“The Long Descent” John Michael Greer

Greer_Long_DescentISBN 978-0-86571-609-4. “The Long Descent – A User’s Guide to the End of the Industrial Age” by John Michael Greer was published by New Society in 2008. Well over two years ago we reviewed Greer’s “The Ecotechnic Future” and generally quite liked his work. “The Long Descent” is essentially the same book reworked into a new form. If you read one you pretty much get the other. In his last book Greer challenged the ‘sudden collapse’ beliefs of the Peak Oil crowd. For him it would be a drawn-out descent of several hundred years. In THIS work Greer spends more time unravelling the cultural origins of both the ‘sudden collapse’ & what he calls the “myth of progress”.

To his previous work Greer adds his very own “Theory of Catabolic Collapse” which is an Appendices item full of mathematical theorem. Oh deep joy. Other sections do descend into pseudo-intellectual gibberish. I don’t know if I want to be MORE like him OR just groan out loud at the impenetrability of it all. After-all, we have been here before. Take a look at our review of Jared Diamond’s “Collapse” or the forthcoming look at Joseph Tainters’ “Collapse of Complex Societies”. Greer is nothing if not extremely well read. He has analysed the issue from the perspective of someone who has read an awful lot about ancient history and theology. Inject a dash of some obscure 1960’s US Sci Fi novels and you have a whole new line of thought.

Greer is attempting to bash the Peak Oil crowd and the Cornutopians over the head at the same time. He dislikes the duality of this argument and is pursuing his own intellectual course. This we actually like a great deal. Since his “Ecotechnic Future” book we have been pretty much aligned with his viewpoint that the Transition to a post-carbon society is a 200 year long experiment. This is quite a transformative perspective because the Transition mutates from a twenty year sprint into a leisurely walk through the country side. A human lifetime is not long enough to see the beginning and the end. Most of us are just spectators of a very brief time-slice of the great transition. We can no more put our arms around it than can an insect understand a cloud.

However there are aspects that interest us to which Greer sheds no light. For example, if “progress” is a myth then can’t “collapse” also be a myth too? Of his work in Catabolic Collapse we reach no conclusion about how small human settlements have to be to sustain. We also get no perspective on how events of the last forty years could be considered all part of the collapse. It need not start at Peak Oil. Tainter noted that the historical record showed collapse as being the point from which public assets became private and from the time that the public looses faith in its institutions. If so then our very modern collapse is proceeding at a slow motion pace from a start point not in 2006 but more like 1971 – the year of peak oil in the USA. Maybe our collapse stems from the end of the dollar peg to the Gold standard? Maybe the post war ascendancy of human civilisation first met its nemesis in the jungles of Vietnam? Or from the 1980’s rise of the neo-conservatives reactionaries like Thatcher and Reagan? But these are not perspectives Greer chooses to share with the reader.

Even if Greer is not always ploughing ground his reader would like, his contribution remains valuable at a certain level. For it is his dissection of the anatomy of “progress” versus “apocalypse” that enthrals.

“Thus it is not surprising that believers in progress tend to be those who feel they benefit from the current social order, and believers in apocalypse tend to be those who feel marginalised by the current social order and excluded from its benefits.”

This one clear statement [page 49] is pretty much our summarisation of the problem too. However Greer goes much further and provides a viewpoint extended from the many theological texts he has consumed. Most of this may well baffle the average reader. Most of us would let out a deep breath and mutter about how clever the author thinks he is. For as a great work of intellect we doubt this has the staying power of Tainter. Two words say it all: “arch-druid”. Greer is a Druid. (No sniggering at the back there.) It is a fact that he is happy to share with the reader. It becomes pretty clear that this shapes his thoughts into a very particular shape. For Greer theology explains almost everything. For most of secular society it explains almost nothing. It is a dustbin of outdated ideas. It stretches the imagination somewhat in an enlightened northern European perspective to make these aspects tangible in the modern era. However, this book is written for a North American audience…

Our previous book reviews point to the growing Medieval-mindset that grips the North American continent. For many millions of Americans believe not only in the literal truth of the Bible creation story but also in the End of Days Apocalypse. It would be easy to laugh if it wasn’t for the fact that their views are taken seriously & these people have power. So much power that their beliefs distort the entire fabric of American society. It forms the debate and this book is part of that landscape.

Greer takes us through a section called “The Stories We Tell Ourselves” to deal with the myths he seeks to slay. This is familiar territory and we can read similar “narrative” based theory in several other books about culture, sustainability and our vision of “progress”:

“The modern habit of knowing only one story has certain predictable results. On of these is that the story itself becomes invisible to those who believe in it.”

This, of course, is the fish who has no concept of what water is. George Bernard Shaw wrote “A barbarian is a man who believes the customs of his tribe are the laws of nature” and this is in similar vein. How can you engage people in a discussion about they myths that rules their lives if they cannot even see that these things are myths? They appear to be the laws of nature. “It’s simply the way things are” writes Greer. The myth of progress is one such story. A narrative that defines our time and has co-opted or replaced all other forms of theological belief. The problem with such beliefs are thus:

…this fixation on a single solution [is] so problematic [because] the universe is what ecologists call a complex system. In a complex system, feedback loops with unexpected consequences make a mockery of simplistic attempts to predict effects from causes.”

This calls to mind a public information ad on British TV several years ago that mocked the man down the pub who “didn’t do politics” only to find that he had nothing to talk about because everything is politics. Of course this is just part of the myth that we live in. All problems can be solved by engaging in “politics” – if you could just vote for the right political party or the right “big idea” then that will make things alright. It never has. It never will. The man in the pub was right. By only knowing one story we repeat the failure over and over knowing no way out of the conundrum.

This leads to us to wallow in a “social trap”. Greer first uses Galbraith’s example of  French aristocracy, before the French Revolution, then goes on to write:

“The social trap imposed by the limits to growth works the same way. When the necessary changes could have been made easily, the danger was still so far away that it was all too easily ignored; now that the danger is becoming obvious, the costs of change amount to requiring the population of the industrial world to surrender everything they think of as a normal lifestyle.”

“They think” being the operative phrase here. I do not agree that “surrender” is an option in the same way I do not believe that “collapse” is the only option. Whilst Greer sees no way out of his trap we see options. But those options diminish with time as the precious finite resource we need to build a sustainable future are frittered away on short term goals. This remains Greer’s Achilles heal in that he actually has a poor appreciation for technology. He hates the stuff – in fact he believes in some very odd myths. Whilst examining the Energy Return on Energy Invested (EROEI) of both Wind Turbines (Greer calls them “Windmills” which might be a clue as to where his thinking comes from) and Photovoltaics he claims that both technologies have a short lifespan and an EROEI of less than 6. This is not borne out by reality. Wind power has an EROEI of around 20 plus (with a typical lifespan of 25 years) whilst Photovoltaics currently have an EROEI of around 10 in the UK alone (with a life of over 40 years & a vastly higher EROEI in sunnier climates). These figures are improving so quickly that it is easy to see that there could be more than enough EROEI for “modern” civilisation to continue indefinitely – if our population & economy remain stable.

This doesn’t mean I am a techno-optimist. This doesn’t mean that we get off scot-free. There are lots of “ifs” and buts about the way our economy grows and the way we grow food. We may simply have exceeded the carrying capacity of our landmasses – but we already have most of the technologies we need – even if we lack political will to use them. This future marks a decline from the wasteful consumer society we have today but we COULD live in comfort if we are wise with our resources. Are we wise? Not if Greer is right about the myths we convince ourselves of.

At this point we have to address a common theme we have written about here at PCL; the fantasy elements of the Transition. It seems the Greer is equally as sanguine about some of the wishful thinking he perceives is out there.

“Potential lifeboat communities in a world perched unsteadily on the brink of peak oil will have to cope with the same mismatch between popular fantasies of rural life and the laborious realities of subsistence farming. Anyone who seriously wants to pursue the goal of rural self-sufficiency needs to leave any desire for a modern middle-class lifestyle at the door.”

Certainly I have no strong desire to be a farmer. My father was. I know what it is like. The good news is:

“…there’s no need to flee to the wilderness to build communities to survive the transition to deindustrial society; we already have communities in place – the cities, towns and rural neighbourhoods where we live right now..”

These existing communities must be reshaped for the challenge. THIS is the realisation behind the modern Transition Movement. From which arises an interesting thought: if Transition is anticipating collapse is it also contributing to it? Maybe, but its contribution is to point the way and apply the brakes. Transition may have no more influence on the general shape of the decline than a man predicting the coming of the Industrial Revolution but Transition remains a slightly more useful approach than the alternatives. (Namely screaming very loudly, putting your hands over your eyes and singing to block out all references to the reality we face.) In Greer’s sections “Facing the Deindustrial Age” and “Tools for the Transition” he gives a broad rundown of exactly what the Transition is (even if he refers to it as “transition” with a small “t” – no references to Rob Hopkins in this book).

The tools that Greer writes of are quite familiar to us. We particularly enjoyed his praise for activities that we regard as hobbies these days:

“…marketing campaigns that squeezed the last traces of the household economy out of existence stigmatised these activities as hobbies but they were once a good deal more…”

These hobbies will need reviving. In the 2007 when we created the Post-Carbon Living “Ten Steps” one of these was “Make” in which we encouraged everyone to take up a manual hobby. Greer seems in step with our own thoughts on the matter. Making things by hand = good. Greer actually offers us his own version of the Ten Steps:

  1. Replace your light bulbs with energy savers. (This shows Greer’s dislike, disrespect and disconnect from all things technological. The PCL Ten Steps had “Substitute” because light bulbs were only the tip of the iceberg!)
  2. Retrofit your home for energy conservation. (PCL’s Ten Steps had “Powerdown” so we’re on track here!)
  3. Cut back on petrol use. (PCL’s Ten Steps had “Stay” & “Powerdown” which included not flying.)
  4. Plant an organic vegetable garden. (Same as PCL’s “Grow”.)
  5. Compost. (Same as PCL’s “Recycle”.)
  6. Take up a handicraft. (Same as PCL’s “Make”.)
  7. Adopt an obsolete technology. (No equivalent in PCL’s Ten Steps.)
  8. Take charge of your own health. (No equivalent in our scheme.)
  9. Help build local community. (Same as PCL’s “Community”.)
  10. Explore your spirituality. (No exact equivalent in our Ten Steps but we did emphasis building satisfaction through non-material means – this can be realised through such things as “Make”, “Grow” and “Community”.)

As a reminder here are the Post Carbon Living’s “Ten Steps”:

  1. Organise
  2. Powerdown
  3. Recycle
  4. Substitute
  5. Stay
  6. Generate (Greer not a big fan of technologies and micro-generation obviously!)
  7. Grow
  8. Invest
  9. Make
  10. Community

There are clear parallels. To each his own. I believe my approach is more effective outside north America and we certainly would be uncomfortable treating our own medical complaints with herbs.

Greer is very optimistic about Organic Farming. His views are clearly not shared. Greer puts it this way:

“The next round of energy crises may well see the chemical model of agriculture abandoned wholesale because organic methods can produce equal or better yields for less money – an equation even the most conservative farmer can understand.”

We would like to agree but as was pointed out earlier and later in this book – this will take a lot of hard manual labour. The high chemical input farming we have today is an economic model for land use that replaces human labour with fossil fuels. As the fossil fuels become uneconomic then human labour must take up the slack. Greer is well aware of this even if he glosses over the fact at this point of the book [page 181].

We generally recommend reading “Tools for Transition” because it is word-for-word a Hopkins-style tract. However, that really is the end of the book. Greer shoehorns in a chapter on “The Spiritual Dimension” that is utterly dispensable. He is not totally unaware that he is wasting his time:

“The idea that spirituality might have anything useful to impart to the future can, of course, be counted on to offend a sizeable segment of today’s population.”

You betcha! Me included. However a closer examination of this chapter suggests that Greer is really talking about non-material cultural aspects of modern societies. But he does rather ruin it all by talking about such nonsense as “magic”. No wonder Greer is not in the same league as Tainter or Diamond – even if he wanted to be. He is a Druid at heart and nothing will change him.

Still, we have to point out that Greer is probably offering the best vision of the future we have to work with. It is a long decline to some other system. It might escape the definition of a “collapse” but we might not know for another 200 years. None of us will be around to tell. But my great-great-great grandchildren might look back at my writings and give some kind comment as to how close we were. It isn’t so much the destination as the journey. That’s what counts after-all.

About post-carbon-man

A passionate advocate of a peaceful transition to a sustainable political-economy, Mark hails from a working class farming background. Today he is a Company Director and Chairman of the Low Carbon Chilterns Co-operative. Whilst at University (Engineering Masters) he was active in Conservative Student politics but has had no affiliation since. He has travelled widely on business covering the USA, Europe, Middle East and Central Asian Republics. In 2007 Mark founded Post-Carbon-Living and a year later co-founded Transition Town High Wycombe. He lives with is wife & daughter in a home they retrofitted to be carbon-neutral. Today he blogs about surviving politics on a shrinking planet and is passionate in his rejection of Nationalism.