Radical media, politics and culture.

John Michael Greer, "The Peak Oil Initiation"

The Peak Oil Initiation
John Michael Greer

I sometimes wonder what historians of the far future will think as they
pore over what's left of the records of our own time. It's unlikely that
they'll have a great deal more to go on than, say, Renaissance scholars
had when they started to piece together the story of Rome's decline and
fall; our civilization produces a much greater volume of records than
Rome did, to be sure, but most of them are in much more transitory
forms; parchment lasts for many centuries if it's kept dry and not
handled much, while a few decades at most - and in the case of the
internet, a few seconds of power loss - is enough to silence most of our
current information media forever.

It's all too easy to imagine a historian of the Ecotechnic Renaissance
in something like the twenty-ninth century in our calendar as she pores
over the surviving records of ancient America, trying to figure out what
brought about the decline and fall of that long-vanished civilization.
Our historian has collected an admirable collection of sources, not only
handprinted volumes from the scholarly presses of her time but
manuscripts, some of them centuries old, laboriously copied by hand from
ancient originals. By the pale light of a single electric lamp, she
opens one of the big leatherbound volumes, and begins to read.

We'll assume that her time is more fortunate than it may well be, and
the texts available to her aren't limited to tabloid-style biographies,
press releases by ancient American politicians, and those wretched
ghostwritten volumes that ancient American politicians get their flacks
to churn out to boost their chances of a presidential nomination. Our
historian, let's say, has a few books that sketch out the crisis of
industrial civilization. Here's a rare manuscript copy of The Limits to
Growth (1972), courtesy of a long line of scribes in an ecostery in
Vermont; here's the scholarly find of the last half-century, an
almost-complete text of Overshoot (1982) by the ancient sage William
Catton, which lay forgotten in an abandoned library in the Nebraska
desert until shepherds discovered the building half buried in the sands;
here's a volume of texts written by another ancient sage named Sharon
Astyk, whose works are all lost but were quoted at length by half a
dozen writers of a later century whose writings do survive.

Our historian has these and a few more like them, let's assume, and she
also has enough in the way of chronicles and histories to trace the
curve of decline that brought industrial civilization to its knees - the
political crises and economic implosions, the depletion of concentrated
energy sources and the abandonment of energy-intensive lifestyles and
technologies that followed, the wars and epidemics and famines, and the
shifts in climate and sea level as the earth's biosphere responded in
its own good time to three centuries of frankly brainless human
tinkering with the natural processes that keep us all alive. So there
she sits at her desk, the pool of light cast by her single light bulb
setting the leather bindings of her books aglow, with the wop-wop-wop of
the wind turbine that powers the lamp faintly audible through the
ceiling as the night winds sweep past. What is she thinking as she
surveys our fate?

I may be wrong, but I've long thought that one question above all would haunt my imagined historian of our future: why did we do it? Given that our entire civilization had plenty of warning, and that ten minutes of unprejudiced thought ought to have been enough to demonstrate to anybody the absurdity of expecting to get away with infinite economic growth on a finite planet, why didn't we do what must, to the eyes of the future, look like the obviously right decision, and downshift to a less energy- and resource-intensive steady state economy while we had the chance? Why, instead, did we keep on lurching blindly forward on a one-way street headed straight to history's compost bin, all the while angrily shouting down the few that tried to warn us of where we were going?

It's a question that a lot of people in the peak oil community ask
themselves right now, and for good reason. To those who've grasped the
hard physical realities that undergird peak oil - the geological and
thermodynamic limits to our planet's fossil fuel supplies, the net
energy issues and energy subsidies that make replacement of fossil fuels
so challenging, and the rest of it - the arguments generally marshalled
against the reality of peak oil look like bizarre exercises in
paralogic. Weirdly, too, when those paralogical arguments fail - when
the insistence by economists that the supply of oil will always increase
with rising prices, for example, collides with the reality that the
price of oil has increased drastically since 2004 without any
corresponding increase in supply - nobody stops and asks the questions
that seem obvious to those of us who are already on the peak oil bus.

One of the better recent examples of this last odd habit can be traced
in the media response to Daniel Yergin's latest broadside against the
concept of peak oil, framed in his new book The Quest (2011). I don't
propose to argue with Yergin's claims here, as that's already been done
elsewhere in the peak oil blogosphere. What's interesting to me is that
Yergin has made a series of highly public predictions about future oil
production rates and prices over the last decade or so, and to the best
of my knowledge every single one of them has been wrong - not slightly
wrong, but wrong on the grand scale. His 2004 prediction that the price
of oil would shortly stabilize at a plateau of $38 a barrel was so
widely publicized, and so decisively refuted by events, that some peak
oil writers took to calling this amount of money "one Yergin" and noting
how many Yergins a barrel of oil was bringing on any given day.

As a forecaster, then, Yergin's not even as reliable as a broken clock,
and yet the media continue to take his predictions at face value. As far
as I know, not one of the reporters in the mainstream media who
breathlessly repeated Yergin's claims about the impossibility of peak
oil took so much as a sentence to refer to any of his past predictions,
much less how they turned out. It's weirdly reminiscent of the acquired
amnesia that enables believers in apocalyptic prophecies to forget the
last half dozen times they talked themselves into believing that the
Rapture or the arrival of the Space Brothers or whatever was imminent,
and treat the latest prediction with the same earnest enthusiasm.

There's a certain amusement value in this, but other manifestations of
the same gap in comprehension between those who recognize the reality of
peak oil and those that don't are far from funny. Marriages have broken
down and friendships have ended because of it. Many other relationships
exist in a state of armed truce, in which nobody brings up peak oil
because it's already become clear that conversation on the subject leads
nowhere useful. The division is not a matter of intelligence - some
extremely smart people insist that there must be limitless energy
somewhere - or politics - those who reject peak oil, like those who
understand it, can be found from one end of the political spectrum
straight across to the other. When it comes down to it, the most that
can be said is that some people get peak oil, and others simply don't.

My sense - and it's here that we circle back around to the theme of the
last two posts, the interface between magic and peak oil - is that the
difference between the minority that get peak oil and the majority that
doesn't is not rational in nature. I've spoken at quite a bit of length
in past posts about the ways that the modern belief in progress
functions as a religion, a mythology, a narrative on which most people
in the industrial world found their sense of meaning and their hopes for
the future. Still, there's another way to talk about it, and to do that
we need to turn back to Plato's metaphor of the horses and the
charioteer, which I mentioned in last week's post.

That metaphor fielded some lively responses over the past week, and what
I found interesting is that most of them missed a central aspect of it.
A number of my readers interpreted it along lines that have been
standard in the Western world for some centuries now, and seen the
horses as the body and its instinct, and the charioteer as the mind and
its reasoning powers. That's the traditional schism dividing Classicism,
which exalts reason, from Romanticism, which exalts instinct; from the
end of the Renaissance right up to the present, that split has been a
standard trope in our culture, and so it's not surprising that people
assumed that this is what Plato was talking about.

But this was not what Plato was talking about, not by a long shot. In
his metaphor there were two horses, not one, and they corresponded to
two very different forces in the nonrational side of the self. One horse
represents the biological self, guided by what Romantics call the
instincts and Platonists have generally called the appetites. The other
horse, though, represents what the ancient Greeks called thumos, the
spirited or irascible part of the self, the part that responds
nonrationally to praise or blame, that responds to insults with
unreasoning anger and to the promptings of pack-loyalty with the kind of
blind courage that shrugs at the thought of death. To use a phrase Plato
didn't, where the first horse is the biological self, the second horse
is the social self.

This second horse embodies the lessons we all learn from our parents,
our peers, and our community in the childhood years before the ability
to reason clearly emerges. It's as potent a force as the biological
appetites, and tangles up with them in complicated ways - the
intricacies of the sex drive, for example, have a good deal more to do
with the social self and influences absorbed in childhood than they do
with the relatively simple biological drive to mate. In evolutionary
terms, the social self - or more precisely, the capacity to develop a
social self - is a good deal older than the rational mind; we share it
with the whole range of mammals that live in groups, and more especially
with social primates such as chimps and baboons; it's nonrational and
nonverbal, and once a pattern is established in the social self, it's no
easier to change it by rational thought than it is to turn the sex drive
on and off the same way.

The social self is also one of the main vehicles of magic. I wrote two
weeks ago about the extent to which human social interactions are
mediated by nonverbal and nonrational communication - body language,
gesture, vocal tone, facial expression, and all the other communicative
methods we have in common with our mammal relatives. These are the
channels of communication through which people fall in love, make
friends and enemies, establish their place in social hierarchies, claim
a larger or smaller share of whatever resources are to hand: all the
things that baboons and beavers and the rest of our nonhuman kin do with
comparable signals sent through comparable channels. Baby baboons and
beavers pick up facility in this language in their early years, and no
doubt absorb all kinds of lessons about their social and physical
environment through the same means; so do we.

What makes this natural process a fertile source of problems is that we
apply these nonrational cues to words that also denote rational
concepts, and then confuse the two. Watch the way people talk about a
political concept central to their society's self-image: for example,
the concept of democracy here in America. The social self, that unruly
horse, insists that democracy - "real democracy" - ought to live up to
standards that no real political system can achieve. What ought to be
called "real democracy" is the cumbersome, corrupt, flawed, but
functional system that emerges when real human beings have the right to
elect officials and vote on issues. Still, that's not how the horse sees
it; to the horse, democracy is an emotionally charged symbol rich with
warm feelings, and "real democracy" means that symbol in some impossibly
perfect manifestation on the plane of everyday life.

I'd like to suggest that this is what underlies the paralogic that makes
peak oil incomprehensible to most people in the industrial world just
now. The concept of progress is, if anything, more heavily loaded with
positive emotional energy among us than the concept of democracy, and
around it gathers a flurry of other concepts equally freighted with warm
emotions. Challenge it - and the concept of peak oil, if it's taken
seriously, challenges it to the core - and the social self takes fright
and shies away, dragging the chariot and the charioteer with it, and
quite possibly spooking the other horse and sending the whole kit and
caboodle careening down the nearest blind alley. (Murmuring "drill,
baby, drill" to the social horse seems to calm it, which probably
explains the popularity of that ritual chant just now. )

This is not a new thing, of course, and it's something that operative
mages - people who practice magic - have had to deal with in themselves
and their students for a very long time. Operative magic requires the
mage to be able to think about the world in ways that aren't supported
or encouraged by his or her society, and getting the social self and the
reasoning mind untangled from each other is an important part of that
process. The standard approach to making this happen in traditional
Western magic is summed up by the term "initiation".

There's been plenty of nonsense written about initiation down through
the years, but the basic concept is easy enough to grasp. The symbolic
and ritual tools of magical practice can be used to set off the same set
of reactions that allow a child, or for that matter a baby baboon, to
stock its social self with the nonverbal and emotionally charged
patterns of its social group. This is done in a careful and controlled
way, with patterns that further the process of magical training, and the
candidate - the person going through the initiation - is taught
nonverbal signals that allow him or her to activate the new patterns
when it's time to use them, and deactivate them when it's time to deal
with the nonmagical world. In the short term, this makes it possible to
practice magic without too much psychological strain; in the long term,
the experience of shifting from one set of arbitrary social patterns and
emotional charges to another teaches the reasoning mind to detach itself
from the social self altogether, and think its own thoughts rather than
those of its society.

Those of my readers who haven't been through a magical initiation, or
one of the lodge initiations (for example, those of Freemasonry) that
use similar methods for the purpose of self-improvement and ethical
development, may well think they have no idea what I'm talking about.
Still, if you're reading this blog and consider peak oil a real
possibility, you've already passed through an initiation. It didn't
happen in a lodge of the Ancient Hubbertian Order of Peak Oil, granted,
but there's another kind of initiation, and that's self-initiation.

In a regular lodge initiation, the candidate goes through a dramatic
ceremony, and is then given a set of meditative and ritual exercises to
practice; these are meant to reinforce the pattern communicated in the
initiation ritual. The practitioner of self-initiation skips the
ceremony, or does an abbreviated form of it on his or her own, and then
plunges straight into the meditative and ritual exercises to get the
same effect. Some magical schools prefer to use self-initiation, since
it quickly weeds out those who aren't willing to do the hard work that
magic requires. Other schools avoid it, but it's a widely used method,
and a great many of you have been through it whether you're aware of
that fact or not.

Think back, dear reader, to the time when you first became aware of peak
oil. Odds are that when you first encountered the concept, you found it
disquieting or even repellent, but at a certain point - maybe in that
first encounter, maybe later on - something suddenly shifted. A moment
later you were living in a different world, one in which earlier
priorities and beliefs had to make room for the immense and terrifying
fact that your civilization was in deep trouble and next to nobody was
willing to see that, much less do anything about it. That was your
initiation into peak oil, and the feverish reading and thinking that
most of you probably did over the weeks and months that followed were
the equivalent of the magical student's daily meditations and rituals,
which stabilize the new pattern and begin the hard work of teaching the
initiate how to make constructive use of what the initiation has provided.

All this, in turn, provides one answer to the question I posed at the
end of last week's post - whether it's possible to shake our society out
of its collective trance and get it to pay attention to the reality of
the crisis looming up before us. Initiation is very much subject to
readiness factors; the competent teacher of magic knows that at any
given time, some students are ready for a given grade of initiation and
others simply aren't. Fraternal lodges such as Freemasonry cast their
net more widely, but every Mason knows that a certain number of
candidates for membership, however enthusiastic they think they are,
will pass through the rituals unmoved and untouched, and drift out of
involvement in the lodge within a few weeks or months.

The wider issue here, to borrow a term from last week's post, is that
theurgy can't be done for, to, or by anyone else. It's up to the
individual. A good teacher, or a lodge initiation, can provide a certain
amount of help in that process, but the important part of the work still
has to be done by the individual student or candidate, or it doesn't get
done. All these things are equally true of the initiation of peak oil:
if you're not ready for it, or you aren't willing to put in the study
and hard thinking required, you're probably going to drift back into the
standard patterns in the social self that tell you that progress is
inevitable and the universe owes us as much energy as we want to waste.

All this presumes that the magic we're discussing is theurgy, the kind
of magic the Neoplatonists practiced as a preparation for the
philosophic life and that modern operative mages practice for their own
not dissimilar ends. There is also thaumaturgy, the manipulation of the
nonrational that doesn't attempt to free the reasoning mind from
entanglement in the social and biological selves, but simply seeks power
over the self and others by way of that entanglement. There's a long
history of operative mages and others who realize that theurgy is only
an option for the individual, and attempt to perform thaumaturgy on
their society as a whole instead. We'll discuss that next week.


John Michael Greer is the Grand Archdruid of the Ancient Order of Druids
in America {1} and the author of more than twenty books on a wide range
of subjects, including The Long Descent: A User's Guide to the End of
the Industrial Age (2008), The Ecotechnic Future: Exploring a Post-Peak
World (2009), and The Wealth of Nature: Economics As If Survival
Mattered (2011). He lives in Cumberland, Maryland, an old red brick mill
town in the north central Appalachians, with his wife Sara.

If you enjoy reading this blog, you might want to check out Star's Reach
{2}, his blog/novel of the deindustrial future. Set four centuries after
the decline and fall of our civilization, it uses the tools of narrative
fiction to explore the future our choices today are shaping for our
descendants tomorrow.


{1} http://www.aoda.org/

{2} http://starsreach.blogspot.com/