The Long Descent by John Michael Greer

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suesullivan's picture
suesullivan
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The Long Descent by John Michael Greer

I have just finished a first, very fast read through this book. I'm am happy to report that I did not find any characters named Aaron Moyer in it -- a good thing, because if I had, I would no doubt have felt compelled to create a post-apocalyptic internet cult with Aaron as our prophet, and he would no doubt have felt compelled to obtain a restraining order against me.

I'm still processing the book, which brought me to a new level of understanding and, among myriad other emotions, grieving, about where we are headed as a civilization. (As a temporary bandaid, I'm choosing to view each day as a fabulous vacation in this land of oil-fueled plenty, to appreciate the modern marvels of my life and the leisure time I have to sit and write at my computer.)

I'm interested in discussing a couple of the points that struck me right off the bat with anyone whose read it (or not) and I would love to know what others have gotten out of this book.

First off, I notice that Greer does not subscribe to Chris' hypothesis that post-peak oil supply will fall off dramatically and relatively soon as we reach that point where energy costs to extract exceed energy gained, thus slashing the timeline of the post-side of peak oil dramatically. He posits many decades more of oil, punctuated by severe economic crises, (triggered by skyrocketing energy prices that crash demand and then energy prices) that plunge more and more people into poverty and suffering, followed by periods of relative stability and partial recovery. IIRC, he posits a period of about 25 years of crisis, followed by another 25 years of recovery and relative stability, then another downward leg. I'm wondering how widely shared this view is in the post-peak oil world. I'm assuming Greer sees us in the beginning of that extended crises phase right now.

I'm also quite struck by his argument that it won't matter how much gold or supplies you stockpile, that your value to your fellow human being will be in what you know and can teach them and he advocates learning as much as we can about pre-industrial skills and practicing them now. He argues that everyone should have a strong working knowledge of health and healing, from learning first aid and trauma care to mastering a particular healing art that you find valuable (he doesn't list specifics but I assume he means such skills as herbalism or acupuncture). I notice that C1oudfire, I believe, seems to have an extensive knowledge of herbal remedies and I'd love to know how you learned and how you recommend others go about acquiring similar skills. This leads me to think that I shouldn't keep buying PMs, but rather invest in an EMT course at the local community college and some books and/or workshops on herbal medicine (my particular interest). Reading this is inspiring me to move forward on vague interests I have in learning how to knit and preserve foods in various ways, and I'm wondering what other pre-industrial skills others are working to aquire. (Shoe and bootmaking strikes me as something potentially very valuable. We'll probably have left-over massed produced clothing for decades to come, but I'm not so sure about good workboots.)

Another topic that I found fascinating was the practice of salvage, pulling useful elements out of the decaying infrastructure of our age and putting it to lower-tech uses. He mentions using car alternators as generators to charge lead-acid batteries to run a refrigerator, when the power grid is not reliable. It could be powered by a windmill or a small watercourse. I wondered what other similar projects you all might have found in your readings. One interesting note in this chapter is his take on solar panels. Essentially he posits that while solar technology currently uses about as much energy in its manufacture as it provides over its lifetime (thus making it a bad investment in times of stable or declining energy costs), in our particular circumstances, one can argue that it makes sense to install it, as you are using now-cheap energy to produce energy over the coming decades that will be vastly more expensive to produce if at all available, and I think that's a very interesting argument. Of course, this only slows our descent into more primitive levels of energy usage, but he uses the analogy of being offered a parachute just before you're going to be pushed out of the door of the airplane -- yes, the parachute's not gonna be of much use to you once you're on the ground, but it's pretty valuable on the trip down.

Well, that's as much as I can recall at the moment. I would love to read others' thoughts on this book and these various subjects. And I'd love to know how those of you who have come to terms with this post-peak-oil reality can find joy in the thoughts of your children having children. I could use some cheerful views of this future, if anyone's been able to find their way there...

Sue

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Re: The Long Descent by John Michael Greer

Sue, in your 1st and 2nd points you zeroed in on one of the many self-contradictions in this book, probably the fundamental one.

On one hand Greer says energy descent will play out gradually over generations, interspersed with recoveries. On the other hand he says things like "Within your lifetime you better be ready to have no access to modern medicine, and don't count on your gold keeping its value."

Well which is it?

Greer is foremost among those who criticize (unnamed and only vaguely defined) "doomers" for being childish and myth-indoctrinated, yet then spins out projections which certainly sounds doom-like by any reasonable measure.

In yesterday's essay he also revisited his frequent theme that there's no such thing as political oppression, and that any perception of such means you're emotionally unbalanced or something. Not long ago he was even sticking up for Bush vs. his critics, basically saying Bush is the victim of slander.

 

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Re: The Long Descent by John Michael Greer

Hi Sue and Russ,

Glad this topic has come up.

It's funny because Chris K. (Switters) and myself keep saying that we're going to have a big talk about this book and have never gotten to it, so here it is. And I guess it's my time to weigh in. I can't weigh in fully now, but I'll just say a couple of quick things.

I read the book twice continuously -- not so much because I felt the book so compelling but just so I could figure out exactly what he was saying -- and it was a very quick read, wouldn't of done it with Anna Karenina. I'm also a regular reader of his blog (which, by the way, I find to be of a higher quality than TLD).

That said, I'm pretty conflicted about Greer. And while I think he's a brilliant and gifted wordsmith from a strictly technical writing standpoint, I think he engages unfortunately in, as RussB I think is alluding to, some intellectual dishonesty in his arguments and posturing. RussB cited one such example above and there's quite a few more.

Just to give you one specific now: Greer constantly positions himself between what I think are (for the most part)caricaturized extremes in an attempt to come off as the great moderate, the one who never engages in exaggeration or hyperbole. He does it so many times and it's so obvious in the TLD (and I found it so annoying!), I started writing a fairly lengthy critique of the book that remains a work in progress. I'm not sure though exactly why he does this. Because it only results in him producing extremely hedged ideas that bear significant caveats to the point of being obvious, uninteresting, or, for lack of a better term, mainstream.

He's actually come under fire from a couple of people who at first provided an endorsement of his book because upon further reflection they felt that those in the mainstream were using his qualities that I describe above to argue that there's really nothing to worry about or prepare for being changes will happen so slowly over a very long period of time. There's one prominent female writer whose name is escaping me as I write this (sorry).

Thanks for bringing this interesting topic and book up, Sue.

Look forward to discussing it with people.

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Re: The Long Descent by John Michael Greer

Unfortunately I don't have time for a long reply right now either.  I'll just say that I agree with everyone's observations and I've had similar questions myself. 

At first glance it seems there might be a contradiction between the idea of a 200+ year unwinding period of industrial civilization, and not having access to high-tech medical care and other modern amenities during our lifetimes.  I wonder if these concepts are mutually exclusive, though. 

To continue with this specific example, our medical care system is so far broken that it wouldn't take much to push it over the edge.  At this moment 50 million people don't have access to care (the # of uninsured in the US).  Is it that much of a stretch to imagine that another 100 million+ might be excluded in the event of a severe economic downturn and dwindling production of oil, both of which could theoretically raise the cost of care?

Yet, even if this happened, it wouldn't mean the end of industrial civilization would be upon us.  Other aspects of it may continue to function, albeit in a compromised and limited way when compared to previous times.

Keep in mind that the ultimate destination Greer foresees is a completely deindustrialized world (unless I'm misunderstanding him).  He's not just talking about a permanent economic depression, a climate change crisis or a reduction in population - though all of those phenomena are features of his vision.  He's talking about a world where the skyscrapers have tumbled, cars and other large machines have been salvaged for parts, computers and other electronic devices are extinct, and industrial civilization is nothing but a story told to children by grandparents whose grandparents told it to them.

If Greer means to say it will take a minimum of 150 years to get from where we are now to that endpoint, then I'd have to agree with him.  And remember, he doesn't say it will be a smooth transition from here to there.  Rather more like a staircase, with precipitous declines followed by periods of relative stability.  

I think people who quote his work as evidence that we "have nothing to worry about" are misguided.  While I have many of the same questions about Greer and his ideas that have been raised in this thread, I appreciate his contribution.  Perhaps more than any other writer, he makes the crucial point that our greatest challenge in the coming times will not be technological, but psychological, social and spiritual. 

In fact, his blog post today addresses that topic directly, and I was just about to post it to this site when I saw this post first.

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Re: The Long Descent by John Michael Greer

Hey guys, I'm back again to give a few more cents.

"Doom" is at this point a largely subjective measure. Maybe someday a standard will cohere for defining it, but right now it's pretty much up to each individual. That's why it's disingenuous for Greer to fail to give his definition, but heap scorn on the abstract concept anyway, and then make prognostications which I think would strike most people as doomericious.

One thing which should be kept in mind is that energy and food crises, as well as the climate crisis (another thing which Greer seems to regard primarily as a figment of psychology) are likely to be far more doomerly at first for the poor, and especially the global South, so there is something on its face creepy about implicitly asserting that the rich countries won't go down the energy descent slide too quickly, since the only way this will be possible is to further shift all costs and environmental damage to the poor countries (and the poor within our country), and further expropriate raw materials and the produce of the land from those countries. That's how the 1st world got that way, and that's how it's stayed that way.

So when I read anyone I consider a green cornucopian, or in this case a gradualist Peak Oiler, that's what I think they're saying in code - we're going to prop up the 1st world lifestyle on the backs of the 3rd. There's no other way to do it.

(I know Greer talks alot about relocalization, but there again we seem to have a contradiction. Is he just talking about a lifestyle choice? No - he says it will be necessary, and soon. But if it's necessary, there again that's what most people would consider doomerific.)

I don't want to close without saying something affirmative - I think Greer is, from a purely literary point of view, hands down the best Peak Oil writer.     

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Re: The Long Descent by John Michael Greer

Hi Chris K and all,

Chris, just read Greer's latest (or perhaps it wasn't) in your other forum post. And I think I may have finally turned on Greer. My road with him has been long and winding with different feelings at each turn, but lately (the last few months) I've found myself more annoyed at him than inspired. Though my criticisms of him I think are most important in forums like this, where people have already come to grips at some level with PO and its likely ramifications. However, in other contexts I've vigorously defended Greer (and will continue to do so) when people -- typically in non-PO familiar settings -- accuse him of being a crackpot or some other such thing. So when I say here that I've turned on Greer, I think that means that my annoyance with him has moved into the 51st percentile.

To the point. An excerpt from the piece you posted, Chris, is a perfect example of what I mentioned above:

"Thus it’s vital to realize, when somebody insists that technological progress will inevitably lead our species to immortality among the stars, or when somebody else insists that contemporary civilization has become the ultimate incarnation of everything evil and will shortly be destroyed so that the righteous remnant can inhabit a perfect world, that what they’re saying has very little to do with the facts on the ground."

Classic Greer hyperbole to make himself seem reasonable without actually stating his own position.

For example, the vast majority of people who have faith in technology don't believe that our species will achieve literal mortality and colonize space, though a tiny fringe does. Likewise, the vast majority of people who distrust technology (even to the point of being semi-Luddites) or don't believe it can aid us in our transition to a new way of life don't believe, as Greer contends they do, that it is "the ultimate incarnation of everything evil" -- again, though a tiny fringe does. I mean, just consider briefly how hyperbolic that phrase is -- "the ultimate incarnation of everything evil." He certainly could have softened it by excluding the words "ultimate" and "everything." But then if he did that it wouldn't have been an extreme enough of a caricaturization upon which to cast his moderation.

Greer then goes on to characterize those extreme positions he presents as commonplace as religious or articles of faith. Yet he takes as an article of faith (though I agree with him on this one) that PO is more or less inescapable and to think that it is not is to engage in fantasy or denialist narrative fallacy. So I think he too is not exempt from his own criticisms.

Another problem I have with this article is that Greer, I believe, misrepresents most PO writers. I think, contrary to what he says in the beginning, most PO writers do understand that the transition upon us is one that goes far beyond the realms of energy efficiency and economic concerns and does clearly bleed into the purview of culture, psychology, and spirituality -- Richard Heinberg, James Howard Kunstler, and Matt Simmons certainly all talk about this, as well as most people at The Oil Drum website. But for some reason, perhaps it's so that he'll feel that he's always a trailblazer or pioneer, Greer has to get his punches in at the start.

In conclusion, the unfortunate part about all of this to me, is that I agree with Greer's most distilled thesis in this piece, that areas other than technology are the ones that we need to be the most concerned with as they are the ones that will truly sustain us and the generations to come. I also continue to love the man's prose. But I just have to call him out on these finer points of argument

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Re: The Long Descent by John Michael Greer

RussB & MCC,

I agree with your criticisms of Greer.  It's certainly true that Heinberg, Kunstler and many other PO writers address the need for culture change.  I'd say that is Heinberg's focus above all else, in fact.  Sharon Astyk's work is also centered on this theme.

I wonder whether the hyperbole is intentional and conscious, or just an artifact of his rhetorical style?  It would be interesting to meet the man.  I've seen both Heinberg and Kunstler speak in person.  That really helps to get a sense of who they are and where they're coming from.

Where Greer really went off the rails for me is with his obtuse (from my point of view) criticism of the Transition Town movement a few weeks back.  Yes, we understand that no one knows what the future holds and all planning in the face of such uncertainty has an element of risk.  But certainly all of the changes promoted by the Transition movement (relocalization of economy, food, communities, reducing carbon footprint, etc.) are positive steps regardless of what the future holds.  The idea that we shouldn't engage in these efforts because we don't know how things will turn out strikes me as pedantic.

Nevertheless, I continue to read Greer because his writing almost always provokes inquiry and reflection - even if it isn't exactly what the author intended!  

 

 

 

 

 

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mainecooncat
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Re: The Long Descent by John Michael Greer

Chris Kresser wrote:

"Sharon Astyk's work is also centered on this theme."

and

"I wonder whether the hyperbole is intentional and conscious, or just an artifact of his rhetorical style?" 

Yes, I forgot about Astyk. Yet another example.

As far as the other sentence quoted above, that's a really good question I'd like to explore at some time.

Another thing you said, Chris, that I definitely want to explore is "At first glance it seems there might be a contradiction between the idea of a 200+ year unwinding period of industrial civilization, and not having access to high-tech medical care and other modern amenities during our lifetimes.  I wonder if these concepts are mutually exclusive, though."

I'll surely have to get to that one, as I think it's a critical detail. Maybe tonight if time permits

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mainecooncat
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Re: The Long Descent by John Michael Greer

Why isn't the quote feature working anymore, I've used it the same way I always have? Have to do a little experimentation here.

Edit: Well, I've amended the above post to make sense for now.

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Greer, healthcare and hyperbole
Chris Kresser wrote:

At first glance it seems there might be a contradiction between the idea of a 200+ year unwinding period of industrial civilization, and not having access to high-tech medical care and other modern amenities during our lifetimes.  I wonder if these concepts are mutually exclusive, though. 

To continue with this specific example, our medical care system is so far broken that it wouldn't take much to push it over the edge.  At this moment 50 million people don't have access to care (the # of uninsured in the US).  Is it that much of a stretch to imagine that another 100 million+ might be excluded in the event of a severe economic downturn and dwindling production of oil, both of which could theoretically raise the cost of care?

Yet, even if this happened, it wouldn't mean the end of industrial civilization would be upon us.  Other aspects of it may continue to function, albeit in a compromised and limited way when compared to previous times.

I agree with all three of you, as I read your posts, about Greer's hyperbolic style. Even though I have recently become one of the 40 million uninsured and would do (and have done) everything in my power to stay out of hospitals (including homebirth), I find his utter dismissal  of the US healthcare system (based on his statement that iatrogenic deaths, prescription drug-related deaths and hospital contracted illnesses combined are the single largest cause of death) too glib. I have a number of friends and extended family who are alive today because of extraordinary interventions by this system, more who were helped than were hindered, I think.

And Chris, I read and didn't know what to make of his post dismissing transition town activists. I have a story about a certain sort of geeky soul who creates an identity early on in life as someone very smart but misunderstood and underappreciated, and spends a lifetime critiquing any and everything in very eloquent and intellectual terms. I can put Greer into that stereotype very easily, though I haven't a clue if its true.

 It sounds as though I need to read wider in the field of post-peak oil, though I found World Made By Hand to paint an even bleaker picture of descent than Greer has. I do like Sharon Astyk's blog and writing style immensely. I suppose I should get a hold of one of her books, at the very least.

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Healthcare after TSHTF

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Re: The Long Descent by John Michael Greer

Sorry, folks, not with you on this one.

I agree that what Greer says makes extraordinarily uncomfortable reading.  I don't agree that makes what he says any less likely.  

He's not got a guaranteed vision of what will come.  He can't tell you what will break first or most horribly.  But his main thesis is that we are not about to escape from this planet to the stars, and we are not about to slide into Mad Max in a generation.  He will certainly be wrong on the details, but his idea of catabolic collapse strikes me as entirely likely, if oddly disquieting.  Bits and pieces of what we think of as essential will go faster than you can blink.  But other things will persist, even improve temporarily.  

I'm impressed by what I have learned of the collapse of the Roman empire, and how it went piecemeal and bit by bit.  Well after the start of the collapse, people lived happily in remote locations, while the world caved in around them.  Soldiers given land for their service to the empire continued to try to farm, even after the aquaducts clogged because the engineers had stopped passing through the town every few years.  A generation later they were still trying to keep the ditches open, even though the wine had stopped coming, and the salted anchovies were a thing of the past.  Hot baths, togas, mosaics, sandals all slowly became things you inherited or did without.  The people and their settlements just slowly subsided, generation after generation, into what became the Dark Ages.

I'm also not as irritated as you by what you see as hyperbole.  Sometimes you need to get your point across, and what matters is the point, not the way of getting it across.  Personally I think his vision is more likely - and a lot more distressing - than that set out Kunstler's Long Emergency, as much as I respect that book.  More distressing, because the periodic recoveries will be taken as evidence that the medicine works.  Too many administrations have decided that economic growth is the way out of this mess.  And they will in all probability continue to preach the same guff as we slide down Hubbard's ski slope.

Yes, the medical system will implode.  So will a lot of other stuff.  But that doesn't invalidate Greer's thesis.

And Sue, I was just as upset as you by what I first read as dissing transition towns.  But I'm not sure that's what he was saying, in fact.  I'd like to get some external confirmation, but much of the rest of the book seems to be saying that we need to do exactly what the transition towns are trying to do.  I think he may have been referring to isolated communities that have no real chance of survival.  He probably had some specific communities in mind, but my own take is that he's asking us to do exactly what the transition town movement is about.

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