees as were the parks.

One of my aims for the house and farm here was to surround myself with beauty because, well, it's hard not to be mean, but, the majority of the city is actually quite ugly. Yet so many people live there too (the majority, in fact), who am I to argue with them?



commongroundgarden said...

Bobonic plague! It's funny because it's true! Thanks for that one too.

Matt and Jess you are totally correct. The way to start growing food is incrementally, starting small, taking your time (just like nature), gradually building it up and letting it naturally become part of your routine. A few herbs and veggies in pots is already a great start, it shows you don't need a garden to start learning, and it certainly beats just talking about it. Well done!

phil harris said...

Puts me in mind of the British poet Louis MacNeice writing when industrial Britain, still trailing it's Empire glory, was hurtling from world depression toward world war phase II.
From Bagpipe Music (1937):
The allusions in the poem at large use the language of economics - and the theme is poverty in its modern guises: a society in trouble. We had weather forecasts: mass circulation newspapapers and radio was widespread (middle class households though still had barometers, where you 'tapped the glass'). Britain often suffers miserable weather - much like the last few days. (Shakespeare: "Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May".)

It's no go my honey love, it's no go my poppet;
Work your hands from day to day, the winds will blow the profit.
The glass is falling hour by hour, the glass will fall forever,
But if you break the bl'dy glass you won't hold up the weather.

@ Cherokee
Chris. Great post: quote, "It would be virtually impossible to turn up at a location like this and try and make a go of it. I make mistakes here and learn from them, but I still have the backup support of the Industrial economy."

Incrementally, if there are a few more of you, you could become the backup for others, and less reliant on Industrial Economy?

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi John,

A strange thought popped into my head which I thought I'd share.

Over the past decade or so, our culture has changed whereby the leaders of various organisations have been provided with a voice and support from within their various organisations that is not commensurate with their abilities. It wasn't always this way and it is a fairly recent change (cult of personality?).

However, this voice and support gets used by these same people to pursue their own self-interest, whether it be remuneration (usually) or pet ideology. Plus maintaining the status quo keeps the gravy train rolling on.

It kind of occurred to me that if the Boards of NGO's commanded large resources, they'd fall into the same trap too.

Sounds a bit conspiracy theory, doesn’t it? I don’t mean it that way though, it just a brief flash of insight into the minds of those at the top of large organisations.



Ing said...

I wonder if it's true that this topic has generated more heat than light. Certainly there will be people who seek heat. Either way, I'm glad you took on the topic. Not because I am interested in protests (the only thing I have protested was having to clean my room as a teenager) but because of where it led me personally and what I was able to share of it with those around me.

Having come from alcoholics and enablers, black sheep and the righteous of a fringe religion, I'm sensitive to how deed and word align, but also aware that we are complex beings each with a path that may be incomprehensible to someone else. The people I am most inspired by are doing their work and not asking anything of me that they haven't asked of themselves, and for me, the most lasting change comes from inspiration rather than fear.

Whenever I feel offended or the heat rises about a topic I know it's probably not the topic that needs my attention but it's more likely a gate, one I can enter or pass by, to something deeper in myself, some part that may have been long forgotten and in need of some interaction, play, expression. Yesterday I found succour in the Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist by Paul Kingsnorth (thank you Kieran for the link, and oh my, Dark Mountain feels somehow like home). I've been about as much of an environmentalist as I have been an protester, but I think what he's written about is part of a natural progression when we reach a point in our lives or the life of a project when we must retreat and reflect even more deeply, perhaps to let the extraneous that has collected around our core fall away or at least take stock of what has gathered over time. When I've done this fully it's taken me much deeper into life, away from anything that could be packaged for any kind of consumption but that I might one day be able to share and be witnessed in.

The inner work is as important as the outer work, the personal work as important as the community level work. As above so below. One is a reflection of the other, how could it be anything else?

I've spent a lot of time split, and this looks like another call to integrity. Maybe I'm learning to see through the inner poet's eyes.

Andy Brown said...


I came late to your post this week, because I've been traveling all week in the US interviewing people about jobs, the declining quality of jobs, and, more often than I'd expected, the decline of America. I've been talking to regular people - nowhere near any real protest movement, much less a progressive one. But there's a pervasive sense that people are going to have to lower their material expectations, because the good jobs are not coming back. This bothers me, not because it's wrong, but because it is clearly going to be very convenient to the powers-that-be, and I expect it to be increasingly embraced as a way to keep people's hands off the pitchforks (or their golf-clubs as the case may be). Also, the mindset that is evolving is more feudal serf than green wizard, but then I suppose changing that is a task worthy of the wizardry. In any case, thanks again for a weekly thought-provocation.

Cathy McGuire said...

Sorry I haven't commented for a while, but your post now comes on my Master Preserver class days - it's an incredible class and I'm so glad I signed up! And am looking forward to demo'ing canning, drying, safe preserving at the fairs and farmer's markets this summer! So much to learn...

Walking your talk is always harder, but these days those are the only people I pay attention to - talk is so cheap. And as I age, I'm giving out less and less advice, seeing how much I still need to get my own house in order.

I sure wish I were going to that PA seminar on Memorial Day!! But I am going to a cobb bread-oven building, at the home of a permaculturist in my own town that I just met! I'm psyched for that.

Thanks again for your cogent analysis.

John Michael Greer said...

Reaper, if it's profanity, it doesn't get through. Simple as that.

Jess, excellent! Starting with a few potted herbs and vegetables is a good first step.

Adrian, one of the most admirable things about the Friends, from my outsider's standpoint, is their consistent willingness to walk their talk. It's a habit a lot of us could use learning.

Ozark, an excellent comparison, well developed; you get today's gold star. In fact, I'd like to use the rape metaphor, with proper attribution, in next week's post.

Greg, I was past my junior amateur astronomy phase in those days; now I'd be better equipped, having an inexpensive but quite decent 4" reflector on hand.

Brad, all too true. The same process takes place on the other side of the political spectrum with religion rather than language and culture as the line of fissure across which unelected leaders control the flow of information.

Dandelion, none of us can live in a completely sustainable manner yet -- we live in a society that's organized in ways that exclude that possibility. The important thing is to do as much as you can, and learn the skills that are going to be needed as the industrial system comes apart and greater levels of sustainability are not merely possible but necessary.

Xhmko, of course this blog can be seen as a form of direct action, community building, and outreach. It's as effective as it is because it combines those tools with the central theme of taking personal responsibility for making changes on an individual level -- in my own life, and in the lives of those readers who are willing to do so. I'm not sure why you seem to think that I'm presenting this as an either/or (activism vs. personal change) when what I'm saying is that activism becomes most effective when it is combined with personal change. Is that so hard to grasp?

Cherokee, Ashland is like many other formerly hip venues, a place that used to have a lively counterculture presence until the bobos flooded in, the cost of living soared, and the hippies were priced out of the market. Sounds like Fitzroy is another example of the species.

John Michael Greer said...

Commonground, you're most welcome.

Phil, many thanks for that -- MacNeice was a superb poet, and his work stands up very well today.

Cherokee, it's not conspiracy theory, and it's not a new thing either -- you might want to reference the Peter Principle, which argues that in any hierarchy, people tend to rise to their level of incompetence. The fossilization of once-useful organizations into props for the status quo is a very old story.

Ing, I wish more people saw it as something that self-evident.

Andy, I'm delighted to hear that. It won't keep people's hands off the pitchforks -- if people become convinced that it's going to be poor, the flaunting of conspicuous wealth is going to enrage them; it's the fantasy that we can all make it rich that leads so many people to make excuses for the perks of extreme wealth, since there's always the hope that any one of us might enjoy them someday. To the extent that people come to terms with the reality of our decline, expect massive tectonic shifts in the political and cultural spheres.

Cathy, helping to build some local project beats attending a conference three falls out of three. Enjoy the oven-raising!

magifungi said...

I get that within binary thinking, Protest/No protest, staying home and creating a happy, hard working, self sufficient life free from compromise with the oil culture is seen as the more effective middle way of change. So how about the binary thinking of Protest lifeway vs Self sufficient Lifeway, I have seen in this discussion, is there a middle way?

Is there a way for self sufficient lifeway folks to be more successful at challenging the most deadly parts of the system than waiting until the fall out hits and seeing who is left? I suspect that the hipocritical lifeway, clueless protesters ineffectively trying to change the system have had some positive effect... There is probably even a middle way between binary Success vs Failure!

Where I live in the Pacific Northwest, the Fossil Fools want to ship massive amounts of coal by rail and/or barge from Idaho through the Columbia Gorge for sale to China, so they can make us more stuff to buy. I have numerous choices: ignore the possibility/consequences and go out and plant more garden; watch the protests from afar, shaking my head at their futility; write 'my' congress people, though God knows how effective that has ever been; drive my gasoline using vehicle and join the protests; gather a small group together using said gasoline vehicles, or by virtual connection, and send healing energy to the planet, specifically the Columbia Gorge in this case. Actually I have been doing all of these things. Binary thinking is such a drag.

But one last question. If burning the tarsands is game over for climate change, as James Hanson puts it, and we all decide to work on perfecting our self sufficiency, rather than jamming the gears of the Machine, will we really end up that much happier? Perhaps, but I wonder?

jollyreaper said...

Not trying to be pedantic here but are we calling profanity Carlin's seven dirty words or are we including blasphemy, minced oaths, conversational Yiddish, rhyming slang, etc? I don't think I said anything that would be bleeped on network television but maybe that's not the standard we're going by.

magifungi said...

Having just read the last dozen comments and your replies after I sent my post, I would like to add that it is the tone of the discussion as a whole that generated my heat more than your original blog. There has also been more than a bit of light. Thanks.

sexyabelincoln said...

Though not directly related to your post, except for a little of the criticism directed at Jensen/Forget Shorter Showers, I recently learned about this method of composting that seems really great, especially for the Pacific Northwest. The larvae of these flies eat everything, produce good fertilizer, and "scrub" pretty much everything free of harmful bacteria like strep, staph, and e. coli. The adult flies have no digestive apparatus so they only live for 3 days. Just wondering if other people have been using this method.

Hal said...

John Michael, I don't know if this post struck anyone else the way it did me, but it reads to me like the blackest one yet.

Not that I disagree with the overall message. I think your criticism of much of contemporary activist leadership is well placed, though I seriously think you overestimate the extent to which that particular weakness is responsible for its failures. Not wrong, exactly, just a bit over-simplistic to anyone who has tried to walk the thin line between being of the culture and criticizing it. There is an extent, it seems to me, to which a person's incongruity within one's culture could be as off-putting (and therefore detrimental to the message) as the perceived hypocrisy you illuminate.

No matter. What really struck me is how stark your vision of the future is, when stripped down to the core, as it seems to me your posts have been doing more and more. Revealing a little bit more each post, till even the duller of us begin to get it. Unfortunately, I find little to dispute on that score.

Apocalypse, maybe not, but 'twill serve.

Ozark Chinquapin said...

Feel free to use my rape metaphor, although I wouldn't have thought it up myself if Owen hadn't mentioned it in the first place.

Thank you for this series of posts on the American empire, and your blog in general. Your ideas have given me a far more level-headed look at the U.S. government, so I see that having a slew of real problems and issues is very different than being the force of evil that so much of the rhetoric that I used to believe says it is.

I'm still hoping you'll share your thoughts on nuclear weapons and their potential impact at some point in this series of posts.

xhmko said...

"I'm not sure why you seem to think that I'm presenting this as an either/or (activism vs. personal change) when what I'm saying is that activism becomes most effective when it is combined with personal change. Is that so hard to grasp? "

I agree totally with you, believe me it has been grasped. What I said (or least what I meant if that didn't come through clearly)was that its brilliant that you do what you do here. It's awesomely constructed writing, grounded in personal effort as well as immense bodies of study and helps others to boot. It was germane to this weeks post to mention that within the activist movements that I've been part of, there have been considerable efforts on the parts of many individuals to cultivate the slow and steady personal changes we are discussing amidst all the Gotta-Save-Everything-Now sloganism.
On first read, I took some of your thoughts on the toolkit of modern activists to be to generalised, but this is really a minor critique and considering the condensing required for small essays like these, it's understandable. Let me just say once more - thank you for your work, it is illuminating and thereby inspiring.

Ing said...

sexyabe, we've bred the black soldier fly and fed the grubs to our chickens. It looks like we might need to buy some grubs to start the process each spring, which is something to consider, as they don't over winter well in our area on the east coast. Last year we had a bear take out the lot, so we'll have to put it in an electrified enclosure. We like it, although didn't start it up this year due to an early swarm season and all the activity that goes along with that. It does take a constant flow of produce and we had a couple of times when we had to scrounge around for enough. Good luck if you decide to try it.

guamanian said...

Hi JMG -- Thanks for taking on this elementary -- and therefore difficult -- discussion.

As an active Red pretty much all my life since my teen years, I'd like to chip in on the incredulity some readers have shown to your comment about Marxism as a contender for a resurgence in the dying days of empire.

One commenter noted that religion was another candidate for this role. I think we should not underestimate the power of fusion between the two in our history. After all, in the US your newest national holiday commemorates a preacher whose social justice program was as near Marxist as to make no difference. In fact, pretty much any successful religious revival movement I can think of, from Hamas to the Pentacostals, has a hefty dose of applied egalitarianism as part of the praxis.

Go back a bit further in US history and you strike a rich vein of Pure American Marxism in the form of the Wobblies. I'd be willing to bet that any latter-day Red protest movement that gains traction on the peak oil downslope will pick up some key attitudes, and even a few tactics, from the I.W.W. of the early 20th century. "We Are All Leaders!" and "Kick the Bosses off your Back" is the kind of in-your-face direct action Marxism that appeals when Americans are hungry and transient.

As a final touch that loops directly back to JMGs thesis of living the change, I am reminded of Scott and Helen Nearing, whose contributions to both Marxist thought and self-sufficient living are near-legendary. Their 1954 "Living the Good Life" is sometimes credited with sparking the back to the land movement that followed. They certainly had their critics, but to my mind did much to live with integrity and clarity.

John Michael Greer said...

Magifungi, perhaps you might show me where in my post I said we ought to get our own lives in order instead of engaging in activism. (Hint; I didn't.) I'm not sure how I could have made my point any clearer!

Reaper, I have no idea what the standard is for network television, since I haven't watched any since my teen years. I don't think it's that difficult to figure out which words aren't suited to all ages and all situations.

Abe, I haven't -- maybe some of the other readers here have.

Hal, I think it's simply a matter of repetition. I've been saying the same things about the future, often in the same terms (e.g., "the US is going to become a Third World nation"), since this blog started. I've noticed though, that it normally takes a while for any one reader to get it -- "Oh, wait a minute, you mean the US is going to become a Third World nation? Jeez" -- the principle may be that stated by the Bellman in Carrol's "The Hunting of the Snark."

Ozark, thank you. As for nuclear weapons, that's coming up.

Xhmko, of course it was germane; I was simply baffled by comments -- yours and others' -- that seemed to assume I was positing an opposition that isn't there.

Guamanian, very likely the rediscovery of America's Marxist history will be part of the process I see coming. Still, much of the process will likely be driven by a simpler phenomenon -- people who want answers to what's happening to their lives and their communities will hear so much ignorant ranting by Republicans about Marx and socialism and communism and all, that sooner or later some of them will pick up copies of the Communist Manifesto and Capital, and find a coherent system of thought that seems to explain what's going on. I don't think it's a particularly good explanation, but to people who are being impoverished by the idiotic policies of today's pseudoconservatives, it's likely to be a compelling one.

Unknown said...

Part 2 of my comment:

A dimension that can help underpin personal and community change is the spiritual dimension. Most faiths and spiritual paths teach us to find personal happiness and stability in the spiritual realm rather than the material realm, so it is a great anti-dote to the conditioning of the Age of Material Excess which is now ending for most of us in the Western World. The paths I am most familiar with are Buddhism (Tibetan) and Paganism (Druidry) and both of these have been a huge influence and support on a personal and community level in my journey towards a more simple and sustainable way of life.

It is not a choice of one or the other between spirituality and activism. I have Quaker friends who very much walk their talk in the realms of peaceful protest, I have been involved in small-scale and large-scale magical work in support of various activist causes and I try to bring my spiritual values and practice into the situations I encounter in life. If I put this at the heart of how I live then right thinking and right action come naturally. We live in a deeply interconnected and interdependent world so what we think and do ripples out and has many effects.

I think your blog and others like it are helping make some people aware of the issues re the long descent and in deepening that awareness and its ramifications in those of us who are already aware.

PS I have bought an extra copy of 'The Wealth of Nature' which I am going to send to Vince Cable as the person in the UK Government who is most likely to possibly take the ideas on board and do something with them. It is at least worth trying.

Keep up the good work.


GHT said...

It's never enough isn't it?

Look, I like you're blog; And depressing as it may be; the idea of a declining civilization seems plausible.

And that a climate crisis is upon us, is a reality we will have to live with.

So you try to do something to help out. You give some money to perserving the rainforest.

But it's not enough.

You have to make some lifestyle changes. So you spend a part of you're savings on isolation an solar-panels, start a vegetable garden in the back and recycle as much as possible. It seems to work a little; the not very enviromentally minded neighbours are convinced that a couple of solar panels might be a good idea and we're all a little bit more sustainable.

But it's not enough, because it's never enough.

You have to give up you're television and contemporary books (although it's never been clear to me what my personell story-taste has anything to do with either peak-oil or the enviroment). And then; will that prevent the prolonged decline-appocolypse.

And why should you do this? Just because you can say you're not a hypocrite. Because apparently it's not just a question of dealing with an unsolvable problem (not enough energy to support our lifestyle in the long run) but of a strange morality. Poverty is better because ... I don't get it.

I don't want to be poor. I might be poor in the future; I might have to give up my tv (and computer; somehow everyone here is still surfing away on the internet with energy consuming devices..) But I don't see how it helps to give it all up now. Just so I can say in 30 years that I was poor in the old days. How will that help society?

Since there is apparently nothing we can do and sustainable energys sources just prolong the inevitable decline; I'm better of just using my money on the things that make me happy.

Candace said...


I think some of the misunderstanding may be that your opening paragraph primed the reader to expect a very controversial view. I think within the unaware "bobo" community what you have written is likely to stimulate defensiveness, but I think most of your regular readers who could identify with the desciption of a "bobo" are somewhere along the continum of moving out of that world view.

So the view that preaching that we should ban some some source of polluting power generation, while at the same time living a lifestyle completely dependent on that same polluting source of power generation is ineffective and likely to continue to be is not that radical to your regular readers.

In otherwords, I think you accidentally primed your regular readers into thinking that you were saying something more "radical" than you were saying. So they dutifully found something "radical" to react to.

My two cents any way...

John Michael Greer said...

Anne, thank you! BTW, I'm not sure why the first half of your comment didn't come through -- it wasn't in the Blogger queue.

GHT, the attitude you've expressed here is of course a very common one. It misses nearly every point that's important in our current situation, but that's not uncommon, either. You say "it's never enough," and if by "enough" you mean something that will prevent the end of the industrial age, of course, you're right; nothing you can do at this point will have the least effect on the speed and severity of the decline. That's already baked in. The question is what you're going to do in response.

Of course you can sit back and enjoy your comfortable lifestyle until it drags you down; a lot of people are doing that. The problem here is that living without all those fossil fueled luxuries takes skills you don't have and preparations you haven't made. The learning curve isn't fast, either. If you get working on it now, you still have the time to learn the skills and make the preparations that will save your life, your sanity, and some of the things you care about as we head further down Hubbert's curve. If you don't, you've just chosen an utterly miserable future.

Your choices right now also shape events further on in the future, and have effects on other people and living things. If you have skills, you can teach them to others; if you make preparations, your ability to help others goes up dramatically, and so does your ability to get by without placing an additional burden on an already overloaded biosphere. If nothing really matters to you other than your own comfort, of course, that's not going to be any kind of incentive, but I'm going to hope that you don't belong to the pathetic class of individuals for whom that's true.

What you do now can make the future better for others. Is that "enough"? Well, when you raise a child, what level of love and caring and hard work is "enough"? If you actually care about something, the question is simply what you can do for it, not what counts as "enough." If you don't -- well, then, I pity you.

Candace, that's certainly possible. I figured that it was going to be controversial, simply because a fair number of my readers feel sympathy for, or are actually affiliated with, protest movements of various kinds.

Hal said...

Hey, John Michael, thanks for the reply. I guess "Third World Nation," in and of itself doesn't worry me. I'm already living in voluntary poverty. But this time I got a sense of how much violence could be part of the experience, especially of getting there.

On the subject of "Bobos," back when I was organizing for various local environmental causes in Northern California, we referred to them as "white wine and brie" activists. Still, I try not to be too critical. There are many a lot more hard-core than me. You just do what you can. Yesterday I taught a session on composting for a "Recycling in the Garden" workshop put on at the community garden and recycling center here in a mid-size Mississippi Delta town. I guess I could have ridden a bike the five miles to town instead of my truck, but then I wouldn't have been able to haul in scrap metal, supplies and grass clippings for the workshop, and I wouldn't have picked up several more bags of clippings and leaves for my compost heap (along with 100' of perfectly good garden hose someone left in a pile) on the return trip.

John Michael Greer said...

Hal, oh, granted, it's easy for the whole thing to turn into a "green macho" contest in which people compete to be seen as more earth-friendly than their neighbors. I don't own or drive a car (or a truck, for that matter), but I do occasionally carpool with others to get someplace Amtrak doesn't go, for example, and I know people who won't do that. As you say, you do what you can, and concentrate on those parts of the picture where you can do the most good.

wall0159 said...

I agree with Hal, re "bobos".

I think it's very unconstructive to call people names and apply broad generalisations ("tar them with the same brush"). The fact is, none of our lifestyles are sustainable -- that's why we expect a cut in living standards in the future.

I've had people at the city farm level accusations of lack-of-gardening at me (my volunteering there is administrative/managerial, because I work full-time and can't make it there during daylight hours. I am working hard on my home garden though, and I'm not one of the people who only drives to the farm (I walk/cycle whenever possible). As Hal said, we do what we can.

Also, working at the farm has opened my eyes to what needs to be done. Don't underestimate the contribution of the administrators and managers. The farm I'm working at is in a dire state because of rampant mismanagent, nepotism and conflict. Without good management, it won't survive.

Finally, I'd like to observe that wealth is not inherently something to be criticised -- any more than the lack of it is.

John Michael Greer said...

Wall, generalizations also have their value. Do you object to terms such as "corporate polluter" or "corrupt politician"? Those are just as much generalizations as "bohemian bourgeoisie." As for wealth, it's worth remembering that in current industrial societies, essentially all wealth comes directly or indirectly from damaging the planet, and its distribution is hardly fair or just. I'm sure there were a lot of wealthy people in the antebellum South who responded very angrily to the suggestion that the wealth they got from the plantation system might deserve some degree of criticism, too.

guamanian said...

JMG, I notice you see only a short window of a decade or two where protest movements may influence the course of things within the American empire, with a hard stop at the point where any further protest or dissent is met with massive violence.

This seems grimly realistic to me... no matter how the details play out, in the end there is no further space for either protest or democracy. The protest movements, or their remnants, go underground. At which point they can only contribute to more unravelling, for there is no way left to 'win' anything meaningful.

Which is not to say that political action and protest are futile now. If anything, now is the time, while the 'objective conditions' allow protest to have some small influence on events ahead.

Still a wise young person will concentrate on learning the skills and walking the walk, and not tie themselves too tightly to the mast of any ideology or movement. The time for ideology will soon draw to a close, and in an age of decline we will need capable and moral survivors far more than martyrs for whatever lost cause.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi John,

haha! Thanks. I nominate you for the elephant stamp of approval (the gold star being yours alone to give) for the laughs that I had reading about the Peter Principle (there were almost tears I was laughing so hard) .

One quote stands out for me, "To become more than a sergeant? I don't consider it. I am a good sergeant; I might easily make a bad captain, and certainly an even worse general. People have had this experience.”

haha! Too true, and having risen to the top of my game, I’ve probably have had a bit of firsthand experience with.

I'll drop this one on you then, in return:

Jumping the shark

It is an apt metaphor considering the discussions here.

On another topic, I've been thinking about herbalism recently and I can see that it suffers from similar image problems to hippies, vegetarianism and solar power (amongst other topics). I haven't quite got my thoughts together about the subject yet, but it sort of offers an independent alternative to modern pharmaceuticals whilst also being an adjunct to it. I've collected about 50 different medicinal / culinary herbs so far and it’s interesting stuff.

Hi Phil,

It would be nice, wouldn't it? hehe! Seriously, that's why I write the articles to give people ideas which have been tested on the ground here. Today, I've planted out a section of jerusalem artichokes and peanuts. It was only recently I learnt how easy peanut butter was to make and the artichokes are meant to be like weeds and any edible crop that is a weed is OK by me.

As our host commented to Matt and Jess, starting to grow anything is good practice and time well spent.



Cherokee Organics said...

Hi John,

Oops, forgot to mention but just this week I started seeing articles in the paper who’s primary purpose was to soothe the reader regarding economic matters - particularly in relation to the Eurozone. Now the last time this happened...

Just a heads up to yourself and the readers here.



Edward said...

I'm starting to wonder if much of the activism is just another form of looting.

Zach said...


That's a distressingly plausible account of how we might see a resurgent Marxist movement in America.

Also, thank you for the reference to Subversive Virtue. I am, of course, more familiar with another ascetic movement of the time which also drew the ire of the Roman Emperors. :) I was not aware that the Stoics and Neoplatonists shared that experience; that's fascinating.

I expect this has some implications for any forthcoming renewal movements, especially if history does rhyme. Is this a theme you plan to explore further?


deeperthanecology said...

Great post JMG, it really summed up my internal struggle with my own boboism and judging by the some of the debate that has been stirred up it has struck a chord with others as well. It is heartening to think of struggle in terms of gradually learning the skills that will be necessary for the future, rather than being involved in some sort of competition to be the greenest.
In terms of organisations that advocate practical change on a personal/local level, I am a big fan of the transition towns movement. They were founded on the basis that “the cavalry will not arrive.” I seem to remember that in the Ecotechnic future you voice reservations about aspects of their approach. But in my view the more successful transition towns really manage to cut through the boboism because of the recognition that we are not about to be rescued by governments or corporations. They are willing to take some difficult decisions because they also see benefits. This leads to improvements in infrastructure and knowledge that can only help to bridge the gap between where we are now and where we need to be to survive when the pumps run dry. Even if they are not spot on in their predications they are at least exploring the options.

Jason Heppenstall said...

JMG, regarding the concept of bobos - and more specifically what they might drink - I thought that you might find this amusing.

LewisLucanBooks said...

@ - Justin Patrick Moore - A tip of the hat for mentioning "The Great Bay" a couple of weeks ago. I got it through Inter Library Loan and polished it off in a couple of days.

Today's had an article called "The Rise of the New Economy Movement." A lot of the things mentioned seemed Marxist or at least communal, to me. But then, I'm not a deep political thinker.

Well, I joined a credit union a long time ago and our State (Washington) is toying with the idea of a State bank. But for on the ground "communalism", nothing beats the experience I had this week.

I can now add "chicken wrangler" to my resume. A first for me. Some friends were going to "process" a small flock of chickens. I was pretty worried about the whole thing. But, I didn't faint, throw up or close my eyes.

Basically, I saved steps and was another pair of hands. I grabbed chickens, hauled carcasses, iced this and that and emptied buckets of offal. Maybe I will try the actual butchering part, next year. Because apparently I was enough help that I've been invited back. And, I have a lot of chicken in my freezer now, and come canned.

I'm sure the folks I was helping out would be horrified if I had "politicized" the days by referring to them as being "communal". Being "neighborly" is the operative term.

Mark Angelini said...

What a fantastic term—bobos. I'll be sure to throw that one around. One reason I get creeped out by liberal cultural centers: lots of boboism.

Rita said...

Back in 2007, and periodically since then, an e-mail circulated comparing Bush's home in Crawford TX with Al Gore's mansion near Nashville. I thought it might be a right wing hoax, so i checked Snopes. According to the e-mail, the Bush home uses a fraction of the energy of Gore's, has a cistern for rainwater, a grey water system, and a geothermal heat pump, among other features. Gore's house uses 10-12 times as much energy as the average home in the US, although it is only four times as large as the average for new homes. The arguments posted by some Gore defenders are the most pathetic part--it uses more energy because its bigger, so the comparison is not fair, and it uses energy swaps--so it is green energy, etc. As you say, people have a good eye for hypocrisy and jetting from your mansion to Hollywood to save the planet just pushes the buttons of the average American.

Many Americans are also strongly suspicious of those they see as elitists who want to stuff the ordinary person into public transit but show no signs of abandoning their own limos. Years ago (late 80s) the head of Bay Area Rapid Transit was asked whether he relied on his own system. He replied that he needed a limo because he had important meetings to attend on a tight schedule and couldn't do so using only public transit. Leading by example won't do everything, but if people riding the subway knew they might be sitting next to their mayor, state senator or even just the manager of the system, they might feel less like rubes being stuffed into cattle cars. Of course the people actually in control don't have any real interest in getting us out of our cars or our McMansions for the reasons discussed in many earlier posts, so long as they can make money selling to us.

Brad K. said...

@ GHT,

"I don't want to be poor."

Just a thought, here, but "never enough" might be expressed as "Until I change my sense of value".

Sure, do without the TV, the microwave, the refrigeration, the computer. The commercial hair products, the store toothbrush, the pre-packaged breakfast biscuits, the vehicle in like-new mechanical condition less than four years old. Does that make you poor?

Procure your food from your garden, or by trading effort or cast-offs with friends and neighbors, pick up clothes at the Salvation Army and re-size them and patch them for work clothes -- and keep one "best" set for social wear. Haunt the city dump, and search store dumpsters for furniture, for handy things, for stuff that can be fixed, or cleaned, to trade for food.

Does that make you poor?

Maybe -- if you think "poor" means "not enough money to buy the necessities through normal commercial and retail channels:, then I guess it does make you poor. Even if the normal commercial and retail channels become undependable.

But if you look at it differently, and think that "poor" means not being able to secure shelter, food, and healthy community and family relationships, then you need never be "poor" at all.

Don't think of the retail opportunities you might miss -- think of the time and freedom you gain to focus on the fundamentals.

Advertising and merchandising in particular make us believe that 'value' means money. And that our value to our country is what we contribute as taxes, and what we spend in the money economy. The fact is that families and communities thrive on non-cash relationships and exchanges. It will be "enough" when you find yourself thinking, "Well, I guess I should keep some money, in case I find something I actually want to pay for." Until then, gardening and other skills from earlier times are a great way to retreat from the stress of the money economy. Even if you do believe you are building a better future for yourself and those you care for.

John Michael Greer said...

Guamanian, I don't know that I'd specify one decade as the remaining time frame for effective protest on this side of the terminal crisis of imperial America -- it could be a couple of years, or (just possibly) a couple of decades. That aside, exactly.

Cherokee, thank you! I'd heard the phrase, but didn't know the source.

Edward, some of it amounts to that -- if it's aimed at grabbing a larger share of the spoils for one particular faction, it's looting.

Zach, why do you think early Christianity adopted so much of Stoic ethics and Neoplatonist philosophy? Despite sharp differences in theory, the three movements shared a lot of praxis in common. As for asceticism and the like as a theme for future posts, well, we'll see; we may be early in the curve for that.

Deeper, I do have some serious reservations about the Transition movement, but I've also written about its more promising sides -- for example, the Great Re-Skilling project. Insofar as it moves away from the old focus on drawing up Transition Plans, and its members roll up their sleeves and get to work on their own lives, it could accomplish useful things.

Jason, funny! I liked the anecdote about the US delegation to the climate change talks, too -- utterly typical.

Mark, bingo. I know the feeling.

Rita, exactly! Both those examples are spot on -- and it's exactly that attitude, that conservation is for other people, that has to be overcome if anything useful is going to be done at this point.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi John,

It is a good metaphor for catabolic collapse and the path of Industrial society post peak oil!

Speaking of which - and this is my last comment for this cycle, promise - but in the excitement of the Facebook public listing, why hasn't anyone pointed out that certain people are cashing in whilst there is still some value to be had? Maybe I'm cynical but that's how I see it. I could be wrong of course.

You know, when I was much younger I remember the Atari 2600 video game console (awesome bit of kit too) and how I drooled at the thought of obtaining one (which I never did). Now, having seen firsthand over the years a fair few software and hardware platforms come and go, I recognise that even these - no matter how popular at the time - jump the shark eventually. (nice tie in too!)



ProvidenceMine said...

This was a wonderful commentary, and very much on point! You simply can't be an instrument of change unless you make changes in your own life. A perfect present day example for me is the Transition Movement, which was started in the UK and has since spread across the world! Actually living the alternative way of life, and teaching others about it, is a far more powerful tool for me than any protest movement.

Please post this version, because the first version has a mistake in it.

Jim Brewster said...

"Bobos through history" could be an interesting dissertation topic. Christianity and Buddhism stand out as movements with asceticism at their cores--Matthew 19:24 comes particularly to mind: "Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."

Yet both have attracted their share of bobos almost from the start. It could be argued that bobos were essential to their survival. The embrace of the Roman bourgeoisie helped turn Christianity from a fringe cult to a state religion that would survive the demise of classical civilization and become the cultural glue of its successor.

@sexyabelincoln: Black soldier flies make an annual appearance in my compost. They speed things up and allow me to compost things (meat scraps, etc.) that otherwise would be dicey. If I had chickens no doubt I would be feed them BSF larvae. For now I'm happy to let the catbirds and wrens enjoy them!

@GHT: Thanks for presenting such a stark question. Whether rhetorical or not, it's useful for all of us to ask ourselves: what's the point? JMG offered a very practical reply (to quote Scar from the Lion King "Be prepared!"). I'd also suggest (re)reading JMG's posts on magic and peak oil, starting about here. To get right to the point, try <a href=">this</a>. You may be more beholden to your "stuff" than you realize.

NTROPEE said...

Intellectuals are drawn to the useless dispute between the personal and the political response like moths to a flame. But thankfully most activists I know have the common sense to recognize that the personal is political AND the political is personal. They joined the effort to block Keystone XL and occupied Oakland while raising chickens and growing their own food. Clearly these two responses work best together--like peanut butter and jelly!

This tired debate diverts attention from what really demands discussion: How do we build an effective grassroots response to collapsing industrialism that is both life affirming and powerful enough to break the death grip of those who would exploit this long emergency at the expense of everyone else on the planet?

From Deep Green radicals like Lloyd, we get superficial remedies like "direct action, community building, and outreach." OK, but how do we build resilient communities that can weather industrial collapse and support grassroots resistance to corporate power? What types of organizations, strategies and tactics advance our struggle? How do we involve more people in this process at multiple levels of participation? How can we seize the initiative and begin taking advantage of the weaknesses and divisions in the forces arrayed against us? Can we use the coming crises to move people toward a more democratic, equitable, planet-healing future instead of being herded further down the road to austere militaristic authoritarianism?

JMG’s “personal approach" is also bereft of worthwhile answers to these questions. The historical “lessons” he draws to discount political action are cherry-picked and distorted to fit his predetermined conclusions. JMG says, “the responses Lloyd, Jensen, and other activists are promoting here have been standard across the spectrum of activist groups for more than three decades now, and that’s more than enough time to see how well they work. The answer? Well, let’s be charitable and say not very well.”

Certainly JMG is aware that there’s more than one way to look at this historical experience. Over the past decades of economic growth, radical movements have had a hard time gaining traction. Growth, for all its depredations, does not provide fertile ground for anti-systemic movements. Thus, it was extremely unlikely that any combination of “standard responses” would have proven successful.

Later, JMG concedes that political struggles will have a decisive impact on our future. He says, “the twilight years of a disintegrating political system often create a fiercely Darwinian environment for ideologies and political movements, in which the only thing that matters is which set of beliefs and personalities can build the strongest coalition at the right time, absorb or marginalize the largest fraction of opposing groups, and make the most successful bid for power.”

Yet JMG shrinks from asking: How do Green activists navigate this treacherous political environment to build “the strongest coalition at the right time, absorb or marginalize the largest fraction of opposing groups, and make the most successful bid for power”? Instead, he praises those who learn how “to get by with less, use their own capacities of body and mind, and work with the patterns and processes of nature.”

What will happen if we offer no resistance those who shred our Constitutional rights, drive our economy off the cliff and ravage the planet? If we forfeit this power struggle to them where will this leave us? Will we toil as serfs on their private estates because we didn’t fight for the land? Will we labor in their debtors’ prisons because we didn’t democratize our economic system? Will tyrants rule over us because we didn’t take power and learn to govern ourselves? Will we suffer an endless series of bloody resource wars because we didn’t dismantle the empire’s military institutions?
Learning to work with nature and get by with less is an absolutely necessary but totally insufficient response to war, tyranny, and ecocide.

Jim Brewster said...

For want of an endquote, a link was lost! This.

John Michael Greer said...

Cherokee, my guess is that the Facebook IPO was partly pump-and-dump, partly an attempt to conjure up a stock market mini-bubble to buoy the economy (or Obama's fading reelection prospects) for a little bit longer. Either way, anyone who invests in it will doubtless get what they deserve.

Providence, well, I'm not really a fan of the Transition movement, for reasons I've discussed in these posts at length, but if it works for you, by all means.

Jim, an interesting point. I have to say, though, that "Bobos Through History" sounds more like a band name to me!

Ntropee, it's remarkable how many people who think they're critiquing me on this post start by misstating its point, as though they hadn't bothered to read the thing at all. This alleged opposition between personal change and political protest is in your imagination, not my post; what the post says is simply that personal change has to be a central part of any effective protest movement. You don't seem to be arguing with that, and neither am I.

As far as growth being an obstacle to social change movements, er, you know, there's this thing called "learning from history" -- you might try it sometime. You have, I hope, heard of the Civil Rights movement and the entire flurry of social change movements in the 1960s? Those took place during periods of steady economic expansion. So did the Progressive movement at the beginning of the 20th century, and a great many other successful movements for social change. The failures of recent social change movements aren't the result of economic growth; they're largely self-inflicted -- a point media activist Patrick Rainsborough, among others, made quite a while back in essays discussing the professionalization of dissent.

Still, if you'd rather pound the stuffing out of a straw man, by all means.

Global Nomad said...


Maybe looking at Ghandi might give you some strategic inspiration?

Alphonse Houner said...

I dropped the term "Bobo" at the dinner table the effect was, I think, similar to a dropping a stink-bomb in a tea room. It made everyone think about how they live especially the old liberal Prius drive in the group. She couldn't figure out where we were coming from until "bobo" was securly pinned to her ideas.

Thanks for a great post.

NTROPEE said...

JMG assures me that I've misunderstood him, like so many others who carelessly read his blog.

But while JMG doesn't openly disdain the political side (that would be silly) he offers nothing to advance these efforts besides telling us that the true key to making our political actions effective is to stop ignoring the personal. As if most of us are!

None of the activists I know are "bo-bos"; they don't ignore the need to transform their personal lives or their communities, but they are also trying to resist the politcal and economic system that threatens to take us and the planet down.

JMG, what wisdom can you offer to real life activists (not the bo-bo caricatures you disdain) that will advance our effort to build resilient communities that can weather industrial collapse and support grassroots resistance to corporate power?

Telling people to "get by with less" and "use their own capacities of body and mind, and work with the patterns and processes of nature" is all fine and good. But it says zero about what types of organizations, strategies and tactics advance our struggle? How can we involve more people in this process at multiple levels of participation? How can we seize the initiative and begin taking advantage of the weaknesses and divisions in the forces arrayed against us? How do we use the coming crises to move people toward a more democratic, equitable, planet-healing future instead of being herded further down the road to austere militaristic authoritarianism?

Learning to work with nature and get by with less is an absolutely necessary but totally insufficient response to war, tyranny, and ecocide.

Guilherme de Baskerville said...

I know it's a bit late in the week's cycle, but I just read something on ClubOrlov that got me thinking. It's from yesterday and Dimitry writes the following:

"Lastly, I am absolutely positive in my overall outlook and disposition, and hopeful that a fast but thorough collapse will leave enough of the planet in a non-toxic, non-radioactive, non-strip-mined, non-cratered state to allow for our continued existence as a species."

It seems to me that Orlov is actually arguing against doing anything to try to stop and/or slow down the collapse scenario, and just prepare oneself to weather it as best as possible and be able to emerge on the "other side", such as it were, alive and with the skills and material means to carry on the best possible existence you can make.

What would you say to something like that, JMG? Time to hunker down in the storm shelter, keep building the skills and whatever infrastructure that will allow you to live well and hope that things blow up as fast as possible?

Even if we could somehow "cushion" the fall a bit, by means of political action, could this end up, perversely, being a bad thing, by extending the time our current system has to mess up the environment and exploit more of our resource base?

hannah_lewis said...

Hi there,

As a first time commenter I would firstly like to express my thanks and admiration for your blog, which I've been reading intermittently over the past couple of years. The scope of your knowledge and sophistication of your analysis are a marvel to me, as are the level of intelligent and engaged commentary you attract and the reliability with which you respond to comments. Very refreshing in the online world where deep and sustained attention is rare.

I'm a committed transition town member (in the UK) and perhaps a borderline 'bobo', although far from earning a six-figure salary. My consumption levels are modest but I am in the early stages of my personal 'great re-skilling', very far from having the skills and habits I would need to weather major shocks to the system I depend on. But it's worth saying that perhaps the biggest change in my life that has come through being involved in the transition movement, is that the number of people I know on a personal level and could depend on (to some extent) in a crisis, has increased at least tenfold compared to my previous 'consumer bubble'. This means also that the diversity of skills I could access through these networks (providing I can also offer something in exchange or reciprocity) has also multiplied vastly, and even that new (or revived) sets of skills and collective capabilities are emerging through links across the network. So no-one has to learn everything on their own.

The question I wanted to raise was this:

What is your take on the use of information technology as an instance of unjust privilege and unsustainable energy-dependency?

It might sound as if I'm pointing the finger (suggesting that because you've got a blog and spend a lot of time on it, you too are a hypocritical over-consumer). But that's not the intention. I am mostly thinking about myself (and others I know) and the fact that we spend a lot of time online and are only dimly aware of the amount of energy we are using in this way, and the material wastage from extracting minerals for IT equipment, etc.

I have so far chosen to involve myself fairly heavily in online communities - while at the same time, learning and planning to wean myself off most other types of resource-intensive activity (by cycling, food growing, working locally, salvaging for re-use, etc). I feel that losing contact with the accessibility of information and the richness of knowledge and perspectives that can be accessed online, would be a retrograde step.

But, sometimes I wonder if I am actually pursuing a chimera, thinking that I can learn what I need to learn by 'accessing information', when the real learning will only come through engagement with the real world.

What do you think? How to strike a balance between information consumption and real-life knowledge creation? Or should the latter take precedence? You clearly don't exclude the former, but what principles do you apply to keep your use of IT moderate and focused on what is really valuable for yourself and others?

I am asking this not only for myself but also because I've become involved in a 'community hub' project (a partnership between a park/greenhouses, re-use centre, theatre and library within an urban neighbourhood). The friends of the library are drafting their vision for its future, and see it becoming a 'digital hub'. I have a hunch this emphasis is unwise, given digital's dependence on energy. But am not sure how best to make the argument, and what to propose instead. Any thoughts?

John Michael Greer said...

Alphonse, that must have been an entertaining meal!

Ntropee, it's really rather rude to insist on talking to somebody in the third person, don't you think? I've written extensively elsewhere on what activists might do in response to the current situation -- here is one example. As for the bobo shortage among the activists you know, that's really good to hear; I've heard from plenty of other people who don't share your experience.

Guilherme, the notion that a fast collapse would be a good thing is fairly common. I've critiqued it at some length elsewhere; the short form is that it's fairly easy to recover from a sudden collapse, and to rebuild a fair approximation of our current society -- which is not exactly a useful thing in terms of the values Dmitry is discussing. (I know that he rejects out of hand the idea that such a rebuilding can take place; it's one of the ways in which I think his predictions miss the mark.)

More generally, though, I think we're well past the point at which any politically possible action can delay the crisis of imperial America. So it's really a moot point; it's in the stabilizing and rebuilding phase after the crisis hits that green activism is likely to have the most effect. More on this in a later post.

Hal said...

Some soldier fly larvae, aka maggots, trivia. A well-known peak oil blogger and I almost came to blows over them in a certain compost heap many years before he went on to his well-deserved fame in the field... I'll never tell the name...

Robert Mathiesen said...


I'm genuinely curious, since you are a new voice here . . .

Why do you think that it is still possible, at this point in our history, to develop some *over-all* strategy for creating "resilient communities that can weather industrial collapse and support grassroots resistance to corporate power"? Or why do you think it is still possible, even in theory, to develop some *over-all* strategy for using "the coming crises to move people toward a more democratic, equitable, planet-healing future"?

It seems very far from obvious that the problem we now face actually has some over-all solution on which it would be good for us all to agree.

What I have taken away from JMG's posts over all these many years is that the time has passed for any over-all consensus strategy to deal with the current crisis. His arguments seem sound to me.

Rather what seems to be needed is the dissensus of many very small-scale, local, highly-varied ways of "muddling through." That is what I have been trying to prepare myself, my family and my small circle of friends to do. It is all I think anyone can hope to do.

DeAnander said...

What a pleasure to hear someone quote MacNeice. And while we're on the wartime poets -- sorry for the sidetrack -- does anyone but me remember a poem one line of which went something like "May come up with a Gatling gun, just the same only different"? I think it was MacN, but it might have been Sassoon. Haven't been able to track it down and it's nagged at me for years, in a quiet part-time way.

Bobos, well... of course people with privileges and perks don't want to give them up, even if they have basically good intentions and feel bad sometimes about the cost of their goodies -- even though they don't really feel, see, hear, experience it, just knowing about it makes their conscience twinge. But people with consciences that twinge occasionally seem preferable to me to out-n-out conscience-free looters and despoilers. Maybe that's just sentimental of me, since the end result is basically the same: the charming, cosy English middleclass culture of afternoon tea, good manners, bibliophilia, probity in commerce, nice gardens and kindness to puppies was founded on slavery, expropriation, etc. etc. Sigh. Behind every comfortable, hospitable Mama Corleone lurks the figure of the Don, and behind him his enforcers.

Activism "worked" in many cases to adjust, or at lease slightly ease, grinding power imbalances between people within a polity; but there's little that activism can do to adjust wilful ignorance of physics, or thermodynamics, or whatever you prefer to call basic reality. So yeah, I don't think it matters much what the bobos do, or what any of us does at this point, as far as the changes ahead; I'm feeling like it's more a case of "adapt or die" than "Save the World".

The world -- as we have known it, that is -- can't and shouldn't be saved; things can't go on as they were/are. Yet the momentum and inertia of the juggernaut is too enormous for any emergency stop to come in time to avert major disruption. Too bad in a way, but there it is; though there is much to critique in D Jensen, he was right on when he called it (western technocratic capitalism) a Culture of Make-Believe: the crash that's coming is partly class conflict, partly national/race conflict, partly based in ancient highly-gendered notions of patriarchal domination (over nature, women, etc), all of the above -- but more intractably it's a widening chasm between fantasy and reality, between a culture of imagination, entertainment and wishful thinking and some basic physical limits. Pigs won't fly, and yet our entire culture is a flying-pig competition.

I'm discovering (through the school of experience) that gardening in a short-season climate is more than a tad challenging :-) Like most amateur/wannabe food producers, I discover daily that it's harder than it looks. Slowly, with many discouraging moments, I'm finding out which cultivars seem to like it in my micro-biome and which don't thrive; fortunately, taters seem to be very happy as do most Asian greens. I figure in a pinch, people can survive on taters, greens, and goat milk (plus eggs and some fruit). Hoping it doesn't come to that in my lifetime, but if it does I'd like to think I can enjoy my taters and greens without pining too much for things like restaurants, Chinese take-out, French bakeries, and the other lovely frivolity that forms a thin but shiny veneer over the disaster of our times.

I keep telling myself that stopping the disaster is the most important thing, the best thing that could happen -- I should celebrate the end of the insanity; but in all honesty I have to admit I'll miss the French pastries. The upside I guess is that I'm appreciating the heck out of every convenience and luxury while we still have it. Chocolate, diesel fuel, grapefruit and internet access are currently at the top of my "thank goodness I don't have to give this up yet" list. Oh yeah, and digital photography.

NTROPEE said...


I apologize for being rude. I don't post comments on blog sites. This is my first. I thought I was speaking to everyone contributing, not just you. So I wanted to address all your interested readers while making it clear what my take was on your ideas without getting them confused with Owen Lloyd's or anyone else who has commented on your post. Third person seemed the best way to address your ideas in some places. Sorry.

Thanks for directing me to your critique of "Globalize Liberation." Much of what you had to say rings true to me. Especially the tendency we have, as activists, to get stuck in a position of the perpetual underdog crusader. This role keeps us from seeing and exploiting the weaknesses that abound among the institutional defenders of the system. This mindset also prevents us from asking ourselves how we can begin imagining & creating the future we want as we try to unseat and outflank the forces working against us.

John Michael Greer said...

Hal, it certainly wasn't me!

DeAnander, it's important to remember the good as well as the bad, and the bad as well as the good. Modern industrial society contains both, and a lot of stuff in the middle as well -- and I don't think the various efforts to define it as all good or all bad are particularly helpful.

Ntropee, thank you for reading and thinking about the essay! There's a lot that can still be done by an activist approach just now, though I'm uncomfortably aware that we could go through a period of a decade or so in which people who show up for a protest march can count on simply being rounded up, shot, and dumped in mass graves. In the years ahead, there's going to have to be some very subtle and unsentimental strategizing on the part of those who want a better world, and I haven't seen anything like enough of that yet.

Justin said...

But it says zero about what types of organizations, strategies and tactics advance our struggle? How can we involve more people in this process at multiple levels of participation? How can we seize the initiative and begin taking advantage of the weaknesses and divisions in the forces arrayed against us? How do we use the coming crises to move people toward a more democratic, equitable, planet-healing future instead of being herded further down the road to austere militaristic authoritarianism?

You cannot involve more people in something. One cannot involve another person or persons in anything. Moving people in any direction is the road to austere militaristic authoritarianism, though you may call it planet healing and equitable if you like and I can call it fried chicken.

NTROPEE said...


You say: "You cannot involve more people in something. One cannot involve another person or persons in anything. Moving people in any direction is the road to austere militaristic authoritarianism, though you may call it planet healing and equitable if you like and I can call it fried chicken."

What a sad, cynical comment. If people hadn't inspired me to get involved in the anti-war movement; if Ceasar Chavez and Dolores Huerta hadn't moved me to become an organizer for the United Farmworkers Union, my life would have been a much less challenging & fulfilling one.

People move each other to take action by showing them what's possible when they stand together and refuse to be cowed or intimidated. It's as simple as that.

Bruce The Druid said...

Some of these responses remind me of the reason Dave Foreman of Earth First! fame dropped out of mainstream environmental lobbying. He was dismayed about how many of the so-called nature lovers really had a poor grasp of Nature, and had, in one sense, a very limited experience with Nature outside of weekend camping trips and nature documentaries. He also found out the limitations of direct actions, as the FBI brought very heavy guns to bear on the "eco-terrorists".
I always wonder about these people who proclaim a love for Nature, but don't seem interested in learning lessons from Nature. I would have to say at that point, that the ecological cause is simply a vehicle to launch the latest revolution, which will end in another round of executions, or with a new set of dictators installed.
I suppose "Animal Farm" is no longer on the required reading list?
I have come to the conclusion that Americans are most handicapped in this matter, given our addiction to binary thinking. The only remedy in know of is to obtain 5 to 10 translations of the Tao Te Ching, and meditate upon the themes presented. It has done wonders for me to break out of the binary, and perceive different patterns of thought, different courses of action.
Of course, I have heard getting lost in the Wilderness of weeks on end can do wonders as well.

macsporan said...

Here's a thought: Soviet Communism was very largely about building up industry via working people very hard and keeping them at it by Terror and Labour Camps, justifying itself by telling the people that if they didn't go along with it they would be crushed and enslaved by "the Imperialists".

Could a future Green/Marxist regime in the US could get people to fall into line by putting them to work on renewable energy projects in the same way that Stalin did in Russia?

"Either we cover the land in solar panels and wind-turbines or we fall into and endless Dark Age."

If push comes to shove there would perhaps be people willing to shoot to kill in furtherence of such a project, especially as the first several batches to be shot in the head and tumbled into mass graves would be their old foes in the Right.

You never know it might even be popular, it might even work if pushed with sufficient ruthlessness and disregard for human life.

Today's Bobo's might be tomorrows executioners and camp guards.

It is also by no means out of the question that the outcome might be exactly the same if American democracy was overthrown by some form of Christian Fascism or military dicatorship.

Interesting times...

NTROPEE said...


You ask: Why do you think that it is still possible, at this point in our history, to develop some "over-all" strategy for creating "resilient communities that can weather industrial collapse and support grassroots resistance to corporate power"? Or why do you think it is still possible, even in theory, to develop some "over-all" strategy for using "the coming crises to move people toward a more democratic, equitable, planet-healing future"?

I don't think that some comprehensive plan can or should be developed. And I'm not saying that the government or economic elites will be part of building any useful response to catabolic collapse.

But I do think is is feasible for a grassroots resistance movement to eventually congeal around the need for: 1) dismantling militarism & empire; 2) economic security & social justice; and 3) harmonizing and healing our relationship with the planet.

These 3 movements already exist in embryonic form in America and around the world. Their most coherent expression at this point are the global social forums that began at the turn of the century in Puerto Allegre, Brazil. These emerging resistance movements will have more staying power and deeper roots if they become integrated into widespread, but locally based, efforts to build resilient communities (like Transition Towns) that prepare themselves to take up the vital functions of survival & security as the institutional edifice of industrial capitalism crumbles.

The whole process may really gain traction if a new cultural narrative takes shape through music, drama, dance, art, etc. that celebrates and honors the spirit of human solidarity and planetary renewal and rejects consumerism, nationalism, and all the other "isms" that keep us divided and unable to defend our long range interests as a species.

I also think it is possible to develop a much more sophisticated approach to waging this protracted power struggle. One that maximizes our advantages, anticipates crises and formulates useful responses, and outmaneuvers and outwits efforts to crush us. I agree with JMG that the system is really much weaker than many activists think. And when it can't provide people with the means of everyday survival and security that give it legitimacy, people will seek support from those who have been preparing for collapse.

My biggest worry is how to defend ourselves from those who use their military training and weapons to take what they want from those who don't have the power to stop them. Whether this takes the form of government repression or the violence of local warlords. Community self-defense will become essential somewhere down the road.

These are my rudimentary ideas regarding your question.

Chris said...

I have certainly found in my life, giving up what I had voluntarily, gave me perspective on "balanced" limitation.

I think this is where most people struggle, no matter what their financial situation, cultural background, political views, personal bias or what have you, they come from. It's getting the "balance" right with so many radical extremes chanting action now, that it's hard to come to grips with what *is* enough for individuals.

If people were just happy with ordinary lives, they would have less of a struggle with dimensions of any proportion. Because they would quickly learn, there is always time to ponder the right course of action to take, but takes no time at all to run like a lemming over a cliff or into the clutches of a hungry predator.

Most people need to understand that living life in any meaningful way into the future, takes "time", no matter how cheaply the industrial revolution priced it in the past. This is why I agree that change on a personal level, is the only "real" future any person has. Plus we don't need to gain large numbers of support from elsewhere to change.

lamentforthetirnanog said...

I agree with Justin rgarding Ntropee's remarks. Any time I hear language about how various activist groups want to, for example "move people toward a more democratic, equitable, planet-healing future", it always carries a whiff of the GULAG to me. The fundamental mistake lies in the activist thinking that because they are publicly, actively, and outwardly focus on this future vision, they have any business "moving people" in any direction whatsoever. This smack of an ideological struggle to impose a particular worldview on the globe. There are probably as many legitimate responses to the evils of industrial society as there are people. Some of those responses may be democratic and rationalistic, some might be patriarchal and religious. Making the whole world into a homogenous system will result in evil and suffering regardless of any laudable stated ends.

John Michael Greer said...

Justin, I don't think it would fry well! My guess is that Ntropee doesn't mean -- or at least doesn't think he means -- forcing people to follow the revolutionary vanguard toward the glorious new green future. Whether that's what it would work out to in the end is another matter.

Bruce, that's certainly one cure for binary thinking. I find it also works to do the old Druid Revival exercises in ternary thinking -- for example, every day, when you read the morning paper (or news websites, these days), note ten binaries being shoved at you by the media and find a third alternative to each one.

Macsporan, I think it's all but certain that some such project will be attempted, though whether it gets put into place will depend on any number of factors. The French and Russian revolutions started out with grand talk of human rights and ended with guillotines and gulags respectively, and a green revolution could just as easily go down the same path.

Chris, well put. I think sometimes the best place to start is to stop -- set aside all the demands for action, just for a little while, and take the time you need to figure out what actually matters. That will field a storm of condemnation from all sides, of course, because all sides have much to gain from keeping people rushed and not thinking.

Lament, I tend to think rather that the core mistake of most activism is the assumption that having the right goals is a protection against using the wrong means. History shows otherwise with bitter consistency; it also shows that a movement can start out with the highest ideals imaginable, and descend step by step into inhuman brutality, by the simple process of treating its goals as more important than the moral status of the means it uses to get there.

NTROPEE said...

JMG, Chris & others,

I guess it shouldn't surprise me that so many people immediately imagine gulags and guillotines whenever people bring up the need to take collective social action to change the power relations that benefit the few at the expense of the many.

How easy it is to forget that collective social action brought this country into existence; helped abolish slavery and end segregation; protected the rights, security & safety of people in their workplaces; brought down the threat of fascism; improved the status of women; and initiated an effort to defend the environment from mindless industrial expansion.

Of course, the record of bottom-up grassroots political action definitely has a downside. It's not all "bread & roses." But it is important not to throw the baby out with the bath wash. Can demagogues lead these movements astray? They can and they have. Movements must work tirelessly to evolve sound democratic principles and practices that limit and counteract infiltration, co-optation, demagoguery and the tendency toward intolerance and extremism that can be so destructive to their goals and values and make people fearful of involvement.

In the end, societies must have some form of governance. And social movements are one of the best schools I know of for teaching people the real meaning of participatory democracy...which is the best of all the imperfect political systems I know of.

Iuval Clejan said...

As far as being able to make changes in one's own life, it seems much easier to do intensive gardening than grow grains and legumes and raise animals for meat, which is where most of our calories come from. So I appreciate Starhawk's (and other anarchists such as Ghandi's)sentiment, but without being able to do extensive agriculture, and without being able to provide tools for gardening, food processing and other basic needs, one is effectively still as dependent on the system one is trying to change as one who is not doing even intensive gardening. The difference between Starhawk and Ghandi is that Ghandi thought of the bigger picture, not just gardening.

Justin said...

JMG, I forgot to post a link to Gar Alperovitz's article, The Rise of the New Economy that was right next to yours on the energy bulletin. The movement Alperovitz outlines has a socialist bent in organization and outlook. When the right politician comes along to tap into this... I think your prediction will end up being very prescient in the near future.

NTropee, this was from a comment directed at someone else, but your use of language is loaded with authoritarian subtext. Whether that is your intent or an unavoidable (albeit unintentional) consequence of your world view is something only you can answer. I'll add some comments to your notes to show you how they look to others.

The whole process may really gain traction if a new cultural narrative takes shape through music, drama, dance, art, etc. that celebrates and honors the spirit of human solidarity and planetary renewal and rejects consumerism, nationalism, and all the other "isms" that keep us divided and unable to defend our long range interests as a species.
Think the above through, you have not given a name to your -ism, but it would supplant nationalism and other isms as a unifying principle in outlook and behavior to work.

I also think it is possible to develop a much more sophisticated approach to waging this protracted power struggle. One that maximizes our advantages, anticipates crises and formulates useful responses, and outmaneuvers and outwits efforts to crush us. I agree with JMG that the system is really much weaker than many activists think. And when it can't provide people with the means of everyday survival and security that give it legitimacy, people will seek support from those who have been preparing for collapse.

Sounds like you are envisioning a militaristic, doctrine based organization. (So much for art and dancing!)

My biggest worry is how to defend ourselves from those who use their military training and weapons to take what they want from those who don't have the power to stop them. Whether this takes the form of government repression or the violence of local warlords. Community self-defense will become essential somewhere down the road.

Your biggest worry is a vicious threat that has not yet materialized and you are wanting to take action now to respond to it, as you imagine it will be. This is very close to the logic behind the doctrine of preemptive war. This last bit reads strange and a touch paranoid to me.

I am reasonably sure that you are not a strange and paranoid person based on the wider context of your writing, but there are strains of thought in your writing that come through as such. An impersonal and virtually anonymous piece of advice, consider what I am writing with the pretense that I am not trying to flame, troll or otherwise aggrieve you.

macsporan said...

To give the Devil his due: the French Revolution did drive the foreigners from France and did lay the foundations for a Liberal-Democratic State, which, once the Napoleonic Adventure was over, lasted more or less to the present day.

The Russian Revolution did quadruple production and did defeat the evil Germans in WW II.

If such a regime came to power in the US and did install renewable energy, subsequent generations would have cause to be grateful to them no matter how harshly it was brought about.

Such a society would be far better prepared to face the long future than one that didn't.

Nor should it be forgotten that a significant price in blood was extracted for the English and American Revolutions, not to mention the original Industrial Revolution itself which was paid for among others by victims of the Caribbean Sugar Gulags of the 16th-18th Centuries, innumerable Indians of both sorts and of course the legions of dispossessed factory-fodder throughout.

Time, romanticism and historical illiteracy has softened these memories but for the people concerned the blood and tears were every bit as real as anything we may experience today.

As we didn't build a renewable energy future calmly and deliberately when we could we may have to build it frenetically and under compulsion because we must.

Just another reason for our descendants to detest us, I suppose.

Robert Mathiesen said...


Thank you. I understand better what you meant and where you are coming from. You seem youthful, full of hope, and even cautiously optimistic. Best of luck to you!

I am old, a member of the silent generation, and I lived through the heydays of the progressive movements from the 1950s onward. I thought at the time that the ones that yielded positive results did so more by luck than by the skill and determination of the activists, and it seemed to me at the time that some of them might easily have triggered an all-out civil war followed by the rise of something like a fascist government. The arc of history does not necessarily bend toward justice at any particular time, and perhaps not even at all, viewed over the centuries and even the millenia.

But we dodged a few bullets back then, and maybe we can dodge a few more in the years to come. So I wish you the best of luck.

So I am deeply skeptical of the risks of activism at any time. Yet we were lucky back in the day, and we may perhaps be lucky again.

Chris said...

I probably would have been on the side of condemnation once too. But then I changed.

All sides at once, lacks perception and can never have a body in an individual soul. We will reject it first, rebel, this is our natural condition and I'm sure you've probably tracked this pattern in the history books.

But rebelling is only part of the equation. Acceptance comes next, then a period of grace whereby we pay back our debts we overdrew with hindsight. Society seems to be rebelling collectively now (about who should pay back what - if anything at all) but it's always going to be an individual response which carries the burden of change.

No one person can pay back the debt of anyone else. You can only recognise what you took with a balanced measure yourself, and pay back what you can work towards. People who never recognise there needs to be a balanced measure seem to take the most liberty with others' freedoms and perceived debts they owe society.

We all owe something or rather which cannot be demanded all at once from every perspective imaginable. I believe that is what you're trying to explain in your essays. Rebellion by confused masses, never leads to favourable conclusions. Clarity is always the first casualty of such confrontations.

That little bit of knowledge, frees us enough to stop and realise, confusion doesn't have to be our natural state - and we don't have to talk in ultimatums to garner support from elsewhere.

There is reasoning we haven't learned to tap into yet, so the search for dialogue continues. So not everyone agrees, but the conversation goes on. We'll hit pay dirt eventually. :)

Chris said...

Hi NTROPEE, rather than disagree with you I would like to agree (but expand) on something you wrote.

You said it's easy to forget what collective social action has done for society. To which I agree, especially for younger people who don't have the luxury of former knowledge. They need that knowledge so they don't repeat the same mistakes.

What we can do as a society, rather than continue the momentum of movements (also teaching the younger generation to adopt opposition to achieve anything) is build rituals in our daily lives, to help remember the important stuff.

In Australia we have ANZAC day to remember the fallen soldiers in Gallipoli. This is given a national public holiday and every school does something ceremonial (as a collective) to remember the price of freedom. My mother, myself and my own daughter were part of Anzac day ceremonies at school. We have a saying that goes along with it - "Lest we forget", and let's hope we don't!

What we aren't remembering is the spirit of that day, every other day. And we raise the younger generation against a backdrop of hopelessness, with an endless monologue of destruction which gets harder for them to carry (let alone perceive) every day. To which I can understand the reasoning behind JMG questioning the way we operate as collectives, and what do we truly understand from that process?

As a woman, I benefited (but also lost some things) with the emergence of feminism. I teach my own daughter about the values which were beneficial, but I don't repeat the same dogma that actually hurt how guys were perceived by society, in order for the change to happen.

Nothing is more distasteful than reading degrading comments about guys intelligence, to sum them up as a sexual deviant - rather than a valuable participant in society, who like all of us, crave intimacy. How many generations of women were subjected to similar dogma without deserving it in the past?

I would hope my daughter's generation will take those freedoms as given, and practice every day the value of them, rather than repeat a dogma which forgets women (and men) have attained their freedom by now.

I do agree we have the nature to forget, but how we remember also determines how we ultimately treat the world every day. To which I say I agree with some of your concerns, I just feel we need an approach which deals with individuals fully.

Otherwise we do let future generations down just as equally as having turned a blind eye.Because we taught them how to confront opposition for good causes, but we didn't teach them to practice love and value that, as just as honourable - if not more so.

Moyses said...

I really like The Archdruid Report and I strongly agree with the basic idea of this post: activism without personal change is ineffectual at best and can even be counterproductive. I must say, however, that upon reading JMG’s stunningly inaccurate representation of Marx’s ideas I was immediately reminded of those analysts of the energy industry who mock peak oil "theorists" for predicting that we’re about to "run out of oil", or that say hopingly that the US may be about to become energy independent (yes, it really is that bad).

Anyway, that will not prevent me from coming here every week - as a chronicler of the end of the empire, there are few things as good in literary and journalistic quality as the Archdruid Report. Cheers!

NTROPEE said...


You're right about JMG's trivialization of Marx. The strange thing is that when you read The Long Descent and the blog posts that deal with history (like the development of the American Empire) it becomes obvious how much JMG's method of historical analysis is derived from the historical materialist approach developed by Marx & Engels.

Mind you, I'm not saying JMG is a consistent historical materialist--he's not. But I wonder if he realizes how much his approach to history has in common with the historical materialist method of analysis.

John Michael Greer said...

Moyses and Ntropee, by "trivialization" I gather you mean "paying attention to how it works in the real world." Marx's ideas, as I've commented more than once in these essays, deserve careful study by anybody interested in political economy -- but the real world consequences of trying to put those ideas into practice also need to be taken into account. I quite understand, though, why today's Marxists get so shrill when this latter issue is raised!

Moyses said...

Mr. Greer,

I can only speak for myself, obviously: I didn’t use the word 'trivialization' and I was not referring to the habit of judging Marx's ideology based on the merits of the Russian Revolution. What I wrote about is simply the fact that, objectively, your knowledge about what Marx's ideas are and what they're not is very limited. No, he did not consider natural resources to be valueless and no, he did not subscribe to the paradigm of perpetual growth. Only someone who doesn't know even the most basic features of Marx's worldview can believe that he accepted those ideas.

But, as I wrote in the original comment, I don't blame anyone for being ignorant about Marx, especially not in the US. The cultural fog left by Cold War propaganda must be so thick that it would take much more than just intelligence to see through it.

NTROPEE said...


I'm not sure what "shrill" Marxists you're referring to. But I would submit that it is important to remember that Marx & Engels aren't responsible for everything done in their name. The process of social change itself always modifies the ambitions, policies, goals, and programs under which social change proceeds.

In Engels words:
“…numerous desired ends cross and conflict with one another, or these ends are from the outset incapable of realization, or the means of attaining them are insufficient. Thus the conflict of innumerable individual wills and individual actions in the domain of history produces a state of affairs entirely analogous to that in the realm of unconscious nature…The many individual wills active in history, for the most part, produce results quite other than those they intended--often quite the opposite.”

Nowhere is the verification of Engels’ powerful insight more obvious than in the outcome of the political movement he and Marx founded. Over a century-and-a-half later, the citadels of world capitalism remain untouched by their "international proletarian revolution."

Yet ironically, while their communist vision has not materialized, Marx’s program was warped to fit the interests of the soviet state and the East European regimes under its sway. This led to some bizarre distortions of his ideas. For example, in Poland, working class leaders were jailed and their Solidarity movement crushed in Marx’s name; after all, how could workers possibly go on strike or rise up against their own state? Meanwhile, in capitalism’s underdeveloped periphery, rural, peasant-based nationalist movements organized themselves under the banner of the international proletarian revolution.

Marx and Engels’ communist ideology has indeed produced “results quite other than they intended--often quite the opposite.”

However, some of the powerful insights provided by Marx’s materialist method of analysis provide excellent starting points for uncovering and explaining the historical limitations, conceptual flaws, and political distortions of his own theoretical conclusions.

For example, take their notion that the technologies employed by any society have a profound impact on the social and class relations needed to operate them. “Social relations are closely bound up with productive forces,” wrote Marx in THE POVERTY of PHILOSOPHY. “In acquiring new productive forces men change their mode of production…the hand mill gives you a society with the feudal lord; the steam mill, society with the industrial capitalist.” This insight can be very helpful in explaining why the policy of rapid industrialization pursued after the Russian and Chinese revolutions could not possibly yield broad-based, democratic, working class control over the economic system. Large scale industrial societies foster and require centralized modes of control--like corporations and central committees--not participatory democracy.

John Michael Greer said...

Moyses, I've read quite a bit of Marx, and clearly recall passages that don't correspond at all to what you've just said. (I checked his books out from a variety of libraries, thus don't have them to hand to cite examples.) I may just revisit him as time permits, and post a more detailed discussion one of these days.

Ntropee, whether Marx and Engels are "responsible" for what consistently happens when people try to build societies based on their ideas is hardly the point, and if you want to talk about the value of a critical understanding of Marx' ideas as an essential part of an education in political economy, I'm not arguing at all. My point, again, is that when people do try to build societies based on a Marxist blueprint, those societies reliably turn into bleak bureaucratic dictatorships. It wasn't just the Soviet state and its European buffer zone; China, Cambodia, and a baker's dozen of Third World Marxist states did exactly the same thing. That's not a trivialization of Marx, merely a recognition that one narrow section of his and Engels' work -- the part that tried to sketch out what a postcapitalist world would look like, and how it might arrive -- contains lethal flaws that, combined with the prosaic realities of human nature, foster tyranny. Could those flaws be fixed? Probably, but I have yet to see a convincing job of it.

Moyses said...

Well, when or if you do find the time to look into Marx's writings again, be sure to take a look at things like his Critique of the Gotha Program, which starts with:

"Labor is not the source of all wealth.Nature is just as much the source of use values (and it is surely of such that material wealth consists!) as labor, which itself is only the manifestation of a force of nature, human labor power." - [Emphasis in the original]

Also, consider chapter seven of Capital, in which he describes the process by which humans produce their means of subsistence in and through Nature:

The concept of metabolic rift between town and country, etc:

That said, I can certainly see how someone who has a superficial understanding of Marx’s theory of value can fall into the mistake of thinking that he did not attribute value to natural resources. The root of the problem is that what Marx means by "value" is different from what the common usage of that word implies (including its usage in Economics textbooks). In the usual meaning, the word value refers to a relationship between a person, acting as an 'evaluator' and some thing or process to which value is ascribed. In this sense it would be quite ridiculous to say that natural resources have no value. But this is not at all what Marx means. In his terms, the notion of value refers to the fact that, in a market economy, the mutual interdependence between the members of society is mediated through the exchange of the products of their labor, and that that interdependency can only be expressed as an exchange "value" of their respective products. Something or some process has value to the extent that it contains socially useful human labor. Labor is then the essence of economic value, and time is its measure. In this sense value is only the form of appearance of a social relation between people. Natural resources cannot, by definition, have this kind of value (under certain circumstances they can have a price, however); that does not, in any way, mean that Marx thought that natural resources are not economically important, only that he thought that "those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails", in very real terms, do treat Nature as a pool of free inputs to be plundered. That, as he pointed out repeatedly, is one of the most irrational aspects of a profoundly irrational system.

Moyses said...

As for those famous 'blueprints', this is far, far more communistic in the sense that I interpret Marx than anything the Bolshevik Party ever did.

Peter Kalmus said...

JMG did you spend any time with Occupy or are you just going off of what the main stream media fed you? Given what you say, I'm guessing the latter. I'd have thought you'd know better.

Occupy said, loud and clear, "get money out of politics." Not really "vague" in my opinion. The MSM did its best to portray the Occupiers negatively, and it was quite successful.

Other than that, nice essay as always.