Radical media, politics and culture.

John Michael Greer, "A Gathering of the Tribe"

"A Gathering of the Tribe"
John Michael Greer

I walk half a mile through a chill autumn morning to the bleak little
cinderblock building that serves the old mill town where I live as a
train station. Wednesdays aren't usually busy, but close to a dozen
other passengers are waitinge before the train pulls up. I climb on
board, stash my duffel bag above my seat, get my ticket punched, and
then head forward to the lounge car. By the time we roll past Oldtown,
where the Shawnee once had a major village, I'm perched at a downstairs
table with a cup of tea, some Latin reference books, and the draft
translation of a Renaissance handbook on the art of memory, proving (if
there was any lingering doubt) that there are non-computer geeks as well.

The train rolls to a halt in Washington a little after noon, ahead of
schedule. I shoulder my duffel and head through milling crowds into the
cavernous magnificence of Union Station, then back out into bright
sunlight. A few minutes later I've reached the hotel. It's one of those
grim concrete-and-steel excrescences that justify the claim that
Americans have their sense of proportion surgically removed at birth.
Not long afterward I'm stepping into the faux-comfy bleakness of the
generic hotel room I'll be sharing for four nights with someone I've
never met.

I have a few hours to kill - enough time to unpack, visit the hotel
fitness center for a good long t'ai chi practice, shower, and replace
traveling clothes with something that blends in a bit more with my
current surroundings. Later I'll be meeting a friend for dinner, and
later still there'll be a reception. I check the paper copy of my
script, make sure the thumb drive with the PowerPoint half of the
presentation is in a convenient place. I'm here for work, as an attendee
and presenter at the seventh annual conference of ASPO-USA, the American
branch of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil.


Meanwhile, a few thousand miles to the east, the economic system of a
continent is coming apart at the seams. During the boom times now fading
in history's rearview mirror, the nation of Greece borrowed heavily to
pay its bills, and found no shortage of banks willing to ante up the
funds. Now that boom has given way to bust, Greece can't meet its
payments. In the ordinary way of things, Greece would simply default on
its debt, and the banks would suffer from what economists call "market
discipline"; that is to say, they would take massive losses, and some
would go under.

The first commandment of modern high finance, though, is that investors
must be protected from the consequences of even their most stupid
decisions. Instead of defaulting, accordingly, Greece has been pressured
by the rest of Europe to accept one round of massive budget cuts after
another, in exchange for just enough money to keep default at bay a
little longer. The latest arrangement brokered by the French and German
governments includes cuts so sweeping that Greece's prime minister
George Papandreou, returning home, decides to put the matter to a
popular referendum.

It seems reasonable enough that in a democratic nation - which Greece
is, at least in theory - the people ought to have at least some say in
any arrangement so burdensome. This logic does not impress the unelected
junta that effectively runs the European Union these days. By the time
the ASPO conference is over, Papandreou is forced to retract his
proposal, and is on his way out of a job. Meanwhile, European banks are
dumping government bonds as fast as they can, Italy is in increasing
trouble, and France is probably next.


Thursday morning, after an early breakfast, I head up the street to the
US Capitol. The opening session will be held at the, or more likely a,
Capitol auditorium. This is part of a maze of underground rooms beneath
the plaza in front of the Capitol; we file through an airport-style
security checkpoint, follow a guide through spaces that would not seem
out of place in a midrange hotel in Pittsburgh, and end up taking seats
in what looks unnervingly like a pricey suburban movie house.

Conferences, I have learned, follow one of two models, which might be
called the Chautauqua model and the circus model. The Chatauqua model -
does anyone these days remember the old Chatauqua shows? Communities
across nineteenth-century America built large meeting halls and brought
in lecturers to speak in them. Every week or so, outside of planting and
harvest time, you could count on an evening lecture at the Chautaqua
hall on any subject you cared to imagine; after some entertainment and a
bit of speechifying, the lecturer would spend an hour or two talking
about Arctic exploration or electricity or, well, just about anything,
followed by a lively question and answer session.

Conferences on the Chautauqua model follow a similar pattern. Individual
speakers get ninety minute slots, an hour to talk and half an hour to
field questions, so there's ample time to get into details and engage
the audience. Conferences on the circus model, on the other hand, have
panels of speakers with fifteen or twenty minutes each, and maybe a few
questions at the very end; the man on the flying trapeze gets his
fifteen minutes of fame, and then it's on to the clowns or the dancing
bears; the famous names are under the big tent, while lesser performers
are sideshow acts. Most conferences I attend outside the peak oil world
follow the Chautauqua model, but ASPO follows the circus model.

In the Capitol auditorium, of course, we're all in the big tent. ASPO's
ringmaster - er, executive director - and the head of the board say a
few words, so do the two Congressmen who've taken the time to show up,
and then it's on to the major names. Chris Skrebowski, former editor of
one of the oil industry's main trade publications; William Catton Jr,
whose 1980 book Overshoot is still far ahead of most other publications
on the subject; Jeff Rubin, former chief economist for Canadian Imperial
Bank of Commerce - that's the first lineup. Skrebowski is precise,
Catton measured and thoughtful, Rubin breezy; he sounds a bit like an
aging California surfer, which makes an odd fit with his message, which
is basically that in the absence of cheap fossil fuels, the global
economy is screwed.

There's a break, and then the next lineup follows - Richard Heinberg,
Chris Martenson, Angelina Galiteva, Roger Bezdek. It's all pretty much
variations on a common theme. The next to last is an exception; she's a
California bureaucrat who insists airily that there's nothing to worry
about because alternative energy can easily pick up the slack. She gets
asked at the end about the huge and arguably unavailable volumes of rare
earth elements and other scarce resources a major buildout of
alternative energy tech would require, and evades the question with
practiced ease.

That's how the rest of the day goes. There are some memorable talks, but
those who read the peak oil blogosphere have already heard most of it. A
fair number of people skip one or more panels and head for the lobby or
the bar, where the real action generally seems to be.


Meanwhile, a few hundred miles north, uncomfortable news is beginning to filter back from the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protest in New York City. Despite the loud rhetoric of participatory democracy, control of the half million dollars or so of money donated to the protest has been eased into the hands of an unelected committee. Those pushing this
arrangement insist that this is because OWS can't make decisions effectively; this claim is all the more curious in that some of these same people are among those who pushed OWS to adopt the consensus system that's preventing it from making decisions effectively.

Those of us who are familiar with the professionalization of dissent in
recent decades have seen the same process at work countless times. Call
it coercive consensus: the manipulation of the forms of consensus to
enable a faction with an agenda to take control of a large but unfocused
movement. It's become the standard model for organizing a protest on the
American left these days, and is a core reason why the American left has
accomplished so little in the decades since that model came into fashion.

The justification for consensus you usually hear these days is that consensus prevents the majority from dominating a minority. This is true since, as a handful of activists {1} have pointed out, consensus allows a minority to dominate the majority. Given standard democratic methods, a gathering of people with common concerns can choose its leaders, set
its agenda, make decisions the majority supports, prevent those decisions from being endlessly reconsidered, and get things done. Coercive consensus stymies all these; it's all but impossible for a consensus-run group to remove even the most manipulative moderator, stop
a power grab, or make a decision that won't be revisited any time it suits the controlling minority to do so.

By the time the ASPO conference is over, the first whispers of these
difficulties have started to spread through the peak oil scene. What
will happen in the months to come is anyone's guess, but promising
movements time and time again have been hijacked by such methods and
reduced to irrelevance.


My roommate is Guy Dauncey, an environmental activist from British
Columbia. Attendees who learn that the two of us are sharing a room go
wide-eyed and start to giggle, because the ASPO staff would have had a
hard time finding two speakers whose ideas are further apart. Guy
believes that a green and prosperous world with abundant alternative
energy is within our grasp. Still, he's a likeable man, and we easily
find other subjects to talk about when we're not either asleep or busy
at the conference.

We are both presenting on Friday, and the big top is hopping all
morning; Guy's slot comes in a plenary session on alternative energy
right before lunch. His presentation blends enthusiastic claims about
solar power with Teilhard de Chardin evolutionary mysticism and an
insistence that people like me, who suggest that the hard realities of
our situation predict a much less genial future for which we need to get
ready, are among the main obstacles to bringing his happy future world
into being. It's hardly the first time this argument has been directed
my way; I don't take it any more personally than he takes my jab, later
on, at grandiose projects drawn up without reference to the limits of
the real world.

After lunch and a rambling speech by eco-farming proponent Wes Jackson,
it's sideshow time, and my session gets under way. It's on local and
community responses to peak oil; that wasn't what I'd planned to speak
about, but the ASPO staff assign speakers to panels by a logic all their
own. For all that, it‘s a good panel. Aaron Newton talks about his
experience coordinating a local farming program in the rural South.
Peter Kilde presents the findings of a task force trying to help poor
people and the organizations that serve them get ready for the end of
the age of cheap energy. I sketch out the lessons of the 1970s energy
crisis for the present. Naomi Davis, an African-American community
organizer, comes last, and steals the show with a report on her program
to reinvent Chicago neighborhoods as self-supporting and self-governing
urban villages. It's the one really innovative thing I encounter in any
of the panels, and deserves the enthusiastic applause it gets.

That evening is Speakers' Dinner, and a bona fide fanboy moment for me.
William Catton is there, of course, and I nervously approach him, say a
little about how much Overshoot meant to me, and ask if he'd like a copy
of my latest peak oil book, The Wealth of Nature. He graciously accepts,
and then flummoxes me completely by offering me a copy of his new book
Bottleneck (2009). We talk for around a quarter of an hour. I do my best
not to act like a fourteen-year-old Twilight fan who meets the actor
that plays the sparkly vampire, but that's basically how I feel the
whole time; few books influenced me as powerfully as Overshoot, and
anyone familiar with Catton's ideas can find them easily enough right
down at the foundations of most of mine.


Meanwhile, in the south of France, the much-ballyhooed G-20 summit
meeting is lurching toward what even the mainstream media admit is
complete failure. The financial crisis in Europe is the focus of discussion {2}, but nobody seems to be able to come up with any response to the widening spiral of trouble. Reports claim that US officials are pressuring Europe to flood the markets with freshly printed euros; the dire implications of such a step are clearly of less interest to the Obama administration than the impact of a Eurozone fiscal collapse on the American economy, and thus on Obama's fading reelection prospects.

Meanwhile another head of state, China's Hu Jintao, has quietly taken
center stage. It has been a little over a decade since the old G-7, the
exclusive club of core industrial economies, was forced to open its
doors to a baker's dozen of rising powers. This time, Hu moves and
speaks with the assurance proper to the leader of the world's next great
power. It doesn't hurt that 200 miles overhead, the Chinese space
program has pulled off another impressive feat {3}, docking an unmanned
Shenzhou space capsule with Tiangong 1, China's equivalent to Skylab and
Mir and the next step in the Chinese march into space.

The European press spends the days before the G-20 meeting feverishly
speculating about the hope that China might bail Europe out of its
widening crisis. Nothing of the kind happens, of course; the Chinese
would be fools to accept that role this early in the game, and they are
anything but. If a bailout offer comes from China at all, it will be
much later, when European leaders are desperate enough to accept help on
almost any terms, and it will come with a hefty price tag of China's
choosing. By the time the ASPO conference is over, Europe's heads of
state are heading home to a cheerless welcome.


For an imperial capital, Washington DC is surprisingly
pedestrian-friendly, and I have no problem making my way Sunday
afternoon to a lunch appointment with friends. Saturday was anticlimax;
I was on two panels for which apparently nobody did any planning or
preparation at all, and which proceeded to ramble aimlessly for their
alloted time. Thereafter everything more or less ground to a halt,
except for conversations among those who weren't leaving quite yet.

I head through Chinatown, thinking of conversations over the days just
past. I've had long talks about the prospects for sail transport, rail
lines, and streetcars, with people who know these technologies inside
and out; I've spent time with some old friends and several new ones, met
more of the regular readers of The Archdruid Report, and been asked for
advice by younger attendees who, I'm startled and then amused to notice,
seem to approach me with pretty much the same diffidence I felt
approaching William Catton. It's more than that, though: this is as
close as we have just now to a gathering of the tribe.

There's a passage from Hermann Hesse's novel Demian (1919) that is on my
mind as I walk the streets of this city of faltering empire in this
bright November sunlight. Emil Sinclair, the narrator, has come to
recognize himself as one of a diffuse and disparate group - call it a
circle, an order, a tribe - marked by something half-seen and half
spiritual that can be glimpsed in the faces of those who share it. What
unites them is not an ideology or an organization, but an orientation
toward time, toward the future. The unmarked people around them live
their lives in relation to the world as it is, but the ones who wear the
mark in their faces are oriented toward a world that does not yet exist.

The friends I meet for lunch have the mark in their faces, and we spend
a pleasant couple of hours over burgers and tall glasses of craft beer,
talking about beekeeping and brewing and other useful skills for the
aftermath of the age of cheap abundant energy. Not long after I'm
climbing aboard the train that will take me back home. As the Washington
suburbs roll by, I get another cup of tea, but the translation will have
to wait for another time; I get out my reading glasses and settle down
to read my signed copy of Bottleneck. I am still reading it when the
train arrives at my station three hours later. While I have been away,
humanity has extracted another 378,000,000 barrels of crude oil,
56,2500,000 tons of coal, and 36,000,000,000 cubic feet of natural gas
out of the planet's steadily depleting reserves.

John Michael Greer is the Grand Archdruid of the Ancient Order of Druids
in America {4} 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
{5}, 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://libcom.org/library/consensus-its-discontents

{2} http://www.spiegel.de/international/europe/0,1518,796280,00.html


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

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