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The Long Descent: A User's Guide to the End of the Industrial Age Paperback – September 1, 2008
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Americans are expressing deep concern about US dependence on petroleum, rising energy prices and the threat of climate change. Unlike the energy crisis of the 1970s, however, there is a lurking fear that, now, the times are different and the crisis may not easily be resolved.
The Long Descent examines the basis of such fear through three core themes:
- Industrial society is following the same well-worn path that has led other civilizations into decline, a path involving a much slower and more complex transformation than the sudden catastrophes imagined by so many social critics today.
- The roots of the crisis lie in the cultural stories that shape the way we understand the world. Since problems cannot be solved with the same thinking that created thyem, these ways of thinking need to be replaced with others better suited to the needs of our time.
- It is too late for massive programs for top-down change; the change must come from individuals.
Hope exists in actions that range from taking up a handicraft or adopting an "obsolete" technology, through planting an organic vegetable garden, taking charge of your own health care or spirituality, and building community.
Focusing eloquently on constructive adaptation to massive change, this book will have wide appeal.(2008-05-07)
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In a nutshell, the premise of "The Long Descent" is that, as we move away from Hubbert's Peak and fossil fuel production begins to dwindle, the Industrial Age will gradually unravel, leaving humanity where it was about 200 years ago. The "gradual" part is the key point Greer is trying to make here. As supplies contract, he argues, we'll scale back. Prices then go down, and we begin to use more...resources run low and prices spike...so we scale back again, over and over until we are finally, hundreds of years from now, de-Industrialized. We will then rebuild society in a sustainable fashion, once the fossil fuel party is over.
Greer's argument (that our slide down from the Peak will be bumpy but not Armageddon) is not well-supported. He points to how we dealt with rationing during WWII, how Cuba survived the loss of Russia's support, and so forth. He also points to how great civilizations of the past came to an end: usually when the resources ran out (slave labor, water, food), resulting in a decline of several centuries. No Armageddons in the historical record, therefore we won't face one either. If Greer ends up wrong and there is a cataclysm, it may be due to the myriad of disasters which are lurking in the near future. Peak Oil is just one of them. Water shortages. Overpopulation. Draught caused by global warming. Sea levels rising due to the same. Unprecedented weather disasters (ditto). Financial meltdown (not hard to imagine given recent events -- which occurred, to be fair, after this book was written). Civilizations of the past had much simpler circumstances, so how they ended has little bearing on our situation. There has never been a global economy like we have now. There is no precedent. To borrow Greer's metaphor, if the Mayans were a person falling out of a plane at 10,000 feet, we are falling from high Earth orbit, without a heat shield, let alone a parachute. Greer underplays the extreme and unprecedented interconnectedness of global society, giving a cursory nod to possible wars, some bad weather, meh, nothing we can't deal with. Another point of view is that the current world economy is basically a house of cards, and the least gust of wind could topple the whole thing.
Another point made by Greer is that most of us tend to either believe "The End is Near" or that "Technology will Save Us." As we run out of oil, either all hell will break loose or we'll find some new source of energy and carry on as before. Those are the only two possibilities we as a society are considering. The third possibility, that it will be a case of things falling apart here and there and adapting to the changes (a combination of the two extreme positions, in other words) is what he calls The Long Descent. I'd argue that many of us are not ardent Armageddonists or Progress-ists. We know that an adjustment is coming, and we hope it won't be too awful. We know things can't continue on like this much longer. So I don't think we're all as naive or blind as Mr. Greer thinks.
Most of the book is Greer's thoughts on how society has gone wrong, how we've misused this once in planetary-lifetime boon (fossil fuels), and so on. He rambles on about how screwy our beliefs can be, he criticizes Christianity and Buddhism, couch potato-ism, and on and on. Some of it is interesting, some of it I just plain disagree with, but I wonder what most of it is doing in a book ostensibly about the aftermath of Peak Oil. I guess Greer is hoping to wake us up so we make intelligent choices in the coming bumpy days. I get that. But his smug, wiser-than-thou tone really grates after a while.
That said, some areas will look like Mad Max (some already do - Detroit, Haiti). But over all the nation and the world will keep bumping along but the trajectory will be downward rather than upward.
This is a sobering book and for some will be terribly depressing. Others will see in it a false hope (much like the hippies who began communes in the late 60s and 70s thinking that they were going to create some sort of Eden only to realize that subsistence farming is *really* hard work). For some it will inspire action and that is what JMG is hoping for.
The discovery of how to use inexpensive fossil fuels as portable and extremely concentrated energy sources made possible the extraordinary progress in technology and corresponding global population of the last couple of centuries. When, in the early 1970's, Americans reached a point were they could no longer increase their production of cheap fuel to meet their increasing demand, gasoline prices rose. At first, Americans responded by making efforts to reduce demand by purchasing smaller vehicles, better insulation, and investigating alternative energy sources. If these efforts had continued it may have been possible to replace the increasingly-expensive fossil fuels with alternative more sustainable energy sources. Unfortunately in the early 1980's 'morning in America' arrived where we collectively decided that we could import as much temporarily-cheap oil as we wanted and burn through it as if their would be no tomorrow. Now it's too late to expect we can continue to grow our economy and population in the face of increasingly expensive imported and domestic fossil fuel costs. The author is not a gloom-and-doomer or radical survivalist. He explains why decline will more likely occur as a prolonged series of economic contractions followed by weak, temporary recoveries.
Our challenge will be to preserve as much of the best of our culture and knowledge to pass on to future civilizations that will arise when our population has fallen to a level that can survive on sustainable energy sources.