John Michael Greer: Archdruid Report Essays
Greer continues with last week's article, explaining how elected officials and bureaucrats have no skin in the game. And until they do, these centralized powers will continue to be insulated from the consequences of their decisions and public systems will remain inefficient, crumbling, and primed for collapse when the wealth pumps of the American empire run dry.
Skin In The Game (February 13, 2013)
"If the management of your local sewer district turned out to be hopelessly incompetent, for example, you didn’t have to try to get a distant and uninterested state or federal bureaucracy to stir out of its accustomed slumber and do its job, nor did you have to try to find some way to convince tens of thousands of unaffected voters in distant parts of the state to cast their votes to throw somebody out of office for reasons that didn’t matter to them in the least. The right to vote in the next sewer board election was limited to those people who were actually served by the sewer district, who paid the bills of the district with their monthly assessments, who’d had to deal with balky sewers for the last two years, and were thus qualified to judge whether a 'Throw the Rascals Out' campaign was justified. Keeping control of the system in the hands of the people most directly affected by it thus served as a preventive to the serene indifference to failure that pervades so much of American government today."
"…The lack of accountability endemic to centralized professional bureaucracies; the tendency for money to get lost as it works its way down through the myriad layers of a centralized system; and the unhelpful feedback loops that spring up when the policy-making and monitoring functions of government are confounded – go a long ways to explain the cascading failure of many of the basic systems that an older, more localized, and less centralized approach to government used to maintain in relatively good order. The accelerating decline of American public education and the disintegration of the national infrastructure are only two examples of this effect in practice; there are plenty of others – a great deal of what’s wrong with America’s health care system, for example, can be traced to the same process of overcentralization."
Greer makes some excellent points about the need to revive voluntary associations to provide for public and community needs in the face of the end of government largesse and as we reach the limits of our resources.
In A Time Of Limits (February 20, 2013)
"The same thing, often in much more drastic terms, happened to many other voluntary organizations that once occupied the roles currently more or less filled by government social welfare programs. In 1920, for example, something like 3500 different fraternal orders existed in the United States, and around 50% of the country’s adult population—counting both genders and all ethnic groups, by the way—belonged to at least one of them. Reasons for belonging ranged across the whole spectrum of human social phenomena, but there were hard pragmatic reasons to put in a petition for membership at your local lodge of the Odd Fellows, Knights of Pythias, or what have you: at a time when employers generally didn’t provide sick pay and other benefits for employees, most fraternal orders did."
These community service organizations have faded away to ghosts of their former selves, as government stepped into the role of providing welfare and benefits…
"The new social welfare programs could reach out to everyone who needed them, or at least to everyone whose claim to need them advanced the agenda of one political faction or another. The resulting largesse was distributed in various amounts all over the class spectrum—welfare for the poor, a dizzying array of direct and indirect federal subsidies for the middle class, ample tax loopholes and corporate handouts to benefit the rich—and did a great deal to fund the lavish lifestyles Americans by and large enjoyed during their nation’s imperial zenith.
"That’s the kind of thing a society can do when it can draw on half a billion years of stored sunlight to prop up its economy, not to mention a global empire that gives it privileged access to the energy, raw materials, and products of industry that a half a billion years of stored sunlight made possible. Whether or not it was a good idea isn’t a question I particularly want to discuss at this point. It’s far more important, it seems to me, to recognize that the welfare states of the late 20th century were the product of a vast but temporary abundance of energy and the products of energy; they did not exist before that glut of energy arrived, and it’s thus a safe bet that they won’t exist after the glut is gone."
Greer continues on to talk about how the fights over the government feed trough will continue and escalate, but eventually government will no longer be able to provide: "In the time of limits ahead of us, no country on earth will be able to afford a welfare state of the kind that was common in industrial societies over the last century or so."
Reading this reminded me of this interesting statistic from October 2011 that I came across the other day: "One in three work-aged adults, the most in the world, is on some sort of sick leave or disability pension in Norway, according to numbers that ended up in the national budget announced this week" (Source.) How much longer can Norway's generous oil-funded welfare state last?
John Michael Greer turns his attention to the current shale gas (fracking) boom, and why he believes the current situation is but hyped-up bubble…
The End of the Shale Bubble? (February 27, 2013)
"If you’ve ever shaken a can of soda pop good and hard and then opened it, you know something about fracking that countless column inches of media cheerleading on the subject have sedulously avoided. The technique is different, to be sure, but the effect of hydrofracturing on oil and gas trapped in shale is not unlike the effect of a hard shake on the carbon dioxide dissolved in soda pop: in both cases, you get a sudden rush toward the outlet, which releases most of what you’re going to get. Oil and gas production from fracked wells thus starts out high but suffers ferocious decline rates – up to 90% in the first year alone. Where a conventional, unfracked well can produce enough oil or gas to turn a profit for decades if it’s well managed, fracked wells in tight shales like the Bakken and Marcellus quite often stop becoming a significant source of oil or gas within a few years of drilling."
Note: For an alternate, opposite perspective on the future of oil and natural gas extraction, you can read the following long article:
The Deluge (March 4, 2013)
"We human beings have consumed, over our entire history, about a trillion barrels of oil. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates there is still seven to eight times that much left in the ground. The oil that’s left is just more difficult, and therefore more expensive, to get to. But that sets the invisible hand of the market into motion. Every time known reserves start looking tight, the price goes up, which incentivizes investment in research and development, which yields more sophisticated technologies, which unearth new supplies – often in places we’d scarcely even thought to look before."
I remain in Greer's camp. The new technologies require more expensive prices to justify their cost and use. However, they may buy a little more time than some may think.
This is no easy path we are predestined to traverse as a nation.
The Hard Road Ahead (March 6, 2013)
"The latest round of political theater in Washington DC over the automatic budget cuts enacted in the 2011 debt ceiling compromise – the so-called 'sequester' – couldn’t have been better timed, at least as far as this blog is concerned. It’s hard to imagine better evidence, after all, that the American political process has finally lost its last fingernail grip on reality."
Moreover: "At a time when the United States is spending hundreds of billions of dollars a year it doesn’t happen to have, and making up the difference by spinning the printing presses at ever-increasing speeds, a strong case can be made that rolling back spending increases and giving up tax breaks are measures that deserve serious consideration. Any such notion, though, is anathema to most Americans these days, at least to the extent that it might affect them. Straight across the convoluted landscape of contemporary American political opinion, to be sure, you can count on an enthusiastic hearing if you propose that budget cuts ought to be limited to whatever government payouts don’t happen to benefit your audience. Make even the most timid suggestion that your audience might demand a little bit less for itself, though, and your chances of being tarred, feathered, and ridden out of town on a rail are by no means small."
The signs are here: "Between the point when a nation moves into the penumbra of crisis, and the point when that crisis becomes an immediate threat to national survival, there’s normally an interval when pretense trumps pragmatism and everyone in the political sphere goes around insisting that everything’s all right, even though everything clearly is not all right. In each of the previous cycles of anacyclosis in American history, such an interval stands out: the years leading up to the Revolutionary War, when leaders in the American colonies insisted that they were loyal subjects of good King George and the little disagreements they had with London could certainly be worked out; the bitter decade of the 1850s, when one legislative compromise after another tried to bandage over the widening gulf between slave states and free states, and succeeded only in making America’s bloodiest war inevitable; the opening years of the Great Depression, when the American economy crashed and burned as politicians and pundits insisted that everything would fix itself shortly.
"We’re in America’s fourth such interval. Like the ones that preceded it, it’s a time when the only issues that really matter are the ones that nobody in the nation’s public life is willing to talk about, and when increasingly desperate attempts to postpone the inevitable crisis a little longer have taken over the place of any less futile pursuit... How long this fourth interval will last is anyone’s guess at present; my sense, for what it’s worth, is that historians in the future will probably consider the crash of 2008 as its beginning, and I would be surprised to see it last out the present decade before crisis hits."
Since government isn't going to do what's necessary, it's up to us as individuals and as communities, to take up the heavy task.
John Michael Greer poses some thoughts on the need to reinvent America. What and who are we to be, if we are no longer the global superpower, empire, dominant player?
This one is well worth reading.
Reinventing America (March 13, 2013)
"What history shows… is that empires accomplish their biggest projects early on, when the flow of wealth in from the periphery to the imperial center… is at its height, before the periphery is stripped of its movable wealth and the center has slipped too far into the inflation that besets every imperial system sooner or later. The longer an empire lasts and the more lavish the burden it imposes on its periphery, the harder it is to free up large sums of money (or the equivalent in nonfinancial resources) for grand projects, until finally the government has to scramble to afford even the most urgent expenditures.
"We’re well along that curve in today’s America. The ongoing disintegration of our built infrastructure is only one of the many problem lights flashing bright red, warning that the wealth pump is breaking down and the profits of empire are no longer propping up a disintegrating domestic economy. Most Americans, for that matter, have seen their effective standard of living decline steadily for decades. Fifty years ago, for example, many American families supported by one full time working class income owned their own homes and lived relatively comfortable lives. Nowadays? In many parts of the country, one full time working class income won’t even keep a family off the street."
More insight into the workings of politics:
"…The solar satellites, the massive buildout of thorium reactors, the projects to turn some substantial portion of Nevada into algal biodiesel farms, or what have you. Any such project that was commercially viable would already be under construction—with crude oil hovering around $100 a barrel on world markets, remember, there’s plenty of incentive for entrepreneurs to invest in new energy technologies. Lacking commercial viability, in turn, such a project would have to find ample funding from the federal government, and any such proposal runs into the hard fact that every dollar that rolls off the Fed’s printing presses has a pack of hungry pressure groups baying for it already.
"It’s easy to insist that solar satellites are more important than, say, jet fighters, the Department of Education, or some other federal program, and in a good many cases, this insistence is probably true. On the other hand, jet fighters, the Department of Education, and other existing federal programs have large and politically savvy constituencies backing them, which are funded by people whose livelihoods depend on those programs, and which have plenty of experience putting pressure on Congress…"
America needs to find "new ideals that can provide a sense of collective purpose and meaning in an age of deindustrialization and of economic and technological decline. We need, if you will, a new American dream, one that doesn’t require promises of limitless material abundance, one that doesn’t depend on the profits of empire or the temporary rush of affluence we got by stripping a continent of its irreplaceable natural resources in a few short centuries."
But there's no guarantee that we will find a new vision for America before it is too late.
John Michael Greer takes a moment to dispel some illusions held by people… People who hold "Total faith in the invincibility of technological progress."
The Illusion of Invincibility (March 20, 2013)
"Quite often, for instance, I field flurries of emails and comments on my blog insisting that I really ought to consider the new and radical idea that technology can overcome the limits to growth. The latest occasion for this curious claim is a new book titled Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think by Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler, which is currently benefiting from a well-funded publicity campaign featuring lavish praise from the likes of Richard Branson and Bill Gates. I haven’t read it; doubtless I’ll do so once the public library here in Cumberland gets a copy, if only to find out if the book can possibly be as full of meretricious twaddle as it looks.
"What interests me, though, is that by and large, the people who have emailed me recently invoking the book as proof that I’m wrong about the future admit that they haven’t read it either."
In fact: "The current fracking phenomenon, in other words, doesn’t disprove peak oil theory. It was predicted by peak oil theory. As the price of oil rises, petroleum reserves that weren’t economical to produce when the price was lower get brought into production, and efforts to find new petroleum reserves go into overdrive; that’s all part of the theory. Since oil fields found earlier are depleting all the while, in turn, the rush to discover and produce new fields doesn’t boost overall petroleum production more than a little, or for more than a short time; the role of these new additions to productive capacity is simply to stretch out the curve, yielding the long tail of declining production Hubbert showed in his graph, and preventing the end of the age of oil from turning into the sort of sudden apocalyptic collapse imagined by one end of the conventional wisdom."
As if that's not enough, Greer promises that next, he is "going to have to plunge into one of the handful of subjects I’d originally decided to leave severely alone on this blog: the religious implications of the end of the age of oil."
I'm not sure if I was turned on with the way the idea of the end of progress as a religion was introduced, invoking Nietzsche. But I do agree with Greer's concluding statements, which I've quoted below.
The Sound Of The Gravediggers (March 27, 2013)
"The surrogate God that western civilization embraced, tentatively in the 19th century and with increasing conviction and passion in the 20th, was progress. In our time, certainly, the omnipotence and infinite benevolence of progress have become the core doctrines of a civil religion as broadly and unthinkingly embraced, and as central to contemporary notions of meaning and value, as Christianity was before the Age of Reason.
"That in itself defines one of the central themes of the predicament of our time. Progress makes a poor substitute for a deity, not least because its supposed omnipotence and benevolence are becoming increasingly hard to take on faith just now. There’s every reason to think that in the years immediately before us, that difficulty is going to become impossible to ignore—and the same shattering crisis of meaning and value that the religion of progress was meant to solve will be back, adding its burden to the other pressures of our time."
Next, the implications of the end of progress.
Another elephant denied existence by the filled room is exactly the "severly avoided religious implication of oils ending reign".
gotta go milk my cow and goat robie
John Michael Greer on civil religion and anti-religion…
The Fate of Civil Religion (April 3, 2013)
"The civil religion of Americanism… could be compared point for point with the popular theistic religions in American life, and the comparison made sense of features no previous analysis quite managed to interpret convincingly. Americanism had its own sacred scriptures, such as the Declaration of Independence; its own saints and martyrs, such as Abraham Lincoln; its own formal rites – the Pledge of Allegiance, for example, fills exactly the same role in Americanism that the Lord’s Prayer does in most forms of Christianity popular in the United States – and so on straight down the list of religious institutions. Furthermore, and most crucially, the core beliefs of Americanism were seen by most Americans as self-evidently good and true, and as standards by which other claims of goodness and truth could and should be measured: in a word, as sacred."
And: "That faith has already shifted in ways that suggest the imminence of serious trouble. Not that many decades ago, all things considered, a vast number of Americans were simply and unselfconsciously convinced that the American way was the best way, that America would inevitably overcome whatever troubles its enemies and the vagaries of nature threw at it, and that the world’s best hope lay in the possibility that people in other lands would finally get around to noticing how much better things were over here, and be inspired to imitate us. It’s easy to make fun of such opinions, especially in the light of what happened in the decades that followed, but it’s one of the peculiarities of religious belief – any religious belief, civil, theist, or otherwise – that it always looks at least faintly absurd to those who don’t hold it.
John Michael Greer compares and contrasts civil religions with theist religions, and explains why civil religions are more fragile.
The Religion Of Progress (April 10, 2013)
"…The civil religion of Americanism teaches its faithful believers to see their citizenship as a quasi-mystical participation in a richly mythologized national history that portrays America as the incarnation of liberty in a benighted world. It’s of a piece with the religious nature of Americanism that liberty here doesn’t refer in practice to any particular constellation of human rights; instead, it’s a cluster of vague but luminous images that, to the believer, are charged with immense emotional power. When people say they believe in America, they don’t usually mean they’ve intellectually accepted a set of propositions about the United States; they mean that they have embraced the sacred symbols and narratives of the national faith."
On the other hand…
"…Those who take an active role in promoting a civil religion rarely have the opportunity to make that a full time job. A great many civil religions, in fact, are folk religions, sustained by the voluntary efforts of ordinary believers. The existing political system may encourage these efforts, or it may make every effort to stamp the civil religion out of existence, but the fate of civil religions are rarely dependent on the actions of governments."