John Michael Greer – Collapse: A Practical Response


Richard Moore

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The Coming of Deindustrial Society: A Practical Response

John Michael Greer

With the coming of Peak Oil and the beginning of long-term, 
irreversible declines in the availability of fossil fuels (along with 
many other resources), modern industrial civilization faces a 
wrenching series of unwelcome transitions. This comes as a surprise 
only for those who haven't been paying attention. More than thirty 
years ago, the Club of Rome's epochal study The Limits to Growth 
pointed out that unless something was done, a global economy based on 
fantasies of perpetual growth would collide disastrously with the 
hard limits of a finite planet sometime in the early twenty-first 

The early twenty-first century is here, nothing was done, and the 
consequences are arriving on schedule. The road that would have 
brought industrial society through a transformation to sustainability 
turned out to be the road not taken. The question that remains is 
what we can do with the limited time we have left.

The Failure of Politics

There are specific practical things that can be done, right now, to 
deal with the hard realities of our situation. The problem is that 
most of them are counterintuitive, and fly in the face of very deeply 
rooted attitudes on all sides of the political spectrum.

The first point that has to be grasped is that proposals for 
system-wide, top-down change - getting the Federal government to do 
something constructive about the situation, for instance - are a 
waste of time. That sort of change isn't going to happen. It's not 
simply a matter of who's currently in power, although admittedly that 
doesn't help. The core of the problem is that even proposing changes 
on a scale that would do any good would be political suicide.

Broadly speaking, our situation is this: our society demands energy 
inputs on a scale, absolute and per capita, that can't possibly be 
maintained for more than a little while longer. Sustainable energy 
sources can only provide a small fraction of the energy we're used to 
getting from fossil fuels. As fossil fuel supplies dwindle, in other 
words, everybody will have to get used to living on a small fraction 
of the energy we've been using as a matter of course.

Of course this is an unpopular thing to say. Quite a few people 
nowadays are insisting that it's not true, that we can continue our 
present lavish, energy-wasting lifestyle indefinitely by switching 
from oil to some other energy source: hydrogen, biodiesel, abiotic 
oil, fusion power, "free energy" technology, and so on down the list 
of technological snake oil. Crippling issues of scale, and the 
massive technical problems involved in switching an oil-based 
civilization to some other fuel in time to make a difference, stand 
in the path of such projects, but those get little air time; if we 
want endless supplies of energy badly enough, the logic seems to be, 
the universe will give it to us. The problem is that the universe did 
give it to us - in the form of immense deposits of fossil fuels 
stored up over hundreds of millions of years of photosynthesis - and 
we wasted it. Now we're in the position of a lottery winner who's 
spent millions of dollars in a few short years and is running out of 
money. The odds of hitting another million-dollar jackpot are minute, 
and no amount of wishful thinking will enable us to keep up our 
current lifestyle by getting a job at the local hamburger joint.

We - and by this I mean people throughout the industrial world - have 
to make the transition to a Third World lifestyle. There's no way to 
sugar-coat that very unpalatable reality. Fossil fuels made it 
possible for most people in the industrial world to have a lifestyle 
that doesn't depend on hard physical labor, and to wallow in a flood 
of mostly unnecessary consumer goods and services. As fossil fuels 
deplete, all that will inevitably go away. How many people would be 
willing to listen to such a suggestion? More to the point, how many 
people would vote for a politician or a party who proposed to bring 
on these changes deliberately, now, in order to prevent total 
disaster later on?

John Kenneth Galbraith has written a brilliant, mordant book, The 
Culture of Contentment, about the reasons why America is incapable of 
constructive change. He compares today's American political class 
(those people who vote and involve themselves in politics) to the 
French aristocracy before the Revolution. Everybody knew that the 
situation was insupportable, and that eventually there would be an 
explosion, but the immediate costs of doing something about it were 
so unpalatable that everyone decided to do nothing and hope that 
things would somehow work out. We're in exactly the same situation 
here and now.

So while it may be appealing to fantasize about vast government 
programs bailing us out of the present predicament, such fantasies 
are not a practical way of responding to the situation. We have to 
start with the recognition that the most likely outcome of the 
current situation is collapse: to borrow the Club of Rome's 
formulation, sustained, simultaneous, uncontrolled and irreversible 
declines in population, industrial production, and capital stock.

Apocalyptic Fantasies

Now as soon as this is said, most people who don't reject it out of 
hand slip off at once into apocalyptic ideas of one sort or another. 
These should be rejected; history is a better guide. Civilizations 
collapse. As Joseph Tainter pointed out in his useful book The 
Collapse of Complex Societies, it's one of the most predictable 
things about them. Ours is not that different from hundreds of 
previous civilizations that overshot their natural resource base and 
crashed to ruin. What we face is a natural process, and like most 
natural processes, much of it can be predicted by comparison with 
past situations.

But fantasy is often more palatable than reality, and most of the 
apocalyptic notions in circulation these days are sheer fantasy. The 
idea, popular among Christians who don't read their Bibles carefully 
enough, that all good Christians will be raptured away to heaven just 
as the rest of the world goes to hell is a case in point. It's a 
lightly disguised fantasy of mass suicide - when you tell the kids 
that Grandma went to heaven to be with Jesus, most people understand 
what that means - and it also serves as a way for people to pretend 
to themselves that God will rescue them from the consequences of 
their own actions. That's one of history's all time bad bets, but 
it's always popular.

But the Hollywood notion of an overnight collapse is just as much of 
a fantasy; it makes for great screenplays but has nothing to do with 
the realities of how civilizations fall. The disintegration of a 
complex society takes decades, not days. Since fossil fuel production 
will decline gradually, not simply come to a screeching halt, the 
likely course of things is gradual descent rather than freefall. 
Civilizations go under in a rolling collapse punctuated by localized 
disasters, taking anything from one to four centuries to complete the 
process. It's not a steady decline, either; between sudden crises 
come intervals of relative stability, even moderate improvement; 
different regions decline at different paces; existing social, 
economic and political structures are replaced, not with complete 
chaos, but with transitional structures that may develop pretty fair 
institutional strength themselves.

Does this model apply to the current situation? Almost certainly. As 
oil and natural gas run short, economies will come unglued and 
political systems disintegrate under the strain. But there's still 
oil to be had - the Hubbert Curve is a bell-shaped curve, after all. 
The world in 2020 may still be producing about as much oil as it was 
producing in 1980. It's just that with other fossil fuels gone or 
badly depleted, nearly twice as many people in the world, and the 
global economy in shreds, the gap between production and demand will 
be vast. The result will be poverty, spiralling shortages, rising 
death rates, plummeting birth rates, and epidemic violence and 
warfare. Not a pretty picture - but it's not an instant reversion to 
the Stone Age either.

Equally imaginary is the notion that the best strategy for would-be 
survivors is to hole up in some isolated rural area with enough 
firepower to stock a Panzer division, and wait things out. I can 
think of no better proof that people nowadays pay no attention to 
history. One of the more common phenomena of collapse is the 
breakdown of public order in rural areas, and the rise of a brigand 
culture preying on rural communities and travelers. Isolated 
survivalist enclaves with stockpiles of food and ammunition would be 
a tempting prize and could count on being targeted.

Equally inaccurate is the notion that stockpiling precious metals 
will somehow make the stockpilers exempt from the consequences of 
industrial collapse. This strategy has been tried over and over again 
in recorded history, and it doesn't work. Every few years, for 
example, archeologists in Britain dig up another cache of gold and 
silver hidden away by some wealthy landowner in Roman Britain as the 
empire fell apart. They're usually close to the ruins of the owner's 
rural villa, which shows the signs of being looted and burned to the 
ground by the Saxons. As a working rule, if your value consists of 
what you've stockpiled, there will be an unlimited number of other 
people interested in removing you from the stockpile and enjoying it 
themselves. However many you kill, there will always be more - and 
eventually the ammo will run out.

Communities of Survival

So what does work? The key to making sense of constructive action in 
a situation of impending industrial collapse is to look at the 
community, rather than the individual or society as a whole, as the 
basic unit. We know from history that local communities can continue 
to flourish while empires fall around them. There are, however, three 
things a community needs to do that, and all three of them are in 
short supply these days.

First, a community needs some degree of local organization. Our 
present culture here in America has discarded most of the local 
organizations it once had, in favor of a mass society where 
individuals deal directly with huge government and corporate 
institutions. This has to be reversed. The recent move to 
reinvigorate civil society is a step in the right direction. Joining 
or creating a local community group, and helping to revive local 
civil society, will help provide your community with voluntary 
networks of cooperation and mutual aid in difficult times.

One often-neglected but useful resource is the old fraternal orders - 
the Masons, the Odd Fellows, the Grange, and so on - which once 
included more than 50% of adult Americans in their membership. Many 
of these organizations still exist, and they're far less exclusive 
than people outside them tend to think. Joining such an organization, 
or some other local community group, and helping to revive local 
civil society is a crucial step that will provide your community with 
essential networks of cooperation and mutual aid in difficult times. 
The Stormwatch Project website is specifically aimed at helping 
fraternal orders and similar organizations get ready to fill such a 

The second thing a community needs in the twilight of industrial 
society is a core of people who know how to do without fossil fuel 
inputs. An astonishing number of people, especially in the educated 
middle class, have no practical skills whatsoever when it comes to 
growing and preparing food, making clothing, and providing other 
basic necessities. An equally astonishing number are unable to go any 
distance at all by any means that doesn't involve burning fossil 
fuels - and almost no one in the developed world can light a fire 
without matches or a lighter from some distant factory. Survival 
skills such as organic gardening, low-tech medicine, basic hand 
crafts, and the like need to be learned and practiced now, while 
there's time to do so. Similarly, those people who cut their fossil 
fuel consumption drastically now - for example, by getting rid of 
their cars and using public transit or bicycles for commuting - will 
be better prepared for the inevitable shortages.

We live in a "prosthetic society" in which most people have totally 
neglected their own innate abilities in favor of ersatz mechanical 
imitations. Even our schoolchildren use pocket calculators instead of 
learning how to add and subtract. All this has to be reversed as soon 
as possible. Those people who can use their own hands and minds to 
make tools, grow food, brew beer, treat illnesses, generate modest 
amounts of electricity from sun and wind, and the like, will have a 
survival advantage over those who can't. In a violent age, practical 
knowledge is a life insurance policy; if you're more useful alive 
than dead, you're likely to stay that way. The pirate enclaves of the 
seventeenth-century Carribbean were among the most lawless societies 
in history, but physicians, navigators, shipwrights, and other 
skilled craftsmen were safe from the pervasive violence, since it was 
in everyone's best interests to keep them alive.

The third thing a community needs is access to basic human 
requirements, and above all food. Very large cities are going to 
become difficult places to be in the course of the approaching 
collapse, precisely because there isn't enough farmland within easy 
transport range to feed the people now living there. On the other 
hand, most American cities of half a million or less are fairly close 
to agricultural land that could, in a pinch, be used to grow food 
intensively and feed the somewhat reduced population that's likely to 
be left after the first stages of the collapse. What's needed is the 
framework of a production and distribution system around which this 
can take shape.

The good news is that this framework already exists; it's called the 
farmers market movement. The last two decades have seen an 
astonishing growth in farmers markets across the country - the latest 
figures I've seen, and they're some years out of date, indicate that 
farmers markets are a $16 billion a year industry, with most of that 
money going to small local farmers. I personally know organic farmers 
who are able to stay in business, and support their families on quite 
small acreages, because they work the farmers markets. Every dollar 
spent on locally grown produce from a farmers market, instead of 
supermarket fare shipped halfway around the world, is thus an 
investment in local sustainability and survival.

There are a good many other, similar steps that can be taken. 
Anything that provides functional alternatives to energy-wasting 
lifestyles lays foundations for the transitional societies of the 
late 21st century, and ultimately for the sustainable successor 
cultures that will begin to emerge in North America in the 22nd and 
23rd centuries. The important point, it seems to me, is to do 
something constructive now, rather than presenting plans to the 
government in the perfect knowledge that they will be ignored until 
it's far too late to do anything.

Perhaps a metaphor will make an appropriate finish for this little 
essay. Imagine that you're on an ocean liner that's headed straight 
for a well marked shoal of rocks. Half the crew is dead drunk, and 
the other half has already responded to your attempts to alert them 
by telling you that you obviously don't know the first thing about 
navigation, and everything will be all right. At a certain point, you 
know, the ship will be so close to the rocks that its momentum will 
carry it onto them no matter what evasive actions the helmsman tries 
to make. You're not sure, but it looks as though that point is 
already well past.

What do you do? You can keep on pounding on the door to the bridge, 
trying to convince the crew of the approaching danger. You can join 
the prayer group down in the galley; they're convinced that if they 
pray fervently enough, God will save them from shipwreck. You can 
decide that everyone's doomed and go get roaring drunk. Or you can go 
around quietly to the other passengers, and encourage those people 
who have noticed the situation (or are willing to notice it) to break 
out the life jackets, assemble near the lifeboats, take care of 
people who need help, and otherwise deal with the approaching wreck 
in a way that will salvage as much as possible.

Me, I suggest the latter. Life jackets, anyone?

2004 October 5

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