Greer finds power in nature spirituality

John Michael GreerNo doubt about it. His long brown beard makes John Michael Greer look more like a Greek Orthodox archbishop than a writer on peak oil and the collapse of industrial society.

And anyone who knows Greer as the mind behind the Archdruid Report will already know that Greer lives with a deep  commitment to the spiritual tradition of pre-Christian Britain, Ireland and Gaul. Leader of the Ancient Order of Druids in America, Greer heads up the US branch of an international movement to revive the ancient path of nature spirituality and inner transformation.

But apart from his spiritual activities, Greer has written more than 20 books on a variety of topics. These include three titles on peak oil, The Long Descent: A User’s Guide to the End of the Industrial Age, The Ecotechnic Future: Envisioning a Post-Peak World, and the forthcoming The Wealth of Nature: Economics As If Survival Mattered.

After seeing him speak at the ASPO-USA conference in October, I caught up with Greer to talk about his vision of the future of our society and what we should do about it.

Loot attracts looters

EC: In your presentation on scenario planning, you advised against hoarding commodities or gold — “loot attracts looters” as you put it. You said instead that the best investment for the future would be to develop skills. It sounds like you believe more in community resilience than personal or family survivalism. Is that true? Do you also see some role for family protection?

JMG: I don’t believe that either “community resilience” or any form of survivalism are workable responses to the complicated future ahead of us. The problem with trying to build resilient communities at this point is that any such projects needed to start many years ago, and they didn’t — or, rather, they did, and then everybody forgot about the need for them during the Reagan-Thatcher era. Even now, only a very small fraction of people in any community are interested in participating in movements toward resilience, and an even smaller fraction of community resources are available for such projects.

Meanwhile, of course, we are already past the peak of conventional oil production, and all the evidence suggests that we’re within a few years of the first serious declines. Once those hit, the resources that might have been used to build resilient communities will be needed instead for short term crisis management, and in some cases for day to day survival. One of the things I think many people forget about the crises ahead of us is that the abundant resources, energy, and time we’re used to being able to apply to future needs will be among the early casualties.

The problem with survivalism, on the other hand, is that it goes too far in the other direction, and assumes that as our current un-resilient communities go to pieces, the only thing that can replace them is a Hobbesian war of all against all. The history of the decline and fall of previous societies offers no support for that belief. Instead, as our existing communities and institutions go to bits, it is far more likely that they will be replaced by ad hoc arrangements and jerry-built transitional structures patched together out of whatever resources happen to be available. That’s what normally happens, and those transitional structures then become the framework around which things coalesce as the crisis abates.

What I believe in, if you will, is making sure that the people who will be on the spot as things come unglued have as many options, as many opportunities, and as much useful information as possible. That approach starts with individuals and families who make it their business to know how to get by in rough times — who can grow at least some of their own food, keep their homes livable on very little energy, make and repair useful things with hand tools, and the like — and builds from there.  To use a familiar metaphor, if your ship’s already hit the rocks, it’s too late to start rebuilding the ship; what you need to do is to make sure that as many people as possible know where the lifeboats and life jackets are.

Ashes, ashes, we all fall down

Statue of Liberty buried in the sand from "Return to the Planet of the Apes"EC: In The Ecotechnic Future, I think you wrote that America probably won’t fall from the peak of industrial civilization to a handicraft and barter economy right away, but that there will probably be a long period of scarcity industrialism followed by a salvage society. Do you still think that? And if so, doesn’t that mean a lot of us will still be working in offices, or even in factories, for a while to come — maybe even decades? And if that’s true, then should we just be learning skills like brewing beer or should we also plan for some smaller scale industrial careers, and if we are entrepreneurs, small manufacturing businesses?

JMG: Your question, it seems to me, assumes that the decline will be relatively uniform, so that America (for example) will make a collective transition from abundance industrialism, to scarcity industrialism, to salvage society, and so on. I think that this is a massive oversimplification. There are already people living in the salvage age in America right now; they’ve lost their jobs in the economy of abundance industrialism, and they’re making their living by stripping copper wire out of abandoned houses, for example.

In past examples of the unraveling of a civilization, the process has followed very different rates and trajectories in different regions, social classes, ethnic groups, and so on. I expect that to happen this time as well. Fifty years from now, for example, there might still be regions of the United States where people in the upper and upper middle classes still have electricity, central heating, and some semblance of the internet, and work at jobs not too different from those their equivalents have today; the working classes in those same areas might be working and living in the same conditions as 19th century factory laborers; while around the remaining cities, suburbs have been replaced by vast slums like the ones in today’s Third World, where people live on the equivalent of a couple of dollars a day.  Meanwhile, in other parts of the US at that same time, things may have contracted to something not too far from a medieval peasant economy, and still other regions may be strung out at points along the spectrum in between.

There’s also a lot of diversity across time.  Civilizations don’t fall along a smooth curve; they hit crises, undergo partial disintegrations, struggle back from chaos, reestablish stability for a time, hit another round of crises; rinse and repeat, and you’ve got the standard model of decline and fall, as Arnold Toynbee among other sketched it out. That same rhythm affects individual lives.  Your next door neighbor might lose his job permanently next week, and drop from abundance industrialism straight into a salvage economy you yourself won’t see in this lifetime; he might turn around and find a different job, and move back out of the salvage economy into scarcity industrialism.

Thus the point of learning skills isn’t that you can expect to be making a living by handicrafts at some fixed point in the future. The point of learning skills is that they’re your fallback position, the Plan B that will help you make it if you’re one of the ones who gets dropped out of whatever economy the larger society is struggling to maintain at any given time, or if other forms of wealth become valueless, as many of them almost certainly will.

No atheists in foxholes

Stonehenge Summer Solistice

Photo: vintagedept via Flickr.

EC: Can you say something about Druidry addressed to people who care about peak oil? In particular, how did you get into it, and how does your Druid practice relate to your interest in peak oil prep? Are there any teachings or practices  such as meditation that you think would help our readers to know about or that we could use in our own lives?

JMG: I found my way to Druidry after many years of exploring alternative spirituality; I was looking for something that satisfied my need for a spirituality centered on personal experience rather than dogma, and that also focused on living nature as a manifestation of transcendent realities; all my own deepest spiritual experiences have involved contact with the natural world, as it happens.

As a nature-centered religion, Druidry certainly reinforces my conviction that human existence has to be understood in its ecological context–and right now, of course, that ecological context is dominated by our dependence on prehistoric sunlight in the form of fossil fuels. As an alternative religion with a fairly small membership — there are perhaps two million Druids in the world right now, and maybe half a million at most in the United States — it’s also given me some practice at holding opinions with which the rest of the world disagrees!

I don’t think it’s useful, though, to hold up any particular set of Druid spiritual practices as a model for other people to follow; Druidry is not a proselytizing faith, and I’ve never met a Druid who would be arrogant enough to claim that our faith is better than all the others, or that everybody else in the world ought to take up Druidry. It seems more helpful to me to encourage people who feel a sense of connection to the spiritual realm of human experience to follow up on that connection, to explore whatever tradition most appeals to them, and to give the core practices of that tradition a place in their lives.

As the saying goes, there are no atheists in foxholes, and there tend to be very few atheists in collapsing civilizations — a lack of interest in spirituality is a luxury mostly found in times of prosperity and social stability. The inner resources provided by an active spiritual life are among the resources I’d encourage people to have on hand in advance of the next wave of crises.

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