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The Archdruid Report: The Ecology of Collapse: Collected Essays, Volume II, 2008

The Archdruid Report: The Ecology of Collapse: Collected Essays, Volume II, 2008

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The Archdruid Report: The Ecology of Collapse: Collected Essays, Volume II, 2008

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Oct 30, 2017


During its eleven-year run, 'The Archdruid Report' was one of the most controversial and widely cited blogs on the future of industrial society. This second volume of the collected essays from 'The Archdruid Report' covers the years 2008. These essays examine the accelerating decline of industrial civilization through an ecological lens, exploring collapse as an ecological process -- and beginning to make sense of the unfamiliar world on the far side of industrialism.

Oct 30, 2017

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One of the most respected writers and teachers in the occult field today, John Michael Greer has written more than fifty books on esoteric traditions, nature spirituality, and the future of industrial society. An initiate in Druidic, Hermetic, and Masonic lineages, he served for twelve years as Grand Archdruid of the Ancient Order of Druids in America (AODA). He lives in Rhode Island, USA with his wife Sara. He can be found online at

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The Archdruid Report - John Michael Greer


2008 was in many ways a banner year for The Archdruid Report, though that had as much to do with external events as it did with anything I did or didn’t do in that year’s blog posts. Over the course of the year, the price of crude oil soared to previously unimagined heights and then crashed again, confounding both the pundits of the mainstream and many of the writers in the then-burgeoning peak oil scene; the real estate bubble that had been inflating since 2002 or so, to the accompaniment of clueless cheerleading from economists and the media, tipped over into a spectacular bust; the global financial system briefly tottered as the Lehman Brothers brokerage firm imploded and dozens of banks worldwide suffered gargantuan losses; and the words peak oil crept out of their long exile to trouble the pages of newspapers of record.

In such a setting it wasn’t surprising that a blog that tried to talk sensibly about the shape of history and the future of industrial society would begin to attract serious attention. It helped that in 2008 my first book on the future, The Long Descent, saw print; it also helped that in the fall of that year I attended the Sacramento conference of the US branch of ASPO, the Association for the Study of Peak Oil, and was a featured speaker at the Conference on Peak Oil and Community Solutions in a suburb of Detroit. Behind those highlights was a steady climb in the blog’s readership, and an equally steady diffusion of some of the concepts I was trying to discuss into the peak oil scene generally. The Archdruid Report was hitting its stride, and the flurries of sometimes harsh criticism it attracted showed me just how broad an impact it had.

What strikes me, as I read back over the posts from 2008, is the relative optimism so many of them display. That wasn’t unique to The Archdruid Report, admittedly. The dizzying spike in oil prices mentioned above had demonstrated clearly—or so many of us thought at the time—that the pundits who insisted the price of oil couldn’t possibly spin out of control were quite simply wrong. Politicians, bankers, and businesspeople were starting to notice the widening gap between the bland predictions of prosperity being offered by the economic mainstream and the far harsher realities in play on the ground. It seemed possible, for a while, that something constructive might be done on a collective level about industrial society’s increasingly intractable predicament.

Such hopes occupied only a certain fraction of Archdruid Report posts, though. Meanwhile, the broader project of sketching out a view of history and human life that could support sustainable societies over the long term continued, one Wednesday post at a time.

—John Michael Greer

71: The Future That Wasn’t

Part One: The Sunset-Drowning of the Evening Lands

(Originally published 26 December 2007)

I’d planned to devote this week’s Archdruid Report post to the fine and practical art of composting, and for good reason. It’s one of the most important and least regarded techniques in the ecotechnic toolkit, and it’s also a near-perfect model for the way that today’s mindlessly linear conversion of resources to waste can be brought back around in a circle, like the legendary ouroboros-snake that swallows its own tail, to become the sustainable resource flows of the human ecologies of the future.

Still, that profoundly worthwhile topic will have to wait a while. Even the most mercenary writer is now and then at the mercy of his muse, held hostage by some awkwardly timed bit of inspiration that elbows other projects aside, and I think that most of us who write for a living learn sooner or later to put up with the interruption and write out what has to be written. If this sudden veering from the pragmatic issues central to the last few posts needs a justification, that’s the only one I have to offer.

Well, maybe not quite the only one. The holiday season now lurching past is not a time I particularly enjoy. Our solstice ceremony a few days back was a bright spot, mind you; midsummer is a more significant occasion in my Druid faith, but it’s as pleasant as it is moving to gather with local Druids in the circle of the sacred grove to light the winter solstice fire and celebrate the rebirth of the sun in the depths of winter. Nor do I find anything in the least offensive in the Christian celebrations of the season. As human beings, we’re all far enough from the luminous center of things that we have to take meaning where we can find it; if someone can grasp the eternal renewal of spirit in darkness through the symbol of the midwinter birth of Jesus of Nazareth, I can’t find it in myself to object. From my perspective, though not from theirs, of course, we’re celebrating the same thing.

Nor, for that matter, do I turn Scroogelike at the thought of gifts, big dinners, and too much brandy in the egg nog. I can’t think of a human culture in the northern temperate zone that hasn’t found some reason to fling down life’s gauntlet in the face of winter with a grand party. Whether it’s the Saturnalia of the ancient Romans, when cold grim Saturn turns back just for a moment into the generous king of the Golden Age, or the Hamatsa winter dances of the Kwakiutl nation of Canada’s Pacific coast, when the cannibal giant Baxbakualanooksiwae, Eater of Men at the River Mouth, is revealed as the source of mighty spiritual gifts, this sort of celebration reflects a profound set of realities about our life in the world. Besides, I’m fond of brandy, and egg nog, and a good party now and then, too.

No, what makes the midwinter holidays a less than rapturous time for me is the spectacle of seeing the things I’ve just listed redefined as artificial stimulants for a dysfunctional economy supported by nothing so straightforward as honest smoke and mirrors. When front page news stories about Christmas center on whether consumer spending this holiday season will provide enough of an amphetamine fix to keep our speed-freak economic system zooming along, I start wishing that Baxbakualanooksiwae and his four gigantic man-eating birds would consider adding corporate vice-presidents and media flacks to their holiday menu.

And that, dear readers, is what sent me for refuge to Oswald Spengler. A mild depression can be treated with Ogden Nash poems and Shakespeare comedies, but when things get really grim it’s time for the hair of the dog. The same effect that leaves the soul feeling oddly lighter after taking in a Greek tragedy, or listening to an entire album of really blue blues, hits a history geek like myself after a chapter or two of Der Untergang des Abendlandes.

I insist on the German title, by the way. The splendor of Germany’s literature and the curse on its history come from the same source, the brilliant but sometimes misleading way the German language naturally expresses abstract ideas in concrete, sensuous terms. Untergang, which gets turned in English into the anemic Latinism decline, is literally going under, and calls to mind inevitably the last struggles of the drowning and the irrevocable descent of the sun below the western horizon. Abendland, the German for the West, is literally the evening land, the land toward sunset. Put them together and the result could be turned into a crisp line of iambic pentameter by an English poet—the sunset-drowning of the evening lands—but there’s no way an English language book on the philosophy of history could survive a title like that. In German, by contrast, it’s inevitable, and for Oswald Spengler, it’s perfect.

Spengler has been poorly treated in recent writings on the decline and fall of civilizations. Joseph Tainter’s The Collapse of Compex Societies, for example, takes him to task for not providing a scientific account of the causes of societal collapse, which is a little like berating Michelangelo for not including accurate astrophysics in his frescoes in the Sistine Chapel. Spengler was not a scientist and never pretended to be one. He was a philosopher of history; in some ways, really, he was an artist who took the philosophy of history for his medium in place of paint or music. This does not make his contributions to our understanding of history less relevant. It’s only in the imagination of the most fundamentalist kinds of scientific materialism that scientific meaning is the only kind of meaning that there is. In dealing with human behavior, above all, a sonnet, a story, or a philosophical treatise can prove a better anticipation of the flow of events than any scientific analysis—and the decline and fall of our present civilization, or any other, is preeminently a story about human behavior.

Tainter’s critique also fails in that Spengler was not even talking about the fall of civilizations. What interested him was the origin and fate of cultures, and he didn’t mean this term in the anthropological sense. In his view, a culture is a overall way of looking at the world with its own distinct expressions in religious, philosophical, artistic, and social terms. For him, all the societies of the evening lands—that is, all of western Europe from roughly 1000 CE on, and the nations of the European diaspora in the Americas and Australasia—comprise a single culture, which he terms the Faustian. Ancestral to the Faustian culture in one sense, and its polar opposite in another, is the Apollonian culture of the classic Mediterranean world, from Homeric Greece to the early Roman empire; ancestral to the Faustian culture in a different sense, and parallell to it in another, is the Magian culture, which had its origins in Zoroastrian Persia, absorbed the Roman Empire during its later phases, and survives to this day as the Muslim civilization of the Middle East. Other Spenglerian cultures are the Egyptian, the Chinese, the Mesopotamian, the Indian, and the Mexican.

Talking about the rise and fall of a culture in Spengler’s sense, then, isn’t a matter of tracing shifts in political or economic arrangements. It’s about the birth, flowering, and death of a distinctive way of grasping the nature of human existence, and everything that unfolds from that—which, in human terms, is just about everything that matters. The Apollonian culture, for example, rose out of the chaotic aftermath of the Minoan-Mycenean collapse with a unique vision of humanity and the world rooted in the experience of the Greek polis, the independent self-governing community in which everything important was decided by social process. Greek theology envisioned a polis of gods, Greek physics a polis of fundamental elements, Greek ethics a polis of virtues, and so on down the list of cultural creations. Projected around the Mediterranean basin first by Greek colonialism, then by Alexander’s conquests, and finally by the expansion of Rome, it became the worldview and the cultural inspiration of one of the world’s great civilizations.

That, according to Spengler, was also its epitaph. A culture, any culture, embodies a particular range of human possibility, and like everything else, it suffers from the law of diminishing returns. Sooner or later, everything that can be done from within the worldview of a culture—everything religious, philosophical, intellectual, artistic, social, political, you name it—has basically been done, and the culture fossilizes into a civilization. Thereafter the same things get repeated over and over again in endless combinations; disaffected intellectuals no longer capable of creativity settle for mere novelty or, worse still, simple shock value; artistic and intellectual traditions from other cultures get imported to fill the widening void; technology progresses in a kind of mechanical forward lurch until the social structures capable of supporting it fall away from underneath it. Sooner or later, the civilization falls apart, basically, because nobody actually believes in it any more.

What made this prophecy a live issue in Spengler’s time was that he placed the twilight of Western culture and the beginning of its mummification into Western civilization in the decades right after 1800. Around then, he argued, the vitality of the cultural forms that took shape in western Europe around 1000 began trickling away in earnest. By then, in his view, the Western world’s religions had already begun to mummify into the empty repetition of older forms; its art, music, and literature lost their way in the decades that followed; its political forms launched into the fatal march toward gigantism that leads to empire and, in time, to empire’s fall; only its science and technology, like the sciences and technologies of previous cultures, continued blindly on its way, placing ever more gargantuan means in the service of ever more impoverished ends.

Exactly how the Faustian culture would metastasize into a future Faustian civilization he did not try to predict, but one element of the transition seemed certain enough to find its way into his book. The society that would play Rome to Europe’s Greece, he suggested, was none other than the United States of America. In the brash architecture of American skyscrapers and the casual gesture that flung an army across the Atlantic to save France and England from defeat in the last years of the First World War, he thought he saw the swagger of incipient Caesarism, the rise of the empire that would become Faustian culture’s final achievement and its tomb.

It was a common belief at that time. Interestingly enough, it also shaped the thought of Spengler’s counterpart and rival, the British historian Arnold Toynbee, whose ten-volume A Study of History stands like hoplites in a Greek phalanx not far from the couch where Spengler and multiple cups of good oolong offered some consolation for the wretched orgy of economic excess and hallucinated well-being playing itself out outside my windows. For Toynbee, who shared Spengler’s cyclical theory of history but rejected all his philosophy and most of his conclusions, the natural next step in the unfolding of history was the transition from a time of troubles to a planetary empire, and like many English intellectuals in the twilight of the British Empire, he expected an alliance between the United States and the British Commonwealth to become the seed of that empire-to-be.

As it turns out, though, this plausible and widely held belief was quite incorrect, and the actions taken by three generations of politicians and intellectuals in response to that belief are all too likely to play out with disastrous results in the fairly near future. We’ll discuss that in next week’s post.

Part Two: The Phantom of Empire

(Originally published 2 January 2008)

Perhaps it’s just an outward projection of the jaundiced attitude toward the holidays I expressed in last week’s Archdruid Report post, but it seems to me that this year’s New Year celebrations were a bit more restrained than usual, or more than a bit. Most of the people I know chose to stay at home on the last night of 2007, and while many of them claimed they were planning to toast in the new year with something more or less festive, my best guess is that most of them did some equivalent of hiding under their beds. One friend’s emailed New Year message expressed the bright hope that 2008 wouldn’t suck as much as 2007.

Nor has the opening of the year failed to live up, or down, to expectations; the news from 2008’s first business day is not precisely encouraging. As I write these words, the US stock market is doing its best to prove Isaac Newton right by dropping like a stone, on news that US manufacturing output has slumped unexpectedly. Gold has soared to a new record and oil is back above $97 a barrel; one-quarter of all US subprime mortgages are now in some stage of the foreclosure process, and default rates in the rest of the mortgage market, not to mention car loans and credit card debt, are climbing steadily.

My favorite story of the day so far, though, is the Australian real estate holding company that bought no fewer than 700 American shopping malls—I have a hard time imagining a better image of speculative excess than that one fact—using funds from the commercial paper market. They’ve got $3.4 billion in loans due for repayment on February 15, and their chance of finding a lender to roll those loans over just now ranks down there with the proverbial snowball in Beelzebub’s back yard. So the entire company is up for sale. I don’t imagine any of my readers cherish a lifelong ambition to own 700 shopping malls, but if I’m wrong, here’s your chance.

All this, for reasons that go beyond the obvious, makes an excellent backdrop for the subject of today’s post. My regular readers will recall that last week I introduced the redoubtable Oswald Spengler, whose theory of the decline and fall of Western culture got so much attention between the two world wars and has been dismissed so patronizingly since that time. Spengler argued that the cultural possibilities of Western society reached the point of diminishing returns around the beginning of the nineteenth century and run out completely by the dawn of the twentieth. The future of the West, in his view, was the same fate that overtakes every great culture: the fossilization of cultural forms and the rise of a gargantuan empire propped up by brute force.

He was far from the only thinker to envision the future in those terms. Not all of the others put the same negative spin on it, and one of those who saw the upside of empire had far more influence than Spengler ever did. This was Arnold Toynbee, whose ideas have appeared on this blog more than once already. Toynbee was by no means a mindless fan of empire, and much of his sprawling A Study of History focuses on the ways that empires inevitably destroy themselves. Still, like Spengler, he argued that societies go through predictable stages in their life cycle; like Spengler, he saw the rise of a Universal State as the next stage in the history of the Western world; unlike Spengler, he was in a position to help that stage come about.

Toynbee spent most of his working life at the helm of the Royal Institute for International Affairs (RIIA), and published A Study of History under its auspices. The RIIA is the British counterpart of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), an influential association of prominent politicians and businessmen that has been a bugbear of the American conspiracy scene for decades now. The two organizations emerged right after the First World War out of the same network of business interests, and Toynbee was in some sense the pet historical theorist of both; in the early days of the Second World War, for example, all the notes and drafts for his not-yet-written volumes were stored for safekeeping at CFR headquarters in New York City.

What makes this relevant is that Toynbee’s work has been a template for public policy in Britain and America since the 1920s. Point for point, the mainstream in both countries has embraced all the things Toynbee considered good for empires and rejected those he labeled bad. According to Toynbee, for example, when an imperial power borders a poorer and less advanced society, it’s a fatal mistake to allow that border to degenerate into a guarded frontier. In case after case in history, this kickstarts a struggle that the imperial power will ultimately lose. The US policy of an open border with Mexico, maintained in the face of mass migration that has seen something like a tenth of Mexico’s population cross the Rio Grande, is hard to understand unless some overriding concern requires it; Toynbee may well be the source of that concern.

None of this is any sort of secret. Anybody with internet access or a decent library can get the membership list of the CFR, request copies of CFR position papers, and subscribe to Foreign Affairs, the journal published by the CFR, in which public policy issues come up for debate well before they find their way into politics and the media. The irony, and it’s not a small one, is that conspiracy theorists could have gotten plenty of ammunition from Toynbee, or for that matter from the pages of Foreign Affairs, if they had bothered to do a bit of research. Toynbee, remember, believed that the coming American empire would be a good thing. His reasons are unpopular in today’s political climate, but in the context of their own time they were by no means completely empty.

In Toynbee’s vision of history, every civilization is born when a people facing a serious challenge responds to it by achieving a new level of integration as a society, and develops exactly as long as its leadership can meet new challenges with responses that inspire the respect and loyalty of the rest of the population. Once the leadership starts trying to force new problems to fit old solutions, its power to inspire breaks down, and the civilization enters a time of troubles from which only the rise of a universal state can save it. In Toynbee’s eyes, the time of troubles for Western civilization arrived in 1914, and the rise of an American empire was the only thing that could prevent Europe from sliding further down a death spiral of internecine war.

Behind this interpretation of history, and its equivalents in Spengler and many other thinkers of the same time, lay a belief that Western history was locked into a parallel with a specific period of the past. Every schoolchild in Spengler’s Germany and Toynbee’s Britin learned about the quarreling city-states of ancient Greece, which created most of classical culture and then nearly destroyed it and themselves in an age of fratricidal warfare. In the wake of 1914, people across Europe decided that their own society had reached the equivalent of 431 BCE, the beginning of the Peloponnesian War and ancient Greece’s time of troubles. To many of them, the comparison between Greece and Europe made a comparison between Rome and America inescapable, and no small number came to hope for an American equivalent of Augustus Caesar—someone who would rein in the unruly nation-states and impose peace on the world.

This was Toynbee’s view. It also seems to have been the view of the CFR, the RIIA, and those sectors of the American and British political classes who shared their agenda. It’s popular these days to assume that this was simply window dressing over a desire for power, but that says at least as much about our contemporary habit of demonizing political enemies as anything else. Doubtless the people who backed the project of American empire thought about how they might benefit from it, but then such motives are anything but absent from many of those who denounce American empire today. In a world reeling from the effects of two catastrophic wars, the idea of a global Pax Americana had an appeal that was by no means wholly imaginary.

What neither Spengler nor Toynbee realized, though, was that the American ascendancy in the twentieth century rested on foundations far more fleeting than Rome’s. The basis of American power was geological, rooted in the accidents of paleoecology that left immense deposits of crude oil in half a dozen American states, and can be measured by the fact that in 1950 the United States produced more crude oil than the rest of the world put together. Winston Churchill famously remarked that the Allies had floated to victory in the First World War on an ocean of American oil, and the Second depended even more dramatically on oil production, with oil-poor Germany and Japan overwhelmed by the tanks, ships, and planes of oil-rich America and Russia.

By the first wave of energy crises in the 1970s, however, the geological basis for American ascendancy no longer existed, because most of it had been pumped out of the ground and burnt. I’ve argued elsewhere that the American political class in the Seventies faced a difficult choice between a transition to sustainability and a high-tech, high risk nuclear society, and ended up choosing neither because the costs on both sides were too high. Since then, political and economic gimmicks and a willingness to burn through our remaining resources with reckless abandon have papered over the hard reality of American decline.

It’s in this context, I’ve suggested, that the neoconservative adventures of the last decade needs to be interpreted. By the end of the 1990s, it was very likely clear even to the most recalcitrant members of America’s political class that trusting the free market to find a long-term solution to America’s energy dependence had failed. It’s a matter of public knowledge that investment banker Matthew Simmons, one of the first voices to raise an alarm over peak oil in the 1990s, was brought in as a consultant to Vice President Cheney immediately after the 2000 election. The march to war that followed can best be understood as a desperate attempt to keep the dream of empire from collapsing completely by giving America control over Iraq’s petroleum reserves.

It was a bad plan, pragmatically as well as ethically, and the incompetence with which it was put into effect has not exactly helped the situation. Still, I’m far from sure that those Americans who talk about their eagerness to see the troops come home from the Middle East have quite grasped what they are asking for. For the last sixty years the American way of life has depended on wildly unequal international relationships that guarantee the 5% of the human race that lives in the United States access to more than 30% of the world’s energy and other resources. The collapse of American empire, when it occurs, will see that state of affairs come to an end. It remains to be seen how enthusiastic the critics of empire will be when their own standard of living drops to one-sixth of its current level.

It’s hard to ignore the likelihood that some such discontinuity waits in America’s near future. Our political class, chasing after the phantom of empire, has followed it right over the edge of a cliff. Exactly how the results will play out is anybody’s guess right now. Equally uncertain is how the political classes in America and elsewhere will respond when a vision that has guided public policy for most of a century turns out to be as insubstantial as air. One way or another, though, we are likely in for a wild ride.

72: Back Up The Rabbit Hole

(Originally published 6 February 2008)

One of this blog’s central purposes, the attempt to glimpse the future’s patterns in the Rohrshach inkblots of the present, poses a notoriously difficult challenge. Perhaps the worst of the difficulties involved in that attempt, as I’ve suggested here more than once, is the pervasive influence of mythic narratives so deeply ingrained in our culture that few people even notice them. In a retrospective essay on his own work, historian Arnold Toynbee offered a useful warning in this regard: If one cannot think without mental patterns—and, in my belief, one cannot—it is better to know what they are; for a pattern of which one is unconscious is a pattern that holds one at its mercy.

Toynbee was critiquing historians of his own period who treated the idea of progress as a simple fact, rather than the richly imaginative secular mythology it actually is. Still, his caution can be applied far outside the limits of the academic study of history. Nearly every dimension of contemporary culture, today just as in Toynbee’s time, embraces the unthinking assumption that the wave of history inevitably leads onward and upward through the present to a future that will look pretty much like the present, but more so.

This very widespread article of faith begs any number of questions. It seems to me, however, that one of them deserves special attention. The notion of history implicit in the modern mythology of progress is a straight line without branches or swerves, much less dead ends from which we might have to be retrace our steps. That idea of history, if it’s embraced unthinkingly, leaves us with desperately few options if adaptations to some temporary set of conditions turn out to be counterproductive when those conditions go away.

This is anything but an abstract concern just now. As the world closes in on the end of the 21st century’s first decade, its industrial societies are leaving behind a period in

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