Shuck and Jive

Friday, March 25, 2011

Apocalypse, Progress or Hospice?

The April newsletter is going out soon. Here is my editorial:

Dear Friends,

Newsweek came in the mail today. The headline reads:
“Apocalypse Now: Tsunamis, Earthquakes, Nuclear Meltdowns, Revolutions. Economies on the Brink. What the #@%! Is Next?”
Nobody knows. But many guess. John Michael Greer in his book, The Long Descent: A User’s Guide to the End of the Industrial Age, writes that we live by two myths. Both are less than helpful. We follow either the myth of progress or the myth of apocalypse. Either the world is getting “better and better” thanks to technology and we will one day enjoy a Jetsons future or the world is going to hell next Tuesday in a fiery apocalypse.

Greer suggests something a bit more realistic. He suggests that we are at the peak of the industrial age and are headed for a long (centuries long) period of contraction with stairsteps of stability and partial recovery. He calls it “The Long Descent”. He writes:
It makes a great deal of difference how we come to view the challenge of the next century. On the one hand, it could be portrayed as a struggle to keep modern industrial civilization moving along the endless upward curve of progress. On the other, it could more usefully be envisioned as a matter of managing the end of the industrial age and coping with the decline to a more modest and less ecologically suicidal deindustrial society. We’re in much the same situation as family members who have to decide on medical treatment for an elderly parent who has half a dozen vital systems on the verge of giving out. If the only outcome we’re willing to accept is keeping Dad alive forever, we guarantee ourselves a desperate, expensive, and futile struggle with the inevitable. People, like civilizations, are mortal; no matter how much money and technology gets poured into keeping them alive, sooner or later it won’t be enough.

On the other hand, if we accept that Dad is going to die sooner or later, and we concentrate on giving him the best possible quality of life in the time he has left, there’s quite a bit that can be done. The last part of Dad’s life can be made better, and so can the lives of the generations that follow him, because the money that might have been spent for exotic medical procedures to keep Dad alive for another three months of misery can go instead to pay college tuition for his grandchildren. The same thing is likely to be true in the twilight years of industrial civilization; the resources we have left can be used either to maintain the industrial system for a few more years, or to cushion the descent into the deindustrial future—but not both. Pp. 157-8.
Here are some signs of our desperation:

Last night Rachel Maddow reported that the Department of the Interior is granting deep water drilling permits in the Gulf of Mexico
“despite a report finding that blow-out preventer design is flawed and despite drilling companies submitting emergency response plans that pre-date the Deepwater Horizon spill and therefore reflect none of the lessons of that disaster.”
The EPA is being stripped of its power and resources to regulate natural gas drilling. Mountain tops are removed in Appalachia (Tennessee is next) for coal. The U.S. military is now entering a third war in the Middle East. While the immediate context for the action in Libya is humanitarian, the larger reality is that Libya extracts 1.8 million barrels of sweet crude per day. As oil extraction has peaked and the U.S. imports 2/3 of its oil from foreign countries, it is not difficult to see that we are in the midst of a long power struggle for natural resources, especially oil.

It appears that we are doing everything we can, including trashing the planet, just to keep Dad on the ventilator a little while longer. The industrial age is based on a myth of endless economic growth fueled by a one-time use of basically free but finite fossil fuel energy. It is ending. The industrial age or “Petroleum Man” is terminal. He needs hospice.

This is a spiritual problem. It is a problem of denial and an unwillingness to face reality and respond with a concern for future generations. The industrial age is not normal. It is a blip on the screen of human history. It has risen due to fossil fuels and is now falling due to their peak extraction. We can choose to make this descent decent or we can choose war and environmental catastrophe to keep Petroleum Man alive for a few more months or years.

What can we do about it? Why bring it up here? I think it is our task to talk about this and to imagine a new future. Our congregation is equipped to do this. We are a congregation of courageous, visionary leaders. If not us, then who? What do we need to do?
  1. We need to make a commitment to Earth care on behalf of future generations and communicate that to others. That is the Gospel with which we have been entrusted.
  2. We need to encourage each other to face reality not with fear but with hope and determination and share some practical skills for this transition.
  3. We need to find the metaphors and myths (not progress or apocalypse) that can help us contract (use less) with grace and, yes, with joy.
Greer’s book is one of the first that I have read that is helpful in this regard. We will be reading it in May for our “Thursdays With Jesus” study group. All are welcome to this discussion. Even if you cannot make the discussion, I encourage you to pick up this book or his latest book, The Ecotechnic Future: Envisioning A Post-Peak World and talk about it with people.

Politicians will only talk about what we insist they talk about. You know as well as I that takes a lot of insisting. Before we can get them to talk about it, we need to do so. We need to do it with courage, candor, and with solid information.

Despite the panic of Newsweek’s headline, I do not think there is an “Apocalypse” in our future. I don’t think we can blithely hope for “Progress” either. There is change. The more we are prepared physically, mentally and spiritually for these changes, the healthier we will be personally and as a society. If we are informed and courageous we may make less unfortunate decisions regarding our planet’s health and our childrens’ future.

As always I welcome your feedback.

Blessed Be.


  1. Neither.

    Civilization is like a tree. It grows wildly in the spring, then it gets pruned back, the weak and sick branches get broken off by the weather and disease, or the work of the gardner, and then it comes back again, stronger, fuller, with new branches, reconfigured and reaching out in new directions.

    Sometimes devastating fires come by and it takes a long time for it to grow back, but it always does.

    Sometimes only the seed is left. But that is enough.

    Isaiah 6.

  2. Jodie,

    Yes, pruning is a very good metaphor. Even a sprout from the stump.

  3. You are likely right, Jodie, but that doesn't mean it is going to be pretty. 50 million people died of influenza in 1918. That sort of thing may be lost in the timeline, but not when it's your family that goes.

    But, it's likely that it can't be helped, and may be necessary to the survival of the species as a whole.

  4. Thanks to Jodie for a beautiful metaphor. Think the Celtic World Tree. Think the tree of life in Avatar; think the tree of the Knowledge of good and evil in the center of the garden.

    We do need new metaphors, but so long as we have trees, they can do a lot for us, metaphorically and actually.

    John -- terrific editorial. Actually, it is hopeful. It offers a confidence in "god" similar to what Jesus may have been trying to express.

  5. @Sea thanks for catching the hopeful note. No one wants to talk about something that is simply all bummer all the time. I am hoping for a future that is ecologically balanced. This transition can be a hopeful, cooperative, transforming one for ourselves as well as long as we don't cling out of fear to perpetuating a way of life that has no future.