Give me that doom time religion


To deal with the scary bits of an economy facing collapse, a campground in the middle of the forest will put you in a different frame of mind than a hotel conference center.

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:

Pack nothing.
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

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  1. Karyn says

    It’s a shame you felt like you had to pull out the tired dig against the Catholic Church – you would have to figure at least some of us would be Catholic. Anyway, I’m surprised that you mentioned preppers not being particularly religious – nearly all of the other prepper-type blogs I read have a strong Christian presence. While Whiddon’s ideas sound good, it seems like it might be hard for others to suddenly adopt some of the plain people/Old Testament/monastic practices without having grown up in and/or being already immersed in those cultures. It would be good if people start practicing some of the restraint, simplicity, and integrity now, before having to do it under crisis.

    • says

      The comment on the Catholic Church wasn’t mine, it came from one of the speakers. But I repeated it because I think the point about the U.S. legal system going easy on the Church in this case is valid. I don’t think a public high school, for example, would have been allowed to handle the issue mostly internally.

      I agree with your larger point about monastic discipline — something the Catholic Church has been such a powerful force for good on. Yes, we all can’t become monks or nuns to prepare for peak oil. But at Whiddon’s place, it’s only half a dozen residents who’ve adopted this lifestyle. Otherwise, for his hundreds of guests throughout the year, the rules are much gentler. And I couldn’t agree more that we should all start practicing those good old values of thrift, simplicity, etc sooner rather than later. In that, the teachings of Father Thomas Berry have been a real light in the darkness.

  2. says

    the thought of hunting/gathering Tverberg style brings a touch of hilarity to our otherwise doomworthy future. What kind of hunting does she have in mind? the neighbourhood cats and dogs? otherwise we’re gonna run out of other forms of wildlife pretty quick Hunter-gathering takes us back to whence we came, the Olduvai gorge, anybody care to guess as to the numbers that lifestyle could support?
    As to re-sing stuff, they’ve got a similar thing going already on the outskirts of Lagos, take a look at it, and see if you fancy doing that to earn a crust. Probably right about guns and booze though, provided nobody points out what the population of America was back in 1776
    Anything demanding merging of finances makes me very wary indeed, certainly a whiff of cult about that. Cults invariably have a ‘leader’ who is also in receipt of instructions from some ‘higher power’
    re-reading this piece from a cynical UK perspective, can they be serious?

    • says

      I’m cynical too and I also have some questions about the financial arrangement. Here’s how Whiddon explained it to us: communal living is so difficult for modern people, we’re so unused to seeing the same people from morn till night every day and doing everything with them — working, eating all meals, in some cases sleeping — that the temptations to just chuck it all at the first sign of frustration are immense. So, like in a marriage or a religious order, merging money is one way to ensure commitment. It’s not that you can’t get out — they’ll put you on a bus if you really want to leave, or if you don’t live up to their standards. But you’ll think twice before just storming out in a huff for a frivolous reason. Anyway, that’s the theory. Interestingly, Whiddon speaks dismissively of communal living arrangements that DON’T merge finances as “condominiums,” in other words, un-serious places where people may live near each other temporarily, but won’t be able to get much done because residents aren’t deeply invested enough in the place.

      • says

        I’m staggered at the negativity and the gloom! A classic case of seeing the glass half empty rather than ready to be filled with something new and more beautiful.
        The sorrow you all feel is for the death of a social system that we all agree is unjust and unsustainable. Its the natural feeling we experience just after a death when we cannot yet see the light beyond.

        It is time to tear down the rest of the Temple… the institutions that create the inequality… the political institutions that tell us that by forfeiting our right to govern our own lives every four years we participate in a democracy… the economic institutions that value only our productivity and our contribution to their wealth … and the religious institutions that keep telling us we are all sinners and if only we were more obedient to them we might have the opportunity to be happy…not now of course but only after we are dead.

        Love your neighbours… rebuild your local communities, share, collaborate, help each other to satisfy your individual and collective needs…. this is the Good News… This does not mean you have to live in communes where you are trapped with one small group of people… design your community so that everyone has their own private space but there are also spaces that provide the opportunity to share and gather together… and don’t demand loyalty… allow each other to leave when you no longer get on or when you want to discover something new… create a network of like-minded communities.

        Stop wallowing in the death of system that doesn’t benefit anyone, let it go, stop struggling against it, move on and imagine a beautiful future …

      • Orren Whiddon says

        As an introduction, I am Orren Whiddon, lead planner for The Age of Limits.

        I want to offer a correction here regarding our monastic communities financial arrangements, one that was pointed out to Erik, but alas too late to be incorporated in the version of his article published here by Energy Bulletin.

        As a bit of nomenclature, we have nothing named a “Board of Elders,” and dislike such a label as much as anyone else might. We do have a Board of Directors, to whom our Monastic Community of Service is answerable.

        While we are a 501(d) “Religious community that shares a common treasury,” we do not require income or asset sharing of any prospective member. In fact, just the opposite. We insist that a prospective member have a minimum of consumer debt, have some savings that the prospective member retains control of, and we are absolutely forbidden to accept any gifts of money from that prospective member during their first three year trial period with us. We insist that prospective members retain control of those financial assets that came to them prior to their participation in our community, and they are free to dispose of those assets in any way they choose. Thus, of the 7 adults who live here full time, 2 do not income share at all, 2 are fully integrated and have little to no disposable personal property and 3 are still within their 3 year trial and retain all of their personal property, including real estate, automobiles and personal savings.

        We have these policies in place because we are well aware of the abuses that may arise in their absence, and because we have learned that for us these policies are a practical necessity. A very poor reason for wanting to join our community would be a lack of financial wherewithal in the outside world. The worst reason for staying would be the lack of financial resources allowing for a graceful departure.

        The practical result of these policies from an accounting point of view, is that the Church has experienced a net financial loss over the years. Being the bleeding heart idealists that we are , we often take in for a summer, or for a year, folks who are frankly ill equipped to deal with the harsh economic realities of today’s unfettered free market. We do so knowing that after their temporary stay with us, we will usually gift them with money, or perhaps a car, as a way of easing their transition back into the outside economy. Just as with the children in need to whom we are able to provide a temporary home, we do this because we can. And because we should.

        We know that right now, for us, we are in the fat years. Our commutarian economic model, where we share assets and income in common, gives us a very real economic advantage in mitigating Collapse. We also know that the lean years are coming, in fact they are here. How long we will have the excess economic resources that allow us to help the less able is not clear, but the time when we must face the necessity of radically triaging what help we can provide is approaching rapidly.

        As I have said elsewhere, the onset of The Age of Limits challenges my humanist ethics with real world choices for which I have no ready answers.

        • says

          Dear Orren, Thanks for chiming in. I saw that you had already posted this same comment with what appears to be identical text to Energy Bulletin, where, indeed they had picked up the article before you talked to me about your clarificaions. However, in this version of the piece I was able to make the changes.

          And just to clarify, I originally referred to your “board of elders” in lowercase — thus, not as a proper name, but as a descriptive one — which I believe was accurate to the spirit of how you described governance at Four Quarters. Policy, you explained, was not set by the membership but by the “old greybacks” (your term), which sounds to me like just a casual way of saying “elders.” But because it seems that the term is not congenial to you, I was willing to make this merely technical change. The bigger issue is about the policy on member finances, and I’m glad you explained it here as on Energy Bulletin.

  3. Stuart Unger says

    As an attendee at the Four Quarters Age of Limits Conference, I was somewhat taken aback by the sudden group notion that “religion” will be a prime source of solutions in dealing with the coming collapse of industrial civilization. The only historical situation that seems really applicable here are the medieval monasteries that functioned to preserve classical Western learning through the dark ages. As an ex-energy geologist, atheist, and self-sufficiency lifestyler, I have a few comments on this idea-

    1. I am bit confused about what is meant by religion here. Do we mean big authoritarian organizations? Native American spirituality? The numerous crazy religious sects that spring up in the American midwest in the 1800s? What is this animal?

    2. The major organized religions of today are as much a curse as a blessing. The main religions Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are all warmongering religions and have waged almost ceaseless warfare against not only each other but on those who do not believe in the tenets of their faith.

    3. The Catholic Church in particular is authoritarian, ultra-conservative and deeply hostile to women and women’s issues. They have allied with nearly every recent vicious facist dictatorship in recent centuries. They still believe that human sexuality is a deep evil and work very hard to instill a sense of shame and fear in their followers- one of their methods of control. Nor does the Catholic Church recognize the reality sacredness of the web of earthly life- instead opting for a primitive view that the universe is simply a staging ground for Human-God dramas. The church encourages it’s followers to show intolerance to any who dispute Catholic beliefs.
    Is this an example which we should try to follow?

    4. The main organized religions Christianity, Islam, Judaism are still living in the past and clinging to moth-eaten sacred texts which were primitive even in their time- 2-3,000 years ago. All of these cling to a narrow band of ancient beliefs that cannot be added to or significantly reformed. For example, the Ten Commandments condemn a person to hell for arguing with their parents or finding another person sexually attractive but are totally OK with a person who bulldozes an ecosystem in order to build a shopping mall.

    Clinging to ancient superstitions like heaven and hell and demons, endless drives to suppress women, the sanctioning of natural human sexuality, unable to reform their belief systems in the light of modern scientific knowledge, constant drives to control their followers, and a belief that humankind is the sole reason for god to get out of his (heavenly) bed in the morning.

    Are these examples we wish to follow? Or do we need something a lot better?

  4. Doug says

    Erik, thanks for this posting. Not being particularly spiritual or having much interest in religions, aside from their social/political impacts, I chose the other presentations whenever one of the spiritual ones was being held. Reading your post fills in some of the gaps of what I got from Age of Limits.
    Also, your interview with Whiddon and his descriptions of the community’s rules and functioning was enlightening. And, thanks to Orren for chiming in and clarifying.

    I’m happy to hear that plans for next year’s event put more emphasis on the practical things we can do. That’s where my heart really lies. I also want to see his machine shop. We left too early for the tour this year. I’ll be there ready to boogie down on Sunday evening.

    I think one aspect of my experience there isn’t emphasized enough. The energy and intellectual level of just about everyone there was off the charts. Having obsessed on the subject matter for a few years, most of the presentations didn’t really provide much new information for me. But, the conversations between presentations and during meals were wonderful. What a great bunch of folks. Certainly not the popular image of doomers and gloomers.

    Take care,

    • says

      Thanks for throwing down the gauntlet, the virgin terry. I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I decline to pick it up. I make it a policy never to argue with Jehovah’s Witnesses, vegans and atheists. It just creates more heat than light. And besides, I respect other people’s faiths.

  5. the virgin terry says

    respect for faith is the problem, erik. if people had more respect for facts and reason than for faith and dogmas, it would be a much better world, wouldn’t it? much saner. we wouldn’t be facing self-induced extinction. no one would believe that ‘god’ has appointed our species to rule over ‘his’ creation. no one would think that we’ve been made in ‘his’ image. people would understand that we’re no more special than any other species, just part of the intricate, interconnected web of life.

    • says

      Neither atheists, agnostics nor the faithful have a monopoly on reason — nor on faith, for that matter. And if people think ecologically, we may not disagree as much as you seem to think. For example, all the Christians I respect (especially writers like Tolstoy, Steiner and the late Father Thomas Berry) would agree that humans should not despoil God’s creation. Let’s remember, whatever you may think of the Church, it’s not religion that’s melting the polar ice caps or fracking your neighbor’s backyard. It’s secular (God-less) capitalism. In other words, the opposite of God — that is, Mammon. Let’s not fight — let’s unite around the need to save the Earth to save ourselves and all sentient beings. That’s a value that all rational and faithful people can certainly agree on.

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