Religion and Peak Oil: The City of Progress

In previous posts on this blog I’ve argued at some length that the roots of the contemporary crisis of industrial society have little to do with the technical issues that occupy so much of today’s Peak Oil discussions. Words I’ve used to point toward the core dimensions of our predicament include “social,” “psychological,” and “intellectual,” and once or twice I’ve even risked the ire of sensible people everywhere by venturing on words like “spiritual.”

Yet there’s a more forthright way to talk about these issues, and that starts from the admission that the present situation is ultimately a religous crisis. As the aspect of human life that links it back (in Latin, re-ligere, the root of religio) to its roots in the realm of ultimate concern, religion undergirds and defines every other aspect of a culture. When events bring a civilization’s most basic assumptions into question, it’s high time to look toward the religious dimension of that civilization for the ultimate cause.

Mind you, the last few centuries of intellectual history make statements like this remarkably easy to misunderstand. Like those people who use the word “superstition” only for those folk beliefs they don’t hold themselves, most of the cultures of the contemporary industrial world use the word “religion” purely for those belief systems the majority of modern people don’t consider absolutely true. This odd habit of speech has its roots in the complicated compromise between Protestant piety and nascent scientific materialism in 17th century Britain, but it remains firmly fixed in place today, and it makes clarity a real challenge in talking about the subject of this post.

When I suggest that our current predicament has its roots in a religious crisis, then, I don’t mean to say Christianity has much to do with the matter. In most of the Western world, Christianity in any of its historic forms has been a minority religion for centuries. The illusion that it remained a majority faith rose because a newer faith took over its outward forms, in much the same way that a hermit crab takes over the cast-off shell of a snail and pulls it along behind it through the sand. That newer faith, of course, is the religion of progress, the established church and dogmatic faith of the modern industrial world.

Cultural critic Christopher Lasch, in his scathing study The True and Only Heaven, anatomized the way that the faith in progress eclipsed older religious traditions in the modern Western world, but even he didn’t take the argument as far as it can go. To speak of progress as a religion is not to indulge in metaphor. Progress has its own creation myth, rooted in popular distortions of Darwin’s theory of natural selection that twisted the messy, aimless realities of biological evolution until it fit the mythic image of a linear ascent from primeval pond scum to the American suburban middle class. It has its saints, its martyrs, and its hagiographies, ringing endless changes on the theme of the visionary genius disproving the entrenched errors of the past. It has its priests and teachers, of whom the late Carl Sagan – arguably one of the most innovative theologians of the last century, with his mythic “We are star-stuff” narrative that fused 19th century positivism with the latest astrophysics – is probably the best known.

Finally, of course, it has its own heaven, a grand vision of perpetual improvement toward a Promethean future among the stars. It’s impossible to make sense of the predicament of the industrial world, it seems to me, without recognizing the sheer intellectual and emotional power of this vision. The religious revolution that made the faith in progress the defining religious idiom of the modern world happened, at least in part, because the progressive myth proved more appealing than the narratives of Christianity it replaced. It’s one thing to anchor your hopes for a better world in the unknowable territory on the far side of death, to trust so completely in the evidence of things not seen. It’s quite another to reimagine the world you know in the light of technological and social changes going on right in front of you, trace the trajectory of those changes right on out to the stars, and embrace the changes themselves as vehicles of redemption and proofs of the approaching millennium.

What the mythic power of the vision made it all but impossible to grasp, though, was that the progress of the last three hundred years, while very real, was the product of two temporary and self-limiting sets of circumstances. One of these unfolded from the wars of conquest and colonization that gave European nations control of most of the planet in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, and enabled them to prosper mightily at the expense of the world’s other peoples, just as previous empires did in their time. The second and far greater was the discovery that fossil fuels could be used in place of wind, water and muscle to power human technologies. From the perspective of the myth of progress, these things were simply side effects of the Western world’s embrace of a true doctrine of nature; the possibility that they were the causes of progress, not its effects, was literally unthinkable.

The weakness of the religion of progress, though, forms a precise mirror to its strengths. A religion that claims to justify itself by works rather than faith stands or falls by its ability to make good on its promises, and for the last few decades the promises of the religion of progress have been wearing noticeably thin. Despite a flurry of media ceremonies parading new technological advances before the faithful like so many saints’ relics, most people in the industrial world have long since noticed the steady erosion in standards of living, public health, and the quantity and quality of products for sale since the energy crises of the 1970s. The promise of a better future rings increasingly hollow in a world where most people recognize that important measures of well-being have lost ground in recent years, and show no signs of turning around any time soon.

While the religion of progress is a relatively new thing, the predicament of a faith that fails to make good on its promises is not. One of the fundamental documents of the civilization that modern industrial society replaced, Augustine of Hippo’s The City of God, maps out that predicament with the brutal clarity only the eyes of a triumphant doctrinal opponent can manage. A few years before Augustine set pen to parchment, the Visigothic king Alaric tossed the most basic assumptions of the Roman world into history’s rubbish heap when his horsemen crushed the imperial army at Hadrianopolis, swept across southern Europe to the gates of Rome and sacked the city of the Caesars. The empire’s Pagan population, then still close to a majority, argued that the gods had deserted Rome because Rome had deserted her gods.

Augustine’s response launched shockwaves in the Western zeitgeist that have not entirely faded even today. In place of the pax deorum, the Roman Pagan concept of a pact between humanity and divinity that guaranteed the blessing of the gods on human society, Augustine argued that it was a fatal mistake to conflate the world of social life in historical time with the world of spiritual truth in eternity. The hard line of division he drew between two cities, the City of Man doomed to perish and the City of God destined to reign forever, put a full stop at the end of the long and by no means inglorious history of classical civil religion, and defined a new religious consciousness that was able to cope, as classical Paganism could not, with the implosion of the ancient world and the coming of the Dark Ages.

Augustine’s distinction is typical, in many ways, of religious consciousness in ages of decline, just as the confident belief that ultimate truths stand guarantor to current social arrangements is typical of religious consciousness in ages of progress; the pax progressus of the last few centuries mirrors not only the emotional tone but a surprising amount of the rhetoric of the pax deorum of ancient Rome. To the extent that anything like the medieval Christianity Augustine played so large a role in founding survives in today’s Christian churches, it might conceivably become a significant social as well as religious resource as industrial civilization slides down the slope into its own dark ages. Still, as suggested above, most of what passes for Christianity these days – or for that matter, most of what passes under every religious label you care to name – is simply the religion of progress under another name, and this is above all true exactly of those churches that today’s liberal pundits are quickest to label “medieval,” the fundamentalists.

The part likely to be played in an age of peak oil by fundamentalism, Christian and otherwise, is significant enough that next week’s Archdruid Report post will center on it. That role, I will suggest, will have little in common with either the political ambitions of the fundamentalist churches themselves or the nightmares indulged in by their liberal opponents in and out of clerical collars. Still, it’s a fair bet that when peak oil crashes into the gates of the City of Progress like a modern incarnation of Alaric’s Visigoths, any meaningful response to that hard reality will have to reach back to those issues of ultimate concern that are religion’s proper subject. What forms that response might take will be the focus of the third part of this series.