"In America Most People Have No Conception
That Anything Can Really Change Radically"
By Alexander Ac, Karel Dolejsi & Tomas Hyjanek
21 October, 2010
Interview with John Michael Greer
Alexander Ac: Do you think that peak oil is a turning point in the history of human development? And can we compare it to anything else?
John Michael Greer: I think so. One of the problems that I see that a lot of people tend to think that whatever is happening at the present moment is the most important thing in human history. The crisis in industrial society, of which peak oil is one of the symptoms, is larger in scale than any previous example but is not different in kind. Most civilizations in the past have outrun their resource base and gone through the process of decline and fall. Ours is simply doing it on a bigger scale than previous civilizations because we have more energy to throw around.
AA: In one of your recent posts you wrote that “peak oil goes mainstream”. Why do you think so, or what do you mean by mainstream?
JMG: For the first almost a decade after that start of being a peak oil scene, peak oil movement, it was a very, very fringe activity. There were very few people interested in it, they mostly talked to each other, nobody else wanted to hear about it. In the last couple of years we have started to see some very influential people and organizations taking it very seriously. You have, as a recent example, the German military, the Bundeswehr, doing a study and discovering it, saying: look, this is a serious national security issue. You have various nations starting to take it seriously, it is no longer being brushed up and dismissed, as it used to, that’s what I meant.
AA: I do not know, how deep you are in climate change, and this is also a controversial topic, the climate change. Do you thing, we might compare it to peak oil? There is a controversy among energy experts, in the climate change also, but I would say that in climate change there is something like a consensus, that it is a problem.
JMG: The problem is that climate change does not suffer from economists. Basically, the current economic orthodoxy, neoclassical economics, is incapable of dealing with resource issues. It specifically rules them out, it insists that resources can never be an economic problem. Of course, this is not true. But for whatever reason, they have backed themselves into this corner, as long as people listen to economists. All the predictions you get from the economists, you can be certain they are wrong. When an economist says, this policy will produce this result, he is always wrong. You just assume that. Still, people take them seriously. So we have a problem in the peak oil community, they do not have in climate change, because there is not an entire field of climatology that insists that carbon dioxide cannot possibly happen.
AA: So economists are part of the problem not of the solution.
JMG: Yes, economists are very much part of the problem.
AA: At least, most of them.
JMG: Yes, there are some economists that still have their brains.
AA: Maybe we should change the education of the system... I know you are the author or one of the authors of the catabolic collapse theory.
JMG: Yes, actually I am the creator.
AA: I know, it is difficult, but could you just explain, what is the main point?
JMG: Basically, the real short form of catabolic collapse is that society always depends on certain resources from nature, and it uses those resources to produce capital, by which I do not mean money, but built capital, buildings, educated people, all the different things that the society creates to do its work for it. When the resource basis runs short, basically the only source of resource that you still got is that built capital. So the society, when it pushes over into this state of collapse begins catabolising, begins feeding on its own capital. It begins tearing down buildings to get the raw material inside them, it disposes of its labor force, it cuts it down. In America, for example, our education system has gone down. That is basically stripping a piece of social capital, for temporary benefit. And that is how a society turns from a successful civilization with a lot of complex things, to 200 years later, when it is a bunch of ruins with trees growing out of it.
AA: Is the process self-inforcing?
JMG: Very much so. Once it gets under way, the only way you can break it is if you can reach a level, where the resource base, the resources that are coming in the society, are adequate to sustain the society at that level. Ancient China used to go through this all the time. They built up a mass of resources, they overran their resource base and they collapsed back down. But because the Chinese economy ran on a very stable system of agriculture, there was a floor, below which it would not collapse. Once the costs of maintaining the society dropped down to the level that could be supported by each year’s rice harvest, you were fine. We do not have that good fortune, because we do not depend on rice, we depend on crude oil and we are using it up, so we could go all the way down to zero.
AA: Do we have an alternative to growing society? And collapsing? Do we have stable alternative?
JMG: It is possible for a society to be stable… Basically there are societies that moderate the curve of rise and fall to the point that is very, very modest. Most of them are what we would call primitive societies, because they do not have heavy resource needs. Nobody has ever managed a civilization, an urban society, that does not rise and collapse. It may be possible to do that down the road but we are certainly not going about it the right way.
AA: Relating to collapse, there are 2 directions, 2 opinions about collapse. Are you in favor of , say, gradual decreasing of complexity or you are in favor of sudden collapse, sudden degradation or simplification of society like Nial Fergusson, for instance is the proponent?
JMG: My view is almost exactly half way between these two. What I think is most likely, is an extended period of uneven collapse in which you have a series of crises followed by periods of relative stabilizations… followed by new crises. It’s like the stairs. Instead of just falling straight from the second floor to first floor, we go through a process of sliding down, thump, thump, thump, through a series of crises. The reason why I hold this idea is that historically speaking, this is the way civilizations always go down.
AA: It can take a long time.
JMG: It can take a couple of centuries. It usually takes a couple of centuries, but it is not a steady process. You run into the whole bunch of crises and all kind of catastrophes, as the cities are devastated...
AA: And you can go up for a while.
JMG: Yeah, or you can stabilize, you can reach a steady state or even improve a little bit before the next round of crises hits... So you have that kind of thump thump thump regime.
AA: When there is the final bottom?
JMG: That depends. It is usually a couple of centuries down the road. And where it is, what level it is depends on the resource base you are talking about. Again, China is the example. When it hits the level of sustainability, it is actually not that far down. We are not in that kind of shape because we depend on the resources we are using up so it could go down a very long way.
AA: Thank you. To your writing: Are you writing for masses, for Americans, Europeans, Africans? How should these different people interpret your text? Is it for everybody?
JMG: It is a real challenge. Nobody can actually write for everybody, unless you have lived everywhere in the world. It so happens I only lived in the United States. So, to some extent, I am speaking to the American audience, because that is what I know. I do have readers overseas and I am glad for that, I hope they find it useful. But I really have no idea, how they will take that, with that really different historical experience. In America, one of the problems we face here is that most people have no conception that anything can really change radically. That there could have been a different government or different borders. In Europe it is kind of easy to remember because most people’s grandparents were living under different flag that they once they lived. Ultimately I can only write from what I know but I try to make it useful.
AA: As I came from Europe, do you have any idea why in America everything is bigger? Bigger cars, bigger buildings, everything is bigger...
JMG: Oh yeah, the reason is very simple. Because the United States has a global empire right now. We have garrisons of troops in one hundred forty countries right now. That maintains a state of affairs in which roughly 25 % of all the world’s energy and about 33 % of all of its industrial products come here. That does not happen because the people in other parts of the world do not want them, it happens because we have an empire and because we have slanted the economic playfield. One hundred years ago when Britain had the global empire, London was the place that had the gargantuan this and that.
AA: It was a centre.
JMG: Exactly. It just so happens that now it is America and hundred years from now it will be somewhere else.
AA: Maybe China?
JMG: Probably China. The Chinese are playing their cards very well. They have experience with empires. They have done the thing several times. And we are playing ours very badly.
AA: But They won’t have the energy that was accessible for us. Than you have to grow up on something else?
JMG: No, the thing is, it is worth remembering that Great Britain managed the largest empire in the history of the world on a small fraction of the energy per capita that Unites States has. And Spain had a very, very big empire before them where the most advanced technology they had was the wooden sailing ship and they had no fossil fuels at all. So you can actually have a fairly large global empire, think Genghis Khan with horses – with the really simple technologies. I do not think the Chinese will be all the way back to sailing ships but they could be like British Empire or even much below that, like the British empire in the 18th Century.
AA: Do you see a peaceful transition or it will be very, very rough? It is a very broad question...
JMG: In theory it could be a peaceful transition. It has never happened. Either of the two transitions we are facing here in America. We are facing the end of our empire. That never happens peacefully. The only case in the history when it did not involve the complete devastation of the imperial country was the end of the British empire, and that had those 2 little world wars which were about who was going to take over. And it turned out to be America. It could have been Russia, it could have been Germany. And the decline of the civilization in the broader picture, that always involves violence.
AA: They just do not let it quietly...
JMG: Nobody is just going to say: It was enough for us, we had a grand time, we will take our troops back home, we are going to decrease our standard of living by 40, 50 percent... no we are fine, really… It would be nice but it does not happen that way.
AA: I do not want to go too much into politics, but if you were a politician, and you know all what you know, would it be right to tell people, let's say you are like Obama or somebody, should they tell people how it is or should they try to solve it behind, without the knowledge of the people. How do you think the masses would react if you tell them: here is peak oil, here is all this...
JMG: You could probably tell the American people a very, very sanitized cleaned up overly positive version, but you could not tell them the truth.
AA: Is it not possible?
JMG: They would never believe it and you would be out of office so fast that it would not be funny. If you want to live to the next election, as long as elections are won by telling people what they want to hear, that is democracy in miniature, the most they could do is to say: we are facing an energy crisis and we are going to work really hard to solve it. To explain that it will never be solved, that it cannot be solved, this is the end of an age, and we are all going to be a lot poorer than we have been... nobody is going to hear that. Very very few people.
AA: It will be good for Nature that we are not going to put all that pollution.
JMG: Oh Yeah, very much so.
AA: A deceased Czech philosopher Milan Machovec, who also wrote the book Philosophy face to face of extinction, to a certain extent praised the original Celtic tradition as something, which has the distance from centrist social hierarchy and laid emphasis on family stability. He did not consider this tradition as the solution to current ecological crises. What do you as an archdruid think about the attempts to create the mystic Celtic origin of Czech and Moravian inhabitants, could it be beneficial?
JMG: That is a heck of a good question. I have not read Machovec, I do not know if his work has been translated into English... I should say first of all, the modern druid tradition is not directly descended from the traditions of ancient Celts, those were extinct. What we have in druidry has been pieced back together starting in the 18th Century. What the Celts did or did not teach is mostly guesswork at this point. I have heard about the idea that Czech people and so on have Celtic ancestors; I know there were Celts in that area... Would it be beneficial? I have not the least idea, I would have to spend a bunch of time in the Czech Republic, hang out with people to get an idea, would it be useful, would it be destructive... It is always risky to put a lot of energy into way back when, to spend your time thinking about what people used to be, what we are descended from... I mean in your particular area most people have reason to remember that it can go in very ugly directions... I would say rather it would be very beneficial if the people in the Czech Republic and Moravia and so on would look at where they are now and who they are now... To say, here is the environment we have, here is the country that we live in, how can we make it something that is a little more focused on nature that is a little more sustainable... I mean, small countries have some huge advantages in this situation, compared to big ones. You have got big possibilities here if you are going to accept diminished standard of living and not buying to sort of over the top.
AA: Great. Here is another long one. You belong to the minority of those who are afraid that massive political mobilization leaving to an exchange of politicial power elite could in reality worsen the situation in deindustrializing society after the peak oil. But people, at least in the traditional western cultural cycles, seem to always believe in salvation and new beginning. Sigmund Freud even concluded that unconscious knows not negative categories so people in fact believe in their own eternity. What is your opinion on this Freud version and why do you think that people in the peak oil community probably do not fall into this drawer.
JMG: I think, peak oil can be thought as something negative or as a positive existential, that s all right. I have no idea, whether Freud was right or not...
AA: People always want to hear something positive.
JMG: Yes, but I do not think that is the case that the unconscious mind cannot grasp negative categories. As Jung pointed out, one of the contents of the unconscious is the shadow projection of all your personal negative things and it definitely manifests when you are doing certain kinds of psychotherapy. So I do not think that Freud got that one right... In terms of the peak oil scene. Peak oil is an event, it is not an absence of something. It has various echoes in a lot of ways of thinking about the future.
AA: Some people in the Czech republic, in spite that they have a possibility to read the text, where you step away from the idea of Christian apocalypse, call you a doomer. What could be a reason and what would you respond?
JMG: My experience here has been totally fascinating. Because there are people who have bought into what I would consider a very inappropriately optimistic idea of the future, and they insist I am a doomer. People who are hard core doomers insist I am a blind optimist. Because we in Western civilization these days tend to be thinking in terms of two and only two categories. It is either total apocalypse or it is progress forever. The fact is I am exactly in between. I am arguing it is not apocalypse, it is not progress, it is ordinary decline, the kind of many civilization encountered before, it is nothing new, this is what happens and we just have to live with it. And that is how I would respond to that. If you are going to insist that anything other than utopia is doom, than you would probably think I am a doomer. But go ask some serious doomers what they think about me anyway...
AA: What do you think is the closest thinker to your ideas, who might be more appropriate for more people?
JMG: The author out there I agree mostly is James Howard Kunstler, author of the “Long emergency”. I have plenty of disagreements with him generally but I love his writing and his version of the future, his long emergency is as close to mine as anything out there.
AA: There is one note, where you express the reserved opinion of Fukuoka system of management. Do you mean application in gardening or in grocery? Some people really think that Fukuoka is one of few possibilities of how can extensive agriculture work without fossil fuels subsidies.
JMG: My opinion of Fukuoka’s work is that it was very, very specific to his ecosystem, to the place where he was working, the specific crops he was doing… It is not something that you can just pick up and put everywhere... He was very much into paying attention to what nature is doing right where you are. It is quite possible that somebody using that principle, rather than trying to copy his methods, could come up with something suitable for other locations. But the problem is most people I know who have read the One straw revolution and things like that simply tried to use his methods and if you do not happen to live in Japan and you are not trying to grow the same crops on same kind of soil, you might not get the same results, in fact you probably won’t.
AA: When you write stories about green wizardry, in spite of all sources and news you assert that it is still needed to carefully observe how does it work in the practice. What is actually the role of intuition in finding the solution to the problem?
JMG: The way I think is the best way to explain that is to remember that the scientific method is a way of testing. It is not a way of coming up with ideas, it is a way of testing them. Intuition generates the ideas. Once you finished using the intuition to come up with some great ideas, than you put the intuition on a shelf and you go and see how it actually works. Because if it does not work, I do not care how marvelous it sounds, it is still a waste of your time. So you need to have a kind of twofold approach, where on the one hand, you write with your intuition running, come up with all kind of ideas and then test them to see what kind of response do you get. Does it work? Does it flop? You will know.
AA: Do you think there are grand ideas ahead?
JMG: Yes, but I do not think there are the grand ideas we want. For example, I do think there are very good reasons to think that there is no better fuels source – everyone want some great fuel source to replace oil.
AA: I agree.
JMG: For reasons related to the laws of thermodynamic, I do not think that is going to happen. There might be some very great ideas how we can live with a lot less energy
AA: No artificial photosynthesis, it was terrible. I am a plant physiologist...
JMG: You are a plant physiologist, you know better. One thing we can know is that artificial photosynthesis that does not have 2 billion years of evolution perfecting it is going to be 2 billion years behind plants.
AA: We cannot even call it arrogance.
JMG: Yeah, I kept a straight face.
AA: There was in the last slide of (the presentation of) Dick Vodra that we should down scale and his next tip was to travel a lot. So I was confused...
JMG: In a way he is right because so much of the money we have now, so many of our resources are going to go away. If you have something you really want to do in life, that is going to involve a lot of money, do it now, when you still got it, because it might not be possible. If you want to sail around the world...
AA: Then you just contribute to the mess.
JMG: Now, that is true. Different people are going to draft their priorities in different way. I do not know that I would recommend flying to Hawaii, unless you really feel that at the end of your life you would feel that you really did not live the life you wanted because you did not get Hawaii.
AA: You have written many books. If you would recommend only one of them, which one would you?
JMG: That would depend on the audience. Because if were peak oil book, then The Long Descent. Because that is the introduction. If it were my writing in general, it would probably be an odd little book that I wrote called “A world full of gods”. Which is a discussion of philosophy of religion from a point of view of polytheist paganism. It is a point of view that received very little discussion last 2000 years and I think it is probably my best book although it hardly sells any at all.
AA: And what about Ecotechnic Future?
JMG: It is a book I think most people get to after The Long Descent, it is a development of the idea of The Long Descent. So I think Long Descent would be a place to start.
AA: The last one: Do you prepare somehow for different future? Or you are already prepared?
AA: You are never prepared.
JMG: Yeah, no one is ever prepared for the future. My wife and I moved from Oregon to a small town in the Appalachian mountains in western Maryland. We bought a house, a very inexpensive house with a nice backyard for organic garden which is now producing fruits and vegetables. Both me and my wife have a whole range of skills. We are in the process of improving the energy efficiency of the house. We have figured out we are going to live there for the rest of our lives. As both of us are in the late forties, that is going to be at most forty fifty years. Assume the future happens in anything like what I am expecting, we are not going to see the complete unfolding of the western civilization; that is going to take a couple of centuries. So what we need to do is to be in a position to take care of ourselves and help our friends and neighbors as needed, and also develop some other skills that we can share with other people and teach them. And all of this is the stuff that one way or another I have been doing since I was young... Is it the only thing? There is a range of projects. But yeah I take it very seriously and I am certainly engaged in preparations.
AA: So thank you very much.