ISBN 978-0-86571-639-1. “The Ecotechnic Future – envisioning a post-peak world” by John Michael Greer was published by New Society Publishers in 2009. The book is 269 pages long including Introduction, three Parts of thirteen Chapters, Afterword, Notes, Bibliography and Index. Greer is a new author on the scene (by our standards) however this is not his first work. He had previously written “The Long Descent” (New Society 2008) which, as far as we can tell, was along similar lines to this one. When we purchased this work it was based upon some favourable reviews online at Amazon. What we didn’t know was that Greer heads the “Ancient Order of Druids in America”. Uh-oh – crank alert.
Even worse his blog is called “The Archdruid Report”. On this basis alone I would feel pretty constrained about recommending this book to any of the locals in our Transition Town. But bear with it. Regardless of Greer’s unorthodox background this is a very good book. It is philosophical and challenges the way that many of the “peakist” crowd think about peak oil. Essentially Greer points out that there will be no sudden crash. Instead he prefers to believe in several hundred years of slow muddling through. And he isn’t joking about the “muddling through” bit. He calls it “succession”. Greer believes that there is no “one way” to solve the current crisis. There is no golden bullet and no magic solution.
Hence, there is no known model for society, in current existence, that we know will survive in the post-peak world. We can only guess at some of the aspects but we cannot engineer it to happen. It will happen through a process of “dissensus” whereby lots of societies and groups will try all kinds of alternative ways of living. It’s called experimentation. The failures will be eliminated through Darwinian natural selection leaving a variety of “winners” at some future date. It isn’t deterministic or pre-ordained that one system shall triumph over others. It will also be a very uncomfortable journey. Greer calls it “The Long Road”. Quite. Greer walks us down that road and through the likely phases and outcomes of the succession in glorious detail. There is the “end of affluence”, the “age of scarcity industrialism”, the “age of salvage” and finally, the ecotechnic age of the title. This is a time when we have fully adapted to a society without fossil fuels. We will still have some technical knowledge (although some maybe lost). It will be “eco” in the sense that so many modern “technologies” (such as organic farming) are perceived as having an ecological base. They are “technical” as they will have evolved from our current industrial society. Greer doesn’t believe it likely that we will return back to the age of the hunter-gather. However, if we mess up this evolution into the ecotechnic age, then that is what awaits us.
This all makes for a very refreshing read. Through the first ten chapters of this book I was delighted at how easy to read and understand Greer’s work was. I had not read such a ground-breaking work on peak oil since Heinberg’s “The Party’s Over” opened my eyes back in 2002. You really get the feel that Greer’s argument has much to offer us. Firstly it offers hope – even if it is bedded in a grim reality. We will triumph over peak oil – society will go on. Secondly it helps us understand what we should do today. This probably translates as “don’t panic”. We need not fear experimentation. We certainly SHOULD be experimenting going-forward as we rather missed the opportunity to make a more-orderly descent in the 1970’s. (Note the very heavy US-centric nature of this work although it isn’t annoying.) So if you wish to face peak oil with a renewed sense of dark-optimism than read this. It isn’t naively upbeat or conservative – far from it. However it does give as a semblance of a road-map and emboldens us for the journey ahead. It certainly is not a call to do nothing as is clear from the occasions when Greer openly scorns the poliical elites in contemporary society.
However, just at the moment I thought I was going to buy a hundred copies, and mail them to everyone I knew, it all came to a grinding halt. In the final three chapters Greer descends into irritating psycho-babble. Whereas in the first ten chapters he happily wades through such enlightening topics as Community, Energy, Food, Home and Work, in the last three he gets bogged down in Culture, Science and something called “The Ecotechnic Promise”. From here-on author turns up the philosophising to full volume and its relevance disappears off a cliff. Although philosophy can tell us a great deal about the future of our species there are times when it reads as twaddle. Once the author makes this mistake you also notice one stunning omission from his post-peak vision – and that’s “Money”. Although he does write in several places about how “money” is some figment of our imagination he then never runs with this idea. He spurns the idea of sudden collapse despite writing his book in 2009 after the crash of 2008. He seems to think that the problem of a post peak-world is purely practical, social and cultural. He thinks that if we relearn the ways of home-economics then somehow we’ll muddle through. I would dearly have loved to see him write the obviously missing chapter about which forms of money and economics he thought would triumph in a post-peak society. You can be sure of one thing – it can’t possibly be quite the same as we have now. He must be aware the growth economics will finally stop and the endless growth required to pump-prime out money supply will have to stop. Since we have no permanent money supply then this leads to only one conclusion – economic collapse. The biggest threat is from the one resource that, in theory can’t run out – money. It would seem that Greer only has one solution to this. He calls it “adaptive responses”. Somehow we will invent a new system of money and muddle-through. Well I hope so. This is only implied in his work as he never addresses money directly.
These criticisms to one side, this remains an enjoyable and enlightening book. Through it Greer happily pours disrespect upon almost everyone in the peak oil community and beyond. I wonder if he has any friends left? He does give thanks to Rob Hopkins and the Transition Movement. It is probably the only organisation that the author actually praises. He devotes most of page 185 to Transition but slips in one criticism: Transition is “vulnerable” because of its “reliance upon consensus methods, which tend to create bland compromises based on conventional wisdom”. Although consistent with Greer’s own belief in dissensus this comment is at odds with what he writes about David Korten’s “The Great Turning” only one page later. Greer writes dismissively that Korten “insists that certain people have reached a higher “developmental stage” than the rest of us and are thus naturally fitted to run the world”. So does Greer believe in future of non-bland decision-making that avoids conventional wisdom but uses conventional democracy? He spends most of the book treading a thin line between genius and madness. Pages are full of with hot air yet he misses obvious issues. He argues against almost every peak oil thought out there until he ends up contradicting himself. This leaves Greer’s “Ecotechnic future” incomplete and flawed…., yet somehow still brilliant and visionary. A confusion of ideas that aren’t difficult to like regardless of how contradictory they sometimes seem.