It is easy to get hung up on squabbling about the hot button issues of the day (feminism, creeping socialism, immigration, and Planned Parenthood’s sale of murdered baby parts) that we lose the big picture of where our civilization is headed.
John Michael Greer is a historian who gives us that big picture.
His prognosis for our current technological civilization is bleak. If Greer is right, our civilization has already reached its peak and we are starting a descent that is going to result in a complete restructuring of the way we live our lives, including rampant unemployment, increasing violence, and the loss of technology. In other words, Greer believes we are on the verge of a new dark age.
A 21st Century Gandalf
I will be the first to admit that at first glance, Greer seems to be an unlikely source of wisdom about the future. His background is unusual, to say the least.
One could say that Greer, who was born in 1962, is a real world Gandalf. He got his start writing about his involvement in a magical group modeled on the famous Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. The Golden Dawn was a group that operated in Great Britain in the late 19th and early 20th century. Its membership included some of the brightest literary minds of the time: W.B. Yeats, Arthur Conan Doyle, Arthur Machen, and the notorious Aleister Crowley.
To practice Greer’s version of magic requires one to be broad. A Golden Dawn-style magician must be well versed in philosophy, history, religion, and even science—and Greer amply fulfills this obligation.
Dissatisfaction With The Current State Of Civilization
I also suspect that J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings played a big role in Greer’s formation. Lord of the Rings has a negative view of some of the 20th century developments that destroyed the strong communities of village life, cut down trees, and replaced them with impersonal cities. I believe that Greer is attracted to the simpler life described in Lord of the Rings, and this lead him to question how long our technological society could survive.
End Of The U.S. Empire
Greer’s points out that the United States has been an empire since the country consciously embarked on that course during the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt. The imperial system has worked to enrich America and its allies, but, according to Greer, it has reached its zenith and has now started to decline.
Destruction Of The Manufacturing Sector
There are several causes to the decline. One is that US dominance has allowed American companies to move their production to cheaper countries. This has destroyed the US manufacturing sector and turned America’s industrial heartland into the Rust Belt.
The exporting of all manufacturing jobs has created an imbalance within the American job market. Because most of the productive jobs have been moved out of the country, the only way to make a living in the US is in what Greer calls “office fauna” jobs.
Office fauna roles are things such as project managers, human resource managers, corporate image consultants, and strategic marketing specialists. Office fauna jobs are pure overhead—it costs a lot of money to maintain huge staffs of people who basically do nothing productive.
Now, the US has an excess of people who are educated to do office fauna jobs and a shortage of people who have more useful skills. If times get tough, those office fauna jobs will go away. Greer writes:
[f]or the time being, the United States can afford to offshore jobs, or import people from other countries to do [vocational or trade jobs] at substandard wages; as the empire winds down and those familiar bad habits stop being possible, the shortage of Americans with even the most basic practical skills will become a massive burden. (From Decline and Fall: The End of Empire and the Future of Democracy in 21st Century America. All subsequent quotes are from this book.)
The second cause that is hastening the decline of the American empire is the gridlock of American politics. Greer indicates that this is a sign that the country has reached the maximum diffusion of power. Ironically, this makes it easy for certain groups to line their own pockets. According to Greer:
The last three decades have seen America turn into something close to a Third World kleptocracy, the sort of failed state in which a handful of politically well connected people plunder the economy for their own benefit. When bank executives vote themselves million dollar bonuses out of government [bailout] funds while their banks are losing billions of dollars a year, it is impossible to discuss the situation honestly without using words like “looting.”
It is not just special interests that take advantage of the situation, foreign countries do it as well:
[O]ther countries—China and Israel come to mind—have learned to make use of the diffusion of American power for their own interests. It doesn’t matter how blatantly the Chinese manipulate their currency or thumb their noses at intellectual property rights… so long as they keep their lobby in Washington well funded and well staffed, they’re secure from any meaningful response on the part of the US government.
Greer believes the current political situation is not sustainable. It will either lead to a dictator who will break the deadlock for good or for ill, or it will lead to the US breaking up into two or more regional powers.
A Decrease In Oil Production
Greer’s third cause may be more controversial. He believes that we have reached peak oil production and that the price of energy will slowly begin to increase. This will affect more than just the United States—it will gradually make our entire technological civilization unsustainable.
Oil is a fixed resource—the earth is not creating more fossil fuel—so eventually we will run out of it. Renewable petroleum alternatives such as wind, solar, and hydro, are not cost effective. The only way these alternative energy sources survive is through massive government subsidization. Moreover, these renewable alternatives show no sign of ever becoming economically viable.
Critics of the peak oil theory will point to the fracking industry to show that we will continue to develop new ways of getting more oil. Greer is skeptical. He suggests that the only reason that fracking was created was because the price of oil reached such a high price that fracking became cost effective.
From Greer’s perspective, the current low price of oil—it is below $50 a barrel—is a result of OPEC flooding the market to put its fracking industry competitors out of business. This may be true as half of the 41 US fracking companies are expected to go out of business by the end of 2015.
Critics of peak oil theory, and they are in the majority, say that discoveries of new oil reserves are more than offsetting the slowing production of older reserves. They will point to the low oil price as an indicator that oil supply is outpacing demand, and that it will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.
Peak Oil Effects
If Greer is right that we have already reached peak oil production, our current way of life will become quickly unsustainable. Cheap energy has made our technological civilization possible. Once the cheap energy ceases to be available, society will need to revert to something more like the Victorian age.
But getting there will be incredibly painful. Travel and large-scale international trade would be the first casualties. Production of goods would have to shift back to happening locally.
A decrease in oil production will also result in massive unemployment as the office fauna workers who lack any real skills are laid off. This would result in less need for computers, telecommunications networks, and those people who support these industries.
Greer believes we are already seeing the first effects of this with the fact that the job market never fully recovered after the 2008 recession.
How To Protect Yourself
The people who are best prepared for an American decline may be a group like the Amish—they are pretty much self-sustaining farmers. But Greer believes that it is too late to adopt farming. Events are happening much too quickly to make complete changes in one’s lifestyle.
Instead, he recommends that we adopt the philosophy of living with “L.E.S.S.” which he defines as “Less Energy, Stuff, and Stimulation.” The other strategy is to begin “to adopt the technologies and habits of earlier eras.” The idea is to learn to live with less energy now, while we still have some time, rather than being forced to learn it when everything goes to hell.
Do I believe Greer’s predictions? I think that it is beyond question that America is currently in a state of decline. However, I still think that with the right leadership, it might be possible to reverse some of the decline and breathe new life into the country–at least for the short term. If no great leader steps forward, I agree with Greer that big, unpleasant changes are headed our way in the near future.
On the topic of peak oil, I am less convinced, but I am not as sanguine as our libertarian economists who predict an unending party from here on out. I’ve lived long enough to realize that these promises of “energy independence” never seem to pan out. I do think that it would be prudent to adopt Greer’s philosophy of living with less energy, stuff, and stimulation.
Even when I disagree with Greer, I always find him an enjoyable read and I never fail to learn new things. If you’d like to read more of his writings, he blogs at http://thearchdruidreport.blogspot.com.
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