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John Michael Greer, "Waking Up, Walking Away"

"Waking Up, Walking Away"
John Michael Greer

Last week’s Archdruid Report post, despite its wry comparison of
industrial civilization’s current predicament with the plots and
settings of pulp fantasy fiction, had a serious point. Say what you will
about the failings of cheap fantasy novels – and there’s plenty to be
said on that subject, no question – they consistently have something
that most of the allegedly more serious attempts to make sense of our
world usually lack: the capacity to envision truly profound change.

That may seem like an odd claim, given the extent to which contemporary
industrial society preens itself on its openness to change and novelty.
Still, it’s one of the most curious and least discussed features of that
very openness that the only kinds of change and novelty to which it
applies amount to, basically, more of the same thing we’ve already got.
A consumer in a modern industrial society is free to choose any of a
dizzying range of variations on a suffocatingly narrow range of basic
options – and that’s equally true whether we are talking about products,
politics, or lifestyles.

I suppose the automobile is the most obvious example, but it has
dimensions not always recognized and these bear a closer look. To begin
with, the vast majority of cars for sale these days are simply ringing
changes on a suite of technologies that was introduced in the late 19th
century and hit maturity close to fifty years ago. That’s as true of
electric and hybrid cars, by the way, as it is of the usual kind – the
hype surrounding the so-called “hybrid revolution” conveniently fails to
mention that the same system has been used for more than sixty years in
diesel-electric locomotives, and cars powered by electricity were common
on American roads before the Big Three auto firms succeeded in getting a
stranglehold on the industry during the last Great Depression.
Steam-powered cars were also to be had back then – the Stanley Steamer
was a famous brand; try finding one now.

What variations can be found nowadays are almost entirely a matter of
style rather than substance, and this becomes even more evident when
it’s recognized that the auto is simply one way to get people and light
cargoes from one place to another. Are there other ways to do this? You
bet, but none of them get the saturation advertising, the huge capital
investments in manufacturing and distribution, or the vast government
subsidies on local, state, and federal levels that cars receive on an
ongoing basis. It’s a continuing source of amusement to listen to the
pseudoconservatives who dominate the Republican Party these days
denounce the very modest government funding that goes to passenger rail
service and public transit. Ask them if they’re willing to give up
Federal highway dollars, to name only one of the huge subsidies that
autos receive, and you’ll very quickly hear a different tune.

It so happens that I don’t own or drive a car, and indeed I never have.
Among its other benefits, that’s a good way to see the limits on the
alleged freedom of choice that the consumer economy provides its
inmates. In today’s America, you can live without a car, but most other
choices you make are going to be sharply curtailed by that decision.
When my wife and I decided a few years back to leave the west coast and
settle in the Rust Belt, scores of pleasant towns we might otherwise
have chosen were ruled out in advance because the only way to go from
there to anywhere else was to drive a car, and our options for buying a
house were just as tightly constrained by the need to be within walking
distance of groceries and other necessary services. All those choices
the propagandists of the consumer economy prattle about? They exist, but
only if you give up your right to make any of the decisions that matter.

That same logic applies across the board in today’s industrial
societies. What products would you like to buy? If it’s not something
that a handful of gargantuan corporations want to make and market for
you, good luck. Would you like a voice in the political process? Sure,
but only if you agree with one of two or three major parties whose
positions differ so little you’ll need a micrometer to tell them apart.
How about a different lifestyle? Here’s the list of available options,
every one of them a slight variation on the common theme of shopping for
products and running up debt; if that’s not what you have in mind,
sorry, we don’t have anything else in stock.

All this can be seen as simply one material expression of the
thaumaturgy we discussed a while back in these posts, the manipulation
of basic drives through the endless repetition of emotionally charged
symbols that serves to swamp the thinking mind and keep the individual
penned in a narrow circle of self-defeating behaviors. From another
perspective, though, the torrent of material goodies that comes surging
through the channels of the consumer economy is the payoff for
cooperating with the existing order of things; so long as you want the
things you’re supposed to want, you can have them in fantastic
abundance. It’s no exaggeration to point out that average middle class
people in the industrial world just now have access to material benefits
that emperors couldn’t expect to get five hundred years ago. That’s
their share of the payoff for acquiescing in the status quo.

That’s the great strength of the “magician states” Ioan Culianu talked
about in Eros and Magic in the Renaissance (1984), those nations – and
if you’re reading this, you’re almost certainly living in one – that
maintain control over populations by thaumaturgy rather than by brute
force. The thaumaturgy is backed up by very real material benefits for
those who cooperate. Those who don’t – well, my own experience is a case
in point; by the standards of most of humanity, I lead an extremely
comfortable life, but most of the people I know are horrified by the
thought that if it’s raining and I have errands to run, I put on a coat
and open up an umbrella and go for a walk in the rain. They’d be more
horrified still to learn that I deal with summer’s heat and humidity
without an air conditioner, and respond to cold nights in winter by
putting on a sweater rather than turning up the heat, but I don’t go out
of my way to bring those details to their attention; my car-free life is
enough of a shock for most of them.

Of course there’s more to it than that. The more of the payoff you
refuse, the sharper the restrictions you have to live with. Now of
course the less privileged classes in the industrial world, and the vast
majority of people elsewhere, live with those restrictions every day of
their lives, but suggest to those who don’t that they might find it
useful to accept those restrictions, and I’m sure you can imagine the
response you’re likely to get. Still, this is exactly what I intend to
suggest, because there’s another factor in the situation, and it’s the
one this blog has been discussing for more than five years now.

The entire operation of the modern magician state, after all, depends
utterly on uninterrupted access to gargantuan supplies of cheap, highly
concentrated energy. The considerable amount of energy that goes to
power the communication technologies that get thaumaturgy to its target
audiences is only a drop in the oil barrel of the whole energy cost of
the system. A much larger amount goes to supply and maintaining the
infrastructure of thaumaturgy, and of course the largest fraction of all
goes into produce that torrent of goods and services mentioned above,
the collective payoff that keeps those target audiences docile. Now
factor in the depletion of concentrated energy sources – above all
petroleum, which provides forty percent of the world energy supply and
close to 100% of energy used in transportation – and the proud towers of
the magician state abruptly turn out to rest on foundations of sand.

To understand the consequences of that awkward fact, it’s important to
get past the rhetoric of victimization that fills so much space in
discussions of social hierarchy these days. Of course the people at or
near the upper end of the pyramid get a much larger share of the
proceeds of the system than anybody else, and those at or near the
bottom get crumbs; that’s not in question. The point that needs making
is that a great many people in between those two extremes also benefit
handsomely from the system. When those people criticize the system,
their criticisms by and large focus on the barriers that keep them from
having as large a share as the rich – not the ones that keep them from
having as small a share as the poor, or to phrase things a little
differently, that keep their privileged share from being distributed
more fairly across the population as a whole.

Map the factor of middle class privilege onto the history of protest
over the last half century or so and some otherwise puzzling trends are
easy to understand. The collapse of the 1960s protest movement here in
America, for example, followed prompty on the abolition of the military
draft in 1972. The real force behind that movement was the simple fact
that the American middle classes were no longer willing to send their
sons off to Vietnam, and were willing to use their not inconsiderable
political clout to make that change of heart heard. It was indeed heard;
the draft ended, the US extricated itself awkwardly from the Vietnam
war, and the protest movement popped like a punctured balloon, leaving a
minority of radicals who believed they were leading a revolution sitting
among the shreds and wondering what happened. Attempts to launch
American antiwar movements since that time have foundered on the
unmentionable but real fact that middle class Americans by and large
have no trouble at all reconciling themselves to war, as long as someone
else’s kids are doing the fighting.

It’s in this light that last year’s spasmodic outbursts of protest from
within the middle classes need to be understood. Since the peak of
conventional petroleum production in 2005, economies around the world –
above all the economies of the US and its inner circle of allies, which
use more petroleum per capita than anybody else – have been stuck in a
worsening spiral of dysfunction, and the middle classes have abruptly
found themselves struggling to maintain their lifestyles. Their
annoyance at that fact is easy to understand. From their point of view,
after all, they’ve kept up their side of the bargain; they’ve bought
what they were supposed to buy, borrowed when they were supposed to
borrow, lined up obediently behind one or another of the approved
political parties, and steered clear of all the hard questions. Now the
payoff that was supposed to be their reward for all this, the payoff
their parents and grandparents always got on time and that they
themselves could rely on until now, is nowhere to be seen.

The payoff is nowhere to be seen, in turn, as a result of processes
sketched out more than thirty years ago in a forgotten classic of
political economy, Paul Blumberg’s 1980 study Inequality in an Age of
Decline. Analyzing the downward spiral of the American economy in the
1970s – the last time, please note, that soaring energy prices clamped
down on an industrial society – Blumberg showed that while a rising tide
lifts all boats, a falling tide behaves in a much more selective
fashion, as those groups with more political influence and economic
clout are able to hang onto a disproportionate share of a shrinking pie
at the expense of those with less.

The decades since Blumberg’s book appeared have only sharpened his
argument. One after another, nearly every economic sector has undergone
drastic reorganizations that slashed jobs, pay, and benefits for
everyone below the middle class, and a growing number of people in the
lower end of the middle class itself. Now that everyone below them has
been thrown under the bus, the middle classes are discovering that it’s
their turn next, as the classes above them scramble to maintain their
own access to the payoffs of privilege. Having nodded and smiled while
those further down the pyramid got shafted, the middle classes are in no
position to mount an effective resistance now that they’re the ones
being made redundant. I can almost hear a former midlevel manager in an
unemployment line saying: “First they laid off the factory workers, but
I said nothing, because I wasn’t a factory worker …”

Of course that’s not the way most people in today’s middle class like to
think of things, and the gap between the reality of middle class
privilege and the sort of rhetoric the Occupy movement spread last year
– the claim that privilege applies only to the one percent of the
population who are much richer than the middle class – opens an immense
field of action for zealots and demagogues. Make the claim that you can
keep the middle class supplied with its familiar comforts and status
symbols and you’ll be able to count on a following in the years to come.
The demand for that particular form of comforting nonsense is already
booming, and an increase in the supply is already forthcoming; human
nature being what it is, it’s probably not safe to assume that all those
who provide the supply will be harmless nitwits.

This is where the capacity to envision profound change mentioned at the
beginning of this essay becomes essential. In order to make sense of the
future bearing down on us, it’s necessary to recognize that the
privileged lifestyles of the recent past were the product of the chain
of historical accidents that handed over half a billion years of stored
sunlight to be burnt at extravagant rates by a handful of the world’s
nations. Now that the supply is running short, those lifestyles are
going away, and since the decline in petroleum production is gradual
rather than sudden, the way it works out is that some people are losing
access to them sooner than others. The automatic reaction on the part of
most people facing this challenge is to cling to their familiar perks
and privileges like grim death; the problem with that reaction, of
course, is that the deathgrip in question very quickly becomes mutual.

The alternative is to let go of the perks and privileges before they
drag you down. That may be the least popular advice I could offer, but
it’s also among the most necessary. Over the years to come, as the real
economy of goods and services contracts in lockstep with the depletion
of fossil fuels, the fight over what’s left of the benefits of a failing
industrial system is likely to become far more brutal than it is today.
In the long run, that’s a fight with no winners. The alternative is to
walk away, now, while you still have the time and resources to do it at
your own pace.

This doesn’t mean, it probably needs to be said, pursuing the sort of
green tokenism that’s become the latest form of conspicuous consumption
in some circles on the leftward side of American life: the overpriced
hybrid car parked ostentatiously in front of the suburban house with a
few grid-tied solar panels on the roof, and the rest of it. It means
giving things up: for example, doing without a car, getting rid of the
suburban house and moving to a smaller, older, more efficient home two
blocks from the bus route that will take you to work every day. It means
accepting limits, not in some vague and abstract sense (which generally
means accepting them for other people), but in the painfully specific
sense that applies to your own choices. It means doing without things
you want, during the difficult process of unlearning the mental
automatisms that make you want them in the first place.

Unpleasant as it seems, this strategy has two massive advantages. The
first is that you’ll quickly find yourself saving a great deal of money.
Sell your car, and what you now spend on car payments, fuel,
maintenance, insurance, and the rest of it, can go to something with a
future. Apply the same logic to the other money-wasting habits of the
middle class, and the money adds up fast. Since getting or staying out
of debt, and providing yourself with the tools and skills you’ll need to
get by in an age of decline, ought to be among your core priorities just
now, that extra money is a valuable tool. So is the spare time you’ll
have – most of those money-wasting habits are also time-wasting habits,
remember.

The second advantage is one I’ve mentioned here before. If you’re going
to be poor in the future, and you are, you might as well learn how to do
it competently. It’s entirely possible to lead a life that’s poor in
terms of money, material goods, and energy consumption, and profoundly
rich – far richer than most contemporary lifestyles – in human values.
If you’re going to do that, though, you’re going to have to learn how
it’s done, and the only school where you can study that is that ancient
institution, the school of hard knocks. If you start cutting your energy
use and your material wants now, before you’re forced to do so, you can
get past the hard part of the learning curve while you still have other
options.

Thus it’s time, and maybe even past time, to wake up and walk away.
Doing that, though, is going to require confronting one of the core
superstitions of the modern world; we’ll discuss that next week.

_____________________________

End of the World of the Week #5
_____________________________

You might think that the habit of predicting the apocalypse would yield
a bumper crop of self-fulfilling prophecies. Convince enough people that
the end is nigh, and you might just get enough of them to do something
crazy enough to make some approximation to the end of the world happen,
right? Over the three thousand years or so since the apocalypse meme
started on its long and merry way through human history, there have been
some examples of that phenomenon – but even then, things generally
haven’t turned out the way the prophets thought it would.

One instance worth remembering can be found in the War Scroll, one of
the famous Dead Sea Scrolls, which were written right around the
beginning of the Common Era in what is now part of Jordan, and was then
a bleak corner of the Roman province of Judea. The War Scroll deserves
its name; it’s a lurid advance account of the final conflict between the
forces of light and the powers of darkness, and if you know your way
around the Jewish apocalyptic literature of that period you know that by
definition the powers of darkness spoke Latin and took their marching
orders from the big cheese in Rome.

As apocalyptic literature goes, the War Scroll ranks well up there for
sheer verbal color. “On the day that the Romans fall there shall be a
battle and horrible carnage before the God of Israel, for it is a day
appointed by him since ancient times as a battle of annihilation for the
sons of darkness”, it bellows. “The sons of light and the forces of
darkness shall fight together to show the strength of God with the roar
of a great multitude and the shouts of gods and men: a day of disaster”.

It was prophetic harangues like this one, historians agree, that set the
stage for the three Jewish revolts against Rome in 66, 115, and 132 CE.
A great many Jewish people by that time convinced themselves that their
Messiah would show up to lead them to triumph against Rome. That’s not
how things worked out, though; the Romans won every round, and those on
the other side who survived were either sold into slavery or driven into
exile. The result was indeed “a day of disaster”, but the disaster fell
almost entirely on the heads of the Jewish people.

– Story from Apocalypse Not {1}
_____

John Michael Greer is the Grand Archdruid of the Ancient Order of Druids
in America {2} and the author of more than twenty books on a wide range
of subjects, including The Long Descent: A User’s Guide to the End of
the Industrial Age (2008), The Ecotechnic Future: Exploring a Post-Peak
World (2009), and The Wealth of Nature: Economics As If Survival
Mattered (2011). He lives in Cumberland, Maryland, an old red brick mill
town in the north central Appalachians, with his wife Sara.

If you enjoy reading this blog, you might want to check out Star’s Reach
{3}, his blog/novel of the deindustrial future. Set four centuries after
the decline and fall of our civilization, it uses the tools of narrative
fiction to explore the future our choices today are shaping for our
descendants tomorrow.

Links:

{1} {2} http://www.vivaeditions.com/book_page.php?book_id=25

{2} http://www.aoda.org/

{3} http://starsreach.blogspot.com/