Looking Backward, Looking Ahead

Over the last few weeks, after many detours, this blog’s path has finally finished traversing a landscape I first sighted more than a year and a half ago. I’d like to take a moment here to glance back over the territory we’ve crossed together in that time, wrap up some loose ends, and then take a look ahead at the terrain into which we’ll be venturing in the months to come.

As June of 2010 began, having wrapped up the sequence of posts on economics that eventually turned into The Wealth of Nature, I took up the next point I wanted to discuss—the role of fantasy, myth, and the nonrational in shaping the industrial world’s nonresponse to the rising spiral of crises that has come to dominate our time. It was a propitious moment to start a discussion of that theme; the first round of efforts to plug the disastrous Macondo oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico had failed, and in response, an astonishing number of people here in America had to all intents and purposes gone barking mad.

It’s worth reminiscing a bit about the raw nonsense that passed for reasonable thinking during those troubled days. Serious pundits were seriously insisting that the United States government had better hurry up and use a nuclear weapon on the recalcitrant well. None of them that I heard ever got around to explaining how blasting a gargantuan crater in the floor of the Gulf, vaporizing any remaining impediment to the flow of oil, and crashing an oily, radioactive, fifty-foot-high tsunami into the Gulf coast would have helped matters any, but very few people were rude enough to try to intrude that little difficulty into the discussion.

Meanwhile the hirelings of the oil industry were insisting that dumping millions of barrels of crude oil into the waters of the Gulf would merely add a little piquance to your next dish of Creole shrimp, while on the other side of the fence, rumors were surging through the crawlspaces of the internet that the oil spill was quite literally going to cause the extinction of life on Earth. That’s the sort of gibberish that comes foaming out, apparently, when a nation far too certain of its own omnipotence runs into a hard reminder that there are inconvenient realities called the laws of physics that can’t be bullied or whined into behaving the way we prefer.

So while oil was spewing out of a broken drill pipe, and nonsense was spewing out of a broken society, I started the discussion that finally wound up over the last few weeks. The delay? Well, that was partly the result of a post I made on the last day of June, 2010—there’s an Al Stewart joke that belongs here, but I’ll let that pass for now—which suggested that it might be worth reviving the ideas and practices of the 1970s appropriate tech movement. I’d recently helped to translate a 10th-century training manual for wizards, and so, in a flourish of rhetoric, I suggested that maybe the practitioners of the arcane and eldritch arts of organic agriculture, homescale alternative energy, and the like might think of themselves as "green wizards."

By the time the dust finally settled, that post had garnered more comments and more page views than anything else I’d posted here up to that time, by a large margin, and I’d been deluged by comments and emails asking me to talk about the green wizardry stuff in more detail. That, dear readers, was why I spent the next year and a bit talking about my experiences in organic gardening, energy conservation, and other bits of Seventies backyard-garden and basement-workshop green tech; I also helped found a forum for green wizards to discuss their craft, and had several other posts break the records set by the one that started the process. It was only after all of that was taken care of that I finally worked my way back to discussing what I’d originally started to talk about in June of 2010, more than a year and a half ago. Then that discussion proceeded to veer off in unexpected directions of its own, with results ranging from a science fiction short story contest to a series of posts on a subject I’d resolved never to discuss on this blog, the interface between peak oil and the traditions of ceremonial magic. Looking back on the last nineteen months of Archdruid Report posts, I feel rather as though I’d planned to take the overnight train from my home in Cumberland to Chicago, and finally arrived in the Windy City six weeks later by way of New Orleans, San Francisco, the Aleutian Islands, and the North Pole.

Still, it’s been a productive trip, and those of my readers who are interested in souvenirs of the journey will have several to hand in the months to come.

First of all, I’m delighted to announce that last fall’s posts on magic and peak oil have become the seed for a book that will be released this spring. The Blood of the Earth: An Essay on Magic and Peak Oil is being published by Scarlet Imprint, a small occult press with a big reputation. While they’re best known for their deluxe limited editions—which use, by the way, archival quality paper and bindings, not a minor point at a time when most newly printed books can be counted on to disintegrate into sawdust in a quarter century at most—Scarlet Imprint will also be producing paperback and e-book editions of The Blood of the Earth. Being small and lively, they move fast; I expect to be able to post preordering information in the very near future, and the book will be for sale in a couple of months at most.

Second, I’m even more delighted to report that the anthology of science fiction short stories about the postpetroleum world is becoming a reality. I’d hoped, when I announced the contest last fall, that I would field a dozen stories good enough to publish. As it turned out, more than sixty stories were submitted, well over half of them were of publishable quality, and many of the rest could have reached that mark given a bit of work and some editorial feedback. It took quite a bit of thought and many rereadings to work down to the final list of stories that will be in the anthology:

Randall S. Ellis’ "Autumn Night"
E.A. Freeman’s "The Lore Keepers"
Thijs Goverde’s "Think Like A Tinkerer"
Susan Harelson’s "Maestra y Aprendiz"
Harry J. Lerwill’s "Caravan of Hopes"
Catherine McGuire’s "The Going"
Avery Morrow’s "The Great Clean-Up"
Kieran O’Neill’s "Bicycleman Sakhile and the Cell Tower"
J.D. Smith’s "The Urgent, the Necessary"
Philip Steiner’s "Traveling Show"
David Trammel’s "Small Town Justice"

Those of my readers who submitted stories that won’t be part of the anthology should take heart. Much of what was submitted for the contest was remarkably good, and the decision came down fairly often to a hard choice between two or more stories with similar themes or plots, or to that even harder choice of which of two or three good stories would make for a better balance in the book as a whole. One of the unexpected revelations of the long strange trip we’ve taken together is just how large of a pool of writing talent exists among the readers of this blog; if I had the time and the inclination to launch a magazine of postpeak fiction (or perhaps "mundane SF," the current term for science fiction that gets along without invoking alien space bats), I’d anticipate no trouble finding ample raw material to fill its pages right here.

I’ve taken the editor’s privilege of adding one of my own stories, "Winter’s Tales"—readers who have been following The Archdruid Report long enough will remember a set of three short stories posted here in 2006, set in the winters of 2050, 2100, and 2150 respectively; those were the raw material for my entry—and an introduction to the anthology, and giving it a working title, After Oil: SF Visions of a Post-Petroleum Future. I’ve had a tentative approval from a publisher, but they’re waiting to see it as a complete manuscript; that’s a few weeks away at this point—there’s some editing still to be done—but I’ll post something as soon as there’s a contract and a tentative publishing date.

Third, of course, is a book on green wizardry, the most extensive of the detours we’ve taken together. That currently exists as a shapeless, sprawling, nearly unmanageable rough draft of 120,000 words—about half again as long as any of my other peak oil books—and is going to take quite a bit more than the usual amount of revision to make it a book worth reading. My usual peak oil publisher, New Society Publications, has expressed interest in the project but, sensibly enough, wants to see a couple of finished chapters before cutting a contract. If you hear something that sounds like a machete at work coming from the direction of Cumberland, MD, it’s me, hacking paths through a nearly impenetrable jungle of archdruidical prose. I hope to have the couple of chapters into New Society within a few weeks, and will post further news as it comes in.

Fourth is the most unexpected of my detours, the systems theory version of the Tao Te Ching I started mostly by accident in a post here almost exactly a year ago. That’s not finished yet; I’ve found that it needs to take its own time, but I’ve got 54 chapters (out of 81) finished in draft, and expect to finish it and add an introduction and commentary this year. I have no idea who on Earth will be interested in publishing it, but capable small presses prospering in niche markets are popping up at an encouraging rate these days, so I’ll doubtless find somebody.

So that’s the scorecard, to shift metaphors a bit, as the dust settles from the last year and a half or so of this blog. To borrow a phrase from the Grateful Dead, it’s been a long, strange trip. And the path ahead?

The path ahead leads straight into a theme that most Americans don’t want to discuss at all, and that they and the rest of the world’s population desperately need to discuss: the political, economic, ecological, and military implications of the twilight of America’s global empire. The end of the industrial age, as I’ve discussed here at some length already, is shaping up to be a protracted process, as the decline and fall of a civilization usually is. The arc of decline and fall, though, tends to be punctuated by sudden crises. One of the common causes of such crises is the collapse of existing power centers and their replacement by others, which face collapses of their own further down the road. While the overall history of the industrial world over the next few centuries will be dominated by the overall arc of energy decline, the history of the next few decades will be profoundly shaped by the more immediate impact of the end of America’s empire.

One advantage we’ve got in making sense of this situation is that America’s imperial sunset isn’t the first such collapse of empire in the downward arc of industrial civilization. A century ago, Britain was the nation that enforced peace and unequal trade policies on a restive world, bankrupted itself paying for the bloated military and bureaucracy that its empire required, and ended up being shoved onto the sidelines of history in a series of explosive political, economic, social, and military events that left very few corners of the world unscathed. The United States is well along the same trajectory, and the shape of the American future—as well as the impacts of its decline on the rest of the world—can be gauged in part by studying what happened a century ago to Britain, as well as what has happened to other empires caught in the same downward spiral elsewhere in history.

That’s the theme I plan on exploring over the next year or so. That exploration is going to have to start from basic questions that haven’t been asked often enough, or answered honestly enough, in recent years. It’s going to be necessary to talk about what empires are and how they function; to get past certain dysfunctional but popular notions on the subject; to talk about how America ended up in its current role as the world’s primary imperial power, and to sketch out what can be learned from the experiences of other failing empires. All that belongs to the first phase of the exploration. The second phase will attempt to sketch out how the collapse of American empire is likely to unfold, how it has already begun to unfold, and how the current barrage of attempts either to insist that America’s empire doesn’t face collapse, or to prevent the collapse from occurring, are making the downward arc that much steeper and more inescapable.

Finally, I want to talk about what can be done in an age of imperial decline and collapse. Obviously, given the core agenda of this blog, a great deal of what I want to discuss focuses on what individuals, families, small groups, and communities can do to get ready for the likely consequences of imperial collapse, to weather the rough parts of the process, and to find a new equilibrium once the rubble stops bouncing. Still, I think it’s possible to go further than that. One of the common consequences of imperial collapse, wherever it takes place, is a drastic expansion of options: things unthinkable in an age of empire become possible in empire’s ruins. Irish independence and legal standing for labor unions are only two of the impossibilities that became real in the wake of the British Empire’s implosion, for example, and it’s entirely possible that equally sweeping transformations could follow the collapse of the American empire. Of course it bears recalling that not all such transformations must be for the better—I think most of my readers know enough about history to recall what followed the collapse of the German and Austro-Hungarian empires in 1918.

That’s a very brief preview of the terrain we’ll begin to explore next week. That said, none of the information covered over the last year and a half has lost its relevance, and the conversations over at the Green Wizards forum still have plenty of useful ground yet to cover. I’ll be referring back to green wizardry and other themes already discussed as we proceed; even though this blog has quite a bit of diverse ground to cover, all of that belongs to one and the same future.

End of the World of the Week #8

Apocalyptic movements, like most other human social phenomena, follow the law of supply and demand; when there’s a demand for a particular kind of movement, the supply of people willing to launch and run such a movement rarely takes long to respond. Among the more colorful examples of this process in action is the medieval heresy of the Free Spirit.

To understand the Free Spirit and its followers, it’s necessary to recall one of the curious features of late medieval culture—the great mismatch that opened up between the number of men and of women available for marriage. Since the Catholic church had many more openings for men than for women, and nearly all these openings had celibacy (at least officially) as a job requirement, a very large fraction of women remained unmarried, or married elderly husbands and then faced most of a lifetime of widowhood. The peasantry and the nobility had established roles for unmarried women, and nunneries could take a certain fraction of the remainder, but in the rising urban classes, a great many women ended up consigned to lives of idleness and chastity. Many turned to mystical religion or to illicit love affairs; the advantage of the heresy of the Free Spirit was that it enabled them to do both at once.

According to the preachers of the Free Spirit, who were mostly defrocked priests and monks, the world was on the brink of a vast transformation of consciousness—the coming of the Third Age—in which the burden of original sin would be lifted from humanity and all people would be naked and unashamed as they had been in Eden, living without sorrow or labor according to a new law of love. Human nature being what it is, that new law was usually interpreted in a distinctly physical sense, with enthusiastic promiscuity and group worship in the nude standard practice in most Free Spirit circles. Another part of the belief system was that in the Third Age, all wealth would be shared freely; since the prophets of the Free Spirit were usually very poor and many of their converts were well-to-do, most of the resulting sharing went in one direction.

Despite the efforts of the Catholic church to exterminate the heresy, and as many of the heretics as it could catch, the Free Spirit remained an active presence in European culture for at least five centuries, and its influence lasted longer still. Those who belonged to a certain generation still with us will no doubt remember more recent prophets who insisted that a utopian age of easy sex and freedom from work was about to dawn. Still, it’s worth noting that those recent prophecies, like those of the Free Spirit, somehow never quite came to pass.

—story from Apocalypse Not