John Michael Greer - A Window of Opportunity - Part Two

by: Heather on 11/07/2008

As promised yesterday, here is Part Two of John Michael Greer's presentation from Plan C: The Fifth U.S. Conference on Peak Oil and Community Solutions. John Michael is the author of The Long Descent: A User's Guide to the End of the Industrial Age and one the most respected voices in the peak oil community.

Thanks again John!

...And that, again, opens a window of opportunity. The cultural narratives and habitual thought patterns that undergird a culture's vision of reality resist change; that's their job--to create a sense of meaning and continuity over time, to fit what William James called "the blooming, buzzing confusion" of raw experience into shapes familiar enough to enable people to get through their daily round. Yet those narratives, those thought patterns, are not fixed in place forever. They change under pressure; and what makes them change more rapidly and more completely than anything else is the experience of failure. The educator Eliot Wigginton, whose work in Appalachia gave rise to the Foxfire project among other inspiring things, reminds us that failure is the first step toward learning; it's the experience of encountering an obstacle we can't get past unthinkingly that shocks us awake, and forces us to reorient our narratives and thoughtways to deal with the realities we've been trying to ignore.

In the years to come, I suggest, a very large number of people throughout the industrial world are going to be in that position. They have been raised, the vast majority of them, to believe in progress--by which I don't merely mean that they believe that it happens; that's a minor point. I mean that they give it the same subjective aura of unstoppable power and unlimited goodness that other religions see in their gods. I say "other religions," because faith in progress is a religion; it's the established religion of the modern industrial world, even though we don't like to talk about it that way; it anchors the hopes and provides meaning to the lives of countless millions of people today, people who have learned to think of all human history as a single vast upward movement from the caves to the stars, with today's industrial society, of course, firmly placed in the vanguard of that journey. In the last century or so, they have learned to identify the concept of progress pretty much exclusively with the increased complexity of technology and the increased abundance of energy that have been such notable features of recent history in the industrial world; and as those factors reverse--and they are beginning to reverse right now--a great many of them will have to face the loss of that faith--the sort of experience that sent stories and rumors scurrying around the ancient Roman world about voices from the woods shouting out that Great Pan was dead, and the gods of Olympus weren't there any more.

This sort of thing is a shattering experience, but it opens up the possibility of rethinking the world, and once that happens, profound change becomes possible. That's the message that I hope each of you takes away from this weekend: change is possible. The coming of crisis brings a window of opportunity, and people who have been forced to recognize the failure of the existing order of things by circumstances they can no longer ignore will be in the market for something that actually does make sense of the new realities taking shape around them. Just as deposit insurance and legal labor unions were politically impossible before the Great Depression, and government-sponsored recycling and economically successful organic agriculture were pie in the sky fantasies before the Seventies, a good many things that seem completely out of reach right now will be simple facts of life by the time things return to what will then pass for normal, ten, or twenty, or thirty years from now, when the crisis of our time gives way to the inevitable period of stabilization.

That doesn't just apply to the specific changes needed to face the crisis of peak oil, by the way. The Thirties and the Seventies also saw sweeping changes across the board in politics, society, and culture. Read an American newspaper from the 1920s--and I encourage each of you to actually do this sometime, it's an amazing education--and you'll end up feeling very quickly that it comes from an unfamiliar planet. You'll find society pages, chronicling the doings of the social elite as they rubbed the nose of the nation in just how rich they were and how little they cared about the opinions of hoi polloi. You'll find editorials and interviews insisting that it was a very bad idea to sell radios and refrigerators to working class people--it might get them thinking above their station, you know. You'll find the latest antics of the Society for the Suppression of Vice, who made sure that readers in America couldn't get literature from Europe that was considered immoral. Even though none of those things were directly impacted by New Deal programs, by the end of the Thirties most of them were history and the rest were dying a slow death by neglect.

In the same way, the Seventies was the seedtime of the second wave of modern feminism, and saw important legal changes in the status of women in most states; birth control, which had been a huge screaming issue for decades before then, became an ordinary fact of life for most people; environmental legislation such as the Endangered Species Act went from an ecologist's pipe dream to the law of the land; social mores changed so far that for a while, the necktie looked like it would find a place on the endangered species list--though I'm sorry to say it was rescued in time. That's the sort of thing that happens when the basic assumptions of a society fall flat on their faces; a window opens to change, and while it's open, a great many necessary changes can get made in a hurry.

Now that sounds very encouraging, and it should. But--there's always a but, isn't there?--there's another side to the story, because the window of opportunity before us is also a challenge, and it's not a small challenge, either. I think most of us are aware of that. I've noticed, though, that a great many people in the peak oil scene seem to think that the challenge is entirely out there in the world: difficult tasks to do, difficult problems to solve, and of course those exist; but those aren't the only issues with which we have to contend. There are also aspects to the challenge that are internal to the peak oil community, and I want to talk about those for a bit. I'm aware that some of what I have to say may offend some of the people who are here today; I apologize for that in advance, but these are issues that have to be confronted if we're to make the most of the opportunities facing us.

An important part of the problem comes from a factor I've already mentioned--the small size and marginalized social status of today's peak oil community. We've come a heck of a long way since the late 1990s, granted; there are a handful of figures in politics and business who have grasped the seriousness of peak oil and are trying to respond to it and give it the publicity it deserves--I think especially of Representative Roscoe Bartlett in the political sphere, and Matthew Simmons in the business sphere. But we are still something of a lonely voice in the political wilderness, and the experience of having occupied that position for so long has consequences we are going to have to outgrow in a hurry.

Think of the way that a lot of people in progressive politics, in the environmental movement, and also in the peak oil scene have come to think of themselves as an oppositional force. You hear a lot of talk about resistance, about saying "No" to the system, and not that much about what to do instead. That's actually been problematic all along; if you define yourself entirely in opposition to the other guys, you give them the initiative, and you end up just reacting to what they're doing rather than launching constructive initiatives of your own; so even if you win, all you get is the status quo, and if you lose things get worse; you've given up the chance to make things better. Once the wheels start coming off the existing order of things, though, what was problematic becomes an even greater liability. As the system comes apart, the time for opposition is over; we have to be able to talk about what to do instead; and that means presenting a positive program for constructive change that people can enact in their own lives and their own communities

Once this happens, there's an old Russian proverb worth remembering: "Don't let the perfect become the enemy of the possible." Many of us spent a great deal of time, during those years in the wilderness, thinking about what a perfect society, or a perfect energy system, or a perfect response to the approaching crisis, might look like. Now that's a worthwhile thing to do, and for a marginalized group, it's also very often a necessary thing; anchoring our ideals in a compelling vision of a perfect future is one of the most powerful ways to resist the gravitational attraction of the ideas that dominate the mainstream media and the collective consciousness of our culture. This strength only becomes a liability if the marginalized group finds itself suddenly thrust into the mainstream and given a chance to realize some of its hopes.

That's where Utopian thinking becomes problematic. One of the problems with Utopian plans is that the hothouse atmosphere on the fringes doesn't exactly encourage critical assessment; it's easy to fall into the trap of thinking that because the existing order of things is so dysfunctional, any change must be an improvement, and to lose track of the possibility that there may be things of real value in the existing order that could be lost when systemic change comes. Here's an example. A lot of people in the peak oil community talk enthusiastically about relocalization--economic, political, and cultural. There are good reasons for that discussion, since it's only the wildly extravagant use of energy in the age that is passing that made a global economy and continental governments seem to make sense. It's not often mentioned, though, that relocalization could have a pretty drastic downside. There are parts of America today where complete political and cultural relocalization could very easily mean a return to racial segregation and lynching; and to a situation where members of non-Christian religions, sexual minorities, and a great many other people, could face mob violence or legal persecution for exercising what are now Constitutionally protected rights.

Does this mean that we ought to oppose relocalization? Of course not. What it means is that relocalization isn't a panacea; it will have negative consequences as well as positive ones, and we need to think hard about whether there are ways to preserve the best features of the existing order--for example, Constitutional rights that are enforced, somewhat more often than not, in most of the country--as we make the transition to a new way of doing things.

It's worth remembering that your idea of Utopia may be somebody else's idea of Hell, and vice versa. There probably aren't two people in the peak oil community who agree on all points about exactly what a sustainable society would look like, or how a successful transition to sustainability might work; and it's also true that nearly all our ideas are abstract speculations that have never had to face the litmus test of implementation in the real world. Politics is the art of the possible; that means it's also the art of compromise, because compromise is always involved in putting together the social consensus that makes change possible. That means that even in a time of extreme crisis, if you present the world with your vision of a perfect society and say "all of it or none of it," you'll get none of it.

To get some of it, you'll need to decide which points are necessary right now and which ones can be set aside for future reference, or bargained away in order to get something else more vital. That's a hard thing to do, but it's something we'll have to do if we want to get the most important parts of the transition to sustainability under way in the real world. Mind you, this doesn't mean that the utopian dreams should be discarded; quite the contrary, those compelling visions of a sustainable society that so many of us have been nurturing all these years can themselves be potent factors in motivating change, and I'd like to see more of them get into print or get more of a presence on the internet; we're still waiting for our Peakotopia.

But a Utopian vision is not the same thing as a workable program for constructive change here and now; and we need the programs, just as we need people who can present them to communities, to businesses, to local and state governments, and ultimately to national audiences, as the pressure of circumstances moves peak oil out of the fringes and into the center of our collective discourse.

Now there are people in the peak oil scene who will probably not want to take on that sort of role, and who may not want to see their visions of a better future chopped up and served buffet style to a potentially picky crowd. That's fine, but we'd better hope that the whole movement doesn't make that choice. It has to be remembered that there are other options; there are other voices trying to make themselves heard over the roar of emergent events. Again, the Great Depression of the 1930s offers a good cautionary lesson. While the United States was embracing social welfare as a goal of government policy, and setting the stage for the massive expansion of civil rights that took place in the following decades, another important industrial nation--Germany--embraced a very different set of new policies. There, the voices of constructive reform failed to make themselves heard, and a reactionary movement from the far end of the political spectrum, founded on the sort of belief system that gives medieval superstition a bad name, seized the collective imagination of Germany with catastrophic results.

Those who think of the horrors of the Third Reich as a closed chapter in the modern world's history need to make the secondhand acquaintance of a man named Nick Griffin. Griffin is the current head of the British National Party, and when I call him a fascist I'm not using the term as the sort of snarl word S.I. Hayakawa used to criticize so crisply a few decades ago; I mean it precisely in the sense that, say, a supporter of Mussolini would have meant it. The BNP is arguably the most successful fascist party in the industrial world today; they've won local elections quite often in the more disadvantaged areas of Britain, and they've done it with the same platform of ethnic nationalism and the same will to power that informed their equivalent movements of seventy years ago.

What makes Griffin particularly relevant just now is that he's also the only leader of a significant political party in Britain today who has unquestionably grasped the significance of peak oil. He sparked a great deal of discomfort in peak oil circles a couple of years ago when he showed up at several peak oil conferences in Britain; he took copious notes and discussed the subject with other attendees in a way that showed he's been paying attention. Griffin has also stated at BNP meetings, and in BNP publications, that in his view, his party is precisely one major crisis away from a shot at real power. He thinks that peak oil is likely to provide him with that crisis.

I'm appalled to say that he may be right. At this point not one other political force in Britain has made any real attempt to grapple with the hard realities of peak oil--not Labor, not the Tories, not the LibDems, not even the Green Party or the Celtic nationalist parties. Of course the same thing is true of the political parties in this country, in Canada, or most other industrial nations, and there's a solid if sordid reason for that. What political scientists are pleased to call "liberal democracy"just now is a scheme in which factions of the political class buy the votes of sectors of the electorate by handing out, or at least promising to hand out, economic largesse, whether that amounts to jobs, or social welfare benefits, or what have you.

Peak oil, with its promise of economic contraction and the end of the industrial economy of abundance, is anathema to all mainstream political parties because it means the flow of largesse can't continue; it means the end of business as usual for the entire system of plutocracy-within-democracy by which most industrial nations are governed these days. Nobody in today's mainstream politics wants to face that; which means nobody in today's mainstream politics is in a position to propose or pursue anything like a constructive policy in a world facing the downside of Hubbert's peak; and as Germany found out in the 1930s, when a similar doublebind kept the crucial issues of the time from being faced in German politics, people will eventually turn to even the most psychotic faction, if that faction is the only one that addresses the issues everyone else is avoiding, and if it has something that even sounds like a plan.

I don't think we have to see a repeat of that catastrophe. I certainly hope we don't. The reason I bring it up is to point out that the window of opportunity opening before us right now has its potentially negative as well as its positive sides, and we need to measure the possibilities facing us not only in terms of our dreams of a better world, but with an eye to the potential pitfalls that could open up beneath our feet. Change, as I said, is possible; at this point in the turning of history's wheel, change is frankly inevitable; but not every change is an improvement. That doesn't mean that we should refuse change; it means that we need to work hard and keep our wits about us, so that the torrent of changes that unfold over the next few decades leave a better world in their wake.

The possibilities and the perils of our contemporary situation both unfold from the same factor: peak oil is the defining fact of this moment in history. To a civilization founded on the reckless exploitation of irreplaceable natural resources, peak oil marks the end of the road, and the question before us, as we gaze down the far side of Hubbert's Peak, is what new social forms will replace the ones breaking apart around us right now. One implication of this that's worth noting is that the political movements, the cultural movements, the religious movements that first succeed in offering a meaningful response to peak oil and making a strong case for it to the public, will define the shape of our collective discourse and thus our lives in the world for decades or even centuries to come. As the window of opportunity opens, everything is up for grabs.

It's an exciting time, and a challenging one--and here we are. For the next couple of days we'll be paying a lot of attention to details--the different alternative energy resources, the potentials for conservation, the day by day business of building community and framing a response to the local manifestations of the broader crisis. That sort of thing is essential; that's what's going to get each of us through the rough patches ahead of us, if anything is; and I hope you head home at the end of this conference with your brains packed to the bursting point with new ideas you can put to use as soon as you step through your own front door. Still, I also hope you take a moment now and then to place all these details and new ideas in a wider context--the context of history; of the moment in which we find ourselves, at the end of the industrial age. The grandchildren of our grandchildren will tell their grandchildren stories about this time, the time when everything changed; and what each one of us does this weekend, and in the months and years that follow, has the power to shape those stories far into the future.

Once again (in case you missed the plug yesterday) be sure to check out The Long Descent for a much more detailed description by John Michael Greer of how the world is likely to look after Peak Oil, if we choose to see the coming challenges as opportunities. Also have a look at his blog The Archdruid Report to read his excellent weekly essays.

The Long Descent


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