Starting a new writing project about the decay of our way of life and what we can do about it might seem like an odd thing to do right now. After all, change seems to have been thrust upon us in a manner that almost nobody could have foreseen just a year ago, and this has sparked all manner of bewilderment and anger that shows no sign of letting up anytime soon. Nevertheless, I think we could all do with a break from all the digital babble being flung around at present and focus our minds on something a little more useful.
Digital babble? Right now, it seems like almost everyone is carrying a machine gun magazine loaded with pre-formed bulletproof opinions about some matter or other, and they’re busy firing them across the no-man’s land of the internet. Occasionally a helmeted head will pop up from a muddy trench, drawing strings of tracer fire while bodies thud to the ground all around. Fire. Reload. Fire. Reload. The battle rages on, but who is giving the orders?
I propose that we take our chances and try and get out of this firefight.
We’ll need to crawl on our bellies through muddy fields as rhetorical bullets whizz through the air just inches above us. But if we’re lucky we’ll make it to the blazing field of poppies on the horizon, just beyond all the twisted wreckage of tanks and artillery and the bullet riddled bodies of fallen keyboard warriors and mercenaries.
It’s a long crawl, but we’ll get there if we try …
It’s been almost exactly ten years since I picked up a book entitled The Long Descent by John Michael Greer and stepped through a portal into a deeper understanding of the predicament we face.
The message was not a pleasant one to digest because what Greer seemed to be saying was that the lives we’ve been accustomed to think of as ‘normal’ might only be a brief respite in an otherwise long history of hardship. In fact, our cushy way of life had been granted to us by a once-in-a-lifetime lottery win in the form of fossilised sunlight energy, also known as fossil fuels.
Like any awakening worth its salt, the security-craving part of me initially recoiled from the thought that it might be facing an existential threat. Surely, I reasoned, it would be less psychologically risky to hit the snooze button and go back to sleep. And yet an honest appraisal of the matter made it clear that a period of great turbulence lay in the immediate future.
Of chief concern was the plateauing and peaking of the extraction of conventional oil, which has acted as the lifeblood of the modern world for so long and which – I was to discover – was ebbing away without any real substitute to replace it. The former me – that would be the me who wanted to ‘save the world’, whatever that means – would have thought this was a good thing. After all, doesn’t oil cause pollution and global warming? Surely, the end of the oil age should be a cause for celebration that would see us smoothly switching over to using solar panels and wind turbines instead of nasty, polluting oil? That was the way I saw it, and it seems embarrassingly simplistic now.
What I had now come to understand was that the end of the oil age promised to be an exceedingly messy affair due to the simple fact that we’re addicted to the stuff. We’re willing to fight wars over it, destabilise the climate through its use, and muck up entire ecosystems due to our lust for it. A deeper look at the dynamics of decline revealed it was likely to be an era of explosive political reckonings, wars to control the mainstream narrative, dysfunctional institutions, broken down systems and broken promises.
To make matters even worse, because we now live in an age of electronic media which makes it easy for disinformation to spread like wildfire while useful information is drowned out by noise, we are left with no clear roadmap to explain what is going on other than the increasingly demented rabbiting of mainstream pundits. Indeed, as dysfunction increases, the average person becomes more and more bamboozled as their previously secure world disintegrates around them. Does this already sound familiar? That may be because, with conventional oil having peaked in 2005, that age is upon us right now.
I did what I could do, making changes in my own life, and communicated with others. For the greater part this took the form of writing a blog and a couple of books, as well as talking to people online and in everyday life. I thought, perhaps, that if the message resonated with enough people then we could do something about it.
However, it became apparent that people, for the most part, have some kind of psychological firewall that prevents unwelcome ideas from permeating into their minds. What’s more, it was difficult to shift the mindset that we are either facing an all-out zombie apocalypse, or else would soon be living happy lives somewhere in the vicinity of Alpha Centauri and worshipping the deity Elon Musk – I didn’t think either of those extremes were likely. I gradually let go and moved onto other things.
Fast forward a decade and the evidence of the ongoing destruction all around us is getting harder to ignore. The grand narratives that have undergirded our lives for so long are starting to look flimsy, and once-great institutions are visibly crumbling around us. At the same time political deadlock, divisive rhetoric and cultural breakdown blight our intellectual world, making it harder to get a grip on the overarching nature of our challenge. Is it any surprise that rates of mental illness are soaring, or that it is getting increasingly difficult to hold a civil conversation with someone who has a different point of view? That’s not to mention the crumbling infrastructure and ageing trains, pipelines and buildings made from reinforced concrete. Rust never sleeps, they say.
The endgame of our way of life – which was kickstarted by the Industrial Revolution in the late eighteenth century – was foreseen a long time ago. What began as a whisper on the wind so far back in time, picked up only by the keen ears of mystical poets and other oddball visionaries, has today become a howling gale that is impossible to ignore.
I have on the shelf beside me a copy of Theodore Roszak’s Where the Wasteland Ends. Written in 1973 the book is concerned with “politics and transcendence in a post-industrial society”. Roszak, an American academic connected with the counterculture of the 1960s, wrote it because he was concerned about the gaping hole of meaning at the centre of modern life. This black hole has yawned ever wider since the advent of the Industrial Revolution. It’s a philosophical reflection on the inner state of humankind, and the wasteland of the title is the same dark and ruined landscape that the war poet T.S. Eliot wrote of in his poem The Waste Land after he had seen first-hand the effects of industrialised warfare.
Roszak’s work centres on a radical critique of the modes of thinking that got us into an age of “environmental collapse, world poverty, technocratic elitism, psychic alienation [and], the death of the soul.” He pulls no punches in his assault on the worship of science and progress as modern day religions, responsible for the polluted seas, the razed forests, the factory farms and the diminished sense of wonder at the cosmos. Roszak, who died in 2011, argued that we need to find our inner compass once again so that we may re-enchant the world (to use a borrowed phrase). He cites visionary artist and poet William Blake as among the first to realise that the advance of scientific reductionism and machine thinking would inevitably lead to a terrifying assault on the human spirit and would eventually lead to the ruination of the Earth if left unchecked.
It’s interesting to note that Where the Wasteland Ends gained some popular traction back when it was released almost half a century ago. For the first time, many people in industrialised societies entertained the notion that material prosperity at the expense of ecological sustainability might not be such a great idea after all. Add in the oil shocks of the 1970s and it wasn’t long before people seriously started to think about alternatives to burning up the world’s irreplaceable fossil fuel reserves.
In fact, not long after, US President Jimmy Carter erected solar panels on the White House. This sent a clear message about priorities, and for a while it seemed like another world might just be possible after all. It wasn’t to last however, and one of the first things that Ronald Reagan did when he moved into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue was rip out the solar panels and ramp up oil production in Alaska. With the declaration that it was “Morning in America”, Reagan spun the fossil fuel wheel of fortune one last time, putting an end to the notion that humanity should adapt to the hard and unforgiving limits imposed by nature.
Had Reagan (and Margaret Thatcher, who opened up the North Sea spigots in tandem with her American counterpart) chosen a different path, we’d likely be living in a very different world now. Unfortunately for us, all Reagan and Thatcher did was delay the inevitable reckoning with the forces of thermodynamics that control the movement of energy through a system, and therefore the growth patterns of civilisations. The end result was that the problems we now face are an order of magnitude more difficult than they would otherwise have been if we’d bitten the bullet in the early 1970s.
And so that’s my starting point for this new blog. I’d like to sketch out what got us into this mess, and what solutions might exist for managing our decline from a state of energy affluence to one of energy poverty. I should probably make it clear at the outset that I don’t believe there is any one-size-fits-all solution that can be wheeled out and applied across the world. Instead, I propose that there are a multiplicity of ways of dealing with our situation which can be applied at different levels – from the individual to the national – and that in many situations there are no solutions at all and we’ll just have to live with the consequences of previous generations’ disastrous mistakes.
My contention, which is shared by others, can be boiled down to the following:
- Humanity faces a powerdown situation which will manifest in all sorts of ways that may not be immediately obvious. The process will take decades or even centuries, but we are already well on the path.
- No amount of ‘renewable’ energy harvesting techniques or techno fixes will allow us to live with anything like the current state of comfort provided by the rapidly diminishing fossil fuels we take for granted.
- We urgently need to change our outlook about what is meaningful in life and our attitude towards the Earth. Until we fix our thinking, we will just carry on making the same mistakes but in ever more interesting ways.
By pointing out what has gone wrong and taking a frank look at what we can do about it we’ll be playing our part in laying down the foundations for a saner mode of human existence in the future.
I don’t believe that focusing in on one area of human endeavour will be of any use for getting a grip on understanding and dealing with the challenges I’ve outlined above, so to that end I’ll be talking about a broad range of topics that’ll likely include at the very least:
* Ecology: Our place in the web of life
* Economics: The human-created systems for allocating planetary resources
* Spirituality and religion: How we relate to the cosmos
* Herbal medicine and health: Thinking holistically about ourselves
* Permaculture: Adopting systems to sustain us that work in partnership with nature
* Philosophy: What does it all mean …?
* Fiction writing: Using narrative tools to convey useful patterns of thinking
You might notice that I haven’t mentioned politics above. Of course, a certain amount of politics is inevitable and although there will be mentions in passing it will only be in the context of the seven main topics and not in terms of party lines, or this or that ideology.
To that end I’d like to invite you to follow along. Please subscribe or set up an alert so that you know when I’ve posted a new article – something I’ll be doing every Wednesday, and possibly more often. There will be a mix of posts – some of them will be thinking posts and some of them will be practical posts. After all, what’s the point of understanding something if you don’t put it into action? I like to think that I’m quite a down-to-earth kind of bloke (well, I am an Earth sign), and I’m always up for a bit of humour to enliven the topic.
I look forward to hearing your thoughts and getting involved in the discussion as we attempt to transcend the usual limited set of talking points and move … beyond the wasteland.