Review of The Ecotechnic Future: Envisioning a Post-Peak World (2009)
John Michael Greer (writer).
Read in 2020.
Predictions and techniques for what follows the long decline and scavenging of artefacts from contemporary industrial civilization, viewed as an r-selected “abundance industrialism”. The following excerpt reworks part of a 2008 essay in Resilience, originally titled “Dreams of a Better World”.
It’s always part of the narrative of apocalypse that die-off only happens to other people. No matter how unready they are for the strenuous task of surviving the collapse of a civilization, every would-be survivor seems to expect a place among the lucky few. Still, there are deeper patterns at work here. The collapse of the New Left in the wake of the ’60s, and the abandonment of traditional conservatism by the ideological right well before the Reagan era, left a political vacuum not yet filled. For some years now, as a result, most radicals have pictured their task in the purely reactive language of resistance and opposition, while the mainstream parties abandon their old commitments in favour of the pursuit of business as usual for its own sake.
This has spared all sides the daunting challenge of coming up with constructive proposals for the future. The downside, though, is that those who sense the necessity for change are left with nothing but fantasies of a perfect world to feed their hopes. These encourage people to forget that every other collapse of civilization in history led not to utopia, but to a harrowing age of warfare, migration, population decline, impoverishment and the loss of priceless cultural treasures. Just as revolutionaries who insist that nothing can be worse than the status quo are often surprised to find just how much worse things can get, those who insist that today’s industrial societies are the worst of all possible worlds may find themselves pining for the good old days of suburbs and freeways if they get the collapse they think they want.
Furthermore, the last few decades have birthed a culture of political demonology, especially but not only in America, in which the slight differences between competing political parties have been redefined in terms of absolute good and evil. Vigorous debate over the merits of candidates for office is the lifeblood of a republic, but when opponents of a public official are unable to walk past his portrait on a wall without screaming obscenities at it – and I have seen this on both sides of the political chasm in America today – something has gone very wrong.
Carl Jung’s concept of “projecting the shadow” is relevant here; too many Americans nowadays have fallen into the seductive but disastrous habit of blaming their political adversaries for their own feelings of shame and resentment. Even the briefest glance at history shows where that sort of scapegoat logic leads, and it’s no place any sane human being would want to go. A good deal of what happened during Germany’s ordeal between 1933 and 1945, as Jung pointed out in a prescient essay, can best be understood as the end result of this sort of projection, with a grand Wagnerian Götterdammerung as finale. It’s entirely possible that some similar madness could grip America in the years to come.
Composting and amateur radio are offered as the sort of technics Greer has in mind for sustainable living in the far future, a couple of centuries hence.
Though his views are firmly rooted in the Club of Rome’s thinking and reaction to the oil crisis of the 1970s, Greer is widely read and able, for instance, to discuss Toynbee’s faculty of mimesis, and draw a parallel between the Ghost Dance of 1890 and the reactance, remonstrance and wishful thinking of 2009 USA, which worsened and caught fire along with California during the presidency of Donald Trump. Greer seems to have anticipated this real-world development, though concrete predictions in the book are few and not easily tested.
Most centrally, Greer believed oil prices would rise. He also believed they would be volatile, an easy “out” for short-term fluctuations, but hardly compatible with 2020’s brief dip into negative prices on oil futures. Greer’s poorly founded pessimism on the subject was common at the time. Miyazaki Hayao, for example, acknowledged in “Worlds of Insects, Trees and Humans” (2006) that the spectre of peak oil may be the reason for a fundamental insecurity, but that was never right.
Greer himself had the misfortune to write just before it became totally obvious that even M. King Hubbert’s upper bound on US crude—which Greer takes as correct—was a significant underestimate for 2010 through at least 2020, when domestic production—thanks to fracking—climbed back to oil crisis levels, well past Hubbert’s 1970 peak. In short, Greer’s vision is centrally predicated upon a price prediction that failed consistently for the decade following publication, just like the Club of Rome’s more bold and quantitative predictions failed in their time. This undermines the book, but not fatally so. In September 2020, 9560 new electric cars were registered in Norway, another oil-producing country. That’s 61.5% of all new Norwegian passenger cars that month, not simply because of oil prices rising over the long term but for all the other, deeper reasons Greer’s book is built on, including subsidies. In February 2021, when a cold spell struck Texas and people burned the wood of their own garden fences for heat to survive the night, I thought of Greer.
The book is very pleasantly written, almost as a kind of non-narrative subtractive science fiction where less oil was available in a “world behind us” at the time of my reading. It provides some useful concepts, including a metaphorical usage of the ecological term “sere” in wider human ecology and sociology, the economics of decline as a series of Hobson’s choices, and “dissensus” for purposeful, anarchic diversification, but it’s mainly a meditation: It’s both vague and inadequately skeptical. For example, beyond Jung, Greer lists biodynamic agriculture—which is a pseudoscience—without any stronger proviso than to note that Rudolf Steiner was a “mysticist”. Greer himself is a mysticist. He brings up the example of Easter Island more than once, popularized by Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (2005), and unfortunately, Greer concludes that the people who made deep-water canoes impossible to build on the island failed to imagine this consequence.