John Michael Greer is prolific author, independent scholar, historian of ideas, cultural critic, Druid leader, environmentalist/conservationist, blogger, novelist, and occultist/esotericist.
I recently discussed with him the issues surrounding his work Not the Future We Ordered : Peak Oil, Psychology, and the Myth of Progress:
Thanks for taking the time to talk to Beetroot today; we’re very enthusiastic about your work – particularly the weekly Archdruid Report.
You’ve written much on the apparent decline of industrial society and provided many examples that illustrate the shocking point that this process is now underway. Could you summarize one or two of the ones you deem undeniable?
Well, “undeniable” is hardly the right word, as denial is one of the few growth industries the industrial world has left. The ongoing frenzy in the US media, insisting that the trickle of petroleum coming out of shale deposits marks the beginning of a new age of US energy independence, is a case in point. Still, it bears remembering that ten years ago, predictions that the price of crude oil would rise about US$100 a barrel and stay there, landing most of the world’s industrial nations in permanent economic crisis, were widely disparaged in the media as ridiculous.
In ‘Not The Future We Ordered: Peak Oil, Psychology, and The Myth of Progress’, you discuss our current paradigm as one underpinned by an unwavering belief in progress. Could you talk a little about how we express that on a societal scale?
Literally every plan for the future made in industrial societies, from the smallest to the largest scale, presupposes growth. Pension funds assume that economic growth will allow their assets to make money; local and national governments plan for new housing, new roads, and increased population; business assumes that a year-over-year increase in gross income and profits is normal — well, I could go on for pages. Nobody, anywhere, is making plans for a future of long-term contraction, and yet as fossil fuels slide down their depletion curves, long-term contraction is the future we’re certain to get.
How unaware do you think most people are of the predicament facing us? Certainly it’s not in general discussion in the media.
“Unaware” doesn’t even begin to touch the depth of our collective blindness to the future staring us in the face. The most basic assumptions we absorb from our culture make it all but impossible for most people to think about the possibility of decline, and I suspect that most people will continue to insist that prolonged decline and contraction can’t happen for decades after it’s become an inescapable fact.
Do you think this notion of progress is disempowering, that perhaps we’ve been deliberately encouraged to believe that someone else, some clever scientist or whatever, will inevitably ‘come up with something’ to solve our myriad crises or might there be something else behind our seeming inability to act?
It’s certainly disempowering, but I think it’s simplistic to assume that that comes out of a deliberate decision by somebody or other. During the heyday of cheap fossil fuel energy, it really did make sense to rely on technological progress to solve collective problems, as a lot of collective problems did in fact get solved that way. The difficulty is simply that we became dependent on that sort of thinking, and remain dependent, even as the cheap energy that made such thinking adaptive has begun to go away. As so often happens, overreliance on a set of strategies that worked in the past has become the primary barrier to finding new possibilities for a very different future.
Much of your work has a spiritual element, and anyone who’s familiar with it would also know that you’ve been involved in many Western mystery traditions, do you believe that any possible solution to these crises should recourse to spirituality in some form?
I’m going to take issue with the way this question is stated, because there are no solutions to the present spiral of converging crises. Nothing, that is, can make the crises go away, or keep our current lifestyles intact as we pass through them. Adaptations, not solutions, are what’s needed at this point — that is, ways of adapting ourselves and our lives to the implacable changes breaking over industrial civilization now and in the future. Spirituality can play an important part in those adaptations, but it can’t do the job alone; we also have to change our lives on the most practical, nitty-gritty level. You can meditate or pray to Gaia all you want, and if you still insist on driving an SUV and living an SUV lifestyle, you’re going to be on the wrong side of the changes as they hit.
Finally, are you personally optimistic or pessimistic about our immediate prospects – as in do you see an easy transition as a possibility?
We tossed the prospect of an easy transition into history’s dustbin at the time of the Thatcher- Reagan counterrevolution, when all the hard work toward sustainability that had been done in the 1970s was scrapped in the name of a vacuous free-market ideology that put short term profit and political advantage ahead of the long term survival of industrial civilization. As the Hirsch Report pointed out in 2005, preparations for peak oil would have had to begin twenty years before the peak of conventional petroleum production in order to prevent massive discontinuities.
The peak of conventional petroleum production, by an interesting irony, happened in 2005, right as that report was being leaked to the press. Thus we’re at least 27 years too late, and the massive discontinuities are already baked into the cake. Individuals, families, and communities can still take constructive steps to prepare for those discontinuities and get through them with as little suffering as possible, but one way or another it’s going to be a very rough road down from the peak.