By Owen Lloyd / Deep Green Resistance
The latest work by John Michael Greer, The Blood of the Earth, synthesizes his thinking on two seemingly disparate subjects: magic, and peak oil.
At this point, some cynical readers may suspect that the book is an effort at showing how magic can be used to produce oil or direct it closer to the surface. But this is to misunderstand what Greer means by the word “magic,” which is nothing like the magic of a Harry Potter novel. As Greer says, divining new oil is an “elementary mistake in magical philosophy” and that “mind is mind, matter is matter, and making the transition from mind to matter is not an easy, much less an automatic, thing.”
The forms of magic that Greer identifies are things that, in ordinary terms, we might consider secular. For instance, he provides such examples as the placebo effect, charisma, and mass movements.
By a revitalization movement, Greer is referring to mass movements that “emerge when all the practical options for dealing with a crisis are either unworkable or unthinkable” (66). Some of these movements have had an overall positive consequence: for instance, the Ghost Dance helped revitalize the traditions of American Indian people, and Gandhi’s organized civil disobedience helped to liberate India from its colonial oppressors. On the other hand, he also shows how revitalization movements can do tremendous evil, as for instance in the case of Nazi Germany:
“Hitler was not a reasonable man, and he understood, better than nearly anyone else of his time, the power of the nonrational to shape human thought and action. His response to Germany’s integration amounted to government by magic. Germany became one vast magical temple, flooded with symbols, incantations and ceremony… Even in defeat, he kept his grip on the German people until it was shattered by sheer overwhelming force.” (69)
Regardless of whether a revitalization movement acts for good or for evil, it takes its power from “symbolism, incantation, ritual, and the rest of the hardware in the magician’s toolkit” (71). Greer talks about revitalization movements at length because he considers the world exceptionally ripe for them, suspecting that it won’t be long before “the first full fledged peak oil revitalization movement raises its banners and begins attracting a mass following with strident denunciations of the existing order of things and the promise of a bright future reached by what amounts to a sustained exercise in magic” (74).
He warns us to be “at least a little wary” of any movement of this sort, because often these movements will simply be kneejerk responses to peak oil, that cannot address the fundamental problems involved in it. He is concerned that there may be a resurgence in fascism, and one reason he fears this will happen is because we often treat it as a sort of bogeyman, and often “forget how promising fascism looked in the 1920s and 1930s to many good people disgusted with the failings of their democratic governments” (81).
What he is suggesting is that, in our efforts to respond to peak oil, we are liable to accept an alternative to it that may in fact be far worse. In saying all of that, I don’t think he is ruling out the potential of a revitalization movement to do some good, and towards the end of the book he appears to suggest a movement of his own, which I will discuss later.
But he does ask us to take due caution when proposed with a choice between peak oil and a supposed alternative to it. Although he doesn’t say dualism is necessarily bad in all situations, he says it is dangerous as a default and suggests that, when presented with a binary, we take care to look for a third option, or even a fourth or fifth option. He also points out that many of these additional options will not be centered between the first two, but on either side of them. All too often we are trapped into the options presented to us, and don’t even think to consider those left unmentioned. As Derrick Jensen has likewise said, “The only way out of a double bind is to smash it.” And so we should.
Greer provides examples of magical incantations that have been used, both by the far right and by liberals, to ward off the inevitability of a world without cheap sources of energy. For instance, he quotes the investment analyst Porter Stansberry, who claimed that “[G]eology doesn’t create oil; capital creates oil. The more capital you put toward oil, the more of it there will be.” What Stansberry is doing here is enchanting people with a reversal of how the world operates.
In this view, economies are not dependent on the availability of resources; the existence of resources are dependent on economic investment. Or another way to put it is that people are not bound to the laws of nature; the laws of nature are firmly under the control of people. Although this viewpoint is obviously insane, it is nevertheless powerful, giving modern people the illusion of control over their environment. Greer notes that Sarah Palin’s chant “drill, baby, drill” serves a similar purpose:
“a great many of the people who mouth it believe with all their heart that all we have to do is drill enough wells and we can have all the petroleum we want, and they are willing to do whatever it takes to get those wells drilled. That plan of action can’t deliver the goods; Palin’s followers might as well be out there with the cargo cults, building mock airfields on isolated Pacific islands hoping to bring back the DC-3s full of K-rations and cheap trade goods that landed on a hundred archipelagoes during the Second World War. Still, that’s not something they are likely to grasp any time soon, since the power that drives a revitalization movement is exactly the same as the power that drives effective social thaumaturgy– the repeated hammering of catchy symbols and slogans on the weak points of the social and biological selves, with an eye toward stampeding the horses of irrationality and leaving the charioteer helpless.” (66-67)
As Greer points out, liberals have been using this technique as well. Just as the right has been frantically trying to retrieve as much oil as possible, we often hear liberals expressing an unbound faith in technologies such as hybrid cars, solar power, a hydrogen economy, and algal biodiesel, that are only marginally less insane than the lies espoused by the right, and potentially far more dangerous, because while they nurture the hope of genuine change, their efforts only put off the inevitable, and do nothing to mitigate the damage, which has only continued to accelerate from one year to the next.
Our planet has suffered unbelievable harm in the last century, and if the bright greens are not stopped, this one will be its death blow. To go back to what Greer said about binaries, we are being set up with a false choice: we can pretend that capital will provide the oil reserves necessary to keep civilization moving for all time, or we can pretend that mining rare earth minerals for solar and wind power are “sustainable alternatives” to oil extraction. What we need is another way out.
Another Way Out
So far in this review, I have expressed a general positivity about John Michael Greer’s book. I think a lot of what he says here is very astute. Before reading this book, I wouldn’t have thought to consider that magical incantations play an important role in the modern world. More often, we think to describe these charms and incantations in more concrete and secular terms. For instance, we are liable to call politicians liars rather than magicians, evaluating statements on whether they are factually true or false.
Now, I don’t mean to suggest this isn’t useful, because it is. But it may not be useful for the reasons we often think. If we look at these lies as a spell cast over the populace, then what we should be concerned about is whether these lies are effective in captivating people, in charming them into a trance. Calling the spell a lie is helpful in this respect because it helps to keep people awake, to keep them from falling away into the comforts provided by the lie. We might say that it is a way of dispelling it.
Of course, trying to dispel it may only result in angering someone who is trying to keep them away from the blissful fantasy they are trying to experience. But even that is much better than leaving the lie to stand unchallenged. If we don’t, we run the risk that people using this magic will produce a revitalization movement of the worst kind, that will sweep people right into a dangerous fantasy world. Dangerous, whether it is the far right fantasy of Randist capitalism, or the technotopian imaginings of middle class liberals.
Where I run into problems with Greer is when he suggests his third way of escaping this insane duality. His solution is a common one– to retreat from the system. However, he doesn’t argue for retreat for the sake of retreat, or for retreat as a form of political action. He says that we should retreat in order to kick away some of our dependencies on the system, to become more autonomous thinkers, and to (okay, we hear this one all the time) “become the change that we wish to see in the world”. I’ll address these separately.
In order to become less dependent on the system, Greer advocates that we give up some of the things we take for granted. He wants us to adopt something like what Thoreau called “voluntary poverty”. He gives two advantages to this strategy. The first is that it saves a lot of money. For instance, getting rid of your car eliminates expenses such as car payments, gas, maintenance, insurance, parking, and so on. Doing this and applying the same logic to “other money-wasting habits of the middle class” can leave you with more money to pay off debt and learn useful skills that will help you in the future.
The second advantage he gives is that if you adopt poverty right now, you can do it on your own terms and have a better idea of what a life of impoverishment is like later down the road. One thing to note about this “solution” is that it is directed at middle class people who actually have these privileges to sacrifice.
I think that there is some good advice here. I know that I am very happy living without a car, because on the one hand it leaves me with enough income to ensure that I can eat well, and on the other because it has taught me skills in getting around without a car. A few years ago, my wife and I took a month-long tour around British Columbia, traveling mostly by a combination of hitchhiking, Greyhound buses, and ferry boats. Before we left, our neighbors told us they envy how we are able to travel around without a car. Although we often think of cars as providing us with freedoms, they make us very dependent on their presence, and also on a constant income with which to maintain them.
One other advantage of overcoming a dependency on automobiles is that it leaves you with an abiding hatred for cars. To a non-driver, cars do not look like wonderful, attractive machines that get you from place to place. They look like insidious machines that cough poison on you, threaten to kill you, and then honk at you afterward. For the sake of the planet, I feel that’s about the healthiest possible relationship that human beings can have with them. So by all means, I would encourage people to stop driving if they are able to.
Continuing on in this vein, he also encourages us to raise our own food, and to swap out industrial technologies for appropriate technologies where possible, and I wouldn’t say that these are bad suggestions either.
Greer also expresses a concern that we will fall into groupthink, as a result of a homogenous mass media that attempts to feed us all the same diet of books and television programs. He neglects, somehow, to recognize that this has a lot to do with the consolidation of corporate power, and not a lot to do with our society as it might exist otherwise. All the same, I don’t think this advice is terrible. He suggests that we give up on mass media, in particular television, and start reading books older than we are. As someone who likes to read old books and (like the author) hasn’t had a television since his teens years, I can understand his point of view.
First of all, television tends to constrict our expectations of reality within the limits that would be acceptable on television. Since television programs are mass-produced by a handful of giant corporations, even the sitcoms on television have a very powerful effect on people, without even getting into the news programs or commercials. I fell out of television only as a matter of circumstance, when I moved away to college without a television of my own. But having lost track of television for a year or two, when I came back in contact with one again it was easy to see just how crazy the programming, and particularly the commercials, can be. When you watch television regularly, you are not likely to resist every commercial that comes up, because it would drive you crazy. Instead, you simply take the images and messages in. So having said all of that, I don’t object to Greer when he says that “your television will do you more good at the bottom of a dumpster than it will sitting in your living room” (99).
However good these lifestyle choices may be, they are lifestyle choices. And where the book really goes off the rails is when the author argues that these changes are prerequisites to engaging in any sort of activist work:
“Activism has its place, to be sure, and potentially an important one, but activism only matters if the people who are doing it have already followed Gandhi’s advice and become the change that they wish to see in the world. When that first necessary step doesn’t happen, activism fails.”
In support of this thesis, he brings up the example of the climate change movement, which he claims failed because those in it didn’t actualize the changes of the movement in their own lives first.
First of all, if the climate change movement has so far failed, it isn’t because Al Gore owns a private plane, it is because climate change cannot be addressed without dismantling industrial capitalism, and because those in power would not be in power if they started to question, hinder, or even reform industrial capitalism. And to date, there is a huge disparity in power between those running the system, and the small number of climate activists opposing them.
If we are to stop industrial capitalism, we’re going to need to exert a power equal to or greater than that expressed by the power elites. And we can’t wait until we have a mass movement to do that. We’re going to need to adopt the techniques of asymmetrical warfare: direct action, community building, and outreach. Trying to get everyone on board with us might sound more friendly and democratic, but with the world at stake, there isn’t going to be time for those niceties. Nor can we afford to waste our time and energy focusing on actualizing within ourselves a vision of life after civilization.
In some ways, it doesn’t surprise me that the book fails to generate serious ways of addressing the problems of ecological collapse, because that is the not the focus of the book. The author, in fact, seems to give it almost no attention at all. Although we live on a planet that, in the absence of political resistance, is expected to warm 6°C this century, a planet whose oceans are expected to double in acidity this century, Greer appears to shirk any concern with anything but the basic welfare of modern humans on the far side of Hubbert’s Peak.
It never appears to occur to him that any group of people would find comfort in seeing oil production peak, or want to accelerate the collapse of industrial civilization. Rather, he assumes that like himself, we are all stranded in survival mode, all looking out for number one. But for those of us who care more about the health of forests than about our retirement plans, that care more about wild salmon than electricity, that care more about stopping climate change than about stopping energy shortages, there’s a lot of great work out there to be done. And you don’t need to be an ascetic to do it.
You can read John Michael Greer’s response to this review on the Archdruid Report: http://thearchdruidreport.blogspot.com/2012/05/twilight-of-protest.html