Shuck and Jive

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Petroleum Man

A little over four years ago I watched the documentary film, End of Suburbia. Through it I learned about Peak Oil. I watched it several times including once with members of my congregation. I watched all the extra clips and interviews. One morning at about three I woke up sobbing. I had been hit with a sledge hammer of grief and fear. All of my foundations were shaken. My beliefs and dreams were pulled out from under me. I was in a deep funk of depression for months. I went to a counselor who helped me with some grief issues about changes in my personal life. He didn't appreciate my concern, though. I was grieving the collapse of civilization and he (like virtually every other person in America) was either unaware of that abyss or unwilling to look into it.
I started this blog to talk about it. I kept looking for a solution. I also wanted to find something within my religious tradition to speak to this. What does it mean to follow Christ into the abyss of collapse? That might be a Christian way of putting it. Even though I know that no one wants to hear it, and folks think I am little nuts (a jeremiad) for bringing it up, I now and again make posts about Peak Oil, global warming, the folly of growth, and the demise of Petroleum Man.

Petroleum Man
is a phrase I learned from Michael Ruppert. It refers to that period of human existence that began about 150 years ago and has reached its apex. Petroleum Man is fossil-fuel-powered humanity that allowed our population to increase from just over one billion to nearly seven billion. That energy source that has fueled Petroleum Man's dominance over Earth has peaked. We have begun to unravel. Petroleum Man has begun his descent.

It is scary shit.

It is no use arguing with me about it. I am just a country preacher. If you are ready to face it, here are some sites. Argue with them. Here is a nice definition of Peak Oil by Colin Campbell.

Only now, four years later, am I finally coming to a sense of purpose about this. I am not going to get a shotgun and some seeds and move to the Bob Marshall Wilderness in Montana. I have no idea or advice to give regarding how to grow your own beets or how to live "off the grid." However, I hope those who do know those things will see their role as our teachers.

I don't put any faith or hope in any elected official or political party or in "progressive" or "green" politics. Those are illusions caused by denial. We cannot nor should not keep an unsustainable economic system going whether "green" or not. That said, I love my progressive and green friends!

I have no idea how this collapse will unfold or what life will be like on the other side. I am a country parson. That is what I do. That is what I will be. As such my role as Carolyn Baker writes is to be present in this collapse. This is time for us to participate in discovering our meaning. Like Jeremiah who in the throes of his nation's collapse in 590 BCE "buys a field" in the hope of a new life long after his personal demise, we must live with a vision for an Earth community that few if any alive today will witness.
I am grateful to have found Carolyn Baker's book, Sacred Demise: Walking the Spiritual Path of Industrial Civilization's Collapse. She pulls no punches. She invites us to experience fully the via negativa, the way of letting go and being present with loss. She writes:
When we allow ourselves to grieve the innumerable losses which civilization has wrought, our bodies and psyches are freed to move through the grief to a place of acceptance and re-investment....We accept that there are no guarantees, and as with any terminal illness, we have the opportunity to look fully into the face of our own mortality and beyond. Only then can we wisely re-invest in living our lives, regardless of outcome, which profoundly facilitates responding to collapse with grounded, prudent preparation. pp. 34-5
People may wonder, if civilization is collapsing, why I care if the Presbyterian Church passes a new G-6.0106b?! That is part of my own personal purpose. We are still living on this side of the transition even as we are aware of it, and however hesitatingly, preparing for it. My vision of an Earth community will be one in which all are equal. Maybe it is superstition on my part, but I think that any work for equality and dignity is never ultimately lost. I think of it as one seed that may take root on the other side.

I find myself also appreciating the
via positiva. How amazing it is that I am conscious at this point in history. What an incredible time to be alive! 13.7 billion years of cosmic history has led to this point right now. I am, through no will of my own, "graced" to be here. Who can know what serendipitous emergence may happen now.

This past week I witnessed my denomination's general assembly. With the magic of Petroleum Man's technology, I conversed with people across the country instantaneously. I found myself alternately amused, exasperated, and connected with this quirky group that includes quirky people like me.
I have to say, on one hand, faced with the scope of the collapse of global industrialized civilization, the PCUSA didn't have much to offer.

However, on another hand, it did and it will. Whatever emerges as we are present with collapse will be shaped by our shared story and our values. Kindness, compassion, our mythos of death and resurrection, sacrifice, courage, shared tears, passion for justice, dignity, truth, and joy will be summoned as they are needed. We will have a role and a purpose to play. I believe we are being shaped now for this role.

Carolyn Baker reminds us that the only way to stay engaged and to be present to life and to one another is to find a purpose. She writes

collapse is the next step in our evolution, transitioning us to the fullness of our humanity. p. 6.

Wow. And...

Unless one comprehends the intention of initiation, it can only feel like torture, injustice, scarcity, terror, and loss, and therefore, the natural tendency in such circumstances is to blame and lash out against one's persecutors. On the other hand, to hold a perspective of collapse as a spiritual initiation does not necessarily alleviate suffering, but it does temper the severity of it with a sense of meaning and purpose. p. 26
We are being "initiated" into a new humanity. Here is an interview with her about her book. I recommend it and her book for help in exploring the spirituality of collapse.


  1. @John

    I wonder if there are not some Biblical references and some ways the Church dealt with collapse in the past that might help. While I would reject the last few verses of if Psalm 137 talks about how to be the people of God in a foreign land.

    I also wonder if Christians can abandon the idea of control of culture and see that there are times in the past when the Church dealt with collapse. The end of the Western Roman empire should provide an example but I doubt it does. Maybe the collapse of the Eastern Roman Empire with the coming of Islam?

    I think my greatest concern is that the collapse will affect those in Africa, Asia and South America who know how to live on the land.

    Having said that I wonder if the earth won't find it's own way to cleanse itself of humans, namely a widespread illness.

    My concern at the moment is that there is no cost in the USA for using too many fossil fuels. It isn't until, at the present rate of inflation capitalism says that we can't afford to move to other technologies and we won't pay for them since the price of oil and coal are so low. And then the cost will fall heaviest on the poor.

  2. This is very good, Bob. I think if the church has a role it will be to lift up its ancient-new words of justice and compassion. We may be able to help us lose our life to gain it. It will be to speak out against hoarding and abuses and to be alert.

  3. Sea Raven comes up for air -- beginning the end of Level 1 CPE in Harrisonburg.

    The last collapse was probably in Europe during the plague years, which ushered in the Dark Ages -- and ended with the Crusades, and transitioned into the Renaissance. The church failed miserably, "science" became the only legitimate way to consider life, and we forgot our mythos.

    The "church" -- if it survives this collapse -- will have to do a better job than the medievalists did. For starters, we need a new mythos.

  4. @Sea Raven

    I suspect the reason the church could not deal with the collapse is that the church was part of the power elite at that point. We are better off if we stand outside the circle of power which I think Jesus requires us to do.

    One of the things Paul says about Jesus is that his crucifixion exposes the empires for what they are: particularly the Roman empire in Jesus' day.

    So an important question for Christians in America is are we willing to give up the power that comes from riches?

  5. Pastor Bob -- good point. However, I think there is an apocalyptic aspect to all this as well.

    I sent the link to this particular blog post to my sister in Minneapolis. Here is what she said in response to my favorite heretic:

    "Very interesting, as usual!

    "I prefer to think of it as an evolution, or a molting of old civilization to reveal the new, improved version, rather than in terms of collapse or the "via negativa." It is tempting to buy into some of the apocalyptic visions we spend so much energy creating and enjoying, and if enough of us agree on one of these it will surely come to pass. But I'm holding out for metamorphosis!"

    I think this is definitely outside the box -- and I totally wish I had thought of it myself.

    Hey John! See what you missed by not going to GA and connecting with her??!!

  6. Thanks for the discussion! Usually no one bites when I make posts like these.

    I have a good bunch on Peak Oil and what it may mean for us, but in all of that I have found hardly anything (save the Carolyn Baker book) addressing the spiritual or meaning aspect of this collapse (or molting, I suppose).

    We have biblical models for this (Jeremiah, Isaiah, Mark 13) for those who experienced collapse in their day. The church is as scared (if not more so) as the culture at large in addressing this.

    We dare not sugarcoat or downplay what we are experiencing.

    Right now we need the prophetic voice in terms of exposing the corruption of our governments, war for resources, economic inequalities, torture, etc. This will get worse the further we enter our long descent. We need to be awake and report what we see.

    The church needs to be at least as prophetic as Naomi Wolf in End of America.

    Jeremiah was.

  7. I should say something about this to clarify. Your sister wrote:

    It is tempting to buy into some of the apocalyptic visions we spend so much energy creating and enjoying, and if enough of us agree on one of these it will surely come to pass.

    I think here of those who say that there will be a big battle in Jerusalem and that is necessary before Christ returns. Certainly wishing it could make it happen especially as those in power act to increase tensions in that area.

    There is a difference between that and analyzing our global situation (energy, economy, ecology, empire, population etc.) and seeing where we are and where we are headed. Not to realistically assess where we are is to be in denial and to live in a dangerous delusion.

    One of the beliefs that drives our denial is exceptionalism about our "progress." All other civilizations crumbled, but not us. We are different. We think that evolution and progress is automatically going to provide for us a Star Trek or Jetsons future. After all we have such cool technology. It is our destiny. It is part of this myth of upward and onward forever. We cannot believe that Petroleum Man is not normal.

    I believed all of that. My beliefs changed. Unlimited progress and growth ran into the reality of a finite planet. We are at the limit.

  8. @John

    I wonder if the collapse of Israel and Judah can help us. Both were conquered. Both were condemned by Yahweh for their disobedience. Any thought that a nation can exist forever is ridiculous. All empires rise and fall. Notice Amos, Elijah, Elisha and Jeremiah proclaiming destruction of the kingdoms because of their disobedience.

    The other problem is that despite or myths about being one nation under God and a nation set apart by God just isn't true. Thinking of the Us as the new Israel is not only hubris but also really bad theology.

    Sooner or later America will go the way of all nations.

  9. Matthew Fox has said that sustainability is justice. That which is not sustainable is not just. If one likes to use language of sin then that which is unsustainable is sinful.

    A few basic facts that are easily checked.

    Oil is our fundamental and primary energy source. It is money. It is the life force of Petroleum Man. It makes things (everything) go. Before oil less than 2 billion humans. In 150 years 7 billion. Oil.

    Other facts:

    1) The world consumes about 80 million barrels per day. The U.S. is about 20 million per day. After the crash of 2008 we are at about 18 million per day. It is likely that the world oil production is past or at its peak. Even T. Boone Pickens says we will never get more than 80 million barrels per day.

    2) Oil production peaked in the U.S. in 1971. Over 40 countries have peaked. We have produced less each year since then. We are at about 8 million barrels per day. The U.S. used to be an oil exporter. For a while (before 1970) we consumed what we produced.

    3) If we consume 20 million and produce 8 million we are not sustainable.

    4) To make sure we get our 20 million we have a vast an expansive military all around the globe.

    5) If anyone thinks there are other energy sources than can substitute for these 12 million barrels that we take from other countries, then point them out. Once folks clearly do the research they will find there are none.

    Is any of this sustainable or just? We are not living within our means. We are collapsing. I don't think we should mince words and call it something else.

    6) We will powerdown. It will be far less painful if we do it consciously, if we as Richard Heinberg says, "manage collapse", than if we are unconscious.

    P.S. Even if we agreed to deep water drill and drill in the Alaskan Reserve today with no restrictions, it would take ten years to go on-line. We would get an additional 2 million barrels per day. About the amount we will have lost in that span of time.

  10. @Bob

    Exactly, Bob. It seems that it is the duty of Christians to point this out. We are not chosen or exceptional.

  11. @John

    Maybe chosen or set apart but that is not so that we can be and have everything we want. Chosen by God always brings responsibility with it.

  12. I think the best sense of "chosen" is to acknowledge that one can find or make a purpose, a responsibility. It is tricky to use that language as it so easily morphs in to exceptionalism or entitlement. But, yes, if one can lose one's life perhaps one can save it. Lose one's concern with personal survival toward embracing each day and each other.

  13. John,
    I grew up in a fundamentalist sect where we were taught that the character developed in this life set the stage and shaped the person we would grow into through eternity. The notion gave eternal significance to one's passion for truth and justice. The collapse ahead and whatever unfolds on the other side feels to me very much like a death and resurrection and I really appreciated the idea that our presence in this unwinding of culture, society and ecology is shaping us into people of some usefulness on that other side.

    My own concern of late is a bit different from yours. I think I can follow Jesus into the abyss. But I am really puzzled (obsessively puzzled, perhaps) about what it means to lead a congregation (United Church of Christ, btw)of the blind and unwilling into the abyss. If I discuss these issues--especially from the pulpit, many of my folks don't think I'm quirky, they think I'm unfit to wear my robe. For some of the most influential in my congregation church is a place you come on Sunday for comfort and to have life as we live it now affirmed and approved. The notion that this might all go away--or worse, that it should go away is unthinkable to them and it violates the pastoral role for me to suggest otherwise.

    I could leave them to their fate except I can't. These are my people and what ever it means to be called to serve them, this is where I am and they are the people I have to reach. I just wish we could take this walk together. I'm not looking forward to all the funerals--figurative and literal, that are in our future.

    Mt Vernon UCC

  14. Brad,

    Thank you for your very thoughtful comments. I think you are touching on the essence of the role of clergy. The biggest "heresy" is that our civilization is not perfect and growing and powerful and etc. Our material success is the sign of God's favor. To say otherwise is to say that we are sinners or moral failures in the minds of the theology we have inherited. It is too much for people to admit.

    For those who have come to awareness that we are in collapse, our task is really lonely. We often read in church and celebrate Isaiah 6:1-8. "Here I am! Send me! Then we sing a song and bless the newly ordained or the confirmands.

    But we miss the next verses which are the heart of the pastoral task in times of collapse:

    9And he said, ‘Go and say to this people:
    “Keep listening, but do not comprehend;
    keep looking, but do not understand.”
    10 Make the mind of this people dull,
    and stop their ears,
    and shut their eyes,
    so that they may not look with their eyes,
    and listen with their ears,
    and comprehend with their minds,
    and turn and be healed.’
    11 Then I said, ‘How long, O Lord?’ And he said:
    ‘Until cities lie waste
    without inhabitant,
    and houses without people,
    and the land is utterly desolate;
    12 until the Lord sends everyone far away,
    and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land.
    13 Even if a tenth part remains in it,
    it will be burned again,
    like a terebinth or an oak
    whose stump remains standing
    when it is felled.’*
    The holy seed is its stump.

    That is a message for the addicted, right? No healing until one hits bottom.

    Our tradition is filled people (including Jesus) who spoke truths knowing that they would not be heard. Jeremiah is our prophet.

    Your heart is huge. You are needed even as they may not be aware. Everyone is in the same denial. You will be needed. So no reason to go anywhere.

    I really appreciate your comment.

  15. Also, you speak and write anyway, because you never know who is listening or reading. : )

    I am hopeful for humanity, just not Petroleum Man.