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The future of industrial civilisation

By Cameron Leckie - posted Thursday, 2 August 2012

It is not very often that you come across someone who can sum up the plight of industrial civilisation in a bitingly honest yet entertaining and deeply intellectual manner. Nor is it very often that you come across someone who provides a coherent, empowering and practical response to this plight.  In my opinion there is one person who does this better than anyone else in the English-speaking world. His name is John Michael Greer.

Greer has an interesting and unique background. He was awarded a Bachelor of Arts in the Comparative History of Ideas. A student of the appropriate technology movement of the 1970s and 1980s: a movement that formed in large part as a result of the OPEC oil shocks. This led to Greer gaining his Master Conserver’s Certificate. Greer is also a practicing operative mage. He is best known however as a prolific writer, particularly for his work on peak oil and associated subjects.

He is the author of many books including The Long Descent: A User’s Guide to the End of the Industrial Age and The Wealth of Nature: Economics as if Survival Mattered as well as two blog sites; Stars Reach – an enthralling e-novel of the de-industrial future set some four centuries hence and The Archdruid Report a weekly essay discussing the future of industrial society from a druid perspective.


To be honest I was a little bit unsure of the druid influence when I first started reading The Archdruid Report some five or so years ago. My only knowledge of druids was from the character ‘Getafix’ out of the Asterix cartoons I read as a teenager (Getafix made the magic potion which gave the Gaulish villagers their superhuman strength). However the perspectives of neo-druidry seem particularly important at this juncture in history.  

Greer’s core thesis is that industrial civilisation has commenced down the path of Catabolic Collapse. Greer developed the theory of catabolic collapse as a way of explaining the prolonged period of time, generally measured over one to three centuries, over which past civilisations have collapsed that other theories, such as Joseph Tainter’s based on declining marginal returns in complexity (see The Collapse of Complex Societies), have not been capable of fully explaining.

To many, if not most people, the very mention of the term collapse is one that triggers an emotional response of either an apocalyptic end of the world view or at the other end of the spectrum a belief that human ingenuity, the magic of the market and/or technology will propel humanity forward to some utopian future and protect our current version of civilisation from the fate of so many civilisations past.

One of the key strengths of Greer’s analysis is his ability to explain current events in a historical context, and in particular the slow time in which the ‘collapse’ of a civilisation unfolds, particularly for those living through it. This is evident in both his catabolic collapse theory as well as his dismissal of apocalyptic views of the future. Indeed he has even written a book titled Apocalypse Not, which traces 3000 years worth of apocalyptic prophecies, none of which amusingly enough have come true. He also, with a level of logic and clarity of thought which is sadly missing in much of today’s media frenzied world, dismantles the near religious beliefs in the power of technology, human ingenuity and the market to sustain and grow our current version of civilisation indefinitely.

Between these two extremes Greer suggests a future for industrial civilisation following the general trajectory of economic contraction as we approach and pass the various limits to growth. A downward staircase is probably the best way of visualising this future. There will be periods of deep crisis (as seems to be brooding in the global financial system now) followed by periods of stagnation or even partial recovery. But sooner or later, as resource consumption meets hard limits, civilisation will tumble down the next stair. Each tumble will result in an associated loss of socioeconomic complexity until at some point some centuries hence civilisation reaches a steady state.

If Greer’s view is correct, and industrial civilisation is on the path to an unavoidable decline, what should we be doing? Here too Greer has a unique although in mainstream society I suspect an exceedingly unfashionable approach that can be summed by the strategy of LESS; that is Less Energy, Stuff and Stimulation. At the core of this strategy is the relearning of skills that only a couple of generations back were common knowledge. Skills that may well be the difference between relative comfort and deprivation in the hard times ahead.


The loss of this once common knowledge is likely to cause much unnecessary hardship in the decades ahead as the many of the systems that we currently depend upon (and take for granted) falter if not suffer outright failure. Regaining this knowledge is vitally important both at the individual and community level. With the vast majority of people unwilling to contemplate, let alone prepare for the difficult future ahead of us Greer proposes an approach based on Green Wizardry (an idea he developed after studying the role of wizards in antiquity, it is almost certainly not what you think it is). Green Wizards are defined as:

“Individuals who are willing to take on the responsibility to learn, practice, and thoroughly master a set of unpopular but valuable skills…and share them with their neighbors when the day comes that their neighbors are willing to learn. This is not a subject where armchair theorizing counts for much – as every wizard’s apprentice learns sooner rather than later, what you really know is measured by what you’ve actually done.”

These skills are many and varied but include: intensive organic gardening; low tech food preservation; small scale animal production (chickens and fish for example); solar heating technologies; and home cooling and heating, amongst a myriad of others. Importantly these skills focus on low cost, low technology responses using readily available resources that ordinary people can perform on their own with ordinary tools. Greer does not argue that this approach will “save the world” but rather it will “make human life in a world suffering from serious energy shortages and economic troubles a good deal less traumatic and more liveable.” There is no doubt that there are many people in Greece, Spain and even the United States who could be, or rather should be, benefiting from such an approach now. There is also little doubt that many more people will benefit greatly from these skills in the traumatic times ahead of us.

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About the Author

Cameron Leckie has a Bachelor Science and a Graduate Diploma in Education. Employment experience includes a range of management positions both in Australia and overseas in the telecommunications industry. He is a member of the Australian Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas (ASPO Australia). Since finding out about peak oil in 2005, he has written extensively on the topic and in particular, its impact on the aviation industry.

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