In today’s blog post, I’m going to review John Michael Greer’s newest book, Not the Future We Ordered: Peak Oil, Psychology, and the Myth of Progress. To review this book, I am going to start with an extended personal example from my own family, through demonstrating this example, I can describe how meaningfully accurate Greer’s insights are, and how much they already apply to those living in the USA Rust Belt areas (and by extension, eventually to the rest of industrial society).
I grew up in a rural area south western Pennsylvania, in a region littered by coal mining towns with names like “Mine 42” that long ago stopped mining coal. The nearest city, Johnstown, was a steel mill town that lost the last of its mill jobs in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. Both of my grandfathers worked in the mine and mill industries, but by my parents’ generation, those “good mill jobs” were gone. The skeletal remains of these mine and mill operations litter the countryside, abandoned and rusting away, and give the “rust belt” its characteristic name.
My parents decided to take a different route (mostly by necessity) and pursued degrees in graphic design and visual communications from a technical college in Pittsburgh. They eventually left promising careers in the big city to come back to Johnstown and start a family. They started their own business and for a number of years, experienced success, eventually building a home with dedicated office space when I was seven. Their clients mainly consisted of small and large businesses in the area, such as the regional electric company and regional dairy, that needed graphic design services but were not large enough for in-house designers.
Throughout the course of my life, however, I watched my parents struggle more and more as time went on, as the late 1980’s moved into the 90’s and then into the new millennium. They did not struggle because they were lazy—they are the hardest workers that I know—but because of larger factors beyond their control. We were living in an area that was experiencing significant economic contraction. As I grew up, I watched my parents comment on how each and every one of their larger clients either closed up shop or were bought out and relocated to a different part of the country or even overseas. My mother describes this as a “downward spiral” that they tried everything to continue their business, to bring in new clients, but no matter what they did and how hard they worked, the spiral continued. In the late 1990’s, business had gotten so bad that my father had to look for other work to make ends meet. Work was incredibly hard to find anywhere in the region, and even when my father found it, sometimes in his field and sometimes out of it, layoffs were common.
I think about conversations with my parents, and how they often wondered what was going on, what they had done wrong, and I watched them internalize those failures and, at points, slip into despair and depression. They would then redouble their efforts and work even harder to make ends meet, only to continue to struggle. They recognized the decline in the economy, but even now, when I speak to them about their businesses and lives, I sense that they feel the fault lies somehow with them. The cultural narrative, of course, would suggest that their struggles were completely due to their own personal shortcomings or inability to work hard (and this continues to be a dominant narrative of our time for any people who struggle and/or are of the lowest socioeconomic classes).
But this is very much not the case, as John Michael Greer’s newest title, Not the Future We Ordered, describes. Greer begins his book by describing historical examples where public challenges or ethical issues (such as slaves’ repeated attempts at escaping to freedom) become reframed as individual psychological problems, thereby mitigating any collective responsibility or call to action (p. 1-3). So while my parents and those around them, who also struggled financially, would blame themselves, the truth is that we were living in an age of industrial and economic decline in the rust belt that started in the 1970’s and continued to this day. These struggles on their part are a microcosm for the larger macrocosm of industrial decline. What Greer’s book has done for me, then, is to help me understand my own family’s challenges in helpful and psychologically understandable terms.
Greer’s The Long Descent provides an overview of industrial decline in the age of peak oil (an outline of his arguments and a video to his talk in Detroit was in my blog post earlier this week); he provides a brief version of this in Not the Future We Ordered in the 1st chapter. The focus of this book, however, is not on demonstrating the efficacy of the concept of Peak Oil but rather examining the psychology behind reactions to industrial decline and how those in the helping professions (and other interested parties) might begin to personally and culturally deal with such challenges.
Greer opens the book with a discussion of “drapetomania” and the “50’s housewife syndrome,” wherein cultural problems, like slavery, were shifted by medical practitioners to individual pathology. In the case of slaves who attempted to escape to freedom to avoid their horrible life circumstances, doctors of the age invented “drapetomania,” a psychological disease that compelled a slave to attempt to escape. This effectively shifted the issue of escaping slaves onto the individual slave, and provided a convenient way for society to ignore the causes behind attempted and successful escapes. Greer argues that this is very much what we have today–the collective pathology of the progress narrative, our inability to rationally discuss and enact change concerning peak oil, etc, is framed as individual sickness (oh, she’s just weird because she believes that stuff). I saw this manifested so clearly in my parents’ coping with the failure of their business growing up. Everyone looked at them and thought they must be doing something wrong, they must be incompetent, their problems were attributed solely to their individual abilities. But the truth of the matter was that the area was in substantial and measurable decline, but we didn’t talk about the decline, we only talked about individual challenges. It was like the elephant in the room–nobody really wanted to address what was all around us.
Greer spends quite a bit of time explaining and examining the “myth of progress” of our modern industrial era, which he describes as follows, “the belief that all human history is a linear trajectory that has risen up from squalor and misery of the prehistoric past through ever-ascending stages of increased knowledge, prosperity, enlightenment, and technological sophistication, and will inevitability do so into a limitless future” (p. 30). He argues that the myth of progress has become a cultural religion and the most important driving myth in industrialized nations. This cultural religion, along with underlying psychological factors such as the psychology of previous investment (p. 55), is what has caused America and other industrialized nations to continue to plow on while ignoring mounting evidence of decline and natural limits. The bulk of his book is devoted to understanding why this process is occurring. I think about my own parents’ struggles, and how they were forever living in a state of cognitive dissonance where the progress myth was perpetuating in our larger culture, but where it was very much not visible in our daily lives.
In the last two chapters, having set the stage for the psychological challenges we face, he sets up the concept of the five stages of peak oil, which require letting go of said religion requires one to pass through a process akin to the stages of grief (p. 101). Although he admittedly uses no empirical data on how the stages of grief might be applied to the broader concept of industrial decline (as at the time of the writing no such data exists), the concepts are drawn upon his own experience in the Peak Oil community for over a decade (p. 110). Although this section is less well-researched than the rest of his text due to limitations in the data itself, I see it as performing a critical function in the Peak Oil discussion—that is, opening the door for discussing—and researching—how we might better understand this process. Greer’s final chapter concludes with a call to action—for those in the helping professions to understand and overcome their own grief, and for the rest of us to embrace the idea of hope (not unfounded optimism, but realistic hope) (p. 135). I wonder if some of Greer’s suggestions might also be found in any literature on the decline of the rust belt and the psychology experienced there.
One of the things Greer does really well, in this book and in his other peak oil titles, is to blend historical facts and evidence of similar problems and apply them to today’s challenges. For example, in describing the “psychology of previous investment” which is one reason that we continue to hold onto the myth of progress despite growing evidence, he uses the aftermath of the failed prophecy of Dorothy Martin, a housewife who, in the 1950’s convinced a group of followers that extraterrestrials were going to destroy the world. Despite Martin’s failures, her followers continued to believe her for quite some time; this same kind of thing is happening with the so-called economic recovery, which hasn’t actually happened from the bulk of the American people. This kind of approach is used throughout his book (and many of his other works), and this expert blending of historical facts, logical connections and examples to present times, and psychological concepts makes for a engaging read.
Although I have read his other works on Peak Oil, I found his newest title a bit more deeply personal because it gave me the tools not only to understand what was happening, but to investigate my own relationship to industrial decline and peak oil in a meaningful way. When I finished the Long Descent, I felt ready to go out and continue to pursue a lot of what I talk about on this blog (rocket stoves, organic gardening, etc.) but I was (and still am) very much coping with my own understanding of industrial decline. It also, very unexpectedly, allowed me to investigate my own family’s personal history as it related to decline. So really, what this book did was give me some of the tools to psychologically adapt to what is occurring, and just as importantly, allowed me to understand that my concerns, nor the struggles of my family, are not merely part of a personal psychosis but as a broader cultural phenomena. In other words, this book is empowering and is, in itself, a glimmer of hope and a light on a path into an unknown, and in Greer’s terms, unwelcome future. I’m planning on buying copies of this book for a number of friends and family, and recommend it without hesitation to my blog readers. If any of you have had the opportunity to read Not the Future We Ordered or have comments, I would love to hear from you!
I also grew up in the Johnstown region and will be visiting there for the first time in more than a decade. I am curious what, if anything, may be going on in that area in the way of permaculture/peak oil/transition…anyone know of anything?
I just moved to Indiana, PA. There are some good things going on in the region, but I’m not sure about Johnstown itself. Just visited Ohiopyle State Park this weekend and was delighted to find a living roof, native plant wonderland, and biodigestor right there in the new visitor center. When are you coming?
real soon 8/26-9/17 (just discovered this blog)
Wow, David! If you are anywhere near Indiana, PA, let me know. If not, I come back to Johnstown pretty regularly. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and we can talk more, maybe touch base!