The Long Descent

18 August 2010

Photo: Mayan Ruins in Belize by Josh

Is the defining feature of our age - ecological catastrophe caused by the interlinked problems of climate change, resource depletion and energy shortages, a problem - which we can solve, or a predicament - which cannot be solved and has to be adapted to? John Michael Greer's enlightening new book "The Long Descent" makes the case that our global society is in a predicament, and we need to find ways to adapt, not fight against it and make things worse. His cogent, far-ranging analysis will add strength to the Transition Communities movement, who see the need to move away from our dependence on fossil fuels and evolve more sustainable ways of living.

The subtitle of the book is: "The End of the Industrial Age". Starting with a very clear description of Peak Oil - the phenomenon of discovery, extraction, peaking, and decline of oil resources, he moves on to show how industrial society has overshot its "Limits" and will have an inevitable decline. But collapse is a slow process. We won't descend into a Mad Max type barbarism where we are slaughtering each other over the last cans of dogfood - this is an apocalyptic myth. Greer traces how societies like the Romans and the Mayans did not collapse quickly, but the deterioration happened over generations, and it will be the same fate for industrial societies.

Greer coins the term "Catabolic Collapse" for this process. He takes the term from biology: "a process by which a living thing feeds off itself" - civilisations, in his view, have lifespans, grow, mature and die, and are then supplanted by new civilisations. Once a society has exceeded its resource base, then it inevitably goes into a decline. He brings that home with a simple example of how the housing price collapse brought down the financial system when individuals did not have the resources to keep up payments on their oversized "McMansions".

Greer criticises what he sees as two fallacies which are often quoted - the myth of perpetual technological process, which he sees as a temporary phenomenon borne out of the Enlightenment and the one-time energy bonus provided by fossil fuels; and the apocalyptic scenarios dreamt up by those who see a society short of energy abruptly descending into violence and anarchy. Greer sees a third way, of punctuated decline gradually moving towards a new, more sustainable, and inevitably lower-energy form of lifestyle. He emphasises the spiritual and community based ways of living which will be necessary to make this transition with the least amount of disruption.

Photo: Findhorn Ecovillage Community Centre in Scotland

This is a remarkable work by a writer with a wide knowledge of many different subjects, and gives many positive insights into where our society is heading. It even has a paean of praise for the humble slide rule. In the appendix is the academic essay on the Theory of Catabolic Collapse, which may be a little equation-dense for the more mathematically challenged reader.

The Long Descent by John Michael Greer

259 pp

Publisher: New Society



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