I don’t usually think of people interested in peak oil, climate change and economic collapse as particularly religious. “Spiritual” maybe — Sufi dancing and Lakota Vision Quests are OK and agnosticism is better. But peak preppers are usually not the kind of folks you’d expect to see in the pews on Sunday at First Presbyterian.
The Age of Limits conference held at the end of May offered some new insights on how religion, as an organized institution, could play a key role in helping people deal with the collapse that the conference’s speakers think has already hit many parts of the world, including much of the US.
Though at this event, neither religion nor collapse were what they used to be.
The speakers, collapsitarians all — Dmitry Orlov, John Michael Greer, Gail Tverberg and Carolyn Baker — apparently weren’t born again while reading the Book of Job and didn’t hear the voice of God while fasting during Ramadan. As to the mother of all religious organizations, the Catholic Church came up only as the example of an institution that has outlasted the rise and fall of empires and nations and even today seems to enjoy great immunity from legal prosecution (pedophilia crisis, anyone?).
To paraphrase Orlov, if you want the government and your neighbors to leave you alone in the future, especially in America, then start a church. And that’s just what the sponsors of the Age of Limits conference did.
Been collapse, done collapse
Anyone whose idea of the end of industrial civilization is The Road — a post-nuclear hellscape where survival depends on canned goods or, failing that, cannibalism — or even a gentler version with plenty of salvage such as The Book of Eli or Mad Max, would’ve been disappointed to hear that the coming economic and political unraveling is likely to be gradual and hard to assess while it’s happening.
Indeed, many people alive today may already be in the midst of industrialism’s fall and not even see it.
Greer, author of several books including The Ecotechnic Future and The Wealth of Nature, explained that he relocated a few years ago from Oregon to Cumberland, Maryland (pop. 22,000) because the latter’s economy had already collapsed in the mid-seventies, when most of the mill town’s factories shut down. So the population has already gotten used to dealing with tough times. And, if it’s true that the littler they are the softer they fall, then Greer thought that a small city nestled in the mountains far from any metro area should be as safe a place as any to ride out the coming storm.
Greer encouraged conference attendees to follow his example and “collapse now and beat the rush,” making collapse sound more like down-shifting or embracing simple living than prepping for the attack of mutant zombie bikers.
Dmitry Orlov, who wrote about the collapse of the Soviet Union as a model for the unraveling of the American empire in Reinventing Collapse, spoke of rich people who are quietly moving out of the US to what they see as safer redoubts abroad as “rats abandoning a sinking ship.”
Orlov, who also spoke at the event about his experience of living on a boat full time, encouraged the rest of us to follow the billionaires’ example and apply for second passports from countries such as Belize that offer them cheaply. That way, we can still get the hell out of Dodge even after fascism descends on Washington and we all end up on the No Fly List.
Yet, Orlov also counseled conference attendees that the riches of the future won’t be hoards of gold or even a shed full of well sharpened gardening tools but instead the people you know who can offer you help and protection in the tough years to come.
Forget solar, start gathering tubers
Surprisingly, for a retired actuary living in suburban Atlanta, Tverberg, known for years on the Oil Drum as Gail the Actuary, was perhaps the gloomiest about the future prospects of humanity after oil. Was this because she seemed to lack the interest in religion shown by the other speakers?
Tverberg spoke compellingly and without any Tea Party moralizing against lazy poor people and their damned “entitlements” about how excessive debt will torpedo economic growth. She also argued that no combination of substitutes will be able to power globalized industrialism after the fossil fuels run out.
Unfortunately, after making this arguable point, Tverberg could not resist passing along exaggerated attacks on a variety of renewable energy sources. Often heard in the peak oil doomosphere, such complete dismissals of all renewables — whether a bogus scheme like corn ethanol or proven technologies like solar and wind — as entirely ineffective and unreliable are just not supported by the facts.
Photovoltaic panels or micro turbines used in small-scale, distributed applications — that is, ten kilowatts on your home rooftop rather than ten megawatts operated by your electric utility — are especially promising to power a more localized world beyond oil.
Based on the experience of my day job as a solar power developer, I tried to point this out to Tverberg. I also tried to correct some of her errors of fact — solar panels need neither a special roof nor lots of maintenance, as she claimed — but she was having none of it. Finally, I explained that if people believe the economy is collapsing, then if they want electricity in the future they should not rely on the power grid, but should instead get as much solar as they can right now, while it’s readily available. Tverberg didn’t seem to agree.
Perplexingly, Tverberg also claimed that the option of reverting to a farming lifestyle was off the table for future generations because our generation’s industrial agriculture has already depleted the world’s topsoil beyond repair. She was obviously unimpressed by (or unaware of) the successful efforts of sustainable farming experts like Wes Jackson to restore agricultural landscapes.
Tverberg concluded that only hunting and gathering would sustainably support humanity in a future beyond oil, making her perhaps the doomiest speaker in a group not known for its vulnerability to rainbows and unicorns.
Time to meet your Baker
Drawing on the wisdom of previous hunter-gatherers around the world, Baker, author of Navigating the Coming Chaos: A Handbook for Inner Transition, led conference attendees in African chants to invoke the aid of male and female energies of the universe. She also explained what traditional rituals to initiate youth into adult life have in common with each other and what they can all teach people today as we make the transition to a very different kind of future after industrialism.
In perhaps the event’s only positive nod to the teachings of mainstream organized religion, Baker offered a poem, “Passover Remembered” by Alla Bozarth-Campbell, as advice and inspiration. Here’s the opener:
Bring only your determination to serve and your willingness to be free.
Don’t wait for the bread to rise.
Take nourishment for the journey, but eat standing.
Be ready to move at a moment’s notice.
Do not hesitate to leave your old ways behind — fear, silence, submission.
Only surrender to the need for the time — love justice and walk humbly with your God.
Do not take time to explain to the neighbors.
Since I’m familiar with the Jewish story of Passover, this poem struck a resonant chord for me, unlike the African chanting which, out of context, I had trouble connecting with. I also wondered why so much discussion of spirituality at this event, and at peak oil and sustainability events in general, excluded mainstream religion, not just Christianity, but also Judaism and Islam. For me, some of the most powerful thinkers on living well with nature found Christianity to be a powerful inspiration — Rudolf Steiner, EF Schumacher and more recently, the two Berrys (Thomas Berry the Catholic priest and Wendell Berry the Christian agrarian writer).
Except for Baker and to a lesser extent Greer, I found that the speakers addressed the head without much heart. Orlov and Tverberg were heavy on doom but light not only on consolation but also on practical advice — each making me feel very dejected if somewhat better informed.
Greer offered more answers for coping with a collapsing economy, both his own example of small town living and his teachings on the appropriate technologies from the 1970s that he’s collected as “Green Wizardry.” And for those attracted to nature religions, Greer’s discussion of Druidry, his own spiritual path, offered a promise of solace and insight.
As a practitioner of both Christianity and Tibetan Buddhism, I’m especially interested in faith practices that have stood the test of time, those with hundreds or thousands of years behind them, rather than just mere decades. For my own spiritual life, the speakers offered little that I could use.
Not just old school, but Old Testament
It turned out that the conference’s host and his impressive venue were perhaps the highlights of the event for me, offering an tangible example of a way to turn fears of collapse into a plan for survival.
I wasn’t able to understand exactly what Orren Whiddon did with computers between the time he read The Limits to Growth in the seventies and when he dropped out of the corporate rat race in the mid-nineties to buy the 180 acres of Allegheny mountain shell flats in an isolated area of south-central Pennsylvania that would become the Four Quarters Interfaith Sanctuary, a campground able to host a couple hundred visitors.
A solid man more than six feet tall dressed in jeans held up by leather suspenders and sporting a prophetic beard, Whiddon looks as unlike a corporate vice president from Office Space as you can imagine. These days he’s more about low-tech, refusing to open a Facebook account while encouraging Four Quarters visitors to turn off their smart phones and enjoy a technology fast while they’re his guests.
Whiddon, who traces his family roots back to Texas in the 1780s, is a practical visionary, but less like Steve Jobs than Moses with a bit of Sam Houston thrown in. Drawing inspiration from the “plain people,” Christian Anabaptist groups like the Amish and Old Order Mennonites who consciously decided to drop out of a mainstream society they saw as corrupt, Whiddon has a plan for his self-described “hippie church” to become a force for peak oil resilience in a sea of complacent but doomed consumers.
Just like Jesus Camp but without the Jesus part (or the cultish brainwashing), Four Quarters is in fact registered for tax purposes as a non-profit religious congregation.
Its grounds are an open-air church hosting installations across the usual range of New Age spirituality, from a shrine to Ganesh, to a sweat lodge, to what appears to be a life-sized recreation of a Stonehenge-type druid stone circle. Along with regular services to mark new moons, Beltane and other spiritual days, throughout the camping season the center offers programs such as “SpiralHeart Reclaiming,” “The Body Tribal” and “Drum & Splash.”
But there’s nothing touchy-feely about the way Whiddon and his board runs Four Quarters. After an initial trial period, full-time residents are required to live under strict rules, including the merging of their finances, in a lifestyle that Whiddon calls monastic and which requires a commitment to an ascetic counter-cultural lifestyle that hearkens back to Whiddon’s other inspirations, the Benedictine brothers and the Buddhist sangha.
Doom with a view
The center’s mission, aside from providing support for “Earth-based religions,” is similarly straight-edge: to help prepare for the collapse of industrial society by serving as a “lifeboat” for eight or ten residents on site while spreading the gospel of peak oil prep to a larger audience through conferences like this one.
Accordingly, Whiddon has made many plans for the peak-ocalypse, including starting ventures on site that will make money today and may also serve a much lower tech economy in case today’s money economy becomes only a memory in the future.
Four Quarters’ first business is a winery that produces half a dozen different flavors of mead, a mostly-sweet alcoholic drink made from honey which staff generously served up during evening social events.
The center’s second venture, a machine shop outfitted with solid American-made metal presses from the mid-twentieth century, has begun to meet local demand for spare machine parts. Residents have already started on the center’s next business, a large greenhouse.
In the future, Whiddon thinks the greenhouse will feed the residents while the other businesses will offer goods for trade. The machine shop could help Four Quarters’ mountain neighbors, already well provisioned with firearms, to keep their rifles and shotguns in working order after repair parts stop coming in from Asia. And of course, there’s always a market for wine, especially when times are tough.
In a part of the country that hosted the Whiskey Rebellion just after the American Revolution, Whiddon predicts that booze and guns will be a winning strategy for a future economy that could be something like it was in George Washington’s day.
Meet me at the river
Even before signups for the event nearly doubled Whiddon’s projections and helped the conference to break even financially, Four Quarters had committed to holding two future annual events along the same lines.
Next year’s event, Whiddon told me, will focus even more on solutions and practical activities that people can undertake in their own communities to prepare for the changes of the next twenty years.
After taking a dunk in the property’s cool running creek between sessions, it came home to me just how much more this conference was about than PowerPoint presentations. I hope I’ll be able to make it back next year.
— Erik Curren, Transition Voice